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.

Support PhotoCitizen: If you buy via one of the links on this page, you’ll be supporting at no additional cost to you. Thanks.

Questions? Please leave a comment below.

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1 John Porter February 11, 2011 at 10:16 pm

I am 63 and a relatively new digital SLR guy. I have Elements 8 and the instructor told about Lightroom… but I didn’t really understand the explanation. You sealed the deal for me. Great simple explanation! I can get it at the Schoolcraft College Bookstore for $90. Thanks again. John

2 Alan Haynes / PhotoCitizen February 16, 2011 at 2:55 pm

Hi John,

I think you’ll love Lightroom. And you can set up Elements 8 as an external editor, so that you can send your images to Elements the same way that I described editing in Photoshop.



3 greg February 19, 2011 at 11:54 am

thanks Alan… I have 11000 photos in iPhoto and have been very unhappy with it… I will be getting Lightroom pronto after reading this article..

4 Alan Haynes / PhotoCitizen February 19, 2011 at 1:56 pm

Hi Greg,

I think you’ll find that Lightroom is far superior to iPhoto or any other image browser. Take a little time to learn how best to use it and I’m sure you’ll be hooked.



5 wilf February 23, 2011 at 2:46 am

Thanks Alan for the insight. I consider upgrading LR 2 and CS3. Big question: do you have only one catalog for all your pictures? otherwise you couldnt search all your images for a keword, as you described. (?) I have separate catalogs, because big catalogs get very slow. And of course I have many different categories. So if i want to find a picture, first i have to know in which catalog it is, and People/Landscapes/Travel… are kind of intersecting. That is my biggest issue with LR 2. I feel like i’m doing something wrong.
It’s like an additional step, organizing pics this way, feels like a detour to me, no direct access to my pictures.
I know Photographers who work with bridge CS5 for this very reason. All of the RAW processing and direct access to the pictures. I want to upgrade to CS5 basically for the content aware fill =). Now i love LR but still, i need reasons why LR offers less “workflowing time” over bridge, especially searchability/access. would appreciate any hints, thanks!

6 Alan Haynes / PhotoCitizen February 23, 2011 at 8:44 am

Hi Wilf,

Thanks for the excellent question. You’re right that searches (for keywords or anything else) can only be done in one catalog at a time. This is one problem I hope Adobe will eventually solve.

Except for a few small catalogs made specifically for certain projects, I do keep all of my images in one big Lightroom catalog. This main catalog currently contains 61,150 images – mostly Nikon .nef (raw) files. That’s 651GB of images in 4,055 folders.

Surprisingly, this large catalog is not slow. In Lightroom 3, it does take a while for all of my folders in the Folder panel to “light up” when I first open Lightroom. It takes 3 minutes and 50 seconds, on average, for the text on all the folder names to turn from light gray to white.

But, you don’t have to wait for that process to finish. I can open any folder and begin work immediately. I can also immediately do a keyword search and Lightroom 3 will find all of the appropriate images even if the folder they’re in hasn’t “lit up” yet.

Of course, your experience may differ depending on your computer. Mine runs 64-bit Windows 7 and has 8GB RAM, a 4-processor CPU and fast internal hard drives. For comparison, it takes about 1:50 to boot up my computer.

Here’s my advice: download the free 30-day trial of Lightroom 3 from Adobe. Import ALL of your photos into one big catalog. LR3 will update your catalog the first time you run it. This will be separate from your current catalogs, so you’ll still be able to use Lightroom 2 the way you are now. Back up your existing catalogs before you start, just in case. Then do some testing to determine if it’s fast enough on your computer.

Make sure you store your Lightroom catalog on the fastest hard drive available. This would usually be one inside your computer. USB 2 external drives are too slow. If you must use an external drive, make sure it connects via a faster method such as e-SATA, Firewire or the new USB 3. Store your photos on a fast drive too, if you can. It makes a difference.

Also, there is no reason you couldn’t use Bridge for some operations and Lightroom 3 for others. If you find that Bridge searches more quickly for you, use it for that one purpose and use Lightroom for everything else that it does better.

Leave another comment here and let me know how things worked out.


