What Photoshop Product Should I Buy First?

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By Steve Russell

Everglades Sunrise 2

Recently, a Beyond Megapixels reader emailed us the question, “I’m new to photography and was wondering what Photoshop I should buy first?” I responded to the email and got to thinking that this would make a good article.

Comparing image processing software is a lot like comparing other things that are mostly opinion driven. – which is better, New York or Chicago style pizza, which is better Canon or Nikon? There are no 100% correct answers and the way a person answers this kind of question greatly depends on their individual background, experiences and ingrained biases.

I’m aware that there are many different offerings of image processing software out there like GIMP, Pixelmator, Corel’s Photo-Paint and Aperture, but since the question was about Photoshop I’ll stick to the question for this article.

So much of the answer lies with what you want to do with your photos, how much time you’re willing to invest in learning the software you purchase and the size of your budget. Also, since the answers to those issues are going to be different for each person and I’ve owned and used all three of the primary products, I thought I’d relate my experiences, not so much as a recommendation but to share with you what I learned along the way.

I started with Adobe Photoshop Elements. It was my first really serious post-processing software. It was also at a time that I was returning to what I would call serious photography after a long absence. Using today’s prices and products, Adobe Photoshop CS5 lists at $699 (you can get it for roughly $100 less than that with a little shopping around). On the other hand, Photoshop Elements 10 lists at $100 and by shopping around you can save at least $10 off that price. Because I didn’t know at the time exactly what I was going to do with it, the price difference was the driving factor in my decision. If I ended up not liking it or not using it very much I preferred to risk wasting $100 instead of $600.

One way to look at Photoshop Elements is as Photoshop Lite. It has most of the overall capabilities of Photoshop CS5 but not all the shortcuts. There may be three or four ways to do something in Photoshop and only one long, involved way to do it in Elements. For this reason, it’s not always as easy to do something in Elements as it is in Photoshop and it takes more steps to accomplish the same result. However, if you’re not planning to get really creative in post-processing and all you plan to do is to remove and repair various blips and flaws, change the temperature of the light, correct for over and under exposure, Elements could be a good choice for you.

A few months after buying Elements I found a Photoshop class to take and this is where I discovered the real differences between the two products. I very quickly tired of learning a really neat new trick in class and then going home and not being able to do the same thing in Elements. After the third week I discovered a discounted price Photoshop that was also an “upgrade” product that gave me credit for what I’d already spent on Elements. Took me about 30 seconds to decide to part with the money and step up to Photoshop.

I absolutely love Photoshop. I’m always amazed at what can be done to images using features like content aware, HDR, etc. When you add various plug-ins like Nik Software Complete Collection, OnOne’s Plug-in Suite 5 and Imagenomic as well as probably a few hundred other plug-in packages, it seems like the sky is the limit for what you can do to an image. Yet, I’ve only scratched the surface of what the software can do. Each time I attend a seminar like the Scott Kelby “Light It, Shoot It, Retouch It Live” I’m amazed at what I still have in front of me to learn. Like I said, I absolutely love Photoshop.

After being told by 8 or 10 photographers, professional and amateur alike, that I really needed to get Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 3 I started listening yet I was hesitant to drop more money on software (the list price is $300) until one day I found it on sale for $150. I ordered it immediately. Not only is it far superior to Adobe Bridge (which comes with Photoshop CS5) for managing my library of images, but it’s also possible to achieve many of the post-processing steps of Photoshop. I know of one very well-known professional photographer that states that he does most of his post-processing in Lightroom. In the Scott Kelby seminar I attended, Scott used Lightroom as the software for the tethered shooting he employed for all the images he shot that day. In short, Lightroom is a great software package.

So what’s the recommendation? Had I known then what I know now, the first Adobe software package I would have purchased would have been Lightroom. In fact, I would recommend that approach to anyone considering post-processing software.

One caveat. If you’re only going to shoot jpeg and you don’t have thousands of images, stick with Elements. It’ll do what you need. If you’re going to shoot in RAW, start with Lightroom and eventually, you’ll want to step up to Photoshop CS5 or whatever the latest version is at the time. You’ll still love and use Lightroom but CS5 will allow you to do so much more.

Before all the SOOC (straight out of camera) crowd starts coming out of the woodwork and disagreeing with the article let me address that. If you’re happy with your SOOC images and don’t think you need post-processing software, then that’s great for you. In fact, I really try to get as close as I can to SOOC so I limit the amount of time I spend in front of the computer. However, I open every image I want to keep or use in Lightroom and Photoshop. I’ve watched professional photographers like John Shaw, Scott Kelby and Milton Heiberg perform complete magic on images that when viewed from a pure SOOC perspective would have been immediately deleted.

Also, if you prefer software other than what I’ve discussed in this article, that’s great too. However, there’s a reason that Adobe has over an 80% market share and it isn’t because it’s the least expensive software in the market.

Sometime, a few months from now, I will produce an article where I take a number of images that are SOOC and then the same image after post-processing.

Photo Credits:

Everglades Sunrise by Steve Russell

*The Author did NOT receive any products or compensation in exchange for mentioning the Provider’s products and/or services on this website. The Author purchased this product for personal use with personal funds. We will only endorse products or services that we believe, based on our expertise, are worthy of such endorsement. This is not an advertisement.

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  • Photo1017

    I do have PSE 9 for layers, my primary sort n edit n catalog program is ACD Pro 3. At 120$ it serves 98% of my processing needs, after shooting 125 photos in a session, it works to rate, categorize, edit exif data and pare down to 5 keepers. And editing is done in reversible process so original file is always available. Ive ben using it for years and love it (as a consumer who is not rewarded in any way by ACD)

  • Shanecorbett

    Great article! I have read quite a few reviews over the last couple of days and they didnt get to a clear reason as to which one to buy first.


  • Anonymous

    I’m glad we could help, Shane!

  • guest

    Great article. One suggestion in the future is make links open in a new window instead of taking you away from your article. I liked the content and advice though