Should You Buy Lightroom or Photoshop? What about Elements?

Do you need Photoshop? Is Lightroom sufficient? If you’re choosing, which should you buy first? Should you consider something else entirely?

The photo editing software world can be complicated. I get these questions frequently, especially from those who are getting into the photo world and trying to figure out just how much money they’ll need to spend.

Here’s my take on how to decide.

Everyone Should Buy Lightroom

If you care about your photos, you really ought to buy Adobe Lightroom, which will provide you with several great photography tools. Lightroom will allow you to easily:

  • catalog, keyword, organize, and browse your photo collection
  • perform a ton of global or local editing adjustments to your photos[1]
  • index and view your photos on a map using geolocation
  • easily create Blurb books
  • create basic photo slideshows
  • prepare images for printing

With a list price of $149 (and often being available for less – check Amazon and B&H Photo’s price today) it’s an affordable image editing system. Prior to using Lightroom my system was a mess for keeping track of photos and versions as things were edited. Lightroom’s ability to catalog and edit photos (RAW, JPG, and other formats) keeps me sane.

If You Make Portraits, You’ll Also Want Photoshop

If you’re doing portraiture (regardless of style), you’re going to want the fine-grained and layered pixel-pushing abilities of Photoshop. A great resource on how to do this work is Scott Kelby’s book Professional Portrait Retouching Techniques for Photographers Using Photoshop.

Photoshop CC or Photoshop Elements?

Photoshop CC is the “full” version of Photoshop that contains every tool known to man along with several kitchen sinks. It’s a tool for photography, graphic design, web design, 3D, and other fields. You get Photoshop CC by subscribing to Creative Cloud, with pricing ranging from $20-50 each month depending on whether you’re just getting Photoshop or the full suite of products.

Like Lightroom, Photoshop Elements is sold as a single purchase rather than a subscription. List price is $99, but if you check the current Amazon price or price at B&H you’ll probably find it cheaper than that. Photoshop Elements doesn’t contain everything like its big brother, but rather it contains probably 90% of the tools that a photographer would want. You’ll get layers, masking, brushes, cloning and healing, but won’t have quite as much flexibility as with Photoshop CC.

You can do a lot with Photoshop Elements. I’d argue that unless you’re a professional, you shouldn’t even consider Photoshop CC; Elements will get you where you need to be. If you are a pro and making your livelihood from your photos, look at Photoshop CC. While most Photoshop tutorials and learning materials are written based on the full version of Photoshop, most of the techniques can be used in Elements as well.

Conclusion

In summary: get Lightroom. If you’re doing portraits, get Photoshop. Decide between Elements and CC based on just how invested you are in the results with your images.


  1. For many types of photography, it’s entirely possible to do all of your editing in Lightroom. Honestly for my own work, about the only thing I do in Photoshop is portrait retouching because I want more control than is possible in Lightroom.  ↩

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