7 Mike Whittaker February 26, 2011 at 6:03 pm


Glad I read this…I have a question before I give this a try…Will I be able to bring files I created in Photoshop into Lightroom to print…I’ve been having a problem with colors printing acurately in PS CS5 and never had any problems in previous versions…I’ve read of others with similar problems and was wondering if Lightroom would solve that problem and would I be able to print from the trial version?
Thanks for the info on Lightroom…I learn much.


8 Alan Haynes / PhotoCitizen February 27, 2011 at 9:06 am

Hi Mike,

You can import any image format – including PSD – into Lightroom. Then use Lightroom’s Print module to print them. I find printing from Lightroom a lot easier than printing from Photoshop.

The trial version of Lightroom is unrestricted: anything you can do with the full version, you can do with the trial version. The only difference is that the trial stops working after 30 days. So, download the trial and try printing your files to see if you like the color any better.

Just make sure you choose the correct paper profile and rendering intent. All the printing settings are found in the Print Job subpanel which is at the bottom of the right-hand panel of the Print module.

Getting set up to print in Lightroom is a bit different than Photoshop, but once you get used to it, I think you’ll like it better. Lightroom’s Help file has a whole section on printing photos in case you need more details.

Good luck,


9 Wade March 1, 2011 at 2:08 pm


Thank you very much for this post. Was trying to figure out which product I needed, or if I needed both. Currently using Microsoft PictureIt! Photo 7.0 as a VERY amateur photgrapher, looking forward to doing much more with Lightroom. Was very confused until I found your post–you have enlightened me! 🙂


10 Wade March 1, 2011 at 2:10 pm

P.S. I’m going to share this post with my dad, who is new to the world of digitsal phot editing.

11 Alan Haynes / PhotoCitizen March 11, 2011 at 8:48 am


I think you’ll be glad you’ve switched to Lightroom. It’s a pro-level tool that can help you elevate your photography – no matter your current level.

Good Luck,


12 Ed Hopkins April 18, 2011 at 10:35 am

While Lightroom has become a necessary tool for my black and white art photography, at least for the small fraction of it that originates digitally. I nearly always find it difficult on an epic scale to find image files from within the software. I have no use for collections and don’t anticipate that I ever will, as I cannot imagine how that could ever have use for my work, and Lightroom seems to lack anything resembling a simple tree structure, like Windows Explorer, which would,for me make it many orders of magnitude easier to find images. There seems to be no logic whatsoever with regard to what is displayed by Lightroom. I thought that perhaps it most prominently showed recently opened folders; no such luck. Prominently displayed at the top of window are files I haven’t opened in at least 3 years, and likely will never access again, as they were legal evidence in a lawsuit long since settled. Is there an option for a simple tree structure display of the hard drive in question available within Lightroom and I’m just missing it? It would certainly simplify my life and greatly reduce periods of misery if that were the case! I appreciate any help you might have to give.

13 Alan Haynes / PhotoCitizen April 18, 2011 at 11:28 am

Hello Ed,

The Folders sub-panel on the left side of your Lightroom 3 screen displays folders in the tree structure you mention. You’ll only see it if you are in the Library module. If you’re in the Develop, Slideshow, Print or Web modules, it is not visible.

If the Folders sub-panel does not match the structure you see in Windows Explorer, it’s probably because you have images on your hard drive which have never been imported into Lightroom. Lightroom will only show folders containing images which have been imported.

The fix is to import the rest of your images into Lightroom. Then you’ll be able to navigate through image folders in the Folders sub-panel, the same way you would with Windows Explorer.

If you don’t see the Folders panel, make sure you’re in the Library module and that the left panel is visible (press F7 on your keyboard to toggle it). Then right-click anywhere in the left panel and make sure there is a check mark next to “Folders.” (If not, the Folders sub-panel is hidden from view.)

When you click on a folder name, Lightroom will show only the images in that folder. You can shift-click on multiple folders to see the contents of several folders at once.

Also take note of the “Sort:” dropdown menu in the Toolbar at the bottom of the thumbnails grid. You can sort your folder-full of images by file name, capture date and several other criteria.

If you don’t see the “Sort:” dropdown, press “t” on your keyboard to toggle the Toolbar open. If you still don’t see “Sort:” click on the downward-facing arrow at the right side of the Toolbar and make sure there is a check mark next to “Sorting.”

