Should I Get Lightroom or Photoshop or…?

Hi Folks:

One question I see a lot on Twitter is, “Should I get Lightroom or Photoshop?”  It seems to me that people who ask that question aren’t familiar with the limits, features or capabilities of either program so I thought I’d do a quick post on that.  Now, there are entire libraries of books, tutorials and instructional videos available on using these programs, so this blog post couldn’t hope to compete with them.  This post is not intended to be a series of instructions on how to use these programs, but an introduction to a few of the ways in which they differ and how they can be used together.

In thinking about writing this post I wasn’t entirely sure where to start, so maybe we’d best start with a few highlights of digital images themselves because a digital image isn’t really an image at all.  Let me explain.  Before the advent of digital photography, film photography was essentially a chemical process.  It didn’t matter whether one was shooting on glass plates, tin or plastic film, the essence of the process was to use light-sensitive salts or dyes to respond to the light being reflected from the subject and entering the camera through the lens.  Once the original image was captured, a series of processes and chemicals were used to wash out what hadn’t photoconverted and to ‘fix’ the image onto the plate or film.  In some cases this image was then projected onto a light-sensitive paper which was also subsequently processed using chemicals to create a final print.  Yes, that’s a vast understatement of the intricacies involved, and yes, there are quite a number of different processes, from daguerrotypes to platinum/palladium work to black and white or colour film, but this isn’t about film photography.

In digital photography light is also the key element and it enters a camera through a lens but the similarities end there.  Rather than capturing the reflected light onto a piece of film or plate, the light is ‘collected’ onto an electronic sensor.  Now, if you don’t know the differences between CCD, CMOS and Foveon sensors I’m not going to explain them here, and if you do, you’re probably not one of the people wondering whether to buy Lightroom or Photoshop or…

Basically, all camera sensors start with a thin layer of silicon, and for our purposes here we’ll call that the sensor.  On this layer of silicon are a number of photocells or photosites, and they can vary largely in size and shape.  These photosites are measured in microns, or thousandths of a millimetre.  There are important factors in the overall size of the sensor and the number and size of the photosites, but again, there’s a lot of information available on the ‘net for those who are interested.  All sensors are inherently black and white, and over the photosites are placed filters of red, green or blue.  You can find more information on this online as well, and you can read our previous blog post on ‘Photography and Colour Management‘.

Now, the upshot of all of this is that the light reaching the sensor’s photosites are converted into electrical signals.  There’s an old joke that goes, “There are 10 kinds of people; those who understand binary, and those who don’t.”  (for anyone who didn’t get the joke, ’10’ is ‘2’ in binary).  Computers, for all of their power and the myriad ways in which they’ve transformed our world are essentially a bunch of switches and each switch is either on or off.  ‘10000110111100101011100000111000’ may not mean anything to you, but it does represent a 32-bit value to a computer.  And that’s what digital images really are – a string of 1s and 0s, represented in binary code.  Each string of code can represent the unique colour value, the size (number of pixels) of the image and all other information related to an image.  The computer takes those 1s and 0s and can either project those colour values onto a computer screen or through a projector, or can send the information to a printer that converts the binary code into sprays of ink.  In either case what you end up with is something that looks like an image.

So, why should you care about this?  Well, there are basically two types of images that can be captured by a digital camera.  Actually there’s only one, but it comes out of the camera as two.  Let’s start with the camera’s image sensor itself.  Each photosite is receiving and responding to the light that hits it when you make an exposure and converting that light input into an electrical signal.  Gather up all of the data from all of the photosites on the sensor and you have the ‘RAW’ image data from the sensor.  All digital cameras begin with these ‘RAW’ files.  Each camera company adds its own file extension, so it might be a .NEF file from a Nikon or a .CR2 file from a Canon or a .DNG file.  Remember this isn’t an image in the traditional sense, just a string of code.  In order to work with this code as a digital image, you need to convert the electrical signals into a format that the computer can recognize and work with.  Now, while some cameras are prepared to hand off this ‘RAW’ data as is for you to work with, pretty much all digital cameras today also allow you to work with .JPG images as well.  The .JPG file extension comes from the ‘Joint Photographic Experts Group‘, which formed the international standard for JPEG, JPEG2000 and other standards.  To create a .jpg image, you begin with the RAW file, downgrade it to 8-bit, compress the file and apply certain settings to the image parameters.  The advantage of .jpg files is the smaller file size.  The disadvantages are many, including loss of information.  As I said in my ‘Photography and Colour Management’ post, it’s like taking the big box of coloured crayons and throwing most of them away.

Should you shoot RAW or .jpg?  It really depends on what you want to do with your images, and how much time you want to invest in them.  There are two ways to convert RAW files into .jpg files.  One is to do it within the camera – using whatever settings your camera has for white balance, tone, colour/B&W, sharpness, etc.  The other way is to do it on your computer.  Keep in mind that the computer has processing power that is orders of magnitude larger than the processor in your camera.  Also keep in mind that none of the settings made in the camera will affect the RAW file. People often wonder why their images look different when they download them onto their computer.  If you’re working with RAW files, the settings made in the camera only affect the .jpg preview file  that’s embedded in the RAW file.

