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Photoshop vs Elements vs Lightroom

Photoshop Versions

Photoshop, Photoshop Elements and Photoshop Lightroom are all Photoshop versions by marketing yet they are products serving different purposes. Photoshop, originally launched 21 years ago, became synonymous with image processing. This made it nearly impossible for software not named Photoshop to compete in the same space. So Adobe, in all its wisdom, gave the Photoshop name to all their image processing software, resulting in confusion throughout the world.

The 12th major version of Photoshop, called CS5, is considered the Swiss army-knife of imaging software. It is a powerful and versatile product with hundreds of functions aimed at professional digital artists. It also supports a huge number of third-party plugins for additional functionality. Itself, CS5 comes in two versions, the standard and Extended edition. The Extended version includes all features of the standard version, plus several more that mostly revolve around 3D capabilities designed to simulate 3D and to integrate 2D and 3D contents.

Adobe Photoshop CS6 for Windows retails for $679 USD. Adobe Photoshop Extended CS6 Student & Teacher Edition is available for $299 USD. As usual, academic ID is required for academic pricing.

Photoshop Elements, now in its 11th version, is a simpler yet powerful photo manipulation tool. It is more suitable to work on photos than to create digital artwork from scratch.

Elements is designed to satisfy the needs of photo enthusiasts who like to manipulate images. The most recent version includes a simple management application to organize photos. This application also does photo-sharing including uploading to Facebook, Flickr and SmugMug. At $99 USD, Adobe Photoshop Elements 11 is probably the most undervalued image processing software from Adobe.

Photoshop Lightroom, now at version 5, is entirely different. It is designed to manage photos of professional photographers and provide non-destructive editing capabilities. The principle of Photoshop Lightroom is to manage photos and produce derivative images without ever modifying an original file. Its processing functionality is sophisticated with a narrow feature-set covering the most common needs of professional photographers.

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 5 retails for $129 USD. There is also an Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 5 Student and Teacher Edition for only $79 USD. Lightroom comes in a single package that includes both Windows and Mac software versions. Other software compared here come independently for Windows and Mac.

To avoid confusion in this article: Photoshop Elements is referred to as Elements; and Photoshop Lightroom is referred simply as Lightroom; Photoshop is referred to simply as Photoshop.

Photoshop, Elements & Lightroom Differences

All versions of Photoshop discussed here cover the basics of image manipulation. They can all crop, resize, rotate, color-correct, adjust white-balance, sharpen, blur and perform spot-fixes. There are even free software like Google's Picasa which do all that and, to be honest, if that was all that was ever done to photographs, the world would be a better place!

PhotoshopBoth Photoshop and Elements share some common roots. These programs work on a number of images in various formats, applying effect after effect until the work is done and saved. Results usually replace the original image which is lost unless Save As or Save For Web is used. Be careful though because these programs ask to overwrite the original when a file gets closed. This is the same behavior as most software, such as word-processors and spread-sheets.

The user-interface of Photoshop is an intuitive classic. Effects are chosen and applied either to a selection or interactively using brushes. Processing is applied directly on image pixels or as layers. The concept of layers lets users work without losing original pixels as long as results are saved in PSD format. By its nature this format has a tendency to produce huge image files, frequently requiring 10X more storage when extensive manipulation is performed.

Lightroom is both a DAM software and a non-destructive image processor. The DAM part manages images, tracks where images are located, associates metadata and provides powerful search. The non-destructive part is the guiding principle that dictates that no information should ever be lost. In Lightroom, images are neither opened nor saved, they are simply accessed and operated on. All processing is performed virtually and input images do not change on-disk.

LightroomWhile Lightroom is neither the only nor the first software to work this way, this is unusual and has some important implications:

  • Lightroom can only work on managed images. Before operating on an image, it must be imported.
  • Since there are no actual changes made, image processing can be done and undone at will.
  • The results of any processing is not visible to any other application, since it is stored in the Lightroom database.
  • To see, share, send or further process a final version of an image, it must first be exported from Lightroom.

This last implication is crucial when working with multiple software applications but makes a lot of sense. Lightroom puts a lot of sophistication into its export capabilities including the ability to resize, sharpen and watermark. This makes is easy to adapt the export operation to different media. Typically, with an application like Photoshop, a new copy has to be created for each use such as email, print and web-sharing.

The Lightroom interface is sleek and represents a complete shift from typical image processing applications. Lightroom has access to an entire catalog of images and any number of them can be operated on. There are five distinct modules: Library, Develop, Slideshow, Print and Web. The first one is the DAM part of Lightroom, the second is the image processing part and the last three represents self-publishing avenues. Slideshow can create PDF or video slideshows, while Web creates galleries to be uploaded to a host. Print can print images in a variety of arrangements including contact sheets.

