Which Adobe Photo Editing Software Is Right for Me?

When most people think of photo editing, the first product that comes to mind is Adobe Photoshop – so much so that we all use the verb "to photoshop" to refer to editing or manipulating pictures. However, although Photoshop remains the top photo-editing software, Photoshop isn't necessarily the best Adobe program for everyone.

Credit: AdobeCredit: AdobeTo help you pick which Adobe photo-editing program is right for you, we've tested and analyzed the differences among Photoshop, Lightroom and Photoshop Elements.


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 Elements 2018

Adobe Photoshop Elements is best for both novice and serious photographers who want to easily edit images, and/or look to acquire Photoshop-like skills.

In addition to a full-featured organizer for tagging, sorting and searching your photos, Photoshop 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.

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, Remove a Color Cast, Restore Old Photo, Replace Background, Photomerge Panorama and numerous others. These are a great learning tools to help you explore and begin to understand how  Elements (and Photoshop) works.

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 Elements has far fewer features and functions than Photoshop, such as Photoshop's tool for painting masks with varying levels of transparency and greater control over typography.

And even those features that Elements has lack the depth of options and functions found in Photoshop. For instance, Elements' Camera Raw module (for converting RAW files to editable photos) is missing such options as tone-curve editing, lens corrections and split toning found in Photoshop CC's Camera Raw.

When it comes to printing from Elements, in addition to single-image prints, 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.

Adobe Photoshop CC+

An essential tool for professional and serious photographers and digital artists, Adobe Photoshop is the most comprehensive and powerful of the Adobe photo programs. However, the learning curve is quite steep, despite the recent addition of cursory pop-up tool tips. Even experts usually don't master every aspect of this complex program.

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 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.

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 below.)

Photoshop vs. Photoshop Elements: What 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 some of 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 pre-press 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.

Photoshop and Photoshop Elements also have different marketing models. When you buy Elements, it's 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.). 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 results in better and more precise image quality.

Adobe offers two versions of Lightroom, Classic and Lightroom CC. The former is the name of the desktop application, while Lightroom CC is a cloud-based "ecosystem" that consists of  desktop and mobile apps, a web-based program and the cloud storage of your images – and can include Lightroom Classic.

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

Lightroom Classic

Professional and serious photographers have learned to depend on the Lightroom Classic for "developing" their photographs, especially when batch-processing a large number of pictures. In fact, in many professional studios, Lightroom Classic has replaced Photoshop for adjusting exposure, color, tone and other defining aspects of the photos. Only after being processed in Lightroom will most pros take their photos into Photoshop for fine-tuning, creating composites, adding text and so forth.

Lightroom's edit module lets you do very precise, but quick adjustments to a single photo, then apply the same edits (or a subset of them) to a group of photos (generally ones captured using a similar composition under the same lighting conditions).

What sets Lightroom Classic's edit tools apart from Photoshop and Lightroom CC is the level of precision possible while still moving quickly through numerous pictures. In addition to global adjustments to color, exposure, sharpness and so forth, you can use masks and local adjustment brushes to zero in on specific areas of your picture. Lightroom's advanced set of tools include split-toning, lens correction, noise correction, post-crop vignetting and others. And it's all nondestructive, meaning you can return to the original image data at any time.

In addition to having the same color management as Photoshop, and supporting CMYK and RGB images at 8-bit or 16-bit, 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.

Lightroom CC

With its focus on simplicity and accessibility, Lightroom CC is more streamlined and less comprehensive than Lightroom Classic. But what makes it very useful is that you can access its editing tools from almost any device, including Android and iOS phones and tablets.

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 the cloud, making the original image, your edits and the file's metadata available to all your other devices. That includes your computer, using the Lightroom CC desktop application or Lightroom Classic (if you have it installed).

While the Lightroom CC apps for various devices have some differences in functionality (such as drag-and-drop image import on iPads but not on phones), the overall look and feel is consistent, making it easy to master. You won't spend much time in Lightroom CC.  All 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).

Pricing

Photoshop, Lightroom Classic and Lightroom CC 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, and 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 CC, Lightroom Classic, Lightroom CC and Adobe Portfolio (for photo websites) and 20 GB of cloud storage. A plan with 1 TB 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 social media tools.

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

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