composite photograph showing what Photoshop can do

Photoshop or Lightroom?

I am often asked, ‘should I get Photoshop or Lightroom?’. I have used and taught both. Let me see if I can break it down for you. The most common features we all use on most of our images most of the time are

1-tonal adjustment, i.e. lightening and darkening,

2-color correcting, and or enhancing,

3-cropping, and

4-outputting our RAW files (you are shooting in RAW, aren’t you?!) to jpeg so we can upload them somewhere.

Any software will do if that’s all you need (see my list below). As you get more and more into photography, you may find you want to have all the editing possibilities open for you, that’s where spending the money on Adobe software may be worth your while. Photoshop is the tour de force, offering the most robust editing choices of any software I’m aware of. Both Lightroom and Photoshop share Adobe Camera Raw, aka ACR. ACR is continuously improved and updated, adding new features and more nuanced subtlety to your editing efforts. I LOVE ACR! In addition to ACR, Photoshop has many more ways to enhance and create whatever your creative fancy desires. Lightroom is great too but lacks many of the features you can find only in PS. But LR has some of its own special features.


Adobe’s Photoshop is the gold standard photo editing software in the photography industry since 1988. I don’t think I know a single pro who isn’t using it. There is no software out there that comes close to what photoshop can do. They have an endless array of tools and capabilities, which come with an enormous learning curve. With the layer pallet, you can stack innumerable images and adjustment tools to create just about anything you can imagine.

In addition to PS , you also get an app called Bridge, a browser that allows you to look into your hard drive and find, rename, move, delete, label, sort, rank, organize, read metadata, and much more. Bridge functions a lot like the Finder on a Mac computer. From Bridge you can open RAW, Jpeg, Tiff, GIF, PNG, PDS, and many more file types into Adobe Camera RAW (ACR). ACR allows for color and tonal adjustments, sharpening, cropping, spot adjustments, presets, and a lot more. Both LR and PS use the same raw processor, ACR, so the editing quality is the same. The layout of the tools is different, but basically you can do most of the same things in LR as in PS. Photoshop also has many tools used by videographers, graphic designers, web designers, digital painters, and 3D artists.

All of my photography goes through the color and tonal adjustments in Bridge. I only use PS when I need to composite images or retouch or remove objects in my images. I think this is true of most of the photographers I know.

layered travel photo


Lightroom (LR) was started 2012 and was designed for photographers. LR allows you to have all of your photos in a catalog. Like Bridge, you can find, rename, move, delete, label, sort, rank, organize, etc. Your images don’t live in the LR app, your original files live on your hard drive. When you upload your images to LR, metadata is created about what kind of file, where it is on the computer, and what adjustments have been made to it. All edits and adjustments are non-destructive and reversible, so you can always re-edit a file. You can save as many processing variations as you want without taking up any space. Smaller previews are made, so you can have all your images (in a smaller version) with you on one laptop, even if you have 10s of thousands of large files. LR offers some simple retouching options and does not have the tools you need to make composites

PS or LR?

I’ve been teaching photography for several decades and I find that learning LR is a stressful and long process for many students. Bridge comes with a RAW processor and can do most of what LM does and I can teach it to you in an hour or less. I am not a fan of LR, I do not need a catalog personally or professionally. Having said that, I have had many students that like LR. Most of the professional photographers I know do not use LR.

In conclusion:

Photoshop is a must if you want to do compositing and advanced retouching, object removal, perspective changes, and tonal and color adjustments. In addition, learning how to import, organize, and adjust images is a relative breeze, compared to Lightroom. But PS’s advanced editing features involve a serious learning curve.

Lightroom Classic is a must if you want to have a catalog, make a book or calendar from LR. There’s more learning curve to get started with LR Classic. If you don’t want to make composite images (i.e. images that are composed of several photos) and you aren’t doing a lot of careful retouching with your images, then Lightroom Classic is easier to learn.

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom is the newest version made for the untrained masses. It is very streamlined in its features and has a very quick learning curve, so it may be all you need. Furthermore, you can have all your images in an online catalog that’s always assessable from your device.

photoshop art made with layers

Adobe Creative Cloud Subscription Plan

Adobe has a subscription plan for paying for Photoshop and/or LR: Adobe Plans. They are offering a choice among 3 Creative Cloud photographer plans for $10 or $20 a month, with 20GB-1TB worth of storage space. Included is a website generator called Spark, a portfolio website maker called Portfolio, an app for iPad and phone apps. Wow, this is the best deal in town from the best photography software maker.

Adobe now has 2 Lightroom offerings. First, ‘Adobe Photoshop Lightroom’ is a non-pro, consumer-friendly version. There are very limited editing options and one would need little to no instruction to master the options it offers. Furthermore, It comes with several mobile phone apps, Spark, Portfolio, and a whopping one terabyte of storage space that allows you to access all of your photos on the go from anywhere. This may be all you need for adjusting your images, easy access of files, sharing online and organizing your photos.obe

In addition, Lightroom Classic CC is used by many professionals and photo enthusiasts. however, LR doesn’t allow for access with all your devices, as the consumer LR does. Moreover, it has a very steep learning curve. It’s meant to be used with a desktop or laptop, not a phone.

What are the Alternatives?

In addition to LR and PS, there are many would-be alternatives that are vying for a market share. Here’s a list of the ones I’ve come across. Although a couple may have equaled or even surpassed Adobe’s RAW image processing powers (maybe Phase One, Capture 1, and DXO Optics Pro), no one is even close to having the many features and capabilities Photoshop has. To function as a professional photographer I need Photoshop.

You can always buy a stand-alone version of Photoshop or LR on Amazon or eBay, but it won’t be the latest and greatest. Make sure it’s compatible with your computer’s operating system. There’s also a free PS imitator called GIMP.

However, for the casual photo enthusiast, PS may be too much learning curve and money. For software that has fewer features, but good quality, check out some of these photo processing apps:

Software alternatives to Photoshop

free and pro for $20:

Affinity Photo $50

Skylum Software Luminar $80

Topaz FREE! software for basic adjustments:

RAW Power 3 for macOS and iOS $40 edits RAW+JPEG, organize, rate, has a browser

ON1 software for basic adjustments $120 and free:

DXO Optics Pro $130-200:

DXO’s Nik collection $100:

Exposure X2 software for basic adjustments $150-200:

DXO might be the best of these

word cloud of Photoshop Lightroom terms