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What's The Difference Between Photoshop and Lightroom?

Kevin Whipps March 31, 2021 · 7 min read
I took my first photos as a professional with a film camera, shooting on slide film for a car magazine. Two years later I’d move to digital, and with it came a whole new workflow. First I had to pick out the photos I liked, then clean them up in some way using a photo editing program, then ship them to my boss. But that’s all common stuff nowadays, right? Sure. Except there’s a whole lot of different ways to do that, particularly when it comes to two of the main applications in the process: Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Lightroom. What’s the difference between those two, anyway? Well that’s a heck of a good question, so let’s get to it.

A key point before we start

Now I’m going to talk about Lightroom as if it’s one product, and it is — except it isn’t. Currently there are two versions of Lightroom out there: Lightroom Classic CC, and Lightroom CC. In this context, I’m talking about Lightroom Classic CC. It’s the one that does local file management, it’s desktop only (like Photoshop) and it’s the best one-to-one comparison between the two. Lightroom CC is a cloud-based system, which also works on the desktop, but also has a web and mobile component. There are various other differences as well. The other bit here is that if you want either Photoshop CC or Lightroom CC (Classic or otherwise), then you need to pay for a Creative Cloud subscription. Currently, there’s a Photography plan that includes Photoshop CC and both flavors of Lightroom for $9.99/mo (paid annually). The next cheapest option — other than buying a single app for $19.99/mo, which doesn’t make a ton of sense, in my opinion — is the $49.99/mo plan that includes every app in the Creative Cloud suite. Because I use Illustrator so often, that’s my package.

File Management

I did a shop tour for a magazine the other day, and in the coming months it’ll be out on the newsstands. But when I got back from the shoot, I had two cameras and multiple memory cards to offload, and I needed a way to process my photos quickly and efficiently. It used to be that I’d pull up the Finder (I’ve used a Mac since 2006, so most of my photography career), switch to Icon view and then manually preview each shot. The ones I hated I’d tag red, the ones I liked I’d tag green. It was a tedious process, to be sure. Lightroom changed the game. When I open up Lightroom, I have the ability to see all of my files at once. I can import the images directly from my memory cards, as well as sort and categorize everything however I like — down to using templates as necessary. That means I can do my initial purging faster, and that gets me on to the next step: Picking the good ones. I can also sort things into folders and create whatever workflow I like. It’s easily shaved hours off my processing time. Photoshop doesn’t have any of that. If I want to open multiple pictures, then I expect my computer’s fan to speed up to S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier levels, because Photoshop is putting in work. You can’t just open a bunch of files and easily move through them, and it’s nowhere near as efficient. Instead, it’s Lightroom all the way. So in this case, if you need to move multiple files around and process them, Lightroom is the clear winner.

Non-Destructive Editing

I was late to the Lightroom game, admittedly. But one of the big reasons why I started using it was non-destructive editing. Let’s dive into that a bit. Forget photos for a moment. I’m writing this in a program called Byword, and when I want to save the text file, I hit command-s and I’m golden. Now what if I wanted to keep the document exactly as it is right now so that nobody could change punctuation or anything. Cool? Going further, let’s say that I need to make some edits, but I want to keep the original doc exactly the same. You can’t do it, right? Not without saving another version of the file, which leaves you with two or more versions of the document, all in various stages of editing. That’s essentially how Photoshop works. If you want to make a change to a file, but still keep the original intact, then you have to save new versions. You’ll have docs that end with -v1, -v2 and so on, for example. Lightroom is different. If you edit a photo in Lightroom, you’re not modifying the original document. Instead, Lightroom keeps your original photo as-is, and the edits are kept separately as instructions. This way, not only is your photo factory-fresh every time you need to work on it, but you don’t have to undo a million changes if something goes wonky. It’s called non-destructive editing, and it’s awesome. Handy, right?

Varying Skillsets

A lot of people consider Lightroom to be easier to use than Photoshop. For me, it’s almost the opposite: I’ve been using Photoshop since something like CS2, so it feels more natural to me. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t have their place. Think of Lightroom as one of those all-in-one toolkits that they sell at Ikea. It’s got a hammer, a drill, and a few odds and ends, so it’ll get that cabinet put together lickety-split. And ultimately, anyone can use it. But Photoshop is a full 84-inch Snap-On toolbox like you’d find in the shop at a car dealership. It has almost every tool, so you can mount a cabinet or take apart the front end of a 1981 Chevy truck. There’s a learning curve there. You can figure it out, sure, but it’s going to take time and effort. Sometimes you need that power, and sometimes you don’t, so you pick the best tools in the toolbox for the job. Now let’s put that back into my example. I open up Lightroom and offload all of my memory cards into one place. I apply any filters or edits to the photos I like. All of that is pretty easy. But I discovered that a bunch of dust got onto the lens for one of my favorite outdoor shots, and I couldn’t fix that in Lightroom. So I opened up the file in Photoshop, took care of the dust, and everything is now good to go. Returning to my metaphor, it was the small toolbox for file processing, and the big toolbox for manipulating the photos. Speaking of …

Manipulation vs. Editing

Another way to look at the differences between the two programs comes down to manipulation vs. editing. With Lightroom, you can edit photos. With Photoshop, you can manipulate them. Example time: Say I tell you to take a photo of a girl in a subway car and make it look like she’s on a beach. That’s manipulation, so it’s all about Photoshop. But what if I wanted you to clean up the subway car shot and add some cool filters to make it perfect for Instagram? Well, that’s all Lightroom. That’s not to say that Lightroom is a lightweight program, or that you can’t do some powerful things. But if you want to change the photo’s appearance to alter it beyond adding effects — altering body parts, changing backgrounds, or making someone look like an elf, for example — that’s Photoshop’s job.

The choice is yours

Which app is the right one for you? On the one hand, if you’re a photographer, Lightroom makes a lot of sense. If you’re a graphic designer, Photoshop may be the best one for you. But really, why choose at all? You can get both of them for the cheapest plan that Adobe sells, so there’s no reason to turn this into a Sophie’s Choice situation. Instead, revel in the fact that you can use both of them whenever you like.
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About the Author
Kevin Whipps

Hi! My name is Kevin Whipps, and I'm a writer and editor based in Phoenix, Arizona. When I'm not working taking pictures of old cars and trucks, I'm either writing articles for Creative Market or hawking stickers at Whipps Sticker Co.

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