Okay, I think maybe we’re ready to begin.

Lightroom has several functions, so I’m just going to gloss over them.  If you want more information I’d suggest you check out the links in our ‘Lightroom Links‘ page.

What is Lightroom?  Well, it’s many things.  Essentially it’s a database program that allows you to store, keep track of, process and manage digital image files.  There are five modules within Lightroom – Library, Develop, Slideshow, Print and Web.  The heart of Lightroom is the Lightroom catalogue, which keeps all of the information related to the images you have associated with Lightroom.  NB:  The Lightroom catalogue does not store your images internally.  Rather, it keeps a directory of where your images are stored on your computer, CD/DVD, external drive and/or online sharing site.   NB: Since Lightroom stores pointers to the location of each file on your computer, once a file has been added to the Lightroom catalogue the images should only be moved to a new folder or drive location from within Lightroom.  If you move or delete a file outside of Lightroom, the pointer will be toward where the image used to be.  ‘Lost’ files can be relinked, but this can be a tedious process and is completely unnecessary. When beginning with Lightroom, one needs to create a catalogue to which the other information is added.  Once the catalogue has been created, one can start importing image information.

Library Module

1) RAW conversion.  As mentioned above, the raw data from the camera’s sensor needs to be converted into a format that the computer can recognize and work with before you can work with these files.  I’m not going to get into terms like linear demosaicing here to explain how all of this works.  Suffice it to say that Lightroom has a RAW converter function.  There are other software packages available that also do RAW conversion – some of them include Adobe Camera Raw, Apple Aperture, Bibble, Canon Rawshooter, DxO, Hasselblad’s Phocus, Nikon CaptureNX, and Phase One’s Capture One.  Which one is the ‘best’?  There’s no right answer for that.  Again, it depends on your camera, your shooting style and your workflow.  With the Hasselblad H series of digital backs for example, there are attributes related to lens correction and other features that are proprietary to Phocus.

What about .DNG?  Well, in a nutshell, .DNG is an ‘open source’ archival RAW format developed by Adobe and provided to the world for free.  There can be two major problems with proprietary file formats of any description.  One is that as software is updated, archaic formats can become orphaned.  As an example, somewhere in a box I have a CD of images that were scanned into Kodak’s .PCD format.  I have an old copy of Corel Photopaint 7 on my desktop that can read these files, but to the best of my knowledge, there is no current software today that will read a .PCD file.  The other challenge is that there is such a plethora of file extensions, and camera manufacturers seem to want to add another file type with every new camera release.  Converting RAW files to .DNG simplifies things considerably.  Some cameras like the Leica M9 shoot natively in .DNG and for others it’s possible to convert proprietary RAW files into .DNG using Lightroom or Adobe’s free .DNG converter software. Now some users have reported having some challenges with .DNG files made from the RAW files of specific cameras, so if you do convert to .DNG you may wish to back up your original RAW files as well, at least until you can confirm that .DNG will offer you everything you want.

2) Digital Asset Management (DAM).  In the film days each image existed physically – whether as print, negative/positive film or what have you – and there were various methods for storing and keeping track of them, from pages of sleeves for strips of negatives to photo albums, portfolios and slide cases to the old shoebox in the closet.  Information about the image, the shoot, etc. was kept separately or not at all.  In the digital world this is handled differently, using metadata.  Metadata (EXIF and IPTC) is information that is associated with a given image file.  This information can include the contact information of the photographer, copyright information, keywords, etc. as well as the camera, lens and exposure information.  With RAW files this information is kept in a separate file called a sidecar file (usually filename.xmp), and with .tiff, .dng and .jpg files this information is stored within the file itself.

In the Lightroom catalogue the files are stored using the same folder structure as on your computer, and this structure is user-dependent.  You may choose to store your images by date, by shoot, by client or some other combination.  Pick a method that works for you, but be consistent.  Lightroom also uses ‘Collections’, which are essentially ‘virtual folders’.  These aren’t folders like the ones on your computer’s hard drive, but are, well, ‘collections’ of images that are stored within the Lightroom database.  Lightroom’s Library module is where your images are displayed and organized as a group.

Develop Module
Lightroom’s Library module does feature some basic relative image processing, but the bulk of image processing is handled through the Develop module.  Unlike Photoshop, Lightroom uses a non-destructive processing pipeline.  Basically what that means is that Lightroom never alters the original image file.  Instead, when you make a change in Lightroom it records the change as a series of instructions that are kept within the catalogue.  If you export an image from Lightroom, those changes are made to the file during export and the results are written to a new file (or you can overwrite the original if you desire).  Lightroom’s Develop module allows you to process one image or several images simultaneously, and you can also copy all or some of the Develop settings from one image to another or others.

