Should You Switch From Photoshop to Adobe Lightroom?

01
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Should You Switch From Photoshop to Lightroom?

Photoshop and Lightroom screen shots
Text and images © Ian Pullen

Is Adobe Lightroom the best choice of image editing software for photographers or does the raw power of Photoshop still make that the best choice?

Adobe Lightroom is about to enter it's fifth iteration and while I'm a keen enthusiast photographer, until now I've resisted the urge to try it out. In fairness, I felt less than inspired by the limited options for anything other than global edits in the first version and never really thought about Lightroom again until I was asked to write a piece on the newest version.

I've now been using Lightroom 5 as my primary image editor for about four weeks and I've been getting to grips with many aspects of the app. I'm by no means an expert, but I think I can give a fair assessment now and, more importantly, suggest whether you might benefit by switching from Photoshop to Lightroom. Over the next few pages, I'll take a quick overview of the two applications and then try and highlight the most important positive and negative aspects, in my own view, of Lightroom for photographers who are considering moving to it from Photoshop.

02
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A Simple Overview of Lightroom and Photoshop

Darkroom
Text © Ian Pullen, Photo from Morguefile.

At its inception, Photoshop was a much simpler tool designed to help photographers and other professionals who worked with images. Over time its scope broadened considerably to the point that it became a vital creative tool for designers in many fields, especially graphic and web design.

Photoshop has vector line tools, handles text with a reasonable degree of sophistication, makes it easy to composite and blend different images and apply a wide variety of styles and effects. You can even import various 3D files into the extended version, so all told, while you can use it for basic image adjustments, there's the power to achieve much more than that, if you've the knowledge and imagination.

Focusing on Lightroom, while it was conceived for similar reasons as the early versions of Photoshop, its approach is very different. Even now, it feels much more like working in a darkroom than Photoshop ever did. And the early versions, with mainly global adjustment tools, must have felt even more similar. Now I should admit some bias in never enjoying the darkroom environment and add to this the fact that I invariably blend layers and apply masks when working with my photos, things appear to be stacked against Lightroom from the start. However, throughout my time with it, I've tried to remain objective.

03
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Some of the Highlights of Lightroom

Lightroom Develop Module
Text and images © Ian Pullen

Perhaps the most striking thing about switching to Lightroom is the more unified and integrated work flow that comes with it. The management of your photo archive is built directly into the application and while Adobe Bridge, which is packaged with Photoshop, offers similar functionality and with a wider range of media files, being a separate app does make it a less fluent experience. Also, while the Map section is separate from the Library, I can see how this could be a very powerful image management tool for some users too.

The unified approach also carries over to the handling of RAW files. In Lightroom, you always encounter the same work flow, regardless of the file type that you're working on. In Photoshop, when you want to work on a RAW file, the first step is always the opening of the Camera Raw plug-in to develop the file, before moving on to Photoshop proper. If you're a lazy photographer, shooting JPEG can be an easy way to speed up work flow in Photoshop, however, in Lightroom the experience is the same if you're processing RAW or JPEG. This can make it an easier decision to leave your camera set to RAW capture to ensure that you get the very best results from your shots.

The non-destructive editing and history panel make working on your images very easy and at any time you can always revert to the original, even if you closed Lightroom and come back to the image another day. In Photoshop, you can also use Adjustment Layers to achieve non-destructive results, but you will lose the ability to undo any destructive changes to the original file once you close it.

The arrangement of panels down the right hand side works well and offers an order to how you can work with your photos, though I also found myself jumping around between them. The mix of features seems well balanced, though some aspects may seem a little more rudimentary when compared to Photoshop. For example the sharpening options seem rather more basic when compared to the options in Smart Sharpen, but subjectively I felt Lightroom handled sharpening and noise suppression at least as effectively.

The Graduated and Radial filters have been called into use by me quite regularly and while they don't offer anything that Photoshop can't do, they're perhaps better set up for a photographers' needs. I've also started to better appreciate the power of the Adjustment Brush, which I can see could be considered to be somewhat analogous to layers in the way that you can make localized adjustments and combine them with others.

There are some other aspects that I've done little with but I can see as being very attractive, including the Presets. These basically offer the functionality of filters and while I think some of these are aimed at an Instagram generation, the ability to mix your own and easily apply them to future photos with a single click could be a big time saver. Another potential time saver if you work with a lot of photos is the ability to develop one photo and then apply those settings to a batch of other photos with similar lighting/subject. While they may require further tweaking, this is still a great way way to work through a large number of photos quickly.

