Photos vs Lightroom: Why Apple’s App Is Good Enough for Almost Everyone

Yes, even professional photographers

Key Takeaways

  • Photos and Lightroom both combine photo-editing with powerful cataloging features.
  • Both apps are free, and Lightroom has a paid tier.
  • Lightroom wins on advanced features. Photos wins on privacy.
Apple Photos app on an iPad editing an image of a red leaf

Lifewire / Charlie Sorrel

If you have a fancy camera, you need a fancy, pro-level photo editing app, right? Maybe not. If you have a Mac or an iPad, then you already have everything you need.

Photos might look like a simple image-viewing app, but dig in and you’ll find powerful organizing and editing tools. You may think you need Lightroom, but Photos probably has everything you need, and you don’t have to pay a monthly subscription to use it.

For high-volume batch edits and deep camera integration, Lightroom wins. But for pretty much everything else, you’ll find Apple’s Photos app to be surprisingly capable.

Organization

Photos and Lightroom are combo editing/organizing apps. Lightroom’s catalogs let you sort and search on almost every aspect of an image, but Photos is similarly powerful. You can search by camera and lens model, but you also can search for picture elements. Search for "dog," and you’ll see most of your dog photos (along with a few horses, probably, thanks to AI glitches). You also can view albums of your friends and family, automatically created via machine learning.

Lightroom has similar AI searches, using Adobe’s Sensei feature, but Photos does all this in the privacy of your own Mac/iPad/iPhone. Adobe uses the cloud, along with all the privacy issues it entails.

"For high-volume batch edits and deep camera integration, Lightroom wins."

One great aspect of Lightroom, however, is that it also has apps for Mac, iPad, iPhone, and Windows PC.

If you’re a commercial or wedding photographer who has to process a zillion images every week, Lightroom will win. Otherwise, Photos is more than good enough. Plus, you get iCloud Photo Sharing, and deep, deep integration with your Apple devices.

Editing

On iOS, Photos has far fewer editing tools than on the Mac, so if you’re iPad-first, you may prefer Lightroom. But on the Mac, it has everything you need, from curves to selective color adjustments to a retouching tool that removes zits and dust spots. You can do some deep edits with Photos, far more than you might have thought. And you also can use plug-ins in the form of other apps that integrate with Photos for even more editing power.

Adobe Lightroom on an iPad editing a photo of a flower

Charlie Sorrel / Lifewire

What you don’t get are user-created presets, bulk editing tools, or camera profiles that match the in-camera image styles provided by camera makers. Lightroom is definitely more powerful when it comes to editing images. If you need these tools, then you need Lightroom. And if you’re a heavy editor, then Lightroom is easier to use—Apple hides too much of Photos’ UI, and has fewer keyboard shortcuts.

But before you jump, try Photos. It could well be plenty good enough.

Raw

Both Lightroom and Photos will handle raw image files. That is, they can decode, display, and edit the raw sensor files from pro-level cameras. They both use their own "demosaicing" engines for this, and each has its quirks. With a Fujifilm raw file, for example, Lightroom doesn’t get as many details as it should, while Photos can’t even display Fujifilm’s compressed raw files.

But once you get over this, both apps are great at editing raws.

The main difference between the two is that Lightroom makes it easy to handle raw files in its catalog, whereas Photos makes it a pain. It’s hard to import your JPG and raw files independently, for example. If you capture a raw+JPG version of the same image, Photos lumps them into one unit, and it’s fiddly to switch between them. One workaround is to use the Mac’s Image Capture app for imports, but that doesn’t work on mobile. If you’re a very heavy raw+JPG user, then, Lightroom is a better bet.

As we’ve seen, Photos is incredibly capable, within some odd limits. If you don’t bump up against those limits, then you’ll love it. For more specialized needs, though, you’ll need the more specialized features of Lightroom. Or you may just prefer the way it works. But don’t jump before you try out Photos. You may be surprised how deep it goes.

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