Lightroom or Aperture or Photoshop – Which One?

A Student recently posted to the Photo Program Listserv:


Q: I am a Photo 1100 student and am interested in comments from users of Photoshop, Elements, iPhoto and Aperture.  I have iPhoto on my MacBook Pro now and find it a little limiting but reasonable for a beginner anyway. I guess I am looking for advice as to whether to stay with what I have or move upward or onward to another editing program.  Any and all comments will be greatly appreciated.

A: It’s a tough question, but let’s limit the discussion to what we teach in the department. Adobe Elements and iPhoto and even camera manufacturer’s software is fine, but for processing large numbers of images in an efficient and high-quality way, they are probably not the best tools.

The Photo 1101 course (Foundations of Digital Photography) begins by looking at Adobe Lightroom (software that’s not on your list). It then moves on to using Adobe Photoshop at about mid-term and the rest of the course looks at the integration between Lightroom and Photoshop.

In our Photo 1201 course (Tools & Techniques for Digital Photography), we review Lightroom and also briefly cover Apple’s Aperture program, which is similar to Lightroom in some ways and then also cover more advanced information in Adobe Photoshop.

None of our courses teach or provide any information on iPhoto or Adobe Elements. Both of those software packages are fine, but have limited use in the world of the professional photographer.

Lightroom, Aperture and Photoshop, though, all have homes in our program’s coursework, as well as in the world of the professional photographer.

A bit about each application that we teach:

1) It’s officially called “Adobe Photoshop Lightroom” but is usually referred to as just “Lightroom.” It is, without a doubt, the current industry-leading application for organizing, cataloging, sorting and adjusting images. Its image adjustment tools are powerful enough that many photographers who use it find that they need the “big dog” Photoshop less and less often. For a lot of photographers, it’s the only tool they really need. Because it is from Adobe and because it can run on Windows and on the Mac, it has become very popular.

2) Aperture is Apple’s entry into the world of image organizing, cataloging, sorting and adjusting. It is, logically, a Mac-only software package, so it doesn’t run on Windows. Its feature set for organization and adjusting images is very similar to Lightroom’s. Each application has strengths and weaknesses and each has features that the other one does differently. Because Apple created Aperture with the Mac’s system architecture in mind, Aperture has very tight integration into the Mac OS, which many people like because Aperture can use resources in other Apple applications and those apps can, in turn, use resources from Aperture. Like Lightroom, many photographers who use Aperture end up not using Photoshop very often.

— A side note here that should be mentioned is that the existence of these two software packages is a good thing for all of us. As each application has evolved, it’s been easy to see how a feature that debuts in one app ends up being changed slightly and then showing up in the other app. Competition is good for the breed.

3) Adobe Photoshop. The 800-pound gorilla of the photography software world is and will continue to be an important tool for photographers. The tools that it offers for adjusting images in untold ways are very powerful and work with great precision. Selections, masks, layers and the ability to combine several images into one make Photoshop the absolute industry-leading software for adjusting images. Though Photoshop comes with a companion “image browser” software (Adobe Bridge, which can be used to sort and compare images) even with that add-on, Photoshop doesn’t do nearly as much for image cataloging and organization as do Lightroom or Aperture. But, for complex image retouching, compositing and adjustments, it is without peer.

Ultimately, most students in our program find that they end up needing a combination of Lightroom + Photoshop or Aperture + Photoshop for their coursework. The department maintains licensing for all three software packages and they are all installed on all of our department’s Macs.


3 Responses to Lightroom or Aperture or Photoshop – Which One?

  1. There’s no right answer to that question; it depends a lot on what your requirements are. However, in deciding your requirements you need to address your needs in several areas – file management, raw conversion, post-processing, and downstream work (printing, web galleries, internet posting, etc.) Adobe Photoshop Elements for example is about 1/10th the cost of Adobe Photoshop CS5, but only works with 8-bit files. For more on Lightroom and Photoshop, this might be of use:


  2. CottonM says:

    One thing worth noting: Both Lightroom & Aperture have free trials that can be downloaded. Another factor might be what your fellow photographers are using. If you choose the one they’re using you’ll get free help & suggestions. As an Aperture user I can say I really rely on it & find it great but there are many more resources online & in books on Lightroom because it is cross platform & it have many many more users.

  3. Jeff,

    Thank you for the very well scoped analysis of the question. I would like to expand the response to help the questioner with an unasked portion of that question. Managing our image libraries is a much more daunting task than image editing! One good reference is the web site at;


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