Lightroom Is Great, but Despite Adobe’s Efforts, Photoshop Is Still King

Lightroom Is Great, but Despite Adobe’s Efforts, Photoshop Is Still King

Lightroom is about 13 years old now, and over the last few major releases, Adobe has added a number of tools you’d previously need Photoshop for. While it’s great to see new features like color grading, luminosity masking, and more make their way to the program, their implementation still leaves them falling far short of just using Photoshop. Here’s why I couldn't ever use Lightroom without Photoshop.

Selections Are Sloppy

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned as I’ve refined my editing skills is the power of working within selections. Obviously, there’s plenty you can do with global adjustments, and they’re essential for things like white balance, but for more complex edits, being able to make a selection is essential.

This brings up the first major advantage Photoshop has over Lightroom: the incredible range of selection tools. Whether you want to live dangerously with the Magic Wand tool or spend 20 minutes trying to cut something out with the Pen tool, you have the options. Between those two extremes lies a ton of very viable selection methods, which have only gotten more powerful over the last couple of iterations of Photoshop. Quick Select has gotten better than ever, while the Select and Mask workspace makes cutting out something as complex as hair easier than ever.

In contrast, consider the limited range of selection options available when refining a mask or brush stroke in Lightroom. Auto-mask seems to be a little improved from when it was first introduced, while its behavior is incredibly opaque. The addition of luminosity and color masking have made a tiny improvement to the state of things, but again feature very coarse controls. Overall, though, something as simple as selecting an object and applying an adjustment is still far slower and more cumbersome than the equivalent process in Photoshop, often producing a worse result.

It wouldn’t be a problem if Lightroom prioritized making the tools fast and good enough for the bulk-editing most often associated with it. I’d settle for them working quickly, but they often can’t even do that. Stacking multiple brush strokes is clunky, inducing lag even on a powerful computer. I find that I spend more time fighting with the “easy” controls in Lightroom than using the more “advanced” options available in Photoshop.

For even core tools like HSL, the inability to refine your actions makes things more difficult than they need to be. Consider making a hue adjustment to a group of trees. The green slider will hit 80% of them, but miss those leaves tending towards yellow or even aqua. In Photoshop, it’s just a few clicks to broaden the range affected by a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer, but it’s impossible in Lightroom. What makes this particularly frustrating is that this is an easy fix: make the range of the slider user adjustable. Even a half-step, by adding a fifth tab to the panel exposing an elegantly named slider-range-slider, would make the experience a lot better.

Basic Features Are Still Missing

I found myself making excuses for Lightroom in years past when it came to missing tools. I reasoned that it was more full-featured than similar digital asset management tools, making the omissions an acceptable compromise. In the intervening time, however, a number of other tools have hit the market, offering a similar level of catalog organization features, but with much deeper editing functionality.

The big missing features that stick out to me are the lack of support for layers and quality retouching tools. We’ll come back to layers, but first, let’s talk retouching. Whether it’s a zit, stray tree branch, or whole car, Content-Aware cloning or fill in PS can make it disappear. On the contrary, in Lightroom, anything more than a dust spot on a clear blue sky will be beyond the capabilities of the spot removal tool. Just giving Lightroom access to a lasso and content-aware fill would knock out 50% of my exports to PS, a particularly cumbersome process for a tiny change.

Layer support, though oft rumored, has never actually made it to Lightroom. To be honest, I’m not really sure it would be any good even if it did arrive — all of us crying out for it may just be like dogs chasing cars. Layers without a range of other features wouldn’t be that useful, and by the time you add in all those other things, it probably makes sense to just bring catalogs into PS instead.

Why This Matters

Lightroom isn’t Photoshop. I know that Adobe knows it, and everyone’s worked under that premise since release. It’s even made clear by Adobe’s CC plans — pairing Lightroom with Photoshop in the clearly labeled Photographer’s plan. The problem comes not from what Lightroom isn’t, but what it is. 

To clarify, consider the other modules besides Library and Develop that are available in Lightroom. Bookmaking, printing, slideshow creation, and web gallery functions are all included, but in my experience, they aren’t very good. If I’m building a website, the last place I’d turn to would be Lightroom (CC plans even include Adobe Portfolio, a way better option). The same goes for laying out a book or creating a slideshow. Lightroom offers a number of features that aren’t really good enough to be of any use. For a significant range of tasks, it’s just easier to use the right software for the job.

If you only need to ever make a single luminosity mask, you don’t need to buy a dedicated panel for Photoshop or learn a whole workflow. Lightroom’s simple mask is probably fine. But for almost every instance beyond the basic ACR adjustments, I think learning it the “right way” in Photoshop will pay dividends. This doesn’t even just apply to Photoshop’s functionality, but also the other tools that sit under Lightroom’s umbrella.

As it stands now, Photoshop doesn’t truly have a competitor. To a new photographer or one looking to make the jump from mobile editing to computer editing, it’s a clear choice. I’d prioritize building a strong workflow and getting comfortable with the tools and using whatever works for asset management. To any photographer, I’d suggest not wasting time trying to make Lightroom work for anything more complex than the basic panel adjustments. Build a flexible ISO adaptive preset, get comfortable with the basic sliders, and plan on hitting Control + E quite a bit.

Alex Coleman's picture

Alex Coleman is a travel and landscape photographer. He teaches workshops in the American Southwest, with an emphasis on blending the artistic and technical sides of photography.

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I need a lot of fine-tuning precision that PS does effortlessly that I can't imagine doing on LR.

Yup - that was the exact experience that inspired this article.

I'm pretty sure LR and PS were not made to do the exact same things, otherwise, what would be the need for both?

That's another way of looking at the point that I'm making - the dilution of Lightroom by adding a watered down version of PS's tools isn't a good thing. Either fully implement these options or keep LR an asset manager and basic raw processor (and improve those aspects).

Why would a program made for cataloging, sorting, and some processing of negatives, aka a Darkroom (Lightroom), do the same things you would do after the process is complete? They aren't intended for the same functionality so to even compare them is just an opinion that makes no sense.

Some photographers could do all they need with their camera and in darkroom, and others would do some final things after they have processed their film.

“Why would a program made for cataloging, sorting, and some processing of negatives, aka a Darkroom (Lightroom), do the same things you would do after the process is complete?”

Because Adobe decided to make it that way, at least partially. Who has the authority to tell me how to process my photos? Nobody. I’m perhaps 70% Lr., 30% Lr + PS. And I don’t care how anybody else does it.

Why retain a physical/film distinction in a digital environment?

If Lightroom isn't meant for something like luminosity masking, why add the additional code to do so? If you're meant to use these beyond-basics processing tools, why are they significantly worse than PS's versions, which you'd already have access to with any LR CC subscription?

ACR+PS is the best way to go

Says the Ultimate Authority.

I’ve read these comments. Ok, so I guess that I am the admitted low IQ dude in the group. I worked in the wet darkroom for years. When I moved to digital, it was because of Lightroom. I found that it was intuitive for someone who is used to dodging, burning and managing contrast. To me, Photoshop is the equivalent of doing differential equations. It is far too complex other than functions like focus stacking, and removing unwanted clutter from an image. The multiple layers and masks and digital blending is far too damned much work for an old Afrohick like me. I believe there are others who share my view but too shy to admit it.

Yup. And there are simpler programs that compete with LR. For example, Affinity Photo meets most basic needs. Yes, it takes some adjustment to understand its interface and features. But it works relatively well for most things. You may want to give it a try.

Well for me, Lightroom is like Goldilocks.... Just Right....

"Afrohick" ... Damn you. I spit coffee all over my desk.

I suppose it depends on what you need. I know plenty of landscape and architectural photographers for whom Lightroom is plenty good. But for many people photographers--especially formal portraiture--the tools in Photoshop--and similar applications--are an absolute necessity.

Ha, ha ha ha ha... Afrohicks have a tendency to evoke that kind of reaction from people. i am not denigrating Photoshop, I just find it impossible to understand. Using it reminds me how I felt when was back trying to learn quadratic equations or covalent bonding. Lightroom, for me, is natural to use... I admire those who can create masks and execute digital blending etc.... In fact, I've actually done it a few times, but it's not fun and it is certainly work... all the best.

Lightroom is meant to compliment Photoshop, and for some photographers it works well. Each photographer needs to decide which tools work best for their photography.

Or, is Lightroom an alternative for those who want to “get it right in the camera” and do basic processing and development rather than rebuild...

Exactly, some people need just Lightroom, some other people mostly Lightroom and a little Photoshop and others mainly Photoshop. Personally, I use Capture One Pro to process my raw files and then Photoshop and other apps when needed!

The superb autoexposure and excellent dynamic range of DSLRs and mirrorless today, including, but not limited to, my EOS R5, cause me to need PS less and less. The Basic panel in Lr, along with spot removal, deals with 90% of *my* touch-up needs. I hope that those who work differently, and who think that *their* way is the only way, are not too offended by what works *for me*.

Less than 5% of my photos go through Photoshop. LR is enough for most of my needs that include filtering, cataloguing, basic adjustments, sharpness, texture and lens corrections. Only a few need details PS adjustments. All exporting etc.. are also through LR.
Those tools were meant to be complimentary to each other with a slight overlap between them. LR is an advanced Photo Management tool aka Google Picasa, while Photoshop is an editor. I am not sure why a comparison is needed.

The two programs are not in competition with each other, they compliment each other As a wedding photographer I use LR for cataloguing and editing then use PS for fine tuning

I think this is exactly where Adobe is going with the cloud version of Lightroom, which doesn't have the Develop, Map, Print and Web modules but does a slightly better job at advertising the integration with Photoshop.

My experience, as bumbling amateur, of Photoshop Elements is that I do 99% of things in the Raw editor. I have a favourite set of sharpening, contrast and colour enhancements that suit the camera I use.

What I find annoying is simply switching to the Photoshop view is that the interface does the same things in different ways, to the extent that say messing with the light or colour balance is highly technical and it may be quicker going back to raw. There isn't a compromise. I say that as a technical type, but I haven't always been able to grasp how to get the same in PS as in the raw editor.

Even the crop tool manages to be more awkward in PSE than in the raw editor.

So, I've found that the two styles are so incompatible I haven't seen it worth the effort to push through the pain barrier and do more in the Photoshop editor aside from removing the odd phone line. The only tool I've used with confidence is the aspect filter, to try and get rid of the worst excesses of distorted churches from cramped graveyards.

I've had a mess around with layers, but generally it occurs that I'm happy with what I get.

As for organising, Google Photos does fine for me, with Chromecast displaying us our current interests regularly, so they are there to be seen rather than hiding in an album.

Adobe have always had an expensive model for users, and I'm sticking with PSE 2017 given that the discount for upgrading from any version is a miserly 10% and I don't see that there are any great gains to be had over something that works well for my needs.

I'll fess up - there's a stupid observation: It baffles me as to why Adobe has produced three programs (four if you differentiate the two versions of Lightroom). What was the confused thinking that went into the decision to create Bridge, Lightroom (classic), Lightroom CC and Photoshop? What the hell??? Why not have ONE program that does it all? I guess the discussion at Adobe went something like this - "Hey, you know we can sucker people into buying a subscription for a package of programs and keep them needlessly complicated and interdependent. That'll makes us a ton of money. So let's do it!" Sorry, I prefer simplicity to complexity and switching back and forth between programs that do "different things" (much the same really) to the same file/image makes no sense - unless you have a mind that works like Adobe.

“...we can sucker people into buying a subscription...”

Get serious! Photoshop, Lightroom Classic, Lightroom, Photoshop for iOS, Lightroom for iOS, and Adobe Camera Raw cost $9.99 per month. Two cups of decent coffee. Hell, people spend more than that on chewing gum! And if you’re an old timer, what did you spend on film and developing?

The reason that many people prefer owning their homes rather than renting, is that they don't consider it prudent to endlessly pay out for something that they will never own.

Some feel the same about Software Programs.

You are right. Nevertheless, software companies have no other source of revenues to pay for a staff to keep developing new software then the prescription model. It's not just Adobe; it's the entire universe of software companies.... If not a subscription, they develop a new product every year and stop support of older releases two years back. They have to stay afloat financially.

I've owned every version of PS since V 5.X because there was always something in each version that I could use to make my work easier and better. On average the program was updated every 18-24 months and the price was around $200 early on and $250 for the more recent versions. At around $240 a year, I get the updates that I can use regularly and don't have to wait at least 18 months for. I also get Lightroom. At first, I too was leery of the subscription model, but today, considering that the updates to new or improved features come to me regularly, I've grown to appreciate it.

Not a good analogy. A rental property may include basic maintenance, but it doesn’t include frequent upgrades or periodic major rehabs. The Adobe Photography Plan is an outright bargain.

Yeah, $9.99 (US) per month. First off, why have so many programs doing mostly (not all of course) the same thing? Why not one - or even just two? Second, I'm not a fan of the subscription model. Third, Adobe is bloatware.

The issue with the subscription is you have to keep your hardware up to date as the software is continuously updated. Adobe only keeps a few older versions which eventually get dropped when they stop supporting it. Making sure newer versions work with your computer configuration is tough for anyone who doesn’t have the funds to keep buying a new computer every three years or so.

Good point. I use a 7 year old laptop and a 10 year old PC. The upgrade minimum states that you need a specific feature on your processor. I'm an IT guy and after much googling I gave up trying to work out if I could use it.

For sure don't support Vista, but not bothering to support processors that run Windows 10 properly. I've already had to ditch a functioning graphics card that Windows no longer supported, but I can just about live with that.

