Photoshop vs. Lightroom – What’s the Difference?


This is going to be a unique post. I’m writing it specifically for a friend in response to a Facebook question he asked. He wanted to get some good training in Photoshop and was frustrated by what he had tried already. But I asked why he wasn’t using Lightroom instead. He had done some research and determined that Photoshop was the tool he needed to learn. I’d like to convince him, though, that Lightroom needs to be a part of his workflow, too. It doesn’t replace Photoshop, nor does Photoshop replace Lightroom. They’re two different tools with some overlap. You can often achieve the exact same thing with either tool, but not always. I use both, and since Adobe bundles them together in their Creative Cloud Photography plan, there’s no good reason not to learn both. And – spoiler alert – if you’re a photographer who is simply retouching photos, you really don’t even need to learn Photoshop. I can’t believe I just wrote that. Sigh. Okay, some back story, first…

My History

I started using Photoshop in 1993. So I’ve been using it for 20+ years now. And lots of people use Photoshop in lots of ways, so I can’t say I know how to do everything there is to do in Photoshop, but I know how to use it to do what I need to do, with confidence. It’s an amazing tool.

I started using Photoshop for graphic design work. I didn’t even get into photography until 8 years later, when I got my first digital camera. But once the photography passion took hold, I realized more than ever what an incredible tool I had at my disposal. I can’t imagine how some of the old darkroom masters of long ago would react to what’s possible today.

When I first started hearing about Lightroom, I was a little bit put off.  I thought it was some junior version of Photoshop. I mean, you couldn’t even do layers with it! Why use a sub-standard tool when you have and know the best? I just didn’t see the point.

But then I got a copy of it. Pirated, I believe. I realized I had been wrong about Lightroom. Yes, in a small sense, it was a junior version of Photoshop. But it was a junior version on steroids. The areas where they have stuff it common, it just did it better, faster, and in bulk. And then there’s a lot it does that Photoshop doesn’t do at all. And the things unique to Photoshop? Sure, I need and use them occasionally, but for photography, I’ll spend 90% of my time in Lightroom these days, and I’ll spend 10% in Photoshop. (As a design tool, though, I don’t even open Lightroom. More on that below…)

What Lightroom Does

Okay, so here’s what Lightroom does. Or, more specifically, what Lightroom does for me. Because though it may do much more, there are features I don’t use.

First, I see Lightroom as an image management system. It’s not a tool just to edit a single image. It’s a tool to manage your entire photography library. Lightroom uses Catalogues to manage photos. I usually have 2 catalogues active: A personal/family catalogue, and a work-related catalogue. (I work at a church, and any photos I get there are dumped into this catalogue). I’ll also create catalogues for individual side projects, so a wedding will get its own catalogue.

When I import images, they can be tagged as they are copied from my SD card onto my hard drive and imported into the catalogue. This is super handy. Tonight my wife wanted to see pictures of my daughter’s dance recital. I opened my personal/family catalogue and pulled up all the pictures tagged “Dance”. Boom. Easy. The files themselves – the Raw files and JPGs from my camera – are also sorted into folders based on year and then date as they are moved to the hard drive. And what’s nice is that even though 2 files exist (Raw and JPG), Lightroom makes life easy by showing just one thumbnail for each image, not 2.

Lightroom excels at the next step in the photographer’s workflow: Image sorting and rating. I won’t get into the mechanics of how to do this – just watch Jared Platt’s workshop on this – but the ability to quickly review a ton of images and flag the keepers is unparalleled.

Image editing is intuitive and easy. Lightroom has a library module, where catalogue work takes place, but when you are ready to edit an image, you flip over to the Develop module, which brings up all the development tools in a panel on the right. It’s easy to change white balance, contrast, color, lens correction, sharpening, and more. And it’s possible to spot-correct things as well using an Adjustment Brush (to selectively adjust any of the normal development things like exposure, contrast, or color), red-eye correction tool, spot remover, or gradient overlays.

