Adobe Lightroom 3 vs Photoshop CS5. Which to Buy?

by Alan Haynes / PhotoCitizen on December 3, 2010

Every photographer should own Lightroom. Period. If you’re not using Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 3, you’re missing the boat. Read on to find out why Lightroom should be part of your photographic toolbox.

Introducing Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 3

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 3 vs Photoshop CS5 Which is betterWhat can Lightroom do better than Photoshop? I already own Adobe Photoshop CS5, why do I need Lightroom? I’m upgrading from Photoshop Elements (or Apple’s iPhoto), should I buy Lightroom or Photoshop?

These are questions I hear regularly from fellow photographers. Lightroom and Photoshop are both excellent programs. If you can afford it, buy both.

Adobe Photoshop CS5 vs Lightroom 3 ComparisonIf you’re not so flush with cash, buy Lightroom 3. It’s designed to handle everything a photographer needs to do on a daily basis. Photoshop, on the other hand was designed for visual artists of all kinds. That’s why it has so many tools that photographers never use: animation, 3D, typography tools and the like.

While the software’s official name is Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 3, in this article I’ll simply call it Lightroom or Lightroom 3. So, if I mention Photoshop, I’m referring to Adobe Photoshop CS5.

Keep an eye on for more in-depth articles on Lightroom. If you don’t want to miss anything, you can subscribe for free.

Lightroom 3 vs. Photoshop CS5: What Lightroom Does Better

Non-Destructive Editing in Lightroom 3

Lightroom’s primary advantage over Photoshop is that Lightroom uses non-destructive editing. In a nutshell, when you process an image in Lightroom, the original image is never altered.

Lightroom 3 vs Photoshop CS5 compared

Lightroom Library Module

In Photoshop, common practice is to always work on a duplicate of the original. Photoshop uses destructive editing, so working on the original risks altering it permanently.

Usually, you’ll save this duplicate as a native Photoshop .psd file. You’ll use the .psd file as a working copy to create alternate versions of your image. With this workflow, you end up with at least three different large files stored on your computer: the original raw or jpeg file, the .psd, and the final JPEG or TIF file.

These duplicate images eat up a lot of hard drive space. My Nikon D300 produces raw files averaging 12 megabytes in file size. If I process one of these in Photoshop, the duplicate image will also be about 12 MB for a total of 24MB. If I create several layers in Photoshop, the resulting .psd file can easily exceed 20MB. Creating a JPEG from this file will use even more space.

Adobe Lightroom 3 vs Photoshop CS5 Comparison - virtual copy

Virtual Copies

Processing the same 12MB raw file in Lightroom adds only a few additional kilobytes to my hard drive. Instead of storing a duplicate image, Lightroom stores only a small file of instructions which it uses to recreate your adjustments every time it displays the image. These files average 15 kilobytes in size (a kilobyte is 1/1000th of a megabyte) and they are created behind the scenes: you’ll never see them or even know they exist unless you go looking for them outside of Lightroom.

By eliminating the need for duplicate images, Lightroom offers several important advantages over Photoshop:

  1. Your hard drive won’t fill up so fast.
  2. You can make as many versions of your original as you want without taking up much space. Lightroom calls these alternate versions virtual copies
  3. You won’t have several separate image files representing different versions of your photos to keep track of.
  4. You can re-process the image – or instantly reset the image to remove all adjustments – at any time without any loss of quality.

Lightroom treats virtual copies as if they were separate images. It will show them on your screen as separate images and they can be organized individually if you’d like. So, for example, you might process one copy for use on your website and another to make a print and you don’t need to be concerned that adjustments to one copy might affect the other.

Image Organization: Lightroom vs. Adobe Bridge

If you’ve been using Photoshop’s companion program, Adobe Bridge, to import and organize your images, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Lightroom’s Library module will knock your socks off.

Adobe Lightroom 3 vs Photoshop CS5 Comparison - metadata panel

Lightroom Metadata

Bridge was designed primarily as a media manager to allow different Adobe software to work together. Using Bridge, a file created in Illustrator, for example, can easily be located and incorporated into a Photoshop image or Dreamweaver website. Lightroom, on the other hand, was designed from the ground up as an image management tool for photographers.