Finally, before moving on from the Develop aspect, overall I've been very pleased with the consistent results I've achieved while using Lightroom and have revisited some old photos and been surprised by the improvements I've been able to make to some pictures.

As well as being a tool for developing and managing your photo library, Lightroom has a few more tricks up its sleeve that do help to further separate it from Photoshop. I've mentioned the Map in passing and that it may be a useful tool for some photographers. It allows you to place photos on a zoomable world map, though if your camera adds GPS info to your photos, this will be handled automatically. This could be a very useful tool when searching for photos of specific locations among your image library.

The remaining features that I've not covered are Book, Slideshow, Web and Print. The latter is perhaps the least interesting and it offers reasonably fine grained control for setting up your photos on a page in preparation for print.

The other three require no specialist knowledge, but offer some exciting tools for photographers who want different ways to share their photos. If you select Book, you will find an interface that makes it very easy to create a book from a selection of photos. Slideshow and Web serve similar purposes, but one producing slideshows of your photos that can be shared to a range of devices and the other creating Flash or HTML5 galleries that can be published to the web.

04
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A Few of Lightroom's Weaker Points

History in Lightroom and Photoshop
Text and images © Ian Pullen

I've mentioned that Lightroom's non-destructive editing is a positive and you can easily navigate the history stack of an image's development at any time. One negative aspect of this is the fact that the history is linear, meaning that if you want to undo an adjustment that you made ten steps earlier, you have to remove all ten steps. While history in Photoshop is also linear, because you can use Adjustment Layers to work on your photos, it's very easy to remove to remove a change by deleting a layer without affecting any changes that you made subsequently.

Another benefit of layers is the ability to combine different images to form a composite. While I can see that a full blown layers system in Lightroom would start to blur the gap between the two apps, I would welcome the option to overlay a second image, such as a texture. It's something that could be done in the darkroom and I'm sure it could be achieved in such a way that it was quite distinct from Photoshop's layers implementation.

The Spot Removal Brush is a very useful and powerful tool for removing spots from your photos and in Lightroom 5 it has been given a boost with the ability to be used to paint brush strokes with the integration of the Advanced Healing Brush. If you've seen Adobe's video showcasing how this works, you'll appreciate how it can be used rather like the Clone Stamp in Photoshop. However, in practice I found its effectiveness depended on the subject it was being applied to as you do need a suitable donor area. On more than one occasion I found myself pining for the Clone Stamp which does make the updated Advanced Healing Brush look a little hamfisted.

05
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Should All Photographers Switch From Photoshop to Lightroom?

Lightroom 5 Beta screen shot
Text and images © Ian Pullen

So, if you're already using Photoshop, should you consider switching to Lightroom?

If you're a creative and artistic photographer who sees the post-production process as a large part of the creation of your imagery, the answer is probably no. If you regularly use Photoshop to create composite images and take advantage of the creative effects of blending multiple layers, then the switch isn't really feasible, as it just doesn't offer that kind of flexibility. Photoshop has developed into a powerful creative tool for designers and artists and if you see your photography as just the starting point of your work, Photoshop almost certainly remains the best option available.

If, however, you use Photoshop primarily to adjust and enhance your photos from the camera before sharing online or sending to print, then it does offer a quite compelling case. The lack of a true Clone Stamp tool might occasionally be problematic, but you could always keep a free copy of GIMP, or the less-expensive Photoshop Elements handy and export a TIFF to it for Clone operations before taking it back into Lightroom.

As mentioned before, the functionality that allows you to easily create books, slideshows and web galleries could be worth a large part of the purchase cost on their own for many users. Additionally, I don't think that anyone could be disappointed with the quality of Lightroom's output and its images should at the very least match the output that you achieve with Photoshop.

One final consideration has to be cost, and the recent announcement that future versions of Photoshop will only be available through subscription adds a new aspect to this. While Lightroom will be made available as part of Adobe CC, unlike Photoshop it will also be available to purchase outright. If you don't like the idea of effectively renting your software, this does add one extra reason for looking at making the switch.

Further Reading:
Photoshop Review
Photoshop Elements Review
• Lightroom Review
• What's New in Lightroom 5