Lightroom Is Great, but Despite Adobe’s Efforts, Photoshop Is Still King

Lightroom is about 13 years old now, and over the last few major releases, Adobe has added a number of tools you’d previously need Photoshop for. While it’s great to see new features like color grading, luminosity masking, and more make their way to the program, their implementation still leaves them falling far short of just using Photoshop. Here’s why I couldn’t ever use Lightroom without Photoshop.

Selections Are Sloppy

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned as I’ve refined my editing skills is the power of working within selections. Obviously, there’s plenty you can do with global adjustments, and they’re essential for things like white balance, but for more complex edits, being able to make a selection is essential.

This brings up the first major advantage Photoshop has over Lightroom: the incredible range of selection tools. Whether you want to live dangerously with the Magic Wand tool or spend 20 minutes trying to cut something out with the Pen tool, you have the options. Between those two extremes lies a ton of very viable selection methods, which have only gotten more powerful over the last couple of iterations of Photoshop. Quick Select has gotten better than ever, while the Select and Mask workspace makes cutting out something as complex as hair easier than ever.

In contrast, consider the limited range of selection options available when refining a mask or brush stroke in Lightroom. Auto-mask seems to be a little improved from when it was first introduced, while its behavior is incredibly opaque. The addition of luminosity and color masking have made a tiny improvement to the state of things, but again feature very coarse controls. Overall, though, something as simple as selecting an object and applying an adjustment is still far slower and more cumbersome than the equivalent process in Photoshop, often producing a worse result.

It wouldn’t be a problem if Lightroom prioritized making the tools fast and good enough for the bulk-editing most often associated with it. I’d settle for them working quickly, but they often can’t even do that. Stacking multiple brush strokes is clunky, inducing lag even on a powerful computer. I find that I spend more time fighting with the “easy” controls in Lightroom than using the more “advanced” options available in Photoshop.

For even core tools like HSL, the inability to refine your actions makes things more difficult than they need to be. Consider making a hue adjustment to a group of trees. The green slider will hit 80% of them, but miss those leaves tending towards yellow or even aqua. In Photoshop, it’s just a few clicks to broaden the range affected by a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer, but it’s impossible in Lightroom. What makes this particularly frustrating is that this is an easy fix: make the range of the slider user adjustable. Even a half-step, by adding a fifth tab to the panel exposing an elegantly named slider-range-slider, would make the experience a lot better.

Basic Features Are Still Missing

I found myself making excuses for Lightroom in years past when it came to missing tools. I reasoned that it was more full-featured than similar digital asset management tools, making the omissions an acceptable compromise. In the intervening time, however, a number of other tools have hit the market, offering a similar level of catalog organization features, but with much deeper editing functionality.

The big missing features that stick out to me are the lack of support for layers and quality retouching tools. We’ll come back to layers, but first, let’s talk retouching. Whether it’s a zit, stray tree branch, or whole car, Content-Aware cloning or fill in PS can make it disappear. On the contrary, in Lightroom, anything more than a dust spot on a clear blue sky will be beyond the capabilities of the spot removal tool. Just giving Lightroom access to a lasso and content-aware fill would knock out 50% of my exports to PS, a particularly cumbersome process for a tiny change.

Layer support, though oft rumored, has never actually made it to Lightroom. To be honest, I’m not really sure it would be any good even if it did arrive — all of us crying out for it may just be like dogs chasing cars. Layers without a range of other features wouldn’t be that useful, and by the time you add in all those other things, it probably makes sense to just bring catalogs into PS instead.

Why This Matters

Lightroom isn’t Photoshop. I know that Adobe knows it, and everyone’s worked under that premise since release. It’s even made clear by Adobe’s CC plans — pairing Lightroom with Photoshop in the clearly labeled Photographer’s plan. The problem comes not from what Lightroom isn’t, but what it is. 

To clarify, consider the other modules besides Library and Develop that are available in Lightroom. Bookmaking, printing, slideshow creation, and web gallery functions are all included, but in my experience, they aren’t very good. If I’m building a website, the last place I’d turn to would be Lightroom (CC plans even include Adobe Portfolio, a way better option). The same goes for laying out a book or creating a slideshow. Lightroom offers a number of features that aren’t really good enough to be of any use. For a significant range of tasks, it’s just easier to use the right software for the job.

If you only need to ever make a single luminosity mask, you don’t need to buy a dedicated panel for Photoshop or learn a whole workflow. Lightroom’s simple mask is probably fine. But for almost every instance beyond the basic ACR adjustments, I think learning it the “right way” in Photoshop will pay dividends. This doesn’t even just apply to Photoshop’s functionality, but also the other tools that sit under Lightroom’s umbrella.

As it stands now, Photoshop doesn’t truly have a competitor. To a new photographer or one looking to make the jump from mobile editing to computer editing, it’s a clear choice. I’d prioritize building a strong workflow and getting comfortable with the tools and using whatever works for asset management. To any photographer, I’d suggest not wasting time trying to make Lightroom work for anything more complex than the basic panel adjustments. Build a flexible ISO adaptive preset, get comfortable with the basic sliders, and plan on hitting Control + E quite a bit.


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