Which Adobe Photo Editing Software Is Right for Me?

Credit: Adobe

(Image credit: Adobe)

There's a reason why Adobe Photoshop is the de facto application that most people consider when looking for the best photo editing software. However, while Photoshop is the most powerful, versatile and well-recognized photo editing software around, it isn't appropriate for everyone. That's why Adobe has four separate products – Photoshop, Photoshop Elements, Lightroom Classic and Lightroom – for photo editing. Each has varying levels of power, ease of use and versatility, and each is suitable for different users and/or different situations. Here's a guide on how to choose the right Adobe photo editor for your needs.

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Adobe Photoshop Elements
Adobe Photoshop CC
Adobe Lightroom Classic
Adobe Lightroom CC
Starting Price
$99.99, or $149.99 bundled with Premiere Elements.$20.99/month. Includes 100GB of cloud storage, portfolio website, premium fonts and social media tools.$9.99/month (Creative Cloud Photography Plan, includes Photoshop, Lightroom CC and Adobe Portfolio and 20 GB of cloud storage.
$9.99/month (Included in the Creative Cloud Photography Plan).
What it is
A simplified subset of what's available in Photoshop.Adobe's most powerful and comprehensive photo editor and image creation software. An industry standard-setter.A digital equivalent to a film darkroom on desktop computers.A cloud-based system for image processing. A simplified subset of what's available in Lightroom Classic.
What it's for
Novice to serious photographers.Professional and serious photographers.Professional and serious photographers using a desktop computer.All photographers who want to quickly process, prepare and share images.
What it does
Easy image editing and processing.Professional image-editing and creation. Just about anything you can think of doing with an image.Comprehensive image- processing, batch processing with images stored on local hard drives.Image processing on the go with images stored on the cloud.
Learning Curve
Slight. Interactive step-by-step Guided Edits, tutorials available within the interface, useful online help.Steep. However, the Adobe.com tutorials and online help are great aids.Not as steep a learning curve as Photoshop, but still requires a certain mastery.Intuitive interfaces. Learn by seeing what happens when you push sliders or tap/click to apply edits.
File Formats supported
PSD, BMP, GIF, jJPEG, PSE, PDF, PXR, PNG, TIFF and all Camera RAW formats (via the Camera RAW utility).Just about every format (plus some audio and video formats) including PSD, TIFF, JPEG, PNG, GIF, large-document format PSB and all Camera RAW formats (via the Camera RAW utility).TIFF, JPEG, PSD, PNG, various video files and nearly all Camera RAW files.JPEG, TIFF, PSD, PNG, nearly all Camera RAW formats and a variety of video formats.

Adobe Photoshop CC

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An essential tool for professional photographers and digital artists, Photoshop is the most comprehensive and powerful of the Adobe photo programs. 

Adobe Photoshop CC+

Even experts usually don't master every aspect of this complex program. Recently, however, Adobe has made it somewhat easier for newbies to get a handle on the program with the addition of in-app tutorials that guide you while you edit your own images. Plus, the new home screen icon provides immediate access to the excellent online tutorials (among other things). What's more, Photoshop has cursory popup tips that (when turned on) help new users understand what each element in the interface does.

Almost anything you can imagine doing to a photograph or digital image, you can achieve with Photoshop, with a great deal of precision and creative flexibility. This, of course, includes the traditional tasks of correcting or changing exposure, color or tone; combining images and effects using masks and layers; adding artistic or paragraph text; using painterly brushes and so forth. In addition, Photoshop has tools for creating animations from still images, preparing graphics for the web, making 3D packaging mockups and much more.  

You often have a choice among various Photoshop tools to complete your task, so you can work on your image the way you prefer. For instance, to select or mask a portion of your image, you can use any of a full range of marquee tools or a number of pen path tools. Plus, you get the ability to directly paint masks using various levels of opacity.

MORE: Adobe Photoshop CC review

Just as important to the pro photographer, Photoshop's color management is excellent. When used in combination with a good monitor color calibrator and the right printer/paper profiles, the colors you see on your screen as you edit will be very close, if not the same, as those that are printed.

Photoshop is available only by subscription to one of several Creative Cloud plans. (More information on pricing below.)

Adobe Photoshop Elements

Adobe Photoshop Elements is best for both novices and serious photographers who want to easily edit images and/or look to acquire Photoshop-like skills. Starting with the Home Page's videos and tutorials and extending throughout the interface, Elements' interface is designed to help users get the most out of the software.

