Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Which Adobe Photo-Editing Program is Best for You?

People are always asking me whether they should buy Photoshop Elements, Photoshop, or LightRoom.  All three are great programs, but if you are a newbie to the editing world I will try to break it down for you.  Remember, this is just my opinion!

Photoshop Elements 10:

Adobe Photoshop Elements 10 is a very powerful editing program,
so don't let the low price fool you. If you are on a tight budget and are not a professional photographer editing hundreds of photos at a time, you will be perfectly happy with PSE.

PSE is the easiest of the three editing programs. You can do basic to artistic edits on your images, and most action writers write actions that run in PSE. You can batch edit RAW (and jpgs, see my tutorial) files with PSE's version of ACR (it is a somewhat limited version of CS5's ACR, but still very powerful). You can make and use textures and design storyboards/logos/digital designs. 

PSE is perfect for people like me (love photography but not planning on becoming a professional photographer) and even professional photographers, and if you learn the program, you can apply so much of your knowledge toward Photoshop CS5.  I would suggest buying The Photoshop Elements 9 Book for Digital Photographers with the program so you can learn how to use it quickly.

My good friend Amanda has several affordable and highly-rated workshops to get you up and running on PSE, please click on her button below and go check them out. 

New Everyday Elements Button

Summary:  If you love to edit but are not a high-production pro and on a limited budget, buy PSE and you might never find a need to buy any of the more expensive programs.  You can be a  professional and edit with PSE9.

LightRoom 3:

I just upgraded to Lightroom 3 from LR2 and I love this program!  LR3 is a wonderful program, and if you have a little money to spend and/or a professional photographer and are not interested in creating digital designs or using textures but want to quickly edit your images, this might be the program for you.

You can edit RAWs and jpgs easily using sliders, and batch editing (editing more than one image at a time or making the same changes to a series of images) is a breeze.  LR3 now has amazing noise-reduction so you don't have to buy a different program, and you can retouch portraits and do all types of artistic edits.  There are so many free and to-purchase presets out there to make your life easier. You can also create storyboards and have LR3 automatically watermark your images.

The best part of LightRoom for me is that I don't have to find and open my images in the program. When I start LR3, all of my photo folders are right there on the left.  When I edit I can see my history of steps and instantly go back to any of them.  The edits are non-destructive and I can go back to any image and make changes at any time.  I never really understood the power of this program until I learned to use it myself.

This program is worth every penny and perfect for newbies to professional photographers.  However, it is not cheap (unless you buy an academic version or have to upgrade) and the learning curve is much higher than PSE9.  I would suggest buying The Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 3 Book for Digital Photographers with the program (I did).  And LR3 does not allow you the complete creatively that you have in PSE9 and CS5, but for many photographers this program is all they would need.

Summary:  If you have some money to spend and/or are a professional photographer and want to be able to quickly and beautifully edit your images  LR3 might be for you. 

However, you can't use textures or do much digital design (other than storyboards).   If you have the money, I would suggest buying Lightroom 3 AND Adobe Photoshop Elements 9.  You can do almost everything with this combo.  I use both myself.  You first do basic edits in LR3 and then open the image in PSE9 for further enhancements (like adding textures or using any of my free actions). 

Photoshop CS5:

Adobe Photoshop CS5 is the gold standard and the program I started using years and years ago. If you have the money and/or are a professional photograher and are a photo-editing/computer geek (blush, I have CS4) then this might be the program for you.

PSE9 is a limited easy-to-use version of CS5.  CS5 will do it all and it is incredibly powerful, but it is made for graphic designers and photographers, so you might find it has more than you need.  I know so many people who buy CS5 over PSE9 because CS5 is more expensive and must be better, but then they end up completely frustrated and would have been satisfied with PSE9.  I think 80% of people who purchase CS5 use only 25% of the program (I completely made up these numbers, they are just based on emails I receive and are not scientific at all).

I won't go into details about everything CS5 does because even after years I am not using CS4 to its full potential!  And if you want to write your own actions you have to have CS5.  If you buy CS5 make sure to purchase a great book like The Adobe Photoshop CS5 Book for Digital Photographers or you will be completely lost. 

Summary:  If you have the money and/or are a professional photographer AND editing/computer geek, this program is for you!

If money is no object and you love to be challenged and want complete control of your editing, then I would suggest buying   Adobe Photoshop CS5 AND Lightroom 3. Even though CS5 is powerful, I find LR3 is so much faster and easier to use for most of my edits.  I do 95% of my editing in LR3, and use PSE6 (I haven't upgraded yet) or CS4 when I want to use actions (I prefer actions over presets for artistic edits), use textures, make my images web-ready, and design and use digital elements.  You can't use brushes or patterns in LR3.

I hope this helps!  Remember, even a professional photographer can use PSE9 to edit their work, so if money is tight and you don't have time to learn complicated programs, PSE9 will probably do everything you want.  You can always upgrade later.  But I have to confess I would not want to be without my LR3.

And don't forget, you can download a full version of LR3 or CS5 from Adobe to play with for 30 days for free!  I usually buy my programs through Amazon because their prices are great and I am a prime member so I get two day shipping for free.  ;-)


  1. Thank you so much for posting about your experience with LR3 - I've been waiting for this post since you mentioned that you purchased it.

