Lightroom vs. Photoshop – What’s the difference?

People unfamiliar with how editing works will often ask me if I photoshop my pictures in order to make them look better. While I do often use Photoshop to remove people in landscapes and unwanted branches reaching into photos, the bulk of my work is actually done in Lightroom.

Well, what is Lightroom then? If you use it for editing it must be similar to Photoshop, right? Do you photoshop your pictures in Lightroom? Are the usual follow-up questions to my explanation.

It’s also true that many beginners often won’t know the differences between Lightroom and Photoshop and which one to start off with. I was in the same position when I started out with digital photography. So let’s talk about what exactly Lightroom and Photoshop are and how they differ.

Lightroom vs. Photoshop In a sentence

I don’t see myself as someone who retouches photos. I process them. So it slightly infuriates me when people treat the two as equal. If I had to sum up the differences between Lightroom and Photoshop in a few sentences I’d say:

Lightroom is used for the non-destructive manipulation and organisation of large groups of images.

Photoshop is used for highly complex and destructive manipulation of a single image at a time.

Lightroom is used for processing.

Photoshop is used for retouching.

What does destructive mean in this context? It all has to do with how the application treats a file. Lightroom, as a non-destructive editor, won’t change your original file. You can go on to your hard drive or SSD and find the exact file you imported from your camera without any manipulation. Photoshop on the other hand will change your files. It is a destructive editor.

What is Lightroom?

Lightroom set out to help photographers manage large collections of digital photos. And to this day that is still a core part of the application. That might sound like it’s just a fancy file explorer but it is so much more. In Lightroom you can quickly rate photos, attach keywords, catalogue them, add them to collections and so on and so forth.

You can also add GPS tags to your images. And if you want to learn how you can do that I’ve created a video to get you started.

Search filters in Lightroom
Filtering images in Lightroom is easy

Because Lightroom has all of that information stored in its database you can also use it to search for specific images. Using filters you can find photos using any of the information stored.

Lightroom for photo processing

The Lightroom develop module

But Lightroom isn’t just an organisation tool. Using Lightroom’s Develop Module you can non-destructively manipulate images without ever having to leave the application. This includes basic adjustments such as exposure, contrast, saturation and also more advanced options such as tone curves and split toning.

Lightroom isn’t for retouching images

But you won’t find the kind of complex retouching tools Photoshop has to offer inside of Lightroom. And there’s certainly no liquify tool in Lightroom which is the Photoshop tool used to shrink or enlarge certain body parts.

How I use Lightroom

If I’d have to guess I’d say I do around 90% of my edits just in Lightroom. Especially using the graduated and radial filter there’s a lot Lightroom can do without ever having to open the file in Photoshop.

Because all edits in Lightroom aren’t applied to the file but are just many lines of code in a database they can easily be copied and pasted onto other images. Or synced to a large number of photos. All in just a few clicks. That, plus not having to open another application, make Lightroom-only edits a lot faster.

Four or five-star photos I do generally also have a go at in Photoshop. Though that is mainly to use the more advanced object removal it offers. The bulk of the work is still done in Lightroom and Photoshop is used for the final touch-ups.

What is Photoshop?

Photoshop is more of an image retouching program. It doesn’t have a catalogue or any file management features. It is to be used to work on one file at a time. That doesn’t mean you can add multiple photos to a single file though.

Layers in Photoshop

Using layers you can add anything to your file. Photos, drawings, figures, you name it. Using the layers you can, for example, easily create composites out of multiple photographs. In terms of image manipulation Photoshop can do way more than Lightroom.

PhotoShop is complex

But Photoshop is complex. Way more complex than Lightroom. To give you an example of how complex Photoshop is just think of all the retouching mistakes you’ve seen in ads. Even professionals get it wrong sometimes.

Within Photoshop you’ve got more advanced object removal tools and also the aforementioned liquify tool, both of which are of interest to certain types of photographers.

Those two tools are a good example of the destructive nature of Photoshop. They work by actually manipulating the pixels of the photo. The object removal can replace elements using machine learning and liquify will push and pull pixels into the desired shape.

Photo by Simon Zhu on Unsplash

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