Photoshop vs. Lightroom

by Michael Clark

Several days ago I spent an afternoon talking about digital workflow with a few fellow professional photographers here in Santa Fe: Nevada Wier and Jamey Stillings. Both are incredible, world-class photographers. During the course of our workflow discussion I started to think about the Photoshop & Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) versus Lightroom question. Nevada tends to shoot thousands of images while on assignment in remote corners of the globe - just as I do. On the other hand, Jamey has different workflows depending on the assignment. For some assignments he shoots a large number of images. For others, mostly advertising shoots, the number of frames captured is relatively low. So for him it made sense that he has two different workflows, one for each type of assignment.

After talking with Nevada and Jamey last week I thought I'd blog about a Photoshop/ACR workflow versus a Lightroom workflow. Both are valid workflows. What it comes down to is what makes more sense for the type of shooting that you do. Below are some pros and cons for both workflows (and I am sure I have missed lots of pros and cons - feel free to let me know any I've missed):

Lightroom Pros:
• Super Fast Image Editing
• Spectacular User Interface
• Logical workflow progression
• Ability to Print and create Web Galleries directly from RAW image files
• Quick Metadata and Keyword Insertion
• Much faster editing and processing of a large number of images

Lightroom Cons:
• Have to Import images to work on them
• Slows down with over 10,000 images in the catalog
• For processing just one or two images this is a slower workflow

Photoshop Pros:
• ACR has the same RAW processing controls as Lightroom
• ACR Histogram is specialized to the chosen color space (Lightroom is locked into ProPhoto RGB color space with an sRGB tone curve)
• Don't have to Import images to open in Bridge or ACR
• Ability to customize processing of RAW images with Photoshop Actions

Photoshop Cons:
• Slower, less precise editing features in Bridge
• Processing lots of images requires actions and can be slower than exporting images from Lightroom
• Much slower with editing and processing a large number of images

In the end I think it really comes down to the number of images you need to edit because Lightroom, at least in my experience, is many times faster in the editing phase of a workflow than a Bridge, ACR and Photoshop workflow. In my work, shooting adventure sports, I shoot many images even on quick stock shoots. I am almost always shooting at 5 frames per second or more so Lightroom makes more sense because it allows me to compare very similar images easily and mow through images quickly to find the real gems.

In contrast, as in Jamey Stilling's case when he is shooting an ad campaign and fires off less than a hundred images the faster editing advantage of Lightroom isn't such a big deal. The reality is that only one image is needed. And the odds are good that image is obvious even before the photo shoot is over because an assistant and the art director are reviewing images as they are being shot - so in this case working up that RAW image in ACR 4.1 which has all the same features and power of Lightroom makes a lot more sense. It doesn't make sense to waste time importing images if all you need to process is one or two images.

If you are on the fence as to whether or not Lightroom is worth the extra $299 then maybe this will help. But for me, I'd say if I have to edit more than 100 images at any one time then Lightroom is the way I'd go for sure. Even in some cases where I only shot 50 images for an assignment, I have used Lightroom because I knew that I wanted to make virtual copies for black and white conversions.

The good news is that with the XMP sidecar files being written to your images (if you turn on that feature in the Lightroom and Bridge preferences) then Lightroom and Photoshop are totally compatible. So it is a win - win either way you go.

That's it for this session. Hopefully you can get away from your computer and go have a few adventures. Now, please, for your own sanity, step away from the computer! It's ok. It will still be there later. It won't miss you too much...

Adios, Michael Clark

If you'd like to check out Nevada or Jamey's work here are their websites:


Matt Lew
2007-07-16 02:58:07
I reckon Dodging and Burning is a pretty big advantage of Photoshop as well for those of us who like to make a lot of black and white photo's. Of course Lightroom can do something similar with the highlights and shadows but the selective dodging and burning is something I quite like about photoshop. (Unless there is a way for me to do this in Lightroom and I just haven't found it yet.
Dave Kosiur
2007-07-16 09:16:17
I second what Matt said. Photoshop offers much more flexibility in terms of selective editing than Lightroom does. That may not be needed for evrey photo I edit, but I find myself using Photoshop to tweak photos frequently, even after the basic editing stages in Lightroom. I tell my friends who ask about Lightroom vs Photoshop that: "if you can deal with only editing the entire image, use Lightroom; if you need selective edits and layers, then use Photoshop."
Michael Clark
2007-07-16 09:19:21
I guess I should have added to my blog post that I find both Photoshop and Lightroom essential for working up images. In the post I was comparing which software was easier for certain shooting styles in regards to the RAW processing.
2007-07-16 09:52:26
I agree that importing lots of images to Lightroom can take a little time, but once they are in there you can make that time up and more. The ability to synchronise WB, Tone adjustments, spot removal etc to all photos from the same shoot is priceless.
stefano giovannini
2007-07-16 13:31:52
I am mostly happy with the Lightroom workflow. although I otice sometimes slowdowns. I have about 15000 images - I could ass 20000 older JPGs. the issue is Keeping a huge catalog or multiple catalogs [I keep each year on a portable USB2 hard drive that gets backed up on a large 500GB desktop drive].
I could keep separate working catalogs and work/edit on those and then create a huge catalog to use just to search files?
I wonder what happens when we will have an archive of 100,000 images in a few years. I wonder what are the best options to use Lightroom with 50,000 files. other people's impressions?
Michael Clark
2007-07-16 13:38:58
Stefano -

Running your Lightroom Catalog from a USB 2.0 drive will massively slow down Lightroom as will having over 10,000 images in the catalog. Using multiple catalogs will help but is a pain I realize. Look at my previous post (a while ago) about how to speed up Lightroom - this might help you out.

Tim Sewell
2007-07-16 13:48:46
You don't use a drill to hammer a nail in and you don't try to cut wood with a glue gun.
stefano giovannini
2007-07-16 16:33:00
thanks for the reply. A Macbook is my main computer. I like to work on a laptop in different places. I upgraded the HD myself to 160 GB. I need to find a system that lets me travel light and work in the field.
I wonder if i could fit all these catalogs on the Macbook. I could keep the photos on the portable drives and the catalogs on my internal hard drive. I could also move them to my internal drive when I need them. or use a huge catalog with no preview to search for the images. My cirrent catalog that includes half of 2006 and 2007 is about 17k images. I started shooting raw in 2007. so 9000 are JPGs. the LR catalog file is 600MB and the previews 7 GB. I can't fit all the old images on my Macbook. so I carry when i travel or want to work in a cafe mobile drives with everything. I do not like the idea of traveling with a big drive that i need to plug to the wall. I use that for backup. what would be your strategy?
do you think firewire makes a difference?
Anyway - I may be able to fit for now a catalog of all the images on my Macbook. but would be bettter to do a new catalog every 10,000 images to keep LR faster?