Compare Differences: Adobe Photoshop vs. Elements vs. Lightroom
“What’s the difference between the different Photoshops?”
We’ve seen this question sooo many times, we just had to write a complete article about it. With four different members of the Adobe Photoshop family, it can be confusing what is what and which to get… And now that Elements 11 is out, it’s a good time to look at this.
If you ask Adobe, they’ll tell you:
Q: How do Adobe Photoshop, Photoshop Extended, Photoshop Elements, and Photoshop Lightroom software differ?
A: Photoshop Elements 11 (US$99) is designed for people who are just getting started with digital photo editing, and delivers powerful yet easy-to-use options that help you organize, edit, create, share, and help protect your personal photos.
Photoshop CS6 (US$699) is the professional standard for creating and manipulating powerful images, and Photoshop CS6 Extended (US$999) delivers everything in Photoshop plus tools for creating and editing 3D images and objects. [Both of these versions have recently been replaced by Photoshop CC, which is available by subscription (US$10-20/month), and has additional features compared to CS6.]
Photoshop Lightroom 4 (US$149) addresses the workflow needs of professional and serious amateur photographers, enabling them to import, process, organize, and showcase large volumes of digital photographs quickly, or develop a single image. [Lightroom 4 is succeeded by Lightroom 5 – see the differences between the two.]
And indeed they do nicely summarize all the different versions on one page.
Scratching the Surface
So that’s a good starting point, but let’s dig a little deeper. Here’s another way of looking at it, functionally:
- Photoshop CS6 – The latest-and-greatest “flagship” (or regular/standard) version of the breakthrough industry-standard tool – the world’s leading pixel manipulation program.
- Photoshop Elements 11 – A scaled-down, simpler version for hobbyists and home market, with fewer features, functions, and options – it offers “elements” of the full program.
- Photoshop Lightroom 4 – Not really “photoshop” or a pixel-level editor at all, but rather a non-destructive image workflow system for serious and pro photographers.
- Photoshop CS6 Extended – The “top of the line” product with everything: Photoshop CS6 plus the ability to create and edit 3D content, as well as image analysis.
That captures the essence, and we have detailed in-depth comparisons below. But if just from reading that you’re unsure which one is right for you, Adobe offers free trial downloads of all four editions which are fully-functional for 30 days. So you can get any one (or multiple, or all) for tryout to see which work(s) best.
But it’s not “either/or” – many customers actually end up buying two of these: Lightroom together with one of the CS6 editions (or Elements) – they are complementary and integrated to work well together, in fact Adobe offers a 30% discount when those products are purchased at the same time.
All four products are available for both Windows PC and Mac OS – and in fact all of them can be run on both platforms, with the ability to install on up to two computers for each tool. If you own a previous release of the same product, then you may qualify for the Upgrade version which costs less ($US79 for Elements, US$199 for Photoshop CS, and US$79 for Lightroom), otherwise you’d get the Full version.
Special: Legally download dozens of free Adobe books for a limited time!
Compare Photoshop CS6 vs. Photoshop CS6 Extended
OK, we’ve actually written a whole separate article on just that question – the differences between Photoshop vs. Photoshop Extended – so please see that related piece for more details there…
What’s more, the video editing and motion-based content capabilities that used to be “Extended-only” features in Photoshop CS5 and prior have now been included in the standard version of Photoshop starting with CS6. That’s another good thing.
For the other three editions (Photoshop CS6 vs. Lightroom 4 vs. PSE 11): What are some of the features in one version but not the other(s), or unique to each?
Compare Photoshop CS6 vs. Photoshop Elements 11
As mentioned earlier, most would say that Photoshop Elements 11 is a stripped-down version of the full Photoshop CS6 with significantly fewer features, options, and controls. On the other hand, PSE is targeted towards the consumer market and Adobe has designed it to be easier to get started with and learn to use.
There is a long list of features it does not contain as compared to the full Photoshop. Here are a few that Photoshop CS has, but that Photoshop Elements does not have:
- Puppet Warp
- Pen Tool (vector drawing & selections)
- Content-Aware Fill
- Content-Aware Move, Extend, and Patch
- 64-bit support (for performance)
- HDR Toning and HDR Pro
- Video editing
- Paths Palette
- Vanishing Point Tool
- Intelligent selection & masking
- History Brush
- Full 16-bit RGB
- Blur Gallery for creating artistic blurs
- Creating custom Actions (scripting)
- Full Layer Groups (Sets) and Styles
- Layer Search and Filtering
- Type Styles and Paragraph Styles
- Smart Objects, Filters, and Guides
- Color Balance and Match Color
- Channels Palette and Channel Mixer
- Slice Tool (Web graphics)
- Automatic Lens Correction
- Adaptive Wide Angle Lens Correction
- Warp Transform Tool
- 3D objects – images & text
- Pixel Bender plug-in
- CMYK and Lab color models
- Skin-Aware Masking with Face Detection
- Auto Align Layers and Auto Blend Layers
- Mercury Graphics Engine for blazing speed
- Quantitative data extraction
- Hundreds of export formats
- Import/export custom presets and settings
- Background Save, Auto-Save, Crash Recovery
- Adjustments & controls for everything
That said, because Photoshop Elements is meant for home use, there are some features it contains that Photoshop CS6 does not have – for example, templates for photo books, slideshows, greeting cards, email, print calendars, scrapbook pages, keepsakes, and online albums, as well as drop-in frames, backgrounds, and artwork, plus online sharing options for Facebook, Flickr, etc. Elements now also provides the ability to view/place photos on a map, or search images by certain objects or people, and offers more user assistance through aspects like Guided Edits and shortcuts like Quick Fix mode, Photomerge, the Smart Brush tool, and Cookie Cutter tool.
