10% Photoshop, 100% Stunning – Less Is Actually More

I love Photoshop, it’s an amazing program with no peer. With it you can make the impossible possible and the unreal real. Photoshop is the uncontested champion in the world of photo.

However, with all this power, Photoshop is also rather complicated – intimidating even. In the same vein, Photoshop can also be the slowest point in any photographic work flow. To this extent, I am going to propose using Photoshop smarter, quicker and less.

The final goal is to use Photoshop less than 10% of the time…if you shoot RAW.

If you shoot RAW you should be using Lightroom; designed from the ground up to expedite the RAW workflow. Sure, Lightroom can handle RGB images (JPG, TIFF and PSD), but it cannot manipulate these raster images with the power and polish it can handle RAW files. Lightroom is designed to adjust pixels in a non-destructive way, and when you export, all your adjustments are compiled with the RAW sensor data to produce a standard RGB raster image.

Photoshop, on the other hand, is designed to manipulate pixels by altering and moving pixels in a rendered image. So in a sense, Lightroom output is as pristine as a print made directly from a frame of film while Photoshop output is like taking a retouching brush to the print.

So, our goal is to use Photoshop only in the final stages of editing a photo – only if it is needed.

Our first step is of course taking an image with a camera. This is the most critical portion of a 10% Photoshop workflow. Know your camera and know photography. Compose a great image watching for distractions you might have to clone out and take a good exposure. Watch your focus and depth of field.

The better an image is, the less manipulation will be needed in the end. By taking the time to get proper exposure and great composition, you are giving yourself the highest quality RAW data you can. You really want that preview image on your LCD to sing. Focus on this step; it will make the rest of the process easier.

Know your camera and know photography.

Once you import your RAW files into Lightroom, take a few moments to assess the image before you start adjusting it. Envision where you want to go with the image, find those problem areas you feel need attention. Try to ascertain what you will require the power of Photoshop for.

Do any spots in the image need cloning or healing? Can they be fixed in Lightroom or will they require Photoshop? Did you nail your depth of field right, or will you need to fake it or fix it? Will the image be sharp enough coming out of Lightroom or will you need to finesse more in Photoshop? Does this photo scream for your fancy Photoshop plug-ins?

Answer these questions honestly, for most well taken photos you will find that Lightroom is more than suitable to accomplish all you need. In the case where you know you will need Photoshop, fix everything you can in Lightroom before moving on.

Look for dust, scratches and so forth and use your spot removal brush to get rid of them. I feel Lightroom renders a smoother correction in this respect than Photoshop as it is being done before rendering.

Next, work your develop adjustments. Nail the exposure and color, get the white balance perfect and apply any presets you desire. Tweak the tone curve; crank the contrast or amp up the saturation. These are the areas that should always be adjusted in Lightroom.

If this were done in Photoshop, you would be radically altering pixels and lowering quality. In Lightroom you’re manipulating the interpretation of RAW data, so you are technically creating the pixels the way you want them, not changing them.

Now that the basic development of the image is done use the noise reduction, sharpness and chromatic aberration tools in Lightroom to see if you can get the image looking just right. If you feel it looks great, then you have completely bypassed Photoshop. If not, then edit in Photoshop and fix what needs fixing.

If you shoot RAW you should be using Lightroom; designed from the ground up to expedite the RAW workflow.

The detail adjustments in Lightroom are good, but I will admit that Photoshop and the many plug-ins can do sharpening, noise reduction and fix chromatic aberration better. If that is all you have to utilize Photoshop for then you are doing fine.

The 10% Photoshop method mirrors much of what was done in traditional film photography. You do as much as possible in camera. You choose and develop your film for the desired result (Lightroom). You retouch and airbrush the photo to get to your final image (Photoshop).

If you currently use Photoshop to do anything that can be done in Lightroom, try using Lightroom instead. Try using presets to get the effect you currently use a Photoshop plug-in for. If you are planning on compositing photos in Photoshop, prep them in Lightroom. You may be surprised at how much Lightroom can do that was traditionally handled in Photoshop.

Brandon Oelling

Hi there! I'm Brandon Oelling, the founder of XEQUALS. My team and I believe deep in our hearts that inside every one of us is an amazing photographer.

  1. Good stuff. The method described is one that I have followed and worked by for years now. The only difference for me is that I am using Aperture in place of lightroom but the same rules apply.

  2. I’ve found that my own workflow definitely follows this since I discovered Lightroom’s Presets – even more since Lightroom 2 was released with the ability to selectively apply changes.

    For my photography, Photoshop is the very last thing I use – typically only on client photos, which might need a little airbrushing or similar touchups. Lightroom is used for color correction, cropping, straightening, and even some skin softening / eye sharpening. Photoshop is for the final eye pop; the final curves adjustment; a few final pop actions that I run on minimal opacity; brushing out that stray hair.

    Great article – Lightroom 2 is so powerful, you can almost certainly use it for 90% of your photo editing.

  3. I love Lightroom, I honestly thought I was going to hate it. Photoshop only gets a look in when there’s something specific I want to do.

    Plus I’m trying to nail the final image in camera, get the light right and there shouldn’t be much need for too much jiggery pokery.

    It’s freed up more of my time to enjoy taking pictures and not being stuck near the computer. And when you think that I used to be a computer programmer as well, that’s not a bad thing 🙂

  4. This is the workflow I regualarly use in my actual photo work for clients. I feel it gets the best possible results, bring out really great prints.

    I wrote this up in a fit of aggavation after having a conversation with another photographer saying that they only use Lightroom for cataloging and quick exports. He always exports an unretouched raw image from Lightroom into Photoshop to do curve adjustments, spot removals, and contrast adjustments. I cannot get it through to him that all this is better accomlished in Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw. HE does don’t seem to comprehend the digital negative paradigm.

    Thanks for the quick feedback, it is much appreciated. It makes me feel like I am not just being obstinant due to my Lightroom fetish.

    Michael W. Gray

  5. Some good points I’ve not really thought about before. I just like using lightroom as I much prefer changing from app to app as little as possible. The other benefits I hadn’t even considered.

    As for trying to convince someone else, well a lot of people just don’t listen. I’d save your energy for climbing to a hard to reach spot for that awesome photo!

  6. wow man. i totally agree with you. I shoot jpg more than raw, but when i shoot raw, i can use lightroom to do most of my manipulation.

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