In addition to a full-featured organizer for tagging, sorting and searching your photos, Photoshop Elements (PS Elements) has three modes: Quick Edit, Guided Edits and Expert. These give you the freedom to choose just how much you want to bother with your pictures, while still achieving interesting, attractive edits. What's more, you can simply let PS Elements automatically generate collages and slideshows for you out of selected photos, then share them immediately (using the Share command that's available in all modes) or edit them further in any of the three modes.

Quick Edit has only a handful of the most commonly used basic tools, such as red-eye removal, crop, add text or apply frames. Or, you can choose among thumbnail variations to apply Smart Fix, filters, exposure or color adjustments, or sharpen your image.

Guided Edits provide step-by-step instructions for such edits as Rotate and Straighten, Create a Meme, Remove a Color Cast, Restore Old Photo, Replace Background, Photomerge Panorama and numerous others. These are great learning tools to help you explore and begin to understand how PS Elements (as well as Photoshop) works. At the end of each Guided Edit, you have the choice to Save the image (under the original name or another), continue to edit it in the Basic or Expert Mode (going back into the Guided Edit Mode requires extra steps) or share it on social networks.

The Expert mode looks and feels very similar to Photoshop, including layers, masks and selection tools; adjustment layers; paint brushes; cloner; healing brush; and numerous other tools. But PS Elements has far fewer features and functions than Photoshop. For instance, PS Elements doesn't have Photoshop's tool for painting masks with varying levels of transparency or its greater control over typography. Even those features that PS Elements has lack the depth of options and functions found in Photoshop. For instance, PS Elements' Text Tool doesn't have the typographical controls (such as over paragraph text or letter spacing) that Photoshop does.

When it comes to printing from Elements, in addition to single-image pages, you can easily create "picture packages" or contact sheets, with several images automatically laid out on a page. Plus, it's easy to share your photos from the Organizer interface to social media and via email.

Photoshop vs. Photoshop Elements: Which should you choose?

For the vast majority of users, Photoshop will be overkill. Photoshop Elements will provide most of the functions and capabilities that the average and even many serious photographers will want or need, in an easy-to-master interface.

However, if you prefer having precise control over every aspect of your photo editing, or if you need or want more advanced functions such as 3D objects or top-notch color management, then choose Photoshop. In addition, while Elements supports only 8-bit RGB and grayscale images, Photoshop also supports CMYK pictures (which is key for prepress preparation) and 16-bit images (which provide greater, detailed high-dynamic-range image data). Professional photographers also have to consider the impact of brand recognition: Most clients and associates expect pros to know and use Adobe Photoshop, as a perceived indication of a certain level of professionalism.

MORE: Adobe Photoshop Elements review

Photoshop and Photoshop Elements also have different marketing models. When you buy Elements, you pay a one-time fee for a license that you own, and which can't be rescinded. Photoshop is available only through an Adobe Creative Cloud subscription; when you stop paying the monthly fee, the software will no longer work on your computer. (We cover more about prices and how Creative Cloud works below.)

Adobe Lightroom

Adobe Lightroom is approximately equivalent to a film chemical darkroom in that it allows you to edit and manipulate the defining properties of a photograph, such as exposure, focus, color, tone and overall composition (crop, rotation, orientation, etc.). Many professional and serious photographers will process their photos first in Lightroom. Then they will move into Photoshop for fine-tuning, creating composites, adding text and so forth.

Lightroom CC

Unlike Photoshop, all edits in Lightroom are nondestructive, retaining the original image data. In addition, when working with RAW files, Lightroom's ability to apply all its edits before a photo is converted from RAW to a more universally useful format results in better and more precise image quality.

Adobe offers two versions of Lightroom. What's particularly confusing is that the high-powered desktop application that has long been popular with professional photographers is now called Lightroom Classic instead of simply Lightroom. And the new cloud-enabled program is now called Lightroom.

Both Lightroom Classic and Lightroom are available only when you buy a subscription to one of Adobe's Creative Cloud plans.


The Lightroom desktop application is part of an ecosystem that includes cloud storage for your photographs, and mobile apps for iOS and Android tablets and phones. When you import a photo, tag or catalog pictures, or save an edited image on any of your connected devices, it's automatically synced to your cloud photo library. In other words, the original image, your edits and the file's metadata are available on all devices: your computer, tablet, phone, even on an Apple TV. In addition, your photos are automatically backed up.

