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Lightroom and Photoshop: One Rule for a Happy Marriage

As Lightroom continues to evolve and become a more powerful photography tool, many photographers are finding fewer reasons to jump into Photoshop for performing their image corrections. For the most part, Lightroom (LR) and Photoshop are designed to work exceptionally well together. Still, there is one major snag many photographers run into when using both applications. If you can avoid it, your workflow will be even smoother.

Once in Photoshop: Stay In Photoshop
Perhaps the biggest mistake one can make when working in Lightroom is to perform corrections in LR to layered Photoshop files. Adobe should probably prohibit you from doing this, but they don’t and it can get you into trouble. Here’s why.

Lightroom and Photoshop perform their corrections in very different ways. Lightroom’s corrections are stored in the metadata of files using XMP instruction sets to tell Photoshop and Lightroom how to interpret the pixels in the files. This is ideal as your corrections are always non-destructively applied to your photo.

In Photoshop, your corrections are applied directly to the pixels themselves unless you use Adjustment layers, which store your corrections within the Adjustment layers. Using Adjustment Layers offers a non-destructive workflow as well, but requires the use of Layers instead of metadata.

Still with me? Good.

When you bring a layered Photoshop document into Lightroom, Lightroom cannot access all of the layer information stored within the file. Instead, it uses a flattened composite of the file created when you enable the Maximize File Compatibility checkbox in Photoshop. (If you haven’t enabled Maximize File Compatibility, Lightroom won’t display your PSD files).

If you perform subsequent corrections in Lightroom, these XMP-based corrections are applied to the interpretation of the preview image, not to the original, layered document. This is fine as long as you never open the image in Photoshop again. If you try and open the photo back into Photoshop, you’re stuck choosing between two bad options:
1) Open the layered PSD file without your new Lightroom corrections.
2) Open a flattened copy of your layered PSD file with your Lightroom corrections.

Because two entirely different technologies are in use, Lightroom has no way to reconcile your LR corrections and your layered Photoshop corrections.

The moral of the story
If you make your image corrections in Photoshop, do not make any more corrections to that image in Lightroom. At that point, just use Lightroom to manage the photo and use Photoshop for any corrections.


5 comments for “Lightroom and Photoshop: One Rule for a Happy Marriage”

  1. Makes sense, I think. But after breaking the bank with $300 for Lightroom, it’s tough to justify $700 for Photoshop for a $1000 package, so I don’t experiment with the marriage except through Elements.

    It does feel like Adobe is holding back a bit on Lightroom features so as to not intrude on PS sales, but they need to give it up if so. We should be able to do more things with the brush, for instance, things like selective noise reduction. Lightroom should be thought of as a complete photography package except for people who need major photo manipulation. That’s probably how most people use it already, despite their idea that it’s a partner to full Photoshop. They also need to open up plug-in development at the raw level. Plug-ins are pretty bad with Lightroom, and very limited. You have to export a Tiff, play around, re-save, then go back and delete those huge tiff files after exporting a jpeg (if you don’t want to many huge tiff files). Very clunky. Shouldn’t really call them plug-ins, just external editors.

    Anyway, off topic, sorry…

    Posted by John Krumm | January 7, 2010, 10:07 am
  2. John,

    It isn’t off-topic at all. The above advice holds true for Elements as well as PS.

    I don’t think Adobe is holding back on their raw development to preserve Photoshop sales. Trying to perform pixel-by-pixel edits in a raw file is very difficult to do. Trying to do more sophisticated edits to the raw file is a complex endeavor.

    This too is probably the limiting factor in plugin development. For plugins to have broader access, Adobe would need to allow third-party companies access to the demosaicing algorithms used to interpret raw files. The newer DNG specification may allow for more development on top of Adobe’s corrections, but that remains to be seen.

    As evidenced by the need for this post, Lightroom has come a long way in a few short years, but is far from perfect!


    Posted by Jay Kinghorn | January 7, 2010, 10:25 am
  3. Dear Jay Kinghorn,

    I think this is excellent advice. I wish that Adobe would add a warning dialog that appears when you try to alter a .psd file using Lightroom.

    That said, I think that the crop tool is one tool in the develop module that you should use after you have created a .psd edit file. Lightroom’s crop tool is superior to Photoshop’s a: because it is non-destructive and b: because it offers visual guides for composition techniques like the rule of thirds.

    In the workflow that I teach we use Lightroom as the front door– to import and catalog new images– Lightroom for the rough improvements and Photoshop for the final polish. But once the Photoshop -edit .psd file is perfect its back to Lightroom for all of the output versions and this is where you need to use the crop tool overtop of your .psd file.

    Hope this helps and happy new year,

    David Marx

    Posted by David Marx | January 8, 2010, 10:38 am
  4. Jay,
    Very good point. I had never given it enought thought, so I am sure I have some images screwed up.
    I really like what I can do in LR and I really like working in PS “Layers”. Thanks for pointing out this problem.
    Did Adobe address this in LR 3.0?
    Eyes are almost back to normal..Yea.
    Have a great 2010.

    Posted by Allen | January 8, 2010, 1:49 pm
  5. David,

    Good point. I don’t typically use the crop tool aside from a quick trim along the edges. For output, I usually crop within the Print dialog itself. Either way would work provided one didn’t try and go back into Photoshop and expect to retain the crop. Hence, the confusion.

    I’m pretty sure the situation hasn’t changed with LR 3. WIth both versions, you are given the option to open the original or open a copy with the LR corrections. I’m sure this is the way Adobe intends for it to work (e.g. it isn’t a bug), but a lot of people find it confusing. I’m glad the eyes are returning to normal.

    Happy new year to both of you!


    Posted by jay | January 8, 2010, 4:08 pm

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