Layers versus Lightroom

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Today’s Question: When optimizing a RAW file in Lightroom, I am aware that the typical Camera Raw tools are non-destructive. Since there are many other adjustment tools in Lightroom, am I still working with RAW data or has Lightroom converted my image to pixels at some point? If Lightroom is working on pixels, wouldn’t I be better off to take that image out to the Photoshop Editor and work in Layers?

Tim’s Quick Answer: Lightroom is working with the RAW capture data when applying adjustments to your images, but some of the adjustments are applied after the process of rendering pixel values. But ultimately I wouldn’t worry too much about the complexities of what is happening in Lightroom, and instead focus on workflow efficiency and quality of results when defining your approach to optimizing photos.

More Detail: Much has been made about the notion of applying adjustments at the time of converting a RAW capture to actual pixel values. However, many of the adjustments you might apply with RAW-processing software are actually applied to pixel data after it has been rendered from the RAW capture. In other words, for many of the adjustments you might apply there isn’t a significant advantage to applying those adjustments with RAW-processing software rather than pixel-based tools such as Photoshop.

The specific details will vary among different software that enables you to work with RAW captures, and so it can be very difficult to get a clear sense of which adjustments are being applied at which specific stage of processing your photos. Furthermore, in many cases the timing of applying those adjustments relative to RAW data versus pixel data isn’t especially critical. In other words, I wouldn’t use this issue as the key consideration in your workflow.

Instead, I would focus on workflow efficiency, flexibility of your workflow, and the results you are able to achieve.

In many cases, for example, I simply find the results I’m able to achieve with Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw are superior to what I could achieve within Photoshop directly. Noise reduction in Lightroom and Camera Raw are superior to the filters available in Photoshop, as are the lens correction and perspective adjustments in my experience. As a result, even with images that have already been converted to pixels rather than RAW data, I’ll often use Lightroom or the Camera Raw Filter in Photoshop to apply these adjustments to my photos.

More importantly, perhaps, is the greater power and flexibility of selections and layer masks in Photoshop as compared to Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw. Therefore, when it comes to targeted adjustments I am quick to shift my focus to Photoshop.

I do recommend trying to get the overall tonality and color fidelity optimized as much as possible when applying adjustments with RAW-processing software. For most other adjustments, I recommend focusing on which tools provides the best results in terms of quality, the best ease-of-use, the greatest flexibility, and a workflow that feels comfortable to you.