Lightroom vs. Photoshop, Part 2

David Salahi Lightroom, Photoshop 1 Comment

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument
This photo, taken at Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument in New Mexico, illustrates a problem in getting a good sky mask with Lightroom 5

I had high hopes as I started to take a second look at Lightroom recently. As I mentioned in my previous post I looked at Lightroom 3 a while back and decided it wasn’t for me. But with Lightroom 5 out and considering the popularity of Lightroom I thought that maybe I should reevaluate my decision. But as I began my second look I encountered some hurdles in using Lightroom together with Photoshop. Still, I’ve been trying to stay enthusiastic and open-minded about the possibility of using the two together. But I have to say, the more I work with Lightroom the less optimistic I’m becoming. Even so, I’m not yet ready to write off Lightroom. I suspect it will have a place in my toolbox but I need to figure out where it fits in.

Masking Problems in Lightroom

Here’s another example of the complications that arise when you try to use Lightroom together with Photoshop. I was editing this file in Lightroom:

Sky darkened using the brush tool to reduce exposure in Lightroom
Note the slight fringe at the top of the middle rock

In Lightroom I converted the image to black-and-white and darkened the sky by brushing in exposure and highlights adjustments. The problem I had was that there was a fringe outlining the intersection of the rocks and the sky. I was using the Auto Mask option with the brush tool to selectively darken just the sky. The Auto Mask feature did a pretty good job of limiting the adjustments to only the sky but no matter what I tried I couldn’t get rid of the fringing. At low resolutions like the first image above the problem is very subtle. You can see it mostly around the top and left of the middle rock. But at larger sizes it becomes much more noticeable. Since I was thinking of printing this shot I wanted to do a better job of defringing that mask. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any way of improving on this result using Lightroom.

Halo around the rock as masked in Lightroom
At full size the fringe produced by Lightroom’s Auto Mask feature is very noticeable.

Editing in Photoshop

So, I started to edit the file in Photoshop (from Lightroom) but I noticed that the image included the changes I had made in Lightroom. That’s not what I intended. I wanted the original RAW file without the problematic sky mask. I abandoned the edit and tried again thinking that I would tell Lightroom to give me a copy of the original file this time. There is a Lightroom dialog that is sometimes shown when choosing Edit in Photoshop which allows you to work with an unaltered copy of your original file. Unfortunately, that dialog is not offered when editing a RAW file as I was doing.

I thought, OK, I’ll just jump over to Bridge and grab the original NEF file and open it in Photoshop’s Camera RAW. No go. The NEF file in Bridge showed the Lightroom adjustments and were included when I tried to open the file in ACR. Now, I was becoming annoyed. Not only was Lightroom unable to do what I needed (give me a clean mask) it also refused to let me have a fresh copy of my RAW file. This was alarming. In all my years of editing RAW files with Bridge and Photoshop I’ve never encountered a situation where the original RAW file was irreversibly altered. Well, as it turned out that wasn’t really the case with Lightroom either. I was able to undo all my Lightroom changes using the History panel. Then I was able to open my original RAW file in Photoshop.

Powerful Selection and Masking Tools in Photoshop

Once I had a copy of my unsullied file in Photoshop I was able to use the Quick Selection tool to quickly (natch) make a selection of the sky. Next I used the Refine Edge tool to clean up the problem areas. In a few minutes I had a selection with almost no halo. By contrast, I spent about 10 minutes brushing in Lightroom and I ended up with an inferior result.

A smooth outline in the mask created with Photoshop
The selection outline from Photoshop’s Quick Selection/Refine Edge tools is barely noticeable—and it took less time.

Can We Play Nicely Together?

Still, this situation has thrown up another hurdle that forces me to ponder what kind of Lightroom-Photoshop workflow will serve my needs. I wouldn’t want to ever destructively modify my original digital “negatives.” But I can imagine situations where I might want to do some edits in Lightroom and later do some different work in Photoshop—while not losing my Lightroom edits. For example, I might want to make some quick edits in Lightroom before sharing a photo online. Later, I might want to print the file after detailed editing in Photoshop. And I might very well want to start with an unmodified original in Photoshop rather than using the version with the Lightroom edits.

To accomplish this you have to use the workaround of rolling back your edits using the Lightroom History panel and then exporting a copy (TIFF or PSD). To be fair, this is not an onerous task. In fact, it’s easy to do and Lightroom restores all your edits immediately after the export. That’s good, assuming you want to reinstate your edits but that’s not necessarily a foregone conclusion.

Give Up on Lightroom?

Some of this might seem like quibbling but I’m used to having control over my images without the software getting in my way. Maybe this feeling I have of pushing rope is Lightroom’s way of telling me that we weren’t made for each other. But I’m not quite ready to surrender. In addition to Lightroom’s efficiency advantages it’s a popular product and there are benefits that come with using a popular tool. When collaborating with others it’s great to know exactly what they’re doing and seeing. You can help each other; you can trade presets, etc. And there are additional features and third-party tools available to Lightroom users. mosaic has an iOS app which allows you to view your Lightroom photos on your devices. From anywhere. For free, for your most recent 2000 photos. And Adobe is working on a way to edit RAW files on the iPad and then have the changes automatically sync up with your Lightroom catalog. There are strong incentives to be a Lightroom user so I’m still trying to develop a workflow that works for me.

To be Continued…

This is a work in progress. There’s no way I’m going to abandon Photoshop. Next time, I’ll have another example of a problem that can easily be fixed in Photoshop but which can’t be addressed at all in Lightroom. And I will discuss a solution for getting a clean sky mask that works in either Photoshop or Lightroom. Check back soon for the next installment or subscribe to blog updates using the box at the top of the right column.

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  1. Pingback: Lightroom and Photoshop Compatibility Problems | The Photo Performance

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