Hope this helps,


14 Ed Hopkins April 18, 2011 at 3:28 pm

Dear Alan,
Thank you so very much. That is the answer. You have just made a serious difference in my life, for those days spent working toward printable images, and I greatly appreciate it. I have asked this question before and have mostly gotten no response, or in a couple of cases, answers that I could not understand and that seemed so off-the-point that it was as though a different question had been asked. Thanks again!

15 Stephanie Dalman April 27, 2011 at 6:00 pm

Dear Alan,

I am an amateur photographer and have been working in Photoshop Elements 9. After reading this article I am very interested in getting Lightroom. However, my question is since Elements seems to function very similarly to CS5 would it be safe to just have Lightroom and Elements or is CS5 so different that it would be worth purchasing?



16 Alan Haynes / PhotoCitizen April 27, 2011 at 6:51 pm

Hi Steph,

Eventually, you’ll probably want to upgrade to Photoshop CS5, but unless you’ve just won the lottery, don’t spend the extra cash now. Use Lightroom for the things it does best – which is just about everything a photographer needs – and when you need layers, selections and other such tools, use Elements.


17 Jack Pal May 10, 2011 at 12:41 pm

I have ca 40K photos organized in PSE 8 in a very complex and complete catalog. Can you import this catalog or do you need to create a new one in LR3

18 Alan Haynes / PhotoCitizen May 13, 2011 at 11:12 am

Hello Jack,

As long as your photos are organized on your hard drive the way you want them, the Lightroom catalog will be organized the same way as your current Elements catalog. If you view your photos using Windows Explorer (or Mac Finder) without opening Elements, are the folders organized the way you want them?

If so, when you import your photos into Lightroom, choose the “Add” option rather than “Copy.” This will add your photos to Lightroom’s catalog without moving them and, in the process, keep the exact folder structure it finds on your hard drive.


19 Emily May 16, 2011 at 11:46 am

Loved your article! I currently use Apple’s Aperture 3 and have really enjoyed working with it. I am thinking about upgrading to Photoshop CS5, but when I heard about Lightroom 3 it caught my attention as well. My thought is though, that Lightroom 3 and Aperture 3 have many common features and I am not sure if I should make that purchase. What would you advise?
Thanks in advance!

20 Alan Haynes / PhotoCitizen May 18, 2011 at 9:19 am


Aperture is Mac-only software. Lightroom works on both Windows and Mac. For that reason, and more, I believe Lightroom will become the standard imaging software for digital photographers. Already, there are outside developers creating plugins for Lightroom to extend its capabilities – far more plugins than are available for Aperture.

You’re right that Aperture and Lightroom do a lot of the same things. You don’t need both. But unless Aperture is already deeply ingrained in your workflow, I’d suggest switching to Lightroom. You may not even need Photoshop.

Right now, Lightroom 3 is on sale at B&H Photo for only $179 through June 4, 2011. That’s $100 off the normal price. Here’s a link: Lightroom 3 for $179.

– Alan

21 Sarah May 19, 2011 at 6:07 am

I just received an email offer from Adobe to purchase Lightroom 3 for $99! Very exciting! I love it so far. I have yet to import my Elements 8 catalog, but I plan to do so soon. In the past, I send photos to MPIX for printing. How do I do this from Lightroom? Once I edit a photo in Lightroom, how do I locate this photo on my hard drive? Do I use the export function? Since Lightroom is non-destructive to your pics, I don’t quite understand how the LR edited photos are saved on the hard drive. I guess this is why I just ordered a book on LR3! But, I’d appreciate any comments you could provide! Thanks so much!!

22 Tim May 20, 2011 at 8:39 am

Hi Alan, thanks for the informative article. I currently have PSE 8, still learning it. One thing I am most interested in doing is learning to apply a gradient filter post-processing. Is Lightroom superior or more user friendly compared with PSE in this application?

23 Alan Haynes / PhotoCitizen May 23, 2011 at 1:38 pm

Hi Sarah,

To send images to Mpix or any other printing service, you simply use Lightroom’s EXPORT button. This will make a copy of your selected images and convert them to JPEG, or whatever other file type you need. It can also re-size them and make other “on-the-fly” adjustments if you’d like. You can export a batch of images in a few clicks. Then, you’d upload these images to Mpix.