    I've been working with LR2 and love it and was considering upgrading. I don't really need to but I want to.

    I agree about PE, I always suggest this program to people who ask. I find that too many people dump loads of money on editing programs and that they don't use (I almost did) because of advice from well meaning people. I keep reminding myself that my PC can only handle so much and stick with LR.


  2. Thank you so much for this post, it's EXACTLY what I needed. I've been lost in the world of PS, not knowing which direction to go so this came just at the right time!!

  3. Oh I am so glad you posted this. It is exactly what I have been looking into.

    I have LR3 and I love it. I was not aware that you can do story board in LR3. I am now going to go search the intertubes to find out how.

    Thanks so much for this awesome information!!

  4. Wonderful. I'll add that I love the PSE8/Aperture combo with the iMac especially as the plugin lets me go between them easily. I trialed LR/Ap and preferred the latter

  5. This was helpful. I have been going back and forth in LR2 and PSE9...I cannot decide where I like to organize my photos. And I am not really a fan of how long it takes to open something in PSE from LR ...blah blah. Do you use the PSE organizer at all??

  6. Thanks SO MUCH for the great comparison info!! I've been using LR3 since I've become serious about my photography 'hobby', but have always wondered if/what I was missing by not switching over to CS or even PSE.

    It seems there are so many more actions than presets created and used, and I often find myself wishing I knew PSE or CS for primarily that reason.

    I've also been under the impression that PSE would be much more difficult to learn than LR3 (which I find to be SOOOO user friendly,) but based on your info, that's not the case, so I'm now excited to try PSE and incorporate it into my workflow.

    Thanks again!

  7. thank you for this post! I have had a pitty party day today one because my camera isn't $2000 and I don't use CS5. I do use PSE9 and LR3. I am just starting photography and want to do it professionally but it's an expensive business!!! So thank you for laying this all out because I feel like I have done something right!!!
    Thanks for your blog! It's because of you I have loved photography and editing even more!!!

  8. Thank you for your very helpful post! I am new to photography and have Elements 8 and LR 3. It was quite the learning curve for me when I started using LR 3 but now I could not live without it! You mentioned that you can create storyboards in LR. Can you tell me how you do that? I didn't realize it had that capability and am excited to try it! Thanks again!!

  9. I've used PhotoShop for years but am considering switching to Lightroom. I own a web development company and do use PS for creating graphics but because everything I do is for the web,I'm not using a lot of the functionality which is also for print designers.

    I want that control over photos for my food blog and think it would be a good mix...I just recently held my finger back from punching that 'upgrade' button and am grateful I read your take before taking that action too.

  10. These descriptions are so helpful. I know people get so frustrated, as I have, with the fact that they don't have the "latest & greatest" in photo software. But software is never an excuse to not create great images. I just turned from hobbyist to pro a little over a year ago and I do *almost* everything I need to do in PSE 6! I heavily use textures/actions and have learned to tweak them to fit my style in Elements. I'm now ready to advance my workflow and will purchase LR3 before CS5 since it has so many fabulous reviews.

  11. I have a questions about one of your actions, it is the vani action. I use this action in cs3, but sometimes I like the results if I turn off the black and white and just use the vanil. When I had my pictures printed, it left 3 halos around her. Is their anyway I could send you the photo? It did not show up in my cs3, but did on the photo :( Any ideas?

  12. I just found you today and laughed when I saw the title of your post because I have been trying to decide if I should upgrade from PSE to PS. What perfect timing!

    I was all set to spend the money on the upgrade (teacher discount!) and then wondered if PS wasn't like cameras - I hear you should stick with what you have until you outgrow it. Well, I don't use 1/4 of what PSE can do, so I have definitely not outgrown it.

    Reading your post just confirmed to me that I should stick with what I have and save the money for LR3 and/or Action Sets. Thanks!

  13. This is a great post and a really good reference for anyone who needs to decide between these photo editing programs.

    I get a lot of questions from my readers about which of these programs to choose. It's a tough question to answer because it's always hard to know where people are coming from and, just as importantly, where their use of the software will take them.

    I usually err on the side of caution and recommend Elements because it's relatively easy to use and it's so reasonably priced, especially considering what you can do with it compared to Photoshop. Elements is usually all you need to do basic digital scrapbooking. And, learning to use Elements is certainly not a waste of time if someday you decide to go to full-blown Photoshop because a lot of that knowledge can move over to Photoshop.

    I think you're right about the possibility of frustration for people who buy CS5 over PSE9. That can quickly turn people off to the idea of photo editing software.

    So, while I often recommend Elements to those just starting out, I also suggest that after they've been using Elements for awhile, they consider downloading a trial of the full blown Photoshop. Just for a test drive.

    Thanks again for the great post!


  14. That's a great breakdown of the software. I know when I was first looking I was so overwhelmed. I'm so glad that I went ahead and downloaded the 30 day trial of LR (2 at the time) and realized I LOVED it! Today I have LR3 and think I will be a lifelong use or Lightroom.