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Aren't Adobe Camera Raw and Lightroom Really the Same Thing?

Users with a well-established workflow involving Adobe Camera Raw and Photoshop may be feeling they have little need for Lightroom. After all, aren't ACR and Lightroom really the same thing under the covers? Well, yes, ... and no.

These days, the release of every update to Adobe Lightroom is accompanied by an updated release of Adobe Camera Raw. But it hasn't always been so. There once was a time when Lightroom didn't exist and all of us used Photoshop with proprietary raw converters unique to the camera brand we used. Back in the days of Photoshop 7, Adobe released a plugin called Adobe Camera Raw. This was in August 2002. The first release of Lightroom wouldn't hit the scene until early 2007. So for close to five years, Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw couldn't have been the same thing since there was no Lightroom yet.

Early versions of Adobe Camera Raw were based on code developed by Thomas Knoll. After creating the very first version of Photoshop together with his brother John in 1988 before it was bought by Adobe, Thomas Knoll was as much up to the challenge of creating a raw plugin for Photoshop as anyone. Its features were limited by today's standards, but it was convenient to have it integrated with Photoshop and really did to a great job on most images. The genesis of Lightroom on the other hand started when Adobe bought Pixmantic in 2006, creators of the Rawshooter Essentials raw converter. Version 2 of Lightroom was introduced in 2008 and was the point at which Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw became joined at the hip. On July 29, 2008, Adobe officially released Lightroom 2 and Adobe Camera Raw 4.5 which had been developed together by Adobe Labs. ACR 4 supported Photoshop CS3 so considering only the version numbers of the products involved and the dates of each should tell you that Lightroom and Camera Raw initially lived completely separate lives.

But once the code base for Camera Raw and Lightroom did merge, the two became inseparable. As I write this, the current version of Camera Raw is 8.4. Lightroom is up to version 5.4. Both releases were announced on April 7, 2014, as was the release of the related DNG Converter 8.4 standalone application. Ever since the days of Photoshop CS3 and Lightroom 2 this has pretty much been the case. So yes, at this point, the two really are the same code wrapped in somewhat different packages, but that still doesn't mean Camera Raw and Lightroom are the same thing.

The actual raw conversion features of both programs do have a lot in common, but you may not even see everything that Adobe Camera Raw can do depending on the host editing application you use. The only way to get at ACR version 8 is to upgrade to Adobe Creative Cloud. Users who prefer to stay with Photoshop CS6 will be limited to the Camera Raw 7 series. Those who use Photoshop Elements rather than any full version of Photoshop will lose even more. Camera Raw recognizes what it was called from and many of the more advanced capabilities of ACR don't even show up when run from Photoshop Elements.

But let's assume you are running the latest release of Photoshop CC as compared to the latest release of Lightroom. Doesn't this put things on a level playing field to make ACR and Lightroom the same? Nope. If you focus your comparison solely on the Develop module of Lightroom versus ACR, the differences do become fewer, but to really understand the difference it's necessary to consider the full workload in which each is used. A full comparison would have to involve Lightroom on one side, versus Adobe Bridge, Camera Raw and Photoshop (or Photoshop Elements Organizer and Editor together with ACR) on the other.

As should by now be well know, Lightroom is built around a database while both Adobe Bridge and the Elements Organizer are simple browser applications. You can tag photos with keywords and ratings in each of these, but finding them later will be quite different experiences if you have a lot of images. Bridge stores this sort of metadata in sidecar files for each image while Lightroom keeps all this centrally in its Catalog. Yes, you can switch Camera Raw to use the misleadingly named "Camera Raw Database" rather than sidecar files, but this is a database in name only, even while the Lightroom Catalog is a database even though it isn't called one. The Lightroom Catalog database has indexes so you can find things efficiently, and you'll be glad it does when you need to find something. Bridge has to open all your sidecar files to see what each contains rather than being able to directly look up what is needed via indexes.

Indeed, Lightroom it built from the ground up as a workflow oriented application. It's not just about working on one image on a time; it's about managing a collection of images. I would describe Lightroom as being "image-centric" as compared to the use of Bridge, ACR and Photoshop which tends to be mostly "file-centric." Yes, Adobe Bridge lets you stack images based on HDR exposure or panorama sequence (or manually stack them), but Lightroom goes further and lets you create "virtual copies," presets and other innovative features so you can pay more attention to your images than all the files that represent them. Lightroom also makes it much easier to copy Develop and other settings from one image to all the others you shot under the same conditions that likely need many of the same optimizations made to them. And since these non-destructive settings remain fully changeable, copying them can save time even if you view this merely as a better starting point for optimizing each image later.

But for me, the single biggest difference between Adobe Camera Raw and Lightroom is that Camera Raw only gets you halfway there. Once you've done everything you can in ACR, you eventually have to open an image in Photoshop to really finish with it. And as soon as you do, you commit yourself to whatever changes you made in Camera Raw. Up to that point, everything in ACR is fully non-destructive, and you can certainly perform more non-destructive changes in Photoshop, but the two sets of changes forever remain separate. Reopen that raw image in Camera Raw later and your settings are right where you left them courtesy of the sidecar XMP settings that go with that image, but Photoshop sees only the final result of those changes. Even if you open that raw file in Photoshop as a smart object, the gulf between your ACR changes and those made in Photoshop remains stubbornly there.

On the flip side, you can do most everything you need for the typical image without ever leaving Lightroom. Every Lightroom edit remains non-destructive, and all within the same user interface with the same set of tools available. While there are still a few things you can't do (or can't do easily) in Lightroom, the occasions when you need to resort to Photoshop become less frequent with every new version of Lightroom. As a Lightroom convert myself these days after starting out as a diehard Photoshop guy for many years, I appreciate keeping everything unified and simplified to the extent I can.

It really does make a difference.

Date posted: May 11, 2014


Copyright © 2014 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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Related articles:
Using Both Adobe Camera Raw and Lightroom
Organizing and Simplifying Through Stacking in Bridge and Lightroom
Lightroom versus Photoshop versus Camera Raw versus Bridge
Sync Settings and Auto Sync in the Lightroom Develop Module
Using Photoshop Elements with Adobe Lightroom
Migrating Keywords Between Photoshop/Bridge and Lightroom

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