- Choosing the Best Photo Editing Software
- File Support and Features
Cameras are always getting cheaper, allowing even the most amateur of photographers to achieve great results. As the demand for high-quality capture devices increases, so to does the demand for a high-quality editing solution. We’re here to give you a comprehensive guide to the best photo editing software.
We’ll rank the best choice for professionals and the best choice for designers and give alternatives in each category.
Adobe owns the market for photo editing, and our testing of popular photo editing applications lines up with that. Our winners in both categories come from Adobe, but don’t let that deter you from trying our Adobe alternatives.
Photo Editing vs Graphic Design
Before setting out our criteria and diving into the list, we want to make a distinction between photo editing and graphic design software. While some applications allow you to also import and edit photos on top of their core function, we’re looking at software designed that does only that.
For example, you can import a RAW file into Adobe Premiere, our first pick for the best video editing software. It’s meant for editing videos, though, not photos. You can make some basic adjustments, but not much else.
It’s an important distinction to make because a lot of software straddles the line between photography and graphic design. Photoshop, for example, can be used to edit photos and create graphics. There are enough unique features in Photoshop for photo editing to warrant a spot on our list, though.
Adobe Illustrator, on the other hand, is better suited for digital designs. You can import photos and make adjustments, but the software is at its best when used to design graphics. If you’re looking for graphic design, make sure to check out our guide to the best 3D graphics software.
Choosing the Best Photo Editing Software
Now that we’ve determined what’s not going to be in this guide, we’re going to lay out the criteria we used for making our picks. Most of the criteria will be broad, such as good usability, but we’ll try to give a few specific areas we’re looking for.
File Support and Features
Our first criterion is not broad, though. Each program needs to support RAW files. A RAW file contains all information the camera sensor captured when the image was recorded to the memory card. Unlike a .jpg, there is no compression, meaning you have much more data to work with.
This is especially important in the post-production realm. With RAW files, you can push an edit further than you would be able to with a .jpg. The colors of raw files are also flat, so you can tweak the image to your taste.
Nearly every camera manufacturer uses a different file extension for RAW images. Ideally, the software has a track record of sending out patches when a new extension is introduced. If not, we’re looking for .arw, .nef and .cr2, which are extensions for Sony, Nikon and Canon cameras, respectively.
Features such as split toning, panoramic stitching and high-dynamic-range processing are welcome, as well. Split toning comes up more often than panoramic stitching and HDR but, if an iPhone can do it, your dedicated photo editing application should also be able to.
Outside of processing, we’re looking for restoration tools such as red eye correction, spot healing and noise reduction.
Next, we’re looking at usability. A working photographer can dump thousands of photos at once, so having software that can make sense of it all is a must. Adobe Photoshop, which requires you to open each file manually, is an exception to this rule because it provides more control over the image.
We’re also looking for batch processing features. Anything that allows you to apply a preset to multiple files at once or export with a particular resolution is the name of the game here. This is also where we’re looking at the ability to save and use presets in the application.
Ease of use shouldn’t sacrifice power, though. We’re looking for the best photo editing software, not the easiest to use. Because of that, a trade-off in usability for a higher power level is acceptable. The software we’re going after has a learning curve, but will let you produce proper, professional photos once you’ve mastered it.
The Best Photo Editing Software
Now that we’ve set our criteria, let’s get to the best photo editing software. We’ll declare a winner for the best professional photo editing software and the best photo editing software for design, as well as give a couple of runners-up for each.
Best Professional Photo Editing Software: Adobe Lightroom CC
Lightroom is the premiere choice for professional photographers. The interface is optimized for workflow, allowing you to skim through thousands of photos, edit them and export them with consistent quality.
While it’s great in that role, Lightroom isn’t perfect. The tools Adobe includes are meant to edit photos, adjusting white balance, exposure and colors. Composite editing and layering are out of the question. We’ll touch on that later, though.