For some printing services – Adoramapix, for example – there are Lightroom plugins available which will allow you to upload the photos directly from Lightroom and save a few steps. Here’s a link to the free Adoramapix plugin: Export to Adoramapix.

Other print services may also have plugins available, but apparently Mpix is not one of them. According to plugin developer, Jeffrey Friedl, “Mpix has made it clear that they do not want an uploader from Lightroom.”

For the second part of your question, the best answer is to always use Lightroom to locate and work on images. If for some reason, you DO need to find the image using Windows Explorer or the Mac Finder, you can right-click on the image in Lightroom and choose “Show in Explorer/Finder.” This will open the image in Windows Explorer or Mac Finder.

Lightroom stores the original, unaltered photo on your hard-drive along with a separate, small file of instructions on how to render it based on the adjustments you’ve made in Lightroom to color, cropping, etc. So, when you look at a photo in Lightroom, it first reads the image file, then the instruction file. It puts them together and shows you the adjusted image. All of this goes on behind the scenes, so all you’ll see is the adjusted image. If you make changes, Lightroom simply updates the instruction file. The original image is never altered: that’s non-destructive editing.

If you were to view the image outside of Lightroom, you would only see the original, unaltered image. When you export the image, then Lightroom makes a new file using all of your adjustments so that any other software can see the adjusted image.

Hope this helps,



24 Alan Haynes / PhotoCitizen May 23, 2011 at 1:45 pm

Hello Tim,

I haven’t used Elements much, but the gradient-filter tool in Lightroom 3 is very powerful. You can adjust the location and direction of the gradient and the size of the transition area. You can add multiple, independent gradients.

The gradient can affect not only exposure, but also saturation, sharpness, contrast and a few other adjustments. And, you can change the gradients settings on an image – or remove the gradient altogether – at any time without having to start over or make new copies of the image. I’m pretty sure Elements can’t do that.


25 Peg July 23, 2011 at 1:53 pm

In Photoshop, I can select a color (ie red of flower) or outline an area and made adjustments to those specific areas like increasing the saturation of a color, darkening/lightening, or reducing blur (moving whales in water). Which of those things can I do in Lightroom? I presently have CS2 but just bought a Canon Rebel ti3 so I need to either update my Photoshop and/or buy Lightroom. Please help

26 Alan Haynes / PhotoCitizen July 28, 2011 at 1:53 pm

Hello Peg,
For local adjustments of color, exposure, sharpening and such, Lightroom has a tool called the Adjustment Brush. Use it to “paint in” adjustments and simultaneously select an area. The adjustments applied to that selected area can be altered or added to later. You can have multiple adjustment areas. It’s quite powerful.

Since you need new software to process the raw files from your new Rebel camera, I’d suggest buying Lightroom 3. It works seamlessly with Photoshop – including CS2 – so you can use them both. I think that once you learn Lightroom, you’ll find yourself using Photoshop less.


27 Deborah Lowery August 7, 2011 at 12:54 pm

Hello Alan and thanks for your very informative and simply stated article. I have read through all of the comments as well and remain flummoxed as to a very basic idea – where do I download Lightroom to?? My Macbook Pro or to an external Gsafe firewire type hard drive? If I download Lightroom to my Macbook Pro, won’t that effectively keep all of my actual photos plus the Lightroom cataloguing information on my little laptop’s internal hard drive? I plan to back up photos to the Gsafe (a RAID protected system) as well as to an internet backup service, but was thinking that once I did that I would delete them from my laptop so as to lighten it’s load and speed it up. If I do that, how would Lightroom function without my actual photos IN it?

Thanks for suffering my admittedly non-computer savvy query!

28 Alan Haynes / PhotoCitizen August 8, 2011 at 9:16 am

Hi Deborah,

You’ll want to install the Lightroom software on the drive that holds all of your other software. The Lightroom installer will do this automatically.

When it comes to creating your Lightroom catalogs and storing your photos, you do have choices. Personally, I keep my catalog on one hard drive and my photos on another. With the Lightroom software on yet another drive, that makes a total of three drives that I use to run Lightroom – not counting backup drives.