Lightroom's desktop interface is more streamlined and less comprehensive than Lightroom Classic, and the mobile apps are even more limited. In essence, Lightroom is the more modern app, suitable for on-the-go photographers who want to quickly edit their photos in an interface that is easy to master. On the other hand, Adobe has been adding features and tools to Lightroom on a regular basis (such as HDR and panorama merge). So, while it isn't on a par with Lightroom Classic, its functionality continues to grow.

Most controls are either sliders (such as for color, exposure, grain, vignette and split toning) or tap/click to apply presets and effects (such as sharpening, creative filters, grain or exposure curve). More precise tools include a Healing Brush for painting out imperfections, and both Linear Gradient and Spot Gradient masks for applying edits to specific areas of your picture.

Lightroom provides more guidance for the new user than Classic. For instance, tool tips automatically pop up when you hover your cursor over the name of a tool or command. In addition, interactive tutorials are currently available on the home page of the mobile apps and will soon be integrated into the desktop.

Lightroom Classic

Lightroom Classic is a far more mature product than Lightroom, with a more comprehensive and deeper feature set that is reflected in its tabbed interface.

Lightroom Classic

In the Lightroom Classic Library tab, you can compare zoomed-in views of similar images side by side, which makes it an interface that's easier and quicker for sorting and rating of a large number of photos.

What sets apart the edit tools in Lightroom Classic's Develop tab from Lightroom's is both their depth and breadth, which add up to greater precision and control. For instance, Classic offers not only masking but also a local adjustment brush. Similarly, the Presets (filters and effects) are more sophisticated than Lightroom's. In addition, you can copy your edits from one photo to a group of pictures (usually ones captured using a similar composition under the same lighting conditions), which is a major time saver.

Lightroom Classic has a variety of output options appropriate for pro photographers' needs. These include modules for creating a photo book, a slideshow and a web gallery. The print module can create single or multiple image pages, including contact sheets and custom picture packages.

Incidentally, Lightroom Classic can open from and save to your Adobe cloud photo library. However, saving to the cloud is a cumbersome and confusing process that involves defining "collections" of photos.

Lightroom vs. Lightroom Classic

Choosing between Lightroom and Lightroom Classic involves figuring out what your priorities are when it comes to photography and photo editing.

Do you use your phone or tablet as your primary camera? Is having cloud access to your entire photo library from all your devices and computers more important than having the full slate of Classic's tools? If so, get Lightroom.

Do you do most of your photo editing on a single computer? Do you want or need Classic's more comprehensive feature set? If you do, then, you'll likely prefer Lightroom Classic.

MORE: Best Laptops for Photo Editing

Then again, if you subscribe to Adobe's Creative Cloud Photography Plan, you don't have to make a choice, because this plan gives you both Lightroom and Lightroom Classic, plus Photoshop. (More information below.)


Photoshop, Lightroom Classic and Lightroom are available only through an Adobe Creative Cloud subscription. One of the advantages of the subscription model is that Adobe rolls out new features every few months, so your software never becomes obsolete. The disadvantage is that if you stop paying for the software, it will stop working on your computer.

The Creative Cloud Photography Plan costs $9.99 per month and includes Photoshop, Lightroom Classic, Lightroom and Adobe Portfolio (for photo websites), and 20 GB of cloud storage. A plan with 1TB of storage costs $19.99 per month.

Photoshop is available for $20.99 per month and includes 100GB of cloud storage, your own portfolio website, premium fonts and Adobe Spark (social media tools).

If you want only Lightroom (not Lightroom Classic or Photoshop), a subscription costs $9.99 per month and includes 1TB of cloud storage.

On any Creative Cloud plan, you can add more cloud storage for $9.99 per month per terabyte.

Photoshop Elements costs $99.99 (or $149.99 for a bundle that also includes Premiere Elements video editing software). However, PS Elements is often discounted. Both are one-time fees, so you don't have to worry about it not working if you don't pay for a subscription. However, you won't get updates with new features each year.

Credit: Tom's Guide

Sally Wiener Grotta

Sally Wiener Grotta is the president and lead analyst of DigitalBenchmarks test lab (www.DigitalBenchmarks.com). The scripts she created for various tech publications for testing and evaluating digital cameras, image quality, software and related technologies have become industry standards. Among her numerous books is the first major volume on image processing “Digital Imaging for Visual Artists” (McGraw-Hill), co-authored with Daniel Grotta. Her hundreds of reviews, stories and columns have appeared in scores of magazines, journals and online publications.