There are lots of presets available. And I don’t use them, so I’m hesitant to even mention them. But lots of people do. If you’ve used Instagram filters, well… imagine having thousands available to you. People make presets available for free or for sale on the interwebs.

Applying changes across multiple pictures is a game changer. Once a picture has been adjusted to my liking, I can just hit Command-C. Normally, this means “Copy”, right? But Lightroom pulls up a panel that asks which adjustments specifically do I want to copy? I just tick the radio buttons and can pick any or all types of adjustments. Then I can jump back to the Library module, select all the pictures I want to apply this to, and paste. Boom. Now they all have the same white balance, contrast, whatever.

Virtual copies. Lightroom is never changing my originals. I can do whatever I want ’til the cows come home and I can always start over fresh, knowing my originals are pristine and untouched. This also makes it easy to create multiple virtual instances of pictures. For one headshot I was working on not too long ago, I edited the best shot, then made 3 virtual copies. One was an alternate crop, one was a black and white version, and one had a stronger skin softening. The whole time, it’s never saving new files. It’s all staying in Lightrooms virtual world until I decide to export.

Bulk exporting is the final step. Man, does this program make it great. Right-clicking on a photo or a group of photos lets me summon the Export dialogue. Here I can set the file type, size limitations (if any), location, and my favorite – add a watermark – to a single photo or thousands of photos at once.

What Photoshop Does

Photoshop does so much, it’s almost easier to ask, what doesn’t Photoshop do? The program is vast, and all kinds of amazing. But it doesn’t (really) do the library management or bulk adjusting that Lightroom does.

But here’s what it does do: It does layers. This is huge, and what makes it a great design tool. With layers, you can combine images. You can overlay text. You can have transfer modes. You can have adjustment layers (which are kind of invisible layers, but they affect everything under them). You can apply masks to layers and adjustment layers too, allowing for incredible and precise control.

Layers can have more than just photos and pixel data on them. I can import Adobe Illustrator vector files, text, PNG files with transparency, and more.

You can select things with much more precision in Photoshop. If you need to clone, remove, or replace something, Photoshop is the better tool by far. If you need to make an adjustment only to a certain shade of red, or select it and copy it over to another image, Photoshop is the place to do it.

It saves layered files. Makes sense, right? If it works with layers, it should save them, too. But this is particularly important to me as an animator. I can get a layered photoshop file from the graphic designer I work with, pull it into After Effects, and all those layers are then stacked neatly on a timeline, ready to be animated or thrown into 3D space.

There is a rich ecosystem of third-party plugins. Due to the program’s vast adoption and longevity, there are some great plug-in tools that just aren’t found anywhere else (although Lightroom is getting more all the time).

How it all breaks down for me

I use both. I can’t imagine not. I use Lightroom out of the starting gate, for all of my photography. Images are imported, tagged, edited, and exported, all from Lightroom.

When do I use Photoshop? If I need to combine anything with an image. So if I need to do a head replacement in a big group shot, or add vector shapes or text, then I use Photoshop. If I’m starting a graphic design project, I use Photoshop. If I have a specific thing that only a Photoshop plugin can do (like Imagenomic’s Noiseware plugin – the best noise reducer I’ve ever seen), I open Photoshop. If I need to share a project with a graphic designer, video editor, or animator, I open Photoshop. If I need to cut out an elephant from the jungle around it, I use Photoshop.

In other words, Lightroom is my photo tool, and Photoshop is my design tool. Both are indispensable to my workflow. In my private life, I use Lightroom 90% of the time. At my job, it’s probably 50/50. This probably reflects that in my private life, I do much more photography than I do graphic design, and it work, there’s a lot more design work I’m involved in.






  1. Rob,
    Very interesting. I use Photoshop all day long in my job here at the newspaper but I do not have Lightroom.

    Thank you for breaking some of the major differences down.

    I enjoyed reading this.

    Blessings – Lori

    • I’m glad you found it helpful!

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