What Is Adobe Lightroom, and Do I Need It?

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Adobe Photoshop Lightroom confuses a lot of new photographers. It has Photoshop in the name, but it isn’t Photoshop? What gives?

Lightroom is a really important piece of software for photographers, so let’s look at what it does and why it’s useful.

Lightroom is available on Windows, macOS, iOS and Android (although the mobile versions aren’t quite as powerful) as a standalone app for $149 or as part of the Adobe Creative Cloud Photography Plan which comes with Photoshop for $9.99 per month.

Lightroom Catalogs Your Photos

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First and foremost, Lightroom is a catalog for every image you shoot. Think of it less like Photoshop and more like Picasa or Apple Photos—but made for professional and serious amateur photographers. It’s designed to help you import, process, review and store tens of thousands of photos.

Whenever you shoot new images, you import them from the camera or SD card into your Lightroom catalog. They’re stored as normal on your hard drive so you can access them from any program. While you’re importing them, you can add keywords, titles, captions, the model’s name, and other image specific metadata.

Once you’ve got the images imported, Lightroom makes it easy to go through and pull out the best images. You can flag them as picks or rejections, or rate them between 1 and 5 stars. You can then filter the photos by rating, or any other metadata. I can instantly find all the best photos I shot last year just by filtering by 5 stars and 2016.

Lightroom sets itself apart with the depth and power of its cataloging tools. While other apps like Picasa or Apple Photos can store your photos, they don’t have as many options when it comes to sorting, categorizing and finding them. For example, in Apple Photos, you can only Favorite pictures. There’s no way to give them star ratings or flag them as rejected.

If you shoot a lot of images, Lightroom is invaluable for keeping track of them all.

RAW Image Processing

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Second, Lightroom is a very powerful RAW image editor.

RELATED: What is Camera Raw, and Why Would a Professional Prefer it to JPG?

RAW images are photos captured in a lossless file format. Rather than just saving enough information to make an acceptable JPEG, DSLRs and other high quality cameras can write all the information they can record to a RAW file. All the extra data gives you a lot more room to post-process your photos. If your photo is underexposed, a JPEG will be useless, but a RAW file will probably still have the information you need to make it work.

For comparison, my Canon 5D III saves photos as (approximately) 4 MB JPEGs or 25 MB RAW files. That’s a big difference in the amount of data you have to use when you edit.

If you get things perfect in camera, you may be able to get away with using JPEGs, but professionals and anyone serious about photography use RAW files, since they are much more flexible and give you a better chance at nailing the shot. We’ve dug deeper into the advantages of RAW files before, so check out this article for more information.

Of course, Lightroom can also perform the usual simple edits, like fixing the color, contrast and cleaning up any dust spots. Unless you want to do really complex editing, Lightroom is often the better app to use. It’s simpler and more intuitive than Photoshop, and much more powerful than apps like Picassa or Photos.

If you’re shooting RAW files (and you should be), Lightroom is the best app for editing them. It’s easy to use, and makes it possible to get the most from the photos you took.

Exporting, Printing and More

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Finally, Lightroom is a great export tool. It can convert your massive RAW files to JPEGs to upload to your favorite social networks, save them to your hard drive, print your images properly, or even turn a collection of them into a web gallery or book.

Lightroom is basically a complete digital darkroom. Anything photographers used to do while locked in a cupboard under their stairs surrounded by funny spelling chemicals, they can now do with Lightroom. If you’re serious about digital photography, it’s a program worth having.

Harry Guinness writes occasionally when he’s not busy skiing, sailing, partying, lifting weights, or otherwise dodging responsibility. His main areas of interest are himself, gin, and crazy people with interesting stories to tell. When people won’t pay him to write ill-thought-out opinion pieces, he covers photography, technology, and culture. You can follow him on Twitter.