Photoshop Buying Guide: Choose the Best for Your Needs

Photoshop is ubiquitous, and is generally recognized as the top dog in image editing. Like other major brand names, Photoshop is not only a noun, but a verb: How many times have you heard the question, "Is that picture Photoshopped?" However, Adobe has three Photoshop products, with different capabilities and prices, available for both PC and Mac:

Photoshop Elements is a consumer program that provides guidance for every level of photographer, plus advanced modes for going further. It sells for $100.

Photoshop Lightroom is a professional tool for organizing and processing digital images. It sells for $140 or can be leased for $10 per month.

Photoshop CC offers the deepest set of features and tools to enable professional quality and creativity for photographers and artists. It can be leased starting at $10 per month.

Here is a breakdown of each Photoshop version, so you can decide which one suits your interests, needs and budget.

Adobe Photoshop Elements

Photoshop Elements ($100) is based on the same excellent image processing code as Photoshop CC, but it's a much more accessible program. Elements focuses on the most popular types of edits and projects, and includes guided projects to walk you through certain tasks, such as Correct Skin Tones, Remove a Color Cast, and Vignette Effect. Elements eschews the more difficult or esoteric aspects of Adobe's pro programs, such as group collaboration tools.

That isn't to say that Photoshop Elements is only for amateur editing; its Expert Mode delivers many of the tools that serious photographers need for editing and compositing their pictures. Even some professional photographers, particularly those who don't need prepress tools, will find Photoshop Elements more than adequate.

MORE: Best PC and Mac Photo Editing Programs

For instance, Photoshop Elements has a version of the Camera RAW app that Photoshop CC uses for the processing of RAW photo files, though it is limited to the more basic controls over color, exposure, sharpening, noise and camera calibration. Similarly, Elements now has limited support for 16-bit color and support for 64-bit systems on Windows. Photoshop Elements sells for $100, and is often bundled for about $150 with the great video editing program Adobe Premier Elements (see review). Unlike with other Adobe products, there is not an option to lease Photoshop Elements monthly.

Here are some of the things Photoshop Elements does well:

File handling: Sort and tag photos for easy search and retrieval.

Guided edits: Step-by-step projects walk users through complex editing processes.

Expert mode: Experienced users can access sophisticated commands and tools, including layers and masking.

MORE: Adobe Photoshop Elements 13 Full Review

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom

Think of Lightroom as the digital equivalent of an old-fashioned film-processing darkroom. Its purpose is to catalog and refine your camera's digital files — RAW files, in particular, although it also works with the other popular camera files, especially TIFF and JPEG. In addition, Lightroom provides quick, professional output options, such as photo book, slideshow and Web page generation; contact sheets; and prints.

Lightroom provides the support that professional and serious enthusiast photographers need, such as support for images with 8-bit or 16-bit color depth, as well as the ability to work with RGB files or prepress CMYK. In addition, it integrates nicely with proper color management. Lightroom also takes advantage of 64-bit Mac and Windows systems. It typically costs $140 as a download or $10 per month as a subscription-based license. (This license fee also includes a full version of Adobe Photoshop CC.)

Many professional photographers now turn first to Lightroom or even use only Lightroom. After a photo shoot, they load all pictures into Lightroom for cataloging and sorting. Then, they select certain images to edit for the best exposure, color, dynamic range and other attributes. Like in a darkroom, you can even mask areas to do local edits on a portion of the image.

Here are some of the things Lightroom does best:

File handling: Efficient batch picture importing and sorting.

Professional image toning: Superb tools for perfecting a photograph's exposure, color and dynamic range.

Fine detail editing: Adjustment brushes allow for precise editing of the color, saturation, clarity and other tonal aspects of specific areas in photos.

MORE: Adobe Photoshop Lightroom Full Review

Adobe Photoshop CC

Photoshop CC offers a rich array of graphic design, typographic and compositing tools. Photoshop CC's photo-processing utility, Camera RAW, uses the same code as Lightroom, but its controls are not as granular. Photoshop CC picks up where Lightroom leaves off, focusing on compositing (or collaging) several images together and altering images — for example, to remove blemishes or even people and objects.

However, Photoshop's blank screen can be even more intimidating than Lightroom's because it offers no real guidance and is dense with features. Photoshop CC is no longer sold with a perpetual license; it now requires a $10/month subscription (which includes a full version of Lightroom).

Even some professional photographers don't really need Photoshop CC. To decide if you do, ask yourself if you'll need these features:

Basic RAW file processing: Key adjustment tools, though they're not as extensive as Lightroom's.

Compositing: Combining photographs, text and other graphical elements into a single image.

Masking: Defining precise areas of an image where an edit will be applied.

Creative imaging: Tools and commands for turning your photographs into works of original art.

If you are a professional who spends time with clients looking over your shoulder, you may need Photoshop CC just to be seen using what's considered the top-of-the-line professional program. At the very least, professional photographers are often expected to be proficient in and knowledgeable about Photoshop.

MORE: Adobe Photoshop CC Full Review

Bottom Line

Use Lightroom for processing your images into professional-quality photographs.

Use Photoshop CC for the top professional compositing and image-editing tools that will allow you to either perfect your photos or turn them into works of art, illustrations or other graphic expressions.

Use Photoshop Elements if you want to tweak your photos into something a bit better, use them for fun projects and share them with friends and family but you don't need Photoshop CC's in-depth and sometimes difficult-to-use tools.

Of course, Adobe isn't the only game in town. For photographers who simply want the fastest, easiest way to get their pictures from their cameras to print or sharing, the best program may be one of the free photo editors, such as Picasa.

MORE: Picasa Photo Editor Review

Which Adobe Professional Photography package is right for you?

If you've decided that you need to use Photoshop CC and/or Lightroom, you still have a choice to make: What package should you buy?

The "CC" in Photoshop CC stands for "Creative Cloud," which means that Photoshop is available only through a regular monthly subscription to its online service. If you stop paying the monthly fee, you can no longer use the Photoshop CC program that is installed on your computer. If you continue paying, you receive all upgrades and new add-ons as soon as they become available. Here are your price options for using Photoshop CC, Lightroom or both.

Creative Cloud Photography Plan ($10/month) includes both Photoshop and Lightroom.

Stand-alone Photoshop CC ($20/month) does not include Lightroom, but does include access to Typekit's extensive library of fonts (which you don't get in the Photography Plan). If you plan on doing a lot of typography with Photoshop, this package may be of value to you.

Lightroom Creative Cloud stand-alone product ($20/month) includes just the single app, for twice as much as the two-program photography plan. The value of this escapes us.

Lightroom perpetual license ($140, no subscription) is a traditional program that you pay for once and own. If you don't plan on upgrading Lightroom for new versions (which traditionally have appeared about every 18 months), and you don't want Photoshop, the perpetual license might be of value. You'll still get all the updates for each version that you have purchased.

Full Creative Cloud membership ($50/month) includes the complete library of Adobe professional products: Lightroom, Photoshop CC, Illustrator CC (for vector-based drawing), Dreamweaver CC (for website creation), Premier Pro CC (for video editing) and others.

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