Both Bridge and Lightroom allow you to do some common tasks such as importing images from your camera and adding color labels and star ratings. They both let us add keywords and view image EXIF and other metadata. But Lightroom does it so much better! And Lightroom includes organizational features not available in Bridge.

The primary difference between Lightroom and Bridge is that Bridge is a file browser while Lightroom is a database.

Lightroom stores image thumbnails and data about images – such as keywords and ratings – in its own database which is called a catalog. (Lightroom’s preferences can be set to store this data in the image file as well, so that other programs – such as Bridge or Photoshop – can read it.)

In Bridge, you must navigate to the folder you want to work on and wait while Bridge reads the image data and creates temporary thumbnails for you to view. If the folder contains a lot of raw files, this can take quite a while.

In Lightroom, once the image has been imported, the data stays in the catalog and is read instantly when the image is displayed. This makes the job of editing the day’s photos or searching for images very quick compared to Bridge.

The more images you have on your computer, the more you’ll appreciate this speed advantage. I have nearly 60,000 images stored on several hard drives and cataloged in Lightroom. To manage these in Bridge would be a chore. Lightroom makes it easy.

Adobe Lightroom 3 vs Photoshop CS5 Comparison - text filter

Lightroom Search

When searching for an image, Bridge slows things to a crawl. Suppose you want to find all of the images containing a specific keyword. You’d have to search each hard drive independently and, if you have 60,000 images, that search will take up a good part of your day. If you keep images on a removable hard drive, you’ll have to make sure it’s attached to the computer before you can search it.

With Lightroom, you can search its entire database including all of your external hard drives in almost no time. If the image is located on an external drive that is not currently attached, Lightroom will still find it and display its stored thumbnail. If you want to work on that image, it will even tell you the name of the hard drive to plug in.

As an experiment, I searched my main hard drive for all of my images containing the word “California.” I have over 23,000 images of California, so I expected this to take a while. But Bridge was so slow, that I gave up after 10 minutes. Lightroom found all the files in about 5 seconds.

To be fair, Adobe Bridge CS5 does include an indexing feature. Files viewed in Bridge are added to the index. Searching non-indexed files takes a lot longer than searching those already in the index, but even then, it is slower and less elegant than Lightroom.

Image Processing for Raw and JPEG

The image adjustments and processing that we photographers need to do every day can all be accomplished in Lightroom’s Develop module. Here’s what you can adjust without ever leaving Lightroom:

    • Cropping – including rotation and leveling of horizons.
Adobe Lightroom 3 vs Photoshop CS5 Comparison - develop module

Develop Module

  • Spot removal.
  • Red-eye removal.
  • Add a gradient filter – similar to using a graduated filter on your lens but much more powerful.
  • Local adjustments via the Adjustment Brush – manually apply seven different adjustments to small areas of your image including exposure, saturation and more.
  • Curves and levels via the sophisticated Tone Curve panel.
  • White balance.
  • Exposure – including auto-exposure if you prefer.
  • Color – adjust overall saturation and vibrance or saturation, luminance and hue of individual colors.
  • Convert to black-and-white with full control over the color mix to alter dark and light areas. Use the Adjustment Brush to dodge and burn.
  • Split toning – apply one color to shadows and another to highlights for a duotone effect.
  • Sharpening.
  • Noise reduction.
  • Correct lens distortions – Lightroom includes profiles for many different lenses so this can be done automatically. Or do it manually.
  • Vignetting – correct lens vignetting or add it for creative effect.
  • Correct color aberration such as purple fringing around edges.
  • Add film grain.

Lightroom 3 includes dozens of presets allowing you to instantly create all sorts of color and black-and-white effects – or create and save your own presets.

If you have a bunch of images that all need the same processing – say some images that were all captured using the wrong white balance setting – you can correct one and easily apply that same correction to every other image with a few mouse clicks.