Be careful about deleting photos or moving them from your laptop to the external hard drive. Make sure you use Lightroom to do this. Otherwise it will lose track of the images and you won’t be able to do much with them. If your images are on an external drive that is not plugged in, you can still view the images, but you won’t be able to process them until you plug the hard drive in.

Your best bet is to move all the images to your external drive BEFORE creating your catalog. As you upload new images, store them on the external drive as well. This will keep Lightroom happy and your laptop’s hard drive clean.

Hope this helps,


29 Marty Rosenzweig August 8, 2011 at 2:56 pm

Hi Alan,
Very informative article. I understand “noise reduction” is much improved in LR3. However, do do consider it as good as PS plug-ins like Neat Image, Noise Ninja, Topaz, etc? I’m aware that NR programs are more or less successful, depending on the noise “problem”, i.e., no one program is best for every type of noise problem but, in general, what do you think? I’m shooting with a Panasonic FZ100 which has known issues with its sensor, so NR of RAW is of special interest to me. The trial copy of Neat Image is pretty impressive but would be more than the price of LR3 (teacher edition). I’m still using PS 7…no, really…and don’t want to spend the cash to upgrade.



30 Deborah Lowery August 8, 2011 at 3:54 pm


Thanks so much for your response. One item to clarify: you said to “make sure to use LR to move the photos to the external hard drive” but then later said to “move your photos to the external hard drive before creating your LR catalog.” These seem to conflict – can you help clarify the order of things for me?

My understanding is that I need to (1) download LR to my laptop’s internal hard drive, where all my other software is located, (2) put the photos that I have on my internal hard drive under “pictures” (as well as photos I have in iphoto and photo mechanic) all into LR for cataloguing, then (3) move all of these photos, which have now been catalogued and identified in LR, as well as the catalogue itself, to my portable external hard drive (if I want the photos and catalogue housed together on the same drive) and just to finish this process right (4) back up my portable external hard drive to my separate external hard drive (G Safe) that has it’s own power source other than my computer, and possibly (5) sign up for a cloud or internet back up service. As you can see, I’ve been reading! I’m a bit nervous about embarking on this without screwing it up!!

31 Alan Haynes / PhotoCitizen August 10, 2011 at 6:47 am


If you’re concerned about noise, you should be capturing raw images with your FZ100. That will give you a lot more flexibility in reducing noise in post processing.

Since the FZ100 is a relatively new camera, I doubt that Photoshop 7 will be able to process raw images from the FZ100. So, if you don’t want to upgrade to the latest version of Photoshop, you’ll need Lightroom to do the raw conversion.

Lightroom 3’s noise reduction works well to reduce noise throughout an image. The only other noise reduction software I’ve used is Nik Dfine. It has the advantage of what they call “control points” which can be used to modify small parts of an image. This could be useful if some parts of your image need more noise reduction help than others. But you can do similar local adjustments for noise in Photoshop.

Panasonic also ships their cameras with their own proprietary software called “SilkyPix.” On my old Panasonic Lumix LX-1, I found this software did the best job of reducing noise. However, the old version of SilkyPix was very difficult to use. Maybe newer versions are better.

I suggest downloading the trial version of Lightroom and trying it out on your images. For images that need extra help, open them in Photoshop directly from Lightroom. If that still doesn’t work for you, then you might need to invest in additional noise reduction software.


32 Alan Haynes / PhotoCitizen August 10, 2011 at 6:55 am


Sorry for the confusion. What I would do is to move all of my images to the external drive before I created my first Lightroom catalog.

Once the catalog is created, any moving of files from one folder to another or from one drive to another MUST be done in Lightroom. If you use the Mac Finder, for example, to move them, then Lightroom will not know where they are and you’ll have to manually tell Lightroom where to find the new folders. This can sometimes be a very long process.

So, reverse your steps number 2 and 3: Move the photos first (using the Finder or whatever software you’ve been using to move files), then import them into a new catalog.


33 Deborah Lowery August 10, 2011 at 5:40 pm

Thank you very much! This is very helpful.