For keeping track of images, Photoshop Elements includes the Organizer to manage photos and videos, which is considered to be simpler but slower than the Bridge media browser that comes with Photoshop CS6. However, most users feel that Lightroom’s smooth library and cataloging functions are superior to both, and especially better and faster when you have a large number of images.
Note that for students and teachers, Adobe gives a much bigger discount on Photoshop Extended (75% off the regular price) than on Photoshop Elements (only 20% off).
Compare Photoshop CS6/Elements vs. Lightroom 4
So, how is Lightroom different from all of the above? Lightroom 4 an intuitive digital darkroom and efficient assistant designed for advanced amateur and professional photographers. LR4 lets you manage, edit, and showcase all your photographs – and do it quickly, powerfully, smoothly. It’s a complete photo and data management solution that was built from the ground up by Adobe to streamline workflow productivity for photographers.
Lightroom has the library and cataloging functions to work with a large collection of images easily and process them rapidly in groups or batches, with fluid interface and a sophisticated database for very fast search, keyword tagging, and previewing functions – even when your image files aren’t accessible on your computer. It has built-in RAW processing (also works with .JPEG, .TIFF, and .PSD images) and can make corrections based upon the camera and lenses you use. LR has terrific tools for “developing” like correcting exposure, adjusting tone, lighting, white balance, contrast, color, saturation, lens calibration, sharpening, and noise reduction, which are state-of-the-art. It’s a snap to make bulk changes to a big set of photos, including adding a copyright notice, watermark, or contact information. There’s also a local adjustment brush to enhance specific areas of an image using dodging and burning, graduated filters, and so on.
And all of it is nondestructive, meaning you can go back and simply undo or redo changes to any image at any time, even years later, without loss of quality. This is much like film, where photographers can always return to their original negative – whereas in standard Photoshop, once you change and save an object, you permanently change the pixels.
Lightroom is not for performing detailed raster-level editing, creating images from scratch, compositing multiple images (like panoramas or collages), using layers, adding text (except watermarking), drawing shapes, editing objects out of a photos, complex cloning & healing, content-aware tools, prepress work, or many of the other capabilities Photoshop has. However, many thousands of serious photographers use Lightroom very efficiently every day for 90% of their needs, and then pop out to tightly-integrated Photoshop for the rest (retouching and post-processing).
Lightroom is an end-to-end digital photography solution so it also includes features to make collections of your work and showcase it in customized print layouts, slide shows, and web galleries, and its extensible architecture easily enables you to transfer images to your favorite sharing sites and photo labs. And in Lightroom 4, new features were added such as soft-proofing, photo book creation, location-based organization, and extended video support.
So if you want the photographer’s workflow to manage thousands of images with ease then you’re talking about Lightroom, but you want to perfect a single image with the “gold standard” professional editing & finishing tool then you’re talking about Photoshop. The two products complement each other and together comprise a complete image processing system.
Adobe has an excellent FAQ on Lightroom and more on the differences between other tools.
This short video answers the question “What is Lightroom?” for new users of the product. Lightroom unites your digital photography essentials in one fast and intuitive package and gets you there with the tools you need to create great images, manage all your photographs, and showcase them with style and impact.
Adobe Camera Raw (ACR)
Interestingly, all products in the Photoshop family share the same underlying image processing technology to ensure consistent and compatible results across applications that support raw processing. This is called the Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) plug-in and it’s packaged in with Photoshop CS, Photoshop Elements, and Lightroom. This is the interface where support for new camera models and lens profiles is added, so Adobe updates this plugin on a regular basis (about every 3-4 months).
You can get access down to the powerful ACR features from within Photoshop CS or Photoshop Elements (the latter form being scaled down with fewer controls and options), while Lightroom essentially takes Camera Raw and centers a full-featured application around it with all the streamlined workflow and cataloging benefits described above.
Free Tutorials and Training
Learn how to use these tools! As mentioned above, you can download a free trial of any or all of them to get started, and then:
- Free Photoshop CS6 Primer: The Top 10 Techniques
- New Photoshop Elements 11 Tutorials – Free 3-Hour Course
- Four Hours of Free Training on Lightroom 4, plus Other Resources
Have any other questions about the differences between these Photoshop products? Just ask them below and we’ll answer!