Other Lightroom 3 Features

Lightroom is made up of five modules. I’ve already mentioned the Library and the Develop modules. The others are:

Lightroom 3 vs Adobe Photoshsop CS5 comparison - web module

Web Module

  • Slideshow – create a simple slideshow with music that can be viewed in Lightroom or saved as a video file.
  • Print – use layout templates to print single images or picture packages with multiple images on one sheet or create your own layouts. Printing from Lightroom is a heck of a lot easier than Photoshop – and the colors are just as accurate.
  • Web – choose from a slew of web gallery templates (both HTML and Flash) to create sophisticated photo albums for your website and upload them directly from Lightroom.

Other important features of Lightroom 3 include:


Adobe Lightroom 3 vs Photoshop CS5 Compared - Collections


Collections. Group images located anywhere on your computer into a pseudo-folder without making another copy so that one click can display them all at once. Remember when we shot slides and we’d cross reference them in a card catalog so that we could locate that slide by location or by subject matter? A collection is like a digital card catalog. It points you to the image, but doesn’t actually contain the image. I use this to group my best images from each day’s shooting. You can also create Smart Collections which will automatically add images to the collection when they match certain rules that you’ve set such as those containing a certain keyword or star rating.

Publish Services. This is new to Lightroom 3. Lightroom can communicate with SmugMug, Flickr, Facebook and other online photo sharing sites so that you can upload images directly from Lightroom and any changes made online are automatically added to your Lightroom catalog. So, if someone comments on your Flickr photo, the comment can be stored in Lightroom along with the photo. You can upload to other sites using third-party plugins which are often free or low-cost.

Export. If you do need to make real copies of your images – as opposed to virtual copies – Lightroom includes several presets to create and save copies on the fly. Plus, you can make your own. Suppose you need to make small JPEG images for use on a projector. I made a preset to do just that which creates a JPEG at 100% quality, sets the color space to sRGB, resizes the image to no more than 1200 pixels wide, sharpens it for the screen, and saves it in my desired folder. To use it, I just select a group of images, select the preset and click Export. Easy!

Watermarks. If you like to add watermarks to your images before putting them on the web or when printing proofs for your clients, Lightroom’s sophisticated watermarking panel (available in the Slideshow, Print and Web modules) is right up your alley. Add text or graphic watermarks.

Lightroom 3 vs. Photoshop CS5: What Photoshop Does Better

If Lightroom is so good, why would any photographer want to own Photoshop? If you like to create composites, remove things from your photos (such as the dead tree trunk in the foreground that you didn’t notice until now), make painterly images, add text or create logos and other graphics for your website, you’ll need Photoshop.

Lightroom doesn’t do layers, selections or text. Not yet anyway. I predict that in some future edition, Lightroom will offer at least simplified layer and selection tools and maybe some text features too.

Adobe Lightroom 3 vs Photoshop CS5 Compared - Edit in Photoshop

Edit in Photoshop

If you own both Lightroom and Photoshop, they work seamlessly together. Click on an image and choose “Edit in Photoshop” to open the image in Photoshop. Lightroom automatically creates a new Photoshop .psd file which is a copy of your original image, adds it to your Lightroom catalog and opens it in Photoshop.

Once you’ve completed your work in Photoshop, close the image and the changes are saved in Lightroom. This does create a second file, but there’s no avoiding it: that’s the way Photoshop works. Once you’re back in Lightroom, you can further refine the image with Lightroom’s tools.


Adobe Lightroom 3 has become the de facto standard in image management. Third-party support in the form of Lightroom plugins is growing all the time. No other image management software has this level of support from software developers large and small.

Compared to Photoshop, Lightroom 3 is cheap. As of July, 2011, the price for the full version of Lightroom 3 is hovering around $250at both Amazon and Adorama.  By comparison, the full version of Photoshop CS5 costs over $600 at both Adorama and Amazon.

And don’t forget the expense of keeping your software up to date. The last Lightroom update from version 2 to version 3, cost $99 from Adobe and about $95 from Adorama. Photoshop CS5 upgrades, on the other hand, cost around $190.

If you’re in a hurry, click here to download Lightroom 3 directly from It costs only a few dollars more than ordering the boxed version from an online retailer, and you don’t have to wait for delivery.

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