Adobe Photoshop Lightroom (to give it its full title) is, I think, part of the most important development in digital imaging since Photoshop. Like Aperture (and now Capture One), it’s an image cataloguing tool with built-in non-destructive editing tools and seamless RAW conversion.
What these programs lack in outright power compared to traditional image-editors like Photoshop, they more than make up for in flexibility, speed and efficiency.
You’ll still need Photoshop, or some other dedicated image-editor, for complex, multi-layered composites and more advanced image effects, but Lightroom is increasingly eating into its advantage, with ever more powerful editing tools of its own. Photographers (as opposed to illustrators, designers and artists) may find that Lightroom does almost everything they need, and that they turn to Photoshop less and less.
Lightroom is based around an image ‘library’, a database of all your images, complete with thumbnails, previews and metadata (shooting information, keywords and so on). You can leave your original images exactly where they are and Lightroom will ‘reference’ them in situ. You can even keep your images on an external drive and your Lightroom catalog on your computer – ideal for laptop users with limited storage capacity.
The other key to Lightroom’s success its its editing tools. These are built around the same Adobe Camera Raw engine you get with Photoshop, except that here the tools are full integrated into the software instead of appearing in a separate window. In Lightroom 5 you can now clone out unwanted objects, paint in localised image adjustments, add graduated filter effects, pick out your subjects with a new ‘radial gradient’ tool and apply a wide range of sophisticated tone and colour adjustments.
It’s been pointed out to me that both Lightroom and Elements are technically ‘Photoshop’ products, but I still include them on this site because I think they’re quite different, and they’re both important alternatives to Photoshop itself. Lightroom represents a completely new way of working, while Elements does 90% of what Photoshop can do for a fraction of the price.
See also: Life after Photoshop Lightroom tutorials