34 Melissa T. August 17, 2011 at 8:55 pm

Alan, Thank you for summing up so many questions that I have spent weeks researching, you just cleared up in a great form. I am upgrading to the new MacBook Pro 17, shoot with a Canon 7D, and I really thought I was set on buys the new Photoshop CS5 Student/Teacher Edition because with two students in my home it can be purchased for $199 and it is the full program through Adobe or third party retailer. I mainly shoot newborns, weddings, and sporting events. Do you think I should go with Lightroom 3 and CS5 or just the Lightroom 3. Also curious to know what has been your most reliable external drive to store such large libraries on? Thanks again for not only your article but your willings to give of yourself and help so many others.

35 Alan Haynes / PhotoCitizen August 22, 2011 at 3:53 pm

Hi Melissa,
I’d recommend Lightroom 3. Photoshop will allow you to do more manipulation using layers, masking and such, but most photos don’t need that much processing. You can add Photoshop later if you find that you need it.

I don’t have any specific recommendations for external hard drives. I have used mostly Western Digital or Seagate drives. The key thing is to get one that uses a fast interface such as Firewire. Stay away from USB 2: it’s too slow. USB 3 would be fine, but I don’t think the Mac supports it.


36 Kenn Ashley August 30, 2011 at 12:21 pm

I enjoyed the stream of Q&A’s and I learned a lot. Here are my issues. I am a Mac user and purchased Elements 9 this Spring before leaving on vacation. Once I loaded the images into the Organizer, I began cropping, editing, straightening, enhancing colors, etc and then saving in JPEG. Unfortunately, I did not save a duplicate copy before starting on my editing adventure. Now I have “cool” pictures that are too large to upload; many are in the range of 30 to 50 mg. I have no idea how to reduce the size so I can upload them to web albums. My questions are: What do I do next on resizing? Would Lightroom 3 or CS 5 be a better software to use? Can Lightroom 3 and Elements 9 be used side by side or if I purchase either Lightroom 3 or CS5 should I delete Elements 9?

Thank you for your help.


37 Alan Haynes / PhotoCitizen September 5, 2011 at 2:16 pm

Hi Kenn,

Adobe Photoshop Elements has a resizing option built in. In Elements 9 for Windows, you go to the IMAGE menu, choose RESIZE and then choose IMAGE SIZE. The Mac version undoubtedly has the same feature, although it may be located in a different menu.

The other option is to use SAVE FOR WEB which is located under the FILE menu. It’s designed for just the task you’re trying to accomplish. It might not work very quickly with 50MB images though.

Lightroom 3 will easily handle large images and can automate the resizing via its Export window. I’ll have an article about Lightroom’s Export window online today or tomorrow, so check back for more information on that subject. Or click the subscribe link at the top right of my website.

You can have all three programs on your computer – Elements 9, Photoshop CS5 and Lightroom 3 – so no need to delete Elements 9. If you buy Lightroom, you probably won’t need to buy Photoshop CS5 since you can open images into Elements directly from Lightroom the same way you could if you had Photoshop CS5 installed.

Hope this helps,

38 stan shikatani September 25, 2011 at 4:23 pm

I’ve been using photoshop cs4 to convert my seriou work to B+W.
I would like to upgrade to cs5 but the cost is prohibitve.
What do you think of Lightroom for B+W.
Appreciate your opinion.

39 Alan Haynes / PhotoCitizen September 26, 2011 at 1:58 pm

Hello Stan,

For black-and-white conversions, Lightroom 3 is my first choice. Lightroom’s “Color Mix” sliders allow you to easily emphasize specific areas of a black-and-white image. The Adjustment Brush makes dodging and burning easy. There are also several excellent presets available to apply various black-and-white conversions – and you can save your own presets. I think it beats Photoshop hands-down.


40 Shreyans October 2, 2011 at 11:42 pm

That’s exactly what I was looking for. A clear distinction between PS & LR. I can now easily decide on LightRoom.


41 Nancy F October 31, 2011 at 9:23 pm

Thanks very much for this review. I have been using various versions of Photoshop for years, and lately have been agonizing over whether to buy the latest Photoshop or Lightroom. Your review clearly explains what each does, the differences, and how they work together. Now I can make an informed decision!

