Have you ever felt that your photograph doesn’t resemble the beauty you experienced while capturing it? Do you feel like you’ve failed to eternalize the magical moment and instead are left with a boring image?

Post-production is an important step in most photographer’s workflow. What many beginners fail to realize is that in most cases you don’t need to make big adjustments in order to take an image from normal to stunning.

The amount of processing varies on your personal style and it goes without saying that some photographers spend much more time in the digital darkroom than others but let’s not get into the neverending to edit or not to edit discussion in this article; let’s rather look at the two most used software for image-processing.

Which one is best for you? Photoshop or Lightroom?

Do you need to process your images?

Post-processing has always been a huge part of photography. Even pioneers such as Ansel Adams spent hours processing his images to perfection in the darkroom.

Dodging and burning are steps to take care of mistakes God made in establishing tonal relationships.

– Ansel Adams

When it comes to talking about processing images, I think it’s important to see the difference between processing and manipulating. When I talk about processing images I refer to correcting color balance, increasing contrast and other adjustments that help represent what you witnessed while capturing it.

Manipulating is when you take a step further by adding or removing elements in addition to the adjustments above. This can include focal blending, sky swapping, removing large distracting elements or adding objects that weren’t originally there.

I’d argue that for most processing is essential for 95% of your images. An image can be excellent straight out of the camera but the camera isn’t always able to properly represent the colors and contrast as you saw them. It’s also likely that you’re not seeing the same amount of details in both the highlights and shadows. This is easy to fix and by applying a few simple adjustments, you’ll take a standard image and make it beautiful.

What is Adobe Photoshop?

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Photoshop is one of the most comprehensive image-editing software on the market. It was originally created as a simple photo editing software in 1988 but has since grown to become the most popular software among photographers and designers, as well as architectures, publishers and 3d artists.

The list of features and possibilities in Photoshop is too long to include here but it’s fair to say that there are few things that are not possible. If there’s something you can’t do, there is probably is more than one plugin you can install for that exact reason.

Photoshop allows you to do anything from simple adjustments such as contrast and saturation to advanced techniques such as blending multiple images for better dynamic range, focus stacking or using luminosity masks for selective editing.

Be warned though; it is an advanced tool that might scare you away at first glance. But, just as any other software, it isn’t that hard to use when you get to know the layout and the functions. That being said, I doubt that there are many people out there who know Photoshop to it’s fullest, as you have unlimited opportunities.

What is Adobe Lightroom?

Adobe Lightroom, or Adobe Photoshop Lightroom as it is formally named, is just like Photoshop a software designed for processing images. However, it is a much simpler tool to use as it’s main purpose is processing and organizing photography, not anything else.

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Lightroom works as an all-in-one photography package; in addition to being a RAW editor, it also offers an easy way to organize your images.

Personally, the Library module was my main reason to start using Lightroom. Being able to organize images by using folders, rating systems, color codes, keywords and edit images in the same place is a great timesaver. It is simply too time-consuming to go through all the files on your hard drive to locate the one you’d like to open in another editor.

Another great function with Lightroom is the possibility to sync images. This is great when editing a series of images where the style of processing remains the same; rather than manually edit all the images, you edit the first and sync the rest.

Lightroom features

The list of features in Adobe Lightroom is a lot shorter than Photoshop but it’s still long. I won’t mention all of them but here is a list of the relevant features for processing your images with the Develop Module:

  • Histogram Sub-Module: Histogram, Crop Overlay, Spot Removal, Red Eye Correction, Graduated Filter, Radial Filter, Adjustment Brush
  • Basic Sub-Module: White Balance Temperature and Tint, Exposure, Contrast, Highlights, Shadows, Whites Blacks, Clarity, Vibrance, Saturation
  • Tone Curve Sub-Module: Highlights, Lights, Darks, Shadows, Point Curve
  • HSL / Color / B&W Sub-Module: Hue, Saturation, Luminance
  • Split Toning Sub-Module: Highlights; Hue & Saturation –  Balance – Shadows; Hue & Saturation
  • Detail Sub-Module: Sharpening; Amount, Radius, Detail, Masking – Noise Reduction; Luminance, Detail, Contrast, Color, Detail, Smoothness
  • Lens Corrections Sub-Module: Profile Corrections, Chromatic Aberration, Constrain Crop
  • Effects Sub-Module: Post-Crop Vignetting Style; Amount, Midpoint, Roundness, Feather, Highlights – Grain; Amount, Size, Roughness – Dehaze; Amount
  • Camera Calibration Sub-Module: Process, Profile, Shadows Tint, Red Primary; Hue, Saturation – Green Primary; Hue, Saturation – Blue Primary; Hue, Saturation

I chose not to make a list like the one above for Photoshop, as that would probably fill a book.

What should you choose? Photoshop or Lightroom?

All the information above is definitely good to know but you might be asking yourself which one to choose? On one hand, you have an extremely powerful tool with a steep learning curve, while on the other hand, you have a simpler software that’s more limited with possibilities.

Let me try to help you make the right choice so you don’t have to grow any more grey hair taking the decision…

I recommend that beginning photographers start with Adobe Lightroom. It is much easier to learn and while it is more limited, most of these limitations are regarding to manipulating an image rather than correcting color and contrast. Here are a few key reasons why you should start focusing on Lightroom:

  • It’s easier to learn than Adobe Photoshop
  • You can use it as a library for your images
  • It doesn’t edit the original file but a mirrored version inside the software, meaning that the original file stored on your hard drive remains unaltered. In other words, you don’t need to be afraid of ruining the file!
  • The Lightroom workflow is non-destructive
  • Most of the adjustments you want to apply can be done here

If you consider yourself an experienced amateur or professional I recommend that you also invest time to learn Adobe Photoshop; it’s simply the most powerful software available. Even though you don’t need to spend hours in Photoshop processing an image, there are a few techniques you should learn. Here are some benefits of adding Photoshop to your workflow:

  • It’s better when it comes to selective adjustments
  • The Content Aware and spot removal tools are significantly better
  • Layers & Masks allow for more flexibility
  • You can increase the file quality by applying techniques such as focus stacking

The good news is that you don’t need to purchase the individual software anymore. Adobe CC offers a package specifically made for photographers that includes both Lightroom and Photoshop. The investment is at roughly $10 a month and is in my eyes well worth it. Even if you choose to start by learning Lightroom it’s good to know that you can start exploring Photoshop at any time too.