Photo Editing Software: ACR + Photoshop vs. Lightroom

By Jed Grant

If you found this article it’s because you realized that there’s more to photography than your camera can offer and one of those things is editing style. Whether you saw the creamy skin tones in wedding pictures, the soft feel of baby and child photography, the surreal coloring of cross processing or something entirely different. You realized that you could take one image and turn it into a hundred different things, all of them beautiful. Just to make sure you understand, lets start with a couple of examples. If you’re not a believer maybe you should read this article about editing. Keep reading for some examples and the difference between Lightroom and Photoshop.

Soft white first…

This image uses a softening technique which gives images a light and innocent feel something perfect for kids and children or even weddings.

cross processed style

This is one way cross processing might look. This is typically created by some fancy manipulation of curves in Photoshop. It’s quite hard to accomplish in Lightroom, but easy in applications that have a fully editable curve.

creamy skin tones styles

You see this a TON in wedding photography. It’s like black and white, but not, typically involving lowered saturation and then a peach colored layer of the top to tint the image color. It can get a lot more involved than that though.

creamy-skin-tones stlye two

Here’s a second version of the creamy skin tone style. Similar, yet a little different, more contrast and a little better coloring. (This one was done in Lightroom, the other three were done in Photoshop).

Which Photo Editing Software to Choose

I threw the above edits together pretty quickly, even the base image I used was already edited, if you look closely you should be able to tell that the little image on top of all of those doesn’t have natural tones. It’s been edited.

So what about software? There’s a LOT of free tools or web based services that you can use. Some of them better than others. However, they can only take you so far in the editing realm. So lets talk about the two giants in the room, Photoshop and Lightroom. Current you can get either one for about the same price ($300). It may seem steep, but it’s incredibly worth it.

Why Photoshop

There’s a handful of things Photoshop does very well and almost all of them deal with photo manipulation, that’s where you go beyond editing the photo and go for wholesale modification of the original so it really starts to change into an entirely different image. Photoshop allows you to take the sky in one image and put it in another. You can cut people out of their background and put them in a place they’ve never been, add spaceships, do HDR photography and so much more. It’s a incredibly powerful tool that can let you do almost anything.

And there’s more. Photoshop comes with ACR which is “Adobe Camera Raw.” This tool comes with Photoshop and has almost all the adjustment capability that Lightroom has, but without all the tools to manage your image libraries. ACR is not nearly as nice as Lightroom, but it works in a pinch pretty well. A lot of people only ever see ACR when they open a RAW image because that’s the Photoshop default. However you can also use it with regular old JPG images. There’s a great article about this on Edward McGowan’s blog where he tells you exactly how to make it work. Check out the rest of his blog while you’re there. It’s worth the read.

Why Lightroom

Speed… and image management… and ease of use. Lightroom is ALL about photography. There’s no fancy manipulation tools, it’s all about photos and that’s it. Let’s start with how well it manages your image library. If you’re serious about photography you’re going to take A LOT of pictures. Tens of thousands of them. An image by itself has a fairly large size of around 5 megabytes. An edited image in Photoshop is more like 100 megabytes. That’s huge, and it means you’re going to have to delete images sooner than later. Lightroom does it differently, it stores your photo edits in a data file and refers to it instead of making a new copy of the image with all those layers that Photoshop needs. in Lightroom you can always revert to the original and your file size only increases to a small degree when you edit your pictures.

In addition to managing file size well Lightroom also helps you organize your image library and publish it to various photo services such as Flickr, Smugmug and Facebook. Overall it’s just a lot easier to manage your images and keep them without worry about how full your hard drive is.

Speed. Lightroom is FAST. A big part of the reason Lightroom is so fast is presets. They’re a lot like Photoshop actions if you’re familiar with those. If you’re not familiar with either it’s a predefined edit that you can apply with a single click. The great thing about Lightroom presets is you can see what it will look like when you put your mouse over the preset, giving you the ability to quickly run through your presets and see which ones might work for a specific picture. A lot of people do this and none of them look great in the preview window so they ignore them, however most presets just need a little adjustment to brightness to fit your image and then they’re just fine.

That’s not all there is to presents though, I can select an entire folder of images and sync the edits across all them. I may need to go back in and make adjustments on each image, but they are already taken most of the way there with a couple of clicks… Think about that for a second, 400 photos eighty percent edited with 3-4 clicks.

Ease of Use. Lightroom is designed very well, and remember the editing controls are a lot like ACR, however, Lightroom presents them in a more usable way. Everything is clearly labeled and you can see the results immediately. Want to make your images warmer? Change the temperature. Are the dark areas of your image a little too dark? Drag the “darks” slider up and you’re done. Did you shoot at a high ISO and you have noise in your image? Can you guess what slider you drag for that? It’s under noise reduction, go figure. All of the most common things photographers want to do to edit their photos are available with very simple controls.

Who Wins?

Buy Both. Right? Sure we all have an extra $600 sitting around… Seriously though. I’ve used Photoshop for 16 years now. I love it. I’ve used Lightroom for 24 days and my trial is almost up. In that time I have edited 100 times as many pictures in Lightroom than I have edited in Photoshop. It’s that fast.

For my money, I’ll definitely be buying Lightroom first, where funds permit. The three reasons I described above make the choice a no brainer if you need to process a lot of images. If you’re doing one off stuff and using Photoshop for design work, that might be the way to go, but for image editing overall you’re just not going to beat Lightroom, even with heavy use of actions so just quit Googling which is better and buy Lightroom.

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  1. By Rick September 15, 2010

    Thanks for the Great info!

  2. By Kristyn October 29, 2010

    I need this, thanks!

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