42 Alan Haynes / PhotoCitizen November 1, 2011 at 5:21 am

Shreyans and Nancy,

I’m glad you found the article useful. I’ll be writing more about Lightroom 3 – and 4, whenever that comes out (next year, maybe?) – so stay tuned.


43 Justin November 11, 2011 at 8:22 pm

Thank you for this review. I found it very helpful in my decision making process. I have some questions about Lightroom vs. cs5. My first is that by being a student I can get Lightroom for $90 and cs5 for $199, so should I just start with Lightroom and upgrade later to cs5 if I feel I need it or should I buy both? My second question is about external plug-ins. It appears that their are some that I would find useful such as Nik’s Silver efex pro 2 and Nik HDR efex pro. My question is that would these be useful with either or both programs and if there are any other plug-ins that are better/more useful? Any help you could provide would be greatly appreciated.

44 Alan Haynes / PhotoCitizen November 13, 2011 at 8:24 pm

Hi Justin,

I’d start with Lightroom and later get Photoshop if you can afford it. They’re designed for different purposes and Lightroom is all that most photographers will need.

The Nik plugins are very good. Lightroom already handles black-and-white conversions very well, so you won’t need Silver Efex. But, Lightroom doesn’t do HDR (yet), so I highly recommend Nik HDR Efex Pro. I use it myself. For students, it only costs about $50.

Before you buy any other plugins, learn to use Lightroom. You’ll find that it can do as much as most plugins.


45 nikki December 16, 2011 at 5:39 pm


I am new to photography. Your article helped me alot with my decision to purchase LR3 instead of the CS5. My question is, can I purchase the teacher/student version from staples and use my cousins ID to submit as a requirement? How does it work? I cannot afford the regular price
:(. With this version, is there an option to do upgrade if the new version comes out?

thank you in advance.

46 Jeri Lynn December 24, 2011 at 1:57 am

Perhaps you can help me. In LR, I tried to resize a 5×7 image to a 4×6 image at 300 ppi resolution. It exported just fine except the size of the export was not 4×6. So I tried again using 1200×1800 pixels which is the size of a 4×6. The image exported and the file size remained the same as the first export which was 1680×1200. Any advice?

47 Alan Haynes / PhotoCitizen December 26, 2011 at 11:52 am

Hello Nikki,

Adobe seems to be picky about the requirements for their student-edition software. Check out their Education FAQ.

A better option might be to buy the regular version from a local college bookstore. Some of them sell it at the same price as the student edition and don’t require a student ID.

Upgrades and updates are available once you successfully activate your software, but their is no discount on upgrade pricing for student editions. There is no such thing as a “student-edition” upgrade: the upgrades are all the same and work with any edition of Lightroom.

Hope this helps,


48 Alan Haynes / PhotoCitizen December 26, 2011 at 12:15 pm

Hi Jeri,

If you want to resize an image to an exact physical size – to send to an online printing service, for example, here’s how:

1) In Lightroom’s Develop module, use the crop tool to crop the image to the desired aspect ratio. The crop tool does not specify the physical size, only the ratio of one side to the other.

2) From the Library module, use the Export button to open the export window.

3) In the Image Sizing section of the Export window, choose “Dimensions” from the first dropdown menu and, in the boxes below enter “4” and “6” with the second dropdown menu set to “in” for inches. Set the resolution to whatever you need (300 ppi in your case).

4) Now, when you export the image it will be the exact size you need.

Here’s an example: A full-sized raw image from my Olympus E-P3 is 4032 x 3024. Cropped to 4×6 in the Develop module, it changes to 4032×2688. Exported at 4×6 inches at 300 ppi, the final exported file is 1800×1200 pixels at 300 ppi. With a little simple math, you can verify that this equals 4 inches by 6 inches. (1800 px / 300 ppi = 6 inches, 1200 px / 300 ppi = 4 inches).

It sounds like you might have been using the “Width & Height” option in the export window. That option only sets the maximum size of each dimension. It keeps the original aspect ratio and does not do any cropping.

Good luck,


49 Quinten Broid March 13, 2012 at 12:19 pm


Thank you for offering your time and experience.

It is much appreciated! QB

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