Adobe Photoshop CC, Elements, or Lightroom: Which Is Best For You?

Which Flavor is Your Photoshop?

What's the difference between Photoshop CC, Elements and Lightroom? Which is best for you—or do you need more than one?

Recently Adobe controversially changed the way it distributes Adobe Photoshop, making the latest version only available on a monthly "pay as you go" setup. While the economic sense of this plan will vary depending on whether you're a big studio or a solo practitioner, it has caused many photographers to wonder whether they need full Photoshop, or if one of the other two flavors—Elements and Lightroom—will suffice.

Let's take a look at each and compare the three products, keeping in mind that there is no correct answer it really depends on your work habits, your needs, your level of experience, and your budget.

Photoshop CC
$19.99-$49.99 per month based on annual plan, through Adobe

Who it's for: For over 20 years the full version of Photoshop has been the industry standard for Professional photographers. It is filled with creative effects, blending of multiple layers, using a photograph as a starting point for your creativity. It is loaded with features that at this point go beyond still photography to include 3D imaging, vector line tools, illustration, and video and is designed for users with a high degree of expertise and those who make a living with their photography. On the otherhand, if you just need to adjust images and enhance them before making prints or sharing them online, then it may be overkill.

The economics: The latest version of full Photoshop, Photoshp CC, is now only available as a rental—either $49.99 per month for the full Creative Suite) or $19.99 per month for Photoshop CC a la carte. Users choose a plan, donwload the software onto their computer as usual, and use it...until they miss a payment. At that point the files are still active, but the ability to edit them with Photoshop CC is not. Some photographers on popular Photoshop forums claim this smacks of a money grab, while many pros I've spoken to who run large studios are happily subscribing to the Master Collection and look at this as a money-saving opportunity. If you need the wide range of features of full Photoshop but don't want to go to the Cloud, you can still pick up Photoshop CS6 for Mac or Windows at Adorama, although it does not share all the features of CC.

Features: Photoshop CC handles image files up to 16 bits per channel, has extensive layers and masking features, and can save images files to either RGB or CMYK. PhotshopCC's unique features include a new Smart Sharpen tool, camera shake reduction (sharpents images that have camera movement after the fact), the ability to work in layers on RAW files, Smart Objects, and a plethora of video, 3D and workflow-streamlining features. A nice benefit of subscription-based software? You'll get instant updates as Adobe rolls out new features.

Photosohop Elements 11
$82.99 at Adorama

Who it's for: Photoshop Elements started out as a seriously stripped-down image-editing program for amateurs, but it has been loaded with so many features, it can now do at least 80 percent of what CC can do, and you can own it for less than 2 month's rental of Photoshop CC. While it does offer an interface for its core audience of snapshooters and hobbyists, click on the "Expert" mode and the interface and features look a lot like full Photoshop, albeit missing a handful of features. So, Photoshop Elements II should appeal to everyone from snapshooters to knowledgeable enthusiasts and budget-conscious Weekend Warriors (and even some professionals).

The Economics:
Budget-minded prosumers have embraced Elements (along, in some cases, with Lighroom) as a cost-effective alternative to the full-blown version. However, some important features are either missing or not as powerful.

What You Lose: Photoshop Elements 11 does not have:

Features: What you get, however, is still pretty powerful. If you're a snapshooter, set Elements 11 on its Basic or Guided mode and you're on your way to great images wvia an intuitive interface. Advanced users, however, will find extensive RAW and JPEG image editing options and, with training, you can produce pro-caliber prints. And you could get a plugin such as ElementsXXL which gives you many full-Photoshop features.

Adorama's Plug Ins department has more ways to enhance Elements and add back features that would otherwise only be available in full Photoshop. 

Photoshop Lightroom 5
$139.99 at Adorama

Who it's for: Professional and experienced photographers will appreciate Lightroom's Darkroom-type image editing options and its well thought-out workflow that allows you to quickly apply standardized edits to large numbers of files. If you shoot RAW (and in my opinion, you should,

The Economics: At $139.99 at Adorama, Photoshop Lightroom 5 is a compelling alternative to Photoshop CC if you work with large quantities of images. The time savings alone are worth the price of admission. Some pro studios use both Lightroom and Photoshop CC to serve different purposes, but for enthusiasts and prosumers the combination of Lightroom 5 and Elements 11 may suit most needs.

Features: Integrated, smooth workflow and non-destructive editing are key features, as well as outstanding support for RAW image files. Features such as smart sharpen, graduated and radial filters, layers, the Spot Removal brush and presets are all time-savers and muscular features. Lightroom is great for developing slideshows, creating books, and preparing images for web sites, and image management tools are robust.

Stepping up or down

The above descriptions are by no means comprehensive, but rather a general overview. Be sure to research the software in depth so you can make an informed decision. Again, I must emphasize that there's no right answer here, and as you advance and become more experienced—or as you view videos from Gavin Hoey or Mark Wallace that demonstrate specific benefits of the different flavors of Photoshop, you may decide to change flavors because what worked at first may in time become insufficent (or overkill, as the case may be).

No matter which flavor of Photoshop suits you, enjoy the picture-taking process, and allow yourself a moment to enjoy the reactions to your hard work by friends, family, co-workers, teachers and, most importantly, your clients!

Keep the conversation going: Which version of Photoshop are you using, and does the move to Creative Cloud change what you're going to do in the future? Leave a comment, below.

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