Beginner photographers often ask whether they should use Lightroom or Photoshop. And the answer is a lot simpler than you’d expect. Functionally, Lightroom and Photoshop have a lot of overlap, but they’re very different tools that excel in different situations.
This may come as a surprise, but Lightroom and Photoshop have a lot in common. They share a surprising number of features, and most editing jobs can be completed in either program.
But professional photographers tend to use both Lightroom and Photoshop. And that’s because these two apps are intended for different tasks. While Lightroom is primarily a tool for photographers, Photoshop is an all-purpose suite for detail-oriented image editing.
Note: There are two versions of Lightroom. The standard Lightroom app is relatively simple, connects with Creative Cloud for remote storage, and runs on both desktop and mobile devices.
Lightroom Classic is a bit more “professional,” with more complicated tools and a bigger emphasis on local file storage.
When beginner photographers first use Lightroom, they’re often surprised (or even disappointed) by the emphasis on folders, albums, and other file management systems. Lightroom isn’t just a photo editor; it’s also an organizational tool.
In my opinion, file management is the most important part of Lightroom. Let’s say that you’re a wedding photographer—your first task in Lightroom is to load a wedding’s worth of photos into an album. You can then look through this album and mark images using flags or stars.
Once it’s time to start editing, your images are already bundled together. You can even flip between images in an album during the editing process (with zero delay on a decent computer). The organizational tools in Lightroom help speed up your editing job, ensure consistency between photos, or even apply presets to multiple pictures at once. (And you can reverse or temporarily hide these edits with the push of a button.)
Keeping everything organized in Lightroom also helps with photo retrieval. And that’s important in professional photography, an industry where clients often ask to use (or purchase) old photos that they had previously skipped.
But photo organization isn’t Lightroom’s flagship feature. If anything, it’s the simple and intuitive editing process. Lightroom requires skill, of course, but it has a gentle learning curve. And that makes for even quicker editing, especially when combined with the built-in filesystem.
Photoshop lacks these features. Even with Adobe Bridge or Creative Cloud, organizing or flipping through files with Photoshop is a pain. And while Photoshop can perform the same edits as Lightroom, its interface isn’t designed for speed and has a steep learning curve.
While Lightroom is a photography tool, Photoshop is an all-purpose digital image editing suite. It’s a poor option when you need to edit hundreds of photos in one sitting, but it’s perfect for detailed pixel-by-pixel jobs, image manipulation, and big creative changes that stray from your original photo.
Photoshop relies on a digital canvas system, which you can use to create art from scratch or manipulate existing images. Layers are the defining feature here—each layer you create on an image can contain its own material, which you can move around or alter to create whatever you desire.
In the context of photography, Photoshop is mainly used for big jobs or tiny details that Lightroom can’t fix. While Lightroom can remove blemishes or red eye, Photoshop is the better option when removing objects from an image’s background, clearing the frizz from someone’s hair, turning a baby’s frown upside-down, or performing other difficult edits.
Photoshop also contains AI-powered “Content-Aware” tools. These tools can add details to an image by looking at the stuff that’s already there. If a portrait doesn’t have enough headroom, for example, you can use “Content-Aware Fill” to add a bunch of space over the subject’s head. This space will look like it’s part of the room where the portrait was shot.
And of course, Photoshop lets you add things to your photos. Not just text or weird pictures you found online, but lens flares, trees, clouds, and so much more.
These incredible features are difficult to master. Photoshop is more detailed and less intuitive than Lightroom, which can be a good or a bad thing.
Beginner photographers often assume that they need Photoshop, which is generally untrue. Lightroom packs all the features you need to make good photos look amazing—it excels at photo organization, it can adjust nearly every aspect of an image, and its preset system lets you quickly capture specific styles or moods.
Plus, Lightroom has a fairly gentle learning curve. A few YouTube tutorials will set you on the path to become a professional-grade photo editor. Needless to say, most photographers should start with Lightroom (and may never need Photoshop).
But if you need to make dramatic, weird, or ultra-specific changes to your images, that’s where Photoshop comes into play. Photoshop can pull off the same edits as Lightroom, but it’s purpose-built for destructive and creative editing. That means adding beautiful text to images, removing wacky strangers from family photos, or creating digital art.
The problem with Photoshop is that it’s a bit unintuitive. It’s also a poor choice when you need to organize and edit several images, even if you use something like Adobe Bridge to streamline the process a bit. That’s why most professional photographers start in Lightroom and only move something into Photoshop for detailed pixel-by-pixel editing.
Let’s say that you’re a beginner photographer. Or, if you’re like me, you take semi-professional photos for work. You should probably get familiar with both Lightroom and Photoshop. Doing so will increase the speed and quality of your workflow, all while keeping things organized, easy to share, and easy to retrieve.
As I’ve stated throughout this article, professional photographers usually start their work in Lightroom. They import a photoshoot or project, leaving it in a dedicated folder that’s clearly labeled. Then, they look through the images, flag what’s worth keeping, and start adjusting aspects like exposure, contrast, and color. They’ll also touch up these images, removing blemishes or cleaning nonsense out of the background.
But some pictures require detailed editing. Maybe there’s a nasty stain on a wedding dress, or hey, maybe this picture is supposed to be an album cover with some cool fonts. The photographer will move these photos over to Photoshop after playing with them in Lightroom.
I suggest learning how to use Lightroom before you dive into Photoshop. But using both applications will take your photography to the next level. Thankfully, Adobe’s Creative Cloud Photography plan includes both Photoshop and Lightroom for just $10 a month. And it’s even cheaper if you’re a student.