Students often ask me whether they should buy Lightroom or Photoshop or something else, so I thought I would put down my thoughts on this in writing. I actually wrote this quite a while ago, but because it wasn’t technically a blog post, you would have had to stumble onto it elsewhere on my website. For those that haven’t stumbled onto it and have this question, here it is:
Lightroom is Adobe’s image management and enhancement program designed specifically for serious amateur and professional photographers. With more and more powerful features being added with each new release, Lightroom has become a very powerful program which can help you to stay organized and be able to find your photos quickly, produce beautiful editing results, and for those where time is money, dramatically increase the efficiency of your workflow. In addition, you’ll find that once you learn it, working on your photos in Lightroom really is fun!
I define serious amateur as someone who can and wants to spend the time to get the most out of their images. If you are only interested in doing a few simple adjustments, such as cropping, fixing a color cast and fixing red eye, and don’t expect to have a lot of images to manage, then Lightroom is most likely more than you need. In this case, Picassa, Photoshop Elements, or any number of free or inexpensive consumer photo programs would be appropriate.
Back to serious amateurs and pro’s: I am a very big advocate of Lightroom as the foundation of the post-processing workflow. It is an elegant and very powerful program for managing your images, fixing and enhancing them, and for sharing them, whether by creating JPEG copies to email out, making prints, designing and ordering photo books, or creating slideshows or web galleries.
When it comes to fixing and enhancing your images, it has a wide variety of powerful Develop tools, and many handy features, such as the ability to see Before and After side-by-side, to save your image work at various stages as snapshots, keep different versions of your images such as a black and white and a color version, and much more. All of the image fix and enhancement work you do in Lightroom is non-destructive, so you cannot ruin your image! Anything you do can be undone, today or 5 years from now. You can also do things much faster with Lightroom — searches for images are lightning-quick, you can work on multiple images at once, and you can save settings and layouts so that you can use them again in the future with the click of one button.
A note on Aperture for the Mac: you will find much debate out on the web about which is better, Lightroom or Aperture. I am not a Mac user, and don’t take a position on it. The last study I saw, which is very dated at this point, was by Info Trends in 2008. It showed that among pro photographers, Lightroom users outnumbered Aperture users by over 4 to 1 in total, and over 2 to 1 among Mac users. I appreciate that Lightroom is cross-platform, fully integrated with other Adobe products, and has a very large web and local community presence — the number of quality Lightroom blogs, forums, training videos, in-person workshops and books far outnumbers what is available for Aperture. But I also appreciate that there are Aperture users out there that love the program. (For whatever it’s worth, as anecdotal as it is, I do have to say that I monitor Twitter feeds, and I personally see significantly more posts from photographers announcing that they are switching from Aperture to Lightroom than from Lightroom to Aperture.)
Should I learn Photoshop?
For all the reasons stated above, plus the fact that Lightroom is cheaper, I recommend that students start out by learning and getting very comfortable with Lightroom, making sure that you understand and are using it to its full capabilities. Only at that point would I advise considering Photoshop as a supplemental tool to Lightroom, and only if you feel that there are things you want to do to your images that you find you can’t do with Lightroom. Don’t succumb to peer pressure to buy Photoshop — many amateur and pro photographers now use only Lightroom, others use mostly Lightroom but occasionally do additional work in Photoshop, and still others use Photoshop for every image they work. It all depends on what you want to be able to do. In any case, Lightroom and Photoshop are designed to work together. If you end up using Photoshop, you will do so from within your Lightroom workflow (rather than abandoning your Lightroom workflow!). For me, Camera Raw and Bridge are no longer in my bag of tools.
Some areas that photographers still turn to Photoshop for include: complicated clean-up and retouching; local adjustments involving complicated selections; applying artistic and other types of filters; and compositing images together. (Lightroom CC and 6 can now merge multiple exposures and stitch together panoramas.)
What’s the Best Way to Learn Lightroom?
I’m admittedly a bit biased on this question, but I recommend starting with my Lightroom CC/6 and 5: The Fundamentals & Beyond video series. This contains 12 1/2 hours of training on 61 videos, and is perfect for new beginners as well as experienced users who want to make sure they are using the program to its fullest. Once you master the core of Lightroom — Lightroom’s Library, Develop (and Map) modules, then check out my Lightroom 5: Producing Great Output series, to learn how to make beautiful photo books, prints, slideshows and web galleries. (CC/6 version to come.) Don’t take my word for it though — on the above product pages, you will find links to customer reviews.