Photoshop v. Lightroom. What’s the difference?

The two “heavyweight contenders” in the field of photo editing are Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Lightroom (officially called “Photoshop Lightroom”, but I’m just going to call it “Lightroom”). Photoshop has become so ubiquitous that it’s now used as a verb in its own right, in the sense of creating a faked or touched-up picture, but Lightroom is probably less well-known to many people.

Photoshop and Lightroom can no longer be bought outright, but are only available on a subscription basis. Although I’m generally opposed to the subscription model for computer software, in this case it does make sense: both programs are updated on a regular basis, both to add new features and (more importantly) to add support for new cameras and lenses. The “Creative Photography Plan”, which I subscribe to, gives you access to both Photoshop and Lightroom for £9.98 per month, which is less than I was spending on the annual upgrades to Lightroom alone when it used to be sold as a stand-alone product.

Let’s begin by talking about Photoshop, which is the product that probably springs to most people’s minds when talking about picture editing. Photoshop is the image editing program par excellence, and is the mainstay in the toolbox of every professional graphics designer. If you can conceive of a digital image, you can probably create it in Photoshop. It has almost limitless “plugins” that can be used to easily create all sorts of special effects, and lets you store repeated sequences of editing operations as “actions” that can be easily repeated on any image. Images can have multiple layers, allowing parts of images to be masked and combined in numerous different ways. If there’s something in an image that you don’t like (eg power lines crossing the picture, or a person obstructing your pristine landscape), Photoshop’s ability to remove it is little short of magical. In short, it allows you to completely control the appearance of your image at the very finest pixel level, and to edit a picture in almost any way that you can conceive.

A simple example of a task that I’d always use Photoshop for is this picture taken at Wadi es Sebua temple on the shores of lake Nasser. It’s a nice photograph of one of the sphinxes outside the temple, but I don’t like the two spotlights in the foreground:

In Photoshop I can draw a freehand selection around each of the two lights, and then use the “context-aware fill” tool. Photoshop will analyse the picture, and intelligently replace the selected area with information taken from the surrounding parts of the picture. The result is amazingly good: the lights and their shadows are gone without trace.

Zooming in on the picture shows just how good the replacement is. Here’s a magnified view of the portion of the picture containing the lights before and after the edit in Photoshop:

So that’s Photoshop: a wonderful tool for editing your pictures, particularly when it comes to removing unwanted items from your photograph.

What about Lightroom? Why use Lightroom when Photoshop is so powerful?

Well, powerful though Photoshop is, it is still what you might call a “traditional” photo editor. If you open a picture in Photoshop, edit it, and then save it, your original picture is gone forever unless you save the edited picture to a new file. Lightroom works in a completely different way, and is primarily designed to be a tool to manage your entire photo library, as opposed to Photoshop, which only works with a single picture at a time.

After you do a photo shoot (whether it be a record of a day out, or thousands of pictures taken on your trip to Egypt), you import all your photographs into your Lightroom catalog. Lightroom, unlike Photoshop, can read and process “Camera RAW” files directly, whereas Photoshop requires a plugin to do so. Once they’re in the catalog (which is essentially a database), you can assign keywords to your pictures, allowing them to easily be found later, and organise them into “collections”, which group them by topic. For example, here’s a (small) portion of the collection structure I use to organise my pictures from Egypt:

At the top level I have a collection called “Egypt”. Below that is a collection called “Deir el-Medina”, then “Tombs”, and finally, at the lowest level, a collection for each individual tomb at Deir el-Medina. The number alongside shows the number of pictures in that collection. You may think “I can do the same with folders on my disk”, which is perfectly true, but collections are not the same as folders. A single collection can contain pictures that are physically stored in many different locations on your disk, and the same picture can appear in many different collections without being duplicated on disk, so collections, combined with keywords assigned to the individual picture, provide a very powerful organisational tool for maintaining a large collection of pictures, and the larger your photo library grows, the more essential it is that it be properly organised in order to allow you to find the specific photos you need. For example, I’d use my collection structure to find all the pictures I’d taken at a particular site, but I’d do a keyword search to find pictures of statues of Ramesses III by searching for pictures containing both of the keywords “Statue” and “Ramesses III”.

In addition to providing the organisational capabilities which Photoshop lacks, Lightroom tackles the editing process in a completely different manner. As previously discussed, Photoshop is a traditional editor, where you open your picture, edit it, and then save it, at which point your original picture is overwritten. Lightroom, by contrast, doesn’t touch your original picture at any time. It sits on your disk exactly as it was when you originally loaded it from your camera or memory card, and is never altered. Lightroom provides all the basic picture editing tools you’d expect: you can crop your picture, change the contrast, exposure or white balance, straighten or rotate it, and much more besides. These editing operations, though, don’t change the original picture, but are stored in the Lightroom catalog as an “editing history” for that picture. Here, for example, is a screenshot of the “develop” module (the picture editor) of Lightroom, with another picture of Wadi es-Sebua temple loaded:

The “History” panel, at the left side of the screen, shows all the editing operations I’ve carried out on the picture since it was first imported into Lightroom:

The history shows that the picture was initially imported on 30th Jan 2019, and since then a series of edits have been made, culminating in the edited picture being exported from Lightroom (ie stored as a JPEG picture) on 19th Aug 2019. The key point is that unlike Photoshop, where edits are “frozen” when a picture is saved, in Lightroom I can go back through the history list and see the picture as it was at any point in the editing process. I can export it at any of those points, and undo any editing operations I don’t like, even months or years after those edits were made. At no point in any of this is the original picture changed, so I have complete freedom to go right back to the beginning and re-edit it from scratch at any time that I choose to. I can even create multiple “virtual copies” of the picture and edit the same original picture in more than one way (for example, perhaps I’d want to crop it to show different parts of the scene).

Lightroom also has powerful “batch processing” operations, allowing you to apply the same sequence of editing operation to a whole group of pictures simultaneously. If I took a set of pictures inside a tomb, for example, I might decide what the optimum white balance for that location is on the first image I took there, and then apply that same white balance correction to every picture I’d taken there. This type of operation is a huge time-saver when processing large numbers of pictures.

Lightroom’s editing operations are far less advanced than those of Photoshop, but the two programs can work together. I can import my pictures into Lightroom, but if I subsequently find that a particular picture requires editing that can’t be done in Lightroom, I simply right click on the picture in my Lightroom catalog and select “Edit in Photoshop”. The picture then opens in Photoshop, allowing me to make my advanced edits there. When I save and exit Photoshop, a copy of the edited picture appears back in Lightroom, allowing me to continue to maintain it as part of my Lightroom catalog. Here, for example, is a portion of my Lightroom catalog showing pictures I took at Wadi es-Sebua temple:

You’ll see that in the first complete row of “thumbnail” images are the “before and after” images of the sphinx where I edited the picture in Photoshop to remove the spotlights. The edited picture has a number “2” inlaid on the thumbnail showing that it’s a “virtual copy” of the original, created by the Photoshop edit. In this way, Photoshop and Lightroom form a powerful combination: Lightroom for its organisational abilities and Photoshop for those situations where the limited editing abilities of Lightroom won’t suffice. Using the two tools in combination, even the largest of photo libraries can be easily managed.

There are of course many low-cost or even free image editing tools available, but for the serious photographer Adobe’s “Creative Photography Plan” is, for me at least, well worth the expenditure.

Hope this has been of interest. If you’ve any comments, or you’d like to suggest topics for future blog posts, I’d love to hear from you in the comments area below.

1 thought on “Photoshop v. Lightroom. What’s the difference?”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *