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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.

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Paul Scharff's picture

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

Alex Coleman's picture

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

Greg Wilson's picture

Seems you're comparing "tripods to lenses". They're just different tools intended to complement each other in the workflow. And they are both included in the Photography Plan for a reason.

Reginald Walton's picture

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

Alex Coleman's picture

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).

Jeremiah Fulbright's picture

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.

David Illig's picture

“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.

Alex Coleman's picture

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?

Thomas Bevan's picture

ACR+PS is the best way to go

David Illig's picture

Says the Ultimate Authority.

Alexander Petrenko's picture

Especially for non-destructive editing.

Ed Sanford's picture

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.

Tundrus Photo's picture

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.

Ed Sanford's picture

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

Daniel Medley's picture

"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.

Ed Sanford's picture

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.

Dan Donovan's picture

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.

Ed Sanford's picture

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...

Dan Donovan's picture

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!

David Illig's picture

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*.

Hari P's picture

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.

David Wilkins's picture

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

Andrei Maxim's picture

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.

Ian Spencer's picture

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.

Tundrus Photo's picture

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.

Alexander Petrenko's picture

Because Photoshop is not only about photos...

David Illig's picture

“...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?

Leigh Wax's picture

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.

Ed Sanford's picture

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.

Rick Pappas's picture

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.

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