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Lightroom versus Photoshop versus Camera Raw versus Bridge

Sometimes the question comes up as to why Adobe makes so many products that overlap each other in function. But sometimes the question gets asked a different way. With all these seemingly similar programs, which should you use? Here's my take on sorting out what to make of Lightroom versus Photoshop versus Adobe Camera Raw versus Bridge.

There once was a time when the decision as to which Adobe programs to use for digital photography was simple. All there was was Photoshop with it's built in file browser. Heck, before that there was just the File Open dialog in Photoshop. Adobe introduced Camera Raw as an add-on to Photoshop 7 when photographers started shooting digitally rather than scanning slides. Even after they started bundling Adobe Camera Raw with Photoshop, it wasn't much more than a fancy File Open dialog tailored to working with raw file formats. All real image optimization work was still done in Photoshop back then since ACR was quite limited in functionality. Then came Adobe Bridge, an application that provided a much a better file browsing experience than what had previously come with Photoshop. Over the releases, Bridge and Camera Raw both got more and more features but each still had reasonably clear roles and purposes. And then Adobe introduced Lightroom.

Lightroom started out somewhat as an experiment within Adobe from what I understand. Code-named "Shadowland" it was built from the ground up in new ways and was also the first Adobe product released as an open public beta for free download. Quickly integrating the code from the RawShooter Essentials raw converter Adobe acquired in the purchase of Pixmantec, Lightroom version 1 was released in February 2007. It seemed to be a direct competitor to the existing Adobe Camera Raw program built on code by Thomas Knoll, one of the originators of Photoshop. It was odd when digital photography was still fairly young that one company would market two raw file converters based on different code bases.

Many existing Photoshop users didn't spend too much time seriously considering Lightroom at first as it was new and cost money, while they already owned Camera Raw since it came bundled with Photoshop. There was somewhat greater penetration among Mac OS users than Windows since the first beta releases of Lightroom were Mac only, but even on that platform competition from Apple's Aperture program kept adoption of Lightroom relatively low until version 2. I first downloaded the Windows version when Beta 3 was posted by Adobe Labs back in mid-2006 but didn't buy it when Lightroom finally shipped early that next year. Indeed while I looked at each successive beta release, I didn't actually buy Lightroom until version 2 and didn't fully adopt its use until version 3 over this past year.

So now we have all of these programs available, and Adobe continues to add new features to each. Many of the same developers that created Lightroom worked on the now defunct Adobe ImageReady but as its features got merged into Photoshop itself, ImageReady faded from view. That doesn't seem to be happening to Camera Raw or Bridge even though much of what they do overlaps significantly with features found in Lightroom. Bridge serves a needed role for those who use Adobe Creative Suite applications other than Photoshop since it handles more file types than does Lightroom but for photographers the choice is less clear. Adobe themselves needlessly confuses matters in my opinion since no version of the Creative Suite comes with Lightroom. Even now that they've renamed the program from simply "Lightroom" to "Photoshop Lightroom" it seems less integrated with Photoshop from a marketing standpoint than do far more tangentially associated offerings from Adobe that come in the various suites. Adobe Acrobat remains without a "CS" designation in its name yet comes with most of the Creative Suite versions yet "Photoshop Lightroom" isn't included in any of the suites even while Photoshop (or Photoshop Extended) come with every suite version. I've written before how odd it is to me that there isn't yet a Creative Suite version that includes Lightroom geared towards photographers. I'm still puzzled.

In light of all this, what should one make of all these various options and applications from Adobe? If you are primarily a photographer as I am, I strongly recommend adopting Lightroom as the centerpiece of your workflow. It does most everything Bridge does and provides a much better way to keep track of what you've shot. While Bridge relies on reading all the XMP sidecar files and other metadata created by everything else, Lightroom stores all this sort of information in its own internal database. The more images you have to catalog the more you will appreciate the latter approach. Trust me.

Lightroom also provides a more seamless interface for converting raw files. These days, the Pixmantec code has been fully merged into Thomas Knoll's ACR code and Adobe releases updates to Lightroom and Camera Raw simultaneously, but the editing experience in Lightroom still seems superior, without the need for extra windows and constant prompts to save your work. Everything in Lightroom is always kept up to date yet can still be undone later if needed. I still use Camera Raw for images I don't want to import into Lightroom but for my usual workflow I'm very much a Lightroom convert these days. With version 3 Lightroom features have reached critical mass and it has become the centerpiece of how I work.

There are still plenty of things you can do in Photoshop that are beyond what Lightroom is capable of so while Lightroom may remove the need for Camera Raw it can't touch Photoshop for real image editing. Thankfully, opening a file in Photoshop is just about as easy from Lightroom as it is in Bridge. As such, Lightroom has also replaced Bridge for my normal work. Bridge is still nice for finding and opening files if I'm already in Photoshop, and nothing yet can replace Bridge for non-image files. But my need for Bridge has greatly decreased since moving to Lightroom.

Lightroom also seems more well thought out than do Bridge or Photoshop when it comes to outputting files for other purposes. Lightroom integrates well with many third party applications too since most now come with Lightroom plug-ins standard. Lightroom still lacks soft proofing for color management so when it comes to printing the best prints I can nothing beats Photoshop.

As with all things, only time will tell what the future holds and whether Adobe will repackage the various components to create a Creative Suite for photographers or merge some of these programs and do away with others. But if you're a photographer (and I assume you are if you are reading this) and you haven't yet broke down and purchased Lightroom, I'd suggest giving it some serious consideration. It's well worth having.

Date posted: November 21, 2010


Copyright © 2010 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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