Photoshop has been called the ‘800-lb gorilla’ of image processing software.  While the folks at Corel Corporation may disagree, it’s probably fair to say that Photoshop is the most advanced image-processing software available today.  In its twenty-year history Photoshop has grown so much it would be barely recognizable to its ancestor, but Photoshop remains, in essence, a pixel editor.  When one edits a file in Photoshop, one is working on the image file itself.  By using layers one can avoid making destructive changes to the original file, and smart filters/ smart objects further this non-destructive capability, but one must be aware of the differences between the non-destructive workflow of Lightroom and the workflow of Photoshop.

Now, Photoshop has been around since long before digital cameras gained any sort of popularity, and originally Photoshop was developed for graphic designers.  That’s still it’s primary purpose today, but it is quite capable of working with digital images as they are essentially raster-based graphic files.  Photoshop cannot read RAW files; that’s the function of Adobe Camera Raw.  Photoshop is also not for DAM; that’s the function of Bridge.  Combined, Bridge, Adobe Camera Raw and Photoshop are similar but different than Lightroom.  Lightroom grew out of Photoshop and was designed from the ground up for digital photographers.

Now Lightroom’s Develop module has expanded exponentially since version 1, but there are still some things that it cannot do nearly as well as Photoshop.  Soft proofing is one example, masking and cloning are a couple of others, especially in light of the new cloning features in Photoshop CS5.  Fortunately, Photoshop and Lightroom play well together.  Many photographers do 95% or more of their processing work in Lightroom and it’s possible to export an image from Lightroom into Photoshop for further processing and have the edited image returned to Lightroom when complete.  In other words, one does not need to have Lightroom OR Photoshop and many people work with both.  Each has its own strengths.  For file management,  personally I prefer the integration of Lightroom over using Bridge AND Camera RAW AND Photoshop.

Lightroom’s Slideshow module allows you to select from among your images and created a slideshow that can be viewed on a monitor, shown through a data projector and/or exported as either a .pdf or a video (.mp4).  One can also shoot a series of images at interval and combine them in the slideshow module to create a timelapse sequence.  Lightroom ships with five slideshow templates; these can each be customized and third-party slideshow templates are also available.

It’s tough to estimate how many digital images actually get printed, but the rough answer is ‘not that many’.  Still, for the fine art photographer the print must be the final product.  Viewing pixels on screen cannot compare to viewing a complete image in print.  Lightroom’s Print module isn’t as sophisticated as Photoshop, but many photographers are using it to create beautiful work.  The Print module allows you to print one image per page, to create photo collages and to create ‘contact sheets’ of images, just like the film days.  Printing, whether in the darkroom or from the computer is an art form in itself, so I’m not going to say too much about it here.  I will say that I’m planning on making a 12-month 2011 calendar series for my family using my images in Lightroom.

The fifth Lightroom module is the Web module.  Using either Lightroom templates, templates from third parties and/or by customizing them, one can create either HTML or Flash-based web galleries.  The completed galleries can be uploaded to your website via FTP from within Lightroom.

So, I trust that shines a little light on what Adobe Photoshop Lightroom is and isn’t.  Probably it’s closest competitor in the market today is Apple’s Aperture.  I work on a Windows machine so Aperture isn’t an option for me and I don’t know much about it.  When asked if someone should purchase Aperture or Lightroom my response is that each has features that the other doesn’t have.  They both have 30-day free trials, however, so I suggest people try them both out and decide for themselves.  Make a decision, and stick with it.

EDIT: November 2011 – Since Photoshop can be a part of the Lightroom workflow, Julieanne Kost has an excellent video on Lightroom & Photoshop vs. Bridge & Photoshop here.
(February 11, 2014) Terry White also has a video on Bridge vs. Lightroom, here.

EDIT: July 2012 – Julianne Kost has an excellent video tutorial on how previews work in both Lightroom and Bridge, here.

Now go out and make some photographs!


P.S. You can find more of our posts on photography and Lightroom tutorials here, and you can find links to over 200 other sites that have Lightroom tips, tutorials and videos here.

16 Replies to “Should I Get Lightroom or Photoshop or…?”

    1. wolfnowl Post author

      You're most welcome! Thanks for dropping by our little corner of the 'net! By the way, if you're considering Photoshop but are dissuaded by the price there are two other options. One is to purchase a monthly subscription to the Adobe Creative Cloud (which includes Photoshop, Lightroom and the entire Creative Suite), and the second is to purchase Photoshop Elements 11. While not Photoshop, it has many of the features that Photoshop has but Lightroom does not, and at a fraction of the cost of Photoshop.


  1. Allie

    Thank you so much for this very informative article. I'm so happy to have a better understanding of what it means to shoot in raw, & what Lightroom is all about 🙂

  2. Shaown

    This is a very handy article is very useful to me as well. I must follow the article which is very essential for me which i must follow because the article is very essential for me because i am a photographer. Thanks a lot mate.

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    This is a topic which is close to my heart…

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