Photoshop, Elements & Lightroom Features

While the Lightroom feature-set is broadest, its image processing features are the simplest. Photoshop CS5 Extended edition has by far the most features but Elements has several unique features. Individual feature-sets reflect market segmentation:

  • Lightroom is aimed at professional photographers but not necessarily those who manipulate images extensively. As such, it provides sophisticated photo correction and development tools but not much for digital art.
  • Photoshop and Photoshop Extended are both aimed at digital artists of all kinds, whether or not their art starts from photographs. Any number of images can be combined to produce artwork in Photoshop.
  • Elements is intended for home users and amateur photographers. Its numerous manipulation tools can be used for mixed-media artwork and composite images. It also has additional print-shop style features for greeting cards, invitations, calendars and the like.

Lightroom is extremely popular with photographers as it covers all essential image processing functions and several more: Crop & Rotate, Spot-Removal, Redeye, Color-Balance, Curves, Color-Adjustments, Split-Toning, Sharpening, Noise-Reduction, Lens CorrectionDistortion, Vignetting, Aberrations, either by profile or manually, Vignetting, Grain, Color-Calibration and B&W Conversion. Its Curves are adjustable directly as well as through a number of controls like Exposure, Highlight Recovery, Fill Light, Black Level, Brightness and Contrast. Color rendition is controlled using Clarity, Vibrance, Saturation and the Camera Calibration tool.

Photoshop Elements has plenty more processing tools, including automatic modes for contrast, levels, color, sharpness and redeye. It actually covers most Lightroom functions, although several are expressed differently. Of note is that there is no direct-manual adjustment of curves and no profile-based lens correction. Although not an actually lens correction, Perspective Control is included in Elements' Correct Camera Distortion module.

LightroomElements has sophisticated selection tools which can apply over 100 effects selectively to different areas and layers. These effects range from ultra-simple ones like Invert to very artistic ones like Pointilize. It also offers some drawing capabilities with about 50 customizable brushes. This makes Elements suitable for creating artwork from images.

Both Photoshop CS5 Standard and Extended editions include a huge array of image processing tools with more fine-grained and manual controls than offered by Elements. These extra features are sometimes needed by some professionals. Particularly, both CS5 versions support the LAB and CMYK color-spaces used for offset-printing. Also inline with high-end use, Photoshop has more tools available for images with 16-bit and 32-bit per-channel.

Photoshop also supports the creation of actions which can be used for batch processing. Elements on the other hand can perform basic batch processing without the creation of actions. CS5 also includes advanced color-management and Color Match functionality.

As mentioned earlier in this comparison, Elements has unique features as well. Many of them offering an automated or assisted way of performing operations which would be rather complex in Photoshop. The Smart Brush is a great example, it makes applying a selection or effect much easier at the expense of direct control. Another is the Photomerge tools that use multiple images to create automatic composites. Finally, the cookie cutter tool easily chops sections of images.

Elements adds support for multi-page documents. These documents store multiple images as pages within a single file. It can also divide a sheet of scanned photos into individual image files. The photo organizer, which is easy to ignore by those who have another method, offers a number of image sharing features as well.

Conclusion

Photoshop, Elements and Lightroom are all refined software which handle image processing tasks of different levels. One one side, there is Lightroom which distinguishes itself by its non-destructive editing and integrated DAM workflow. On the other, Photoshop and Elements represent different levels of use for the same type of image manipulations.

Lightroom is an excellent choice for those who need to manage their images. Its image processing functions form a solid base for adjustments too. If those are insufficient, Lightroom integrates well with other products. For those who use another DAM solution or frequently work on other people's files, the built-in management quickly becomes an annoyance since images have to be imported to be operated on. Of course, a scratch catalog can be dedicated for such cases but that is far from ideal.

Everything beyond basic photo processing requires Elements or Photoshop. Both are extremely capable image manipulation tools. Yet, at 7X the price of Elements, Photoshop CS5 requires quite some justification. One may find that justification for very precise control over manipulation tools, color management and brushes. Without such needs, Elements not only holds it own but provides compelling features that even get the job done faster in some cases.

Most amateur photographers and budding digital artists should be quite happy with Elements. The added print-shop and sharing features make it a breeze to produce and share fun artwork from their own images. CS5 offers more in-depth tools which will appeal to perfectionists needing to precisely match colors and edit image details. The CS5 Extended version provides slightly more creativity with the blending of 2D and 3D, something which may appeal certain graphic artists.

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