I’ve built up, over the years, a graveyard of external hard disks and peripherals that are all perfectly functional but no longer are supported by the latest OS and computer hardware. Such a waste and very bad for the environment...and my wallet.

You've got it backwards. Keeping software "needlessly complicated and interdependent" with constant updates costs a lot of money. Never changing or updating them would be much better for Adobe's bottom line. But in any even, Elvis is still the King, not PS.

Yup. Like many pieces of software, there will the be user who uses just about all of its features. But the majority will only use some of the features. Hence, needlessly complicated for most and certainly intentionally overall interdependent. And Elvis is the King and is alive and working at Walmart.

PS isn't king for photo library management. It's a complete failure at that.

It was never designed as a library management tool. It's a professional tool for creating output. While LR can create professional quality output and do an admirable job of photo management, it's creative tools pale when compared with those in PS. ( i.e.: pen tool, fine selections, layers, channels and paths, warp, liquify, refine mask, brushes, blur tools, layer blending, ability to create composites and to do frequency separation edits, etc.)

I don't like Lightroom's DAM system at all. It's clunky, unintuitive, and requires a completely different approach compared to the general file system on a typical PC.

I can't think of anything outside of DAM that Lightroom does that can't be done in ACR.

I agree with every word. Thanks

Lightroom functionality problems:
Is there s way to simply copy and paste images like in bridge? Is there a simple way to rename a file. Maybe we need to add bridge to the discussion.

i have been around long enough to watch the evolution from film to digital we some how complicated a pretty basic process some good some bad. Dont get me wrong there is some amazing work produced with today imaging programs some of it bordering graphic arts its the trend.
After 40 years in the photographic field my skills are being pointed in to a differnt direction to photo guiding what Iam seeing is a migration away from adobe products due to the ever rising cost and constant changes.
As for me my work flow starts with Nikons imaging programs as a stock and documentary shooter it suits my needs 95 % of my work is done there if I feel the need to be artistic then off to one of the many imaging programs available with adobe products one of them. Personally Adobe needs to standardize their programs and stick with it I am looking for speed and efficiency which for my needs provides neither

I visited your website... You have a very nice body of work!

When I first saw LR, I thought Adobe had done a fine job of making a program that would be easier for those with needs that were different from mine. It looked like a good "bridge" program that would whisk beginners from a basic package to becoming Photoshoppers. I should have looked more closely perhaps. Had it not been for the Photoshop for Photographers program, I may never have tried Lightroom. That would have been my loss.

Today, almost every image that I edit begins in LR for basic edits. Tonality, color, white balance, pre-sharpening, noise reduction and lens corrections get done together in a lot less time than I would spend in PS. The biggest plus for all of this is that once I send an image over to PS as a Smart Object, if there's something that I want to change in the LR edits, I can go back and change it without having to adjust or recreate a pile of layers.

In most of my workflow, LR doesn't compete with compliments it. I still need PS for precise selections, channels and paths. I need it's text tools often. It's the perfect tool for local and granular adjustments and it's ability to blend layers is something that would be hard to replicate in LR. The ability to create composites in PS is so valuable to me alone that I need to have it's capabilities at hand.

That said, when I have a lot of images that won't require the capabilities of PS, like those from a youth team sport shoot, I can edit an entire shoot in a fraction of the time I would have spent pre-LR. So, for me, Photoshop is no longer King. Photoshop and Lightroom combined are.

Lightroom does nothing for me that I can't accomplish in ACR other than its clunky DAM system. At this point, the only reason I even have Lightroom is because it comes with the Photography plan.

That doesn't mean that there aren't benefits with Lightroom for some photographers; just not me.

If Photoshop didn't have ACR, yes, I'd need Lightroom as the Color Mixer, Color Grading, WB, Curves and Calibration are tools that I use in every shot that I process.

For years, Lightroom played an important part of my workflow. Since I started tethering in the studio, though, I've been using Capture One. From Capture I port over to ACR/Photoshop to do my editing. The option in Capture One to just set up Sessions and bypass a "catalog" is just easier to work with and to maintain. When not shooting in the studio, I still offload my card into Lightroom, then do my global edits in Lightroom > Photoshop.

However, I may start bypassing Lightroom altogether; just go directly into Capture One; even for non tethered shoots. The flow of creating Sessions in Capture One just works better for me. It's so much easier and intuitive.

But I can't ever see myself transitioning my actual post production work to anything else other than ACR/Photoshop. I've spent too much time developing skills in these tools to get the results I like.

Lightroom is just a stand alone ACR with additional features

So is Photoshop.