Photoshop vs Lightroom: When and Why to Use Each Program

Photoshop and Lightroom are both image editing programs created by Adobe, so it can be confusing to figure out which one you want to use. Many people consider Adobe the gold standard for all kinds of digital editing, but how do you know which tool is best for the kind of work you want to do?


There’s certainly a lot of crossover between the capabilities of photoshop and those of Lightroom, but that’s to be expected of any two programs that serve the same general purpose; they are not by any means interchangeable. If you’re feeling a little lost, you can use this guide to help you understand the programs better and decide which one you want to get started with.


What is Photoshop?

Photoshop is probably the most well-known image editor out there, and it’s been one of the industry standards for fields like graphic design, animation, and photography for a long time. It’s been around since 1988, but its capabilities have seen some massive upgrades since then. 


We refer to programs like Photoshop as “pixel-level editors”, because they work directly on the pixels of an image. This makes them powerful, but it can also make them risky if you don’t know what you’re doing. Non-destructive editors, on the other hand, store edits as “instructions”; what you see is changed, but the original file is preserved underneath. It’s sort of like erasing something from paper vs putting a piece of correction tape over it.


What is Lightroom?

Lightroom is a much newer tool, with initial releases in 2007 (Adobe Lightroom Classic) and 2017 (Adobe Lightroom), but it’s still in the running for people’s favorite editing software. Despite having been around for half as long as Photoshop, it’s considered to be at the same level, just with a different set of specialties.


Unlike Photoshop, which focuses on raw editing power, Lightroom has a lot of features dedicated to workflow. It’s as much a photo organizing and management tool as a photo editing tool. It also uses non-destructive editing, so there’s no need to save new, permanently altered photos; Lightroom just hangs on to your edits as instructions inside the program.


When to Use Photoshop

There are lots of times when you could feasibly use either Photoshop or Lightroom, making it a matter of personal preference, so for the purposes of objective comparison, we’ll focus on the situations where you really need to use one or the other. You should use Photoshop when:

  • You need precise control. Thanks to the pixel-level editing we mentioned earlier, Photoshop does have more powerful retouching capabilities than Lightroom. This means that you can do some serious image manipulation that just isn’t possible in Lightroom.
  • You’re combining photos. You need a powerful editor like Photoshop to create composite images out of multiple photos. It’s also easier to seamlessly turn multiple photos into one panorama image with Photoshop than with Lightroom.
  • You’re creating something surreal. If your photos are just the foundation you use for digital visual art, then you’ll need Photoshop to take them the rest of the way. You can add impossible elements or dramatically manipulate your photos for a specific creative effect using some of the tools in Photoshop.

When to Use Lightroom

By the same token, there are situations where Lightroom is objectively the superior program. You should use Lightroom when:

  • You’re dealing with a lot of photos at once. While Photoshop works on one image at a time, Lightroom is specifically designed to help you organize huge sets of photos. You can do things like tag photos with keywords and give them ratings, to make it easier to find the exact photo you need or the best shots from an entire session. Lightroom also lets you make “batch edits”, so that you can apply the same enhancements to a set of similar photos.
  • You want flexibility. Lightroom is a non-destructive editor, so the original image is saved as you work on it, and so are the previous rounds of edits. This means you’ll never be stuck with changes you don’t like, whether they were made by you or by a collaborator on a team project.
  • You’re a beginner. Lightroom is “safer” than Photoshop, thanks to non-destructive editing, and the UI is much more straightforward. If you’re new to editing, or if you have some experience but not with Adobe, then it will probably be easier for you to pick up Lightroom than Photoshop. It’s also not likely that you’ll really need Photoshop’s advanced tools as a beginner; if you’re a relatively new photographer just looking to touch up some images, Lightroom is going to be the most efficient way to do so.

Level Up Your Editing

We’ve been talking about this as an either-or choice, but it’s time to let you in on a secret: many people use both programs! Of course, it’s not necessary, and depending on your creative goals, you might never encounter a situation where you would really benefit from using both. 


However, if you ever find yourself working on a project that requires the workflow of Lightroom and the advanced manipulation of Photoshop, it’s pretty easy to use the two together. After all, they’re both made by Adobe, and they expect (maybe even hope) that people will take this route. You can pass edited photos between the programs pretty easily, and Adobe offers both as part of their “photo plan” subscription option.


You can also make your editing process more efficient with the use of presets. This takes the bulk of the work out of finding the right vibe for your images so that you can focus on adjusting the details to make them exactly how you want them to be.


Looking for even more ways to step up your editing game? Consider taking a course to learn more about using Lightroom, getting the most out of your presets, and other skills that are essential to being a successful photographer. 

My Lightroom Secrets course was literally designed to teach all of this and more, and includes over 55 editing videos and 48 Lightroom lessons that cover everything from the fundamentals and beyond!

Looking for more free editing resources? Check out some of my other recent blog posts below:

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