It shines when a working photographer plugs in their memory card and dumps a database of photos into the software. Lightroom is always being updated with the latest file extensions, too, so RAW files from nearly every camera manufacturer are supported.
The focus is on efficient editing, but recent versions of Lightroom have added more horsepower. Let’s take a look at the features in the latest Adobe Creative Cloud edition.
Adobe Lightroom Features
Lightroom is updated with new features every few months. Because of that, we’re going to look at the cornerstone features of the software and new additions added in 2018, instead of diving into all of the specifics.
Starting with the features that have been around a while, Lightroom allows you to adjust the perspective of your image during an edit. It stretches and shrinks parts of your image and crops it, so you can get the perspective that you intended. For example, you can edit an image of a building to look like you shot it from a ladder instead of on the ground.
Lightroom will look for horizontal or vertical lines in the shot and align your image to fit those. The automatic modes work well for minor adjustments, but you may need to manually skew the image if you need something more drastic.
Outside of your tone curve, raw adjustments and color balance, Lightroom includes split toning, which is an advanced editing technique that allows you to apply different tones to the highlights and the shadows.
Lightroom also has the ability to fix issues that may come from your camera or lens. It has a built-in denoiser that’s good when used conservatively, as well as a tool to reduce chromatic aberrations.
As long as you’re using readily available lenses, Lightroom includes lens profile correction. The cylindrical glass inside of a lens isn’t perfect so, no matter how much you spend, there will be distortion and vignetting. Turning on one of these profiles will correct those issues automatically to give you a more accurate image.
As defined in our criteria, Lightroom has support for HDR processing, panoramic stitching and restoration tools such as red eye correction, as well.
Most of the features introduced in 2018 focused on performance improvements and the mobile version, but there were a few additions for the desktop application.
Lightroom now supports importing from network-attached storage and you can apply camera profiles to your RAW files to see your image as it’s displayed on the back of the camera. Our favorite new addition is Creative Profiles, though.
Creative Profiles are similar to presets, but they don’t adjust your previous settings. They’re like Instagram filters with more control. Most seasoned photographers won’t need them, but they’re a good starting point for those getting into the world of desktop photo editing.
Adobe Lightroom Photo Editing
As with any software optimized for photo editing, there are many options at each step of the process. You can import from any storage source and set where the files will be stored. If you’re importing from a memory card, Lightroom will create a folder on your hard drive and copy the RAW files there.
After that, it creates a catalog. Catalogs hold the data for your images, but not the images themselves. The previews, drive location and metadata are all stored there. Even if you delete the folder with the photos in it, you can still see a catalog, though the images will be uneditable.
There are many settings for import, the most important of which is batch processing. You can apply a preset to all your images as they import by expanding the “apply during import” tab in the right menu and clicking on “develop settings.” This a good time to apply a basic contrast preset to speed up workflow.
You can also add keywords, apply metadata and set how Lightroom builds Smart Previews in this area.
Importing can take a while, especially if you have a lot of files. If you’re using a high megapixel sensor, such as those found in the Sony A7R series of cameras, you may have to let the import run overnight.
Before clicking the “develop” tab, you can sort images in your catalog by assigning them a color, ranking them out of five stars or using keywords. That is one of the key workflow features for Lightroom, allowing you to move into the edit with only the images you intend to keep.
You’ll spend most of your time in the “develop” tab. It is where you can edit your photos using basic white balance, cropping, color balance and spot healing. All of those controls are found in the toolbar on the right side.
On the top, there’s a row of six icons for cropping, spot healing, red eye correction, gradient filters, elliptical filters and touch ups. While not always necessary, they give you the most manual control over your image and blur the line between Lightroom and Photoshop.
Even after adjusting your colors and correcting exposure, you may need to make manual edits to the image. Using the touch up tool, for example, allows you to get your hands dirty and soften rough skin or whiten teeth.
Everything under that toolbar deals with the broad strokes of the image. The top section is basic raw adjustments, where you can correct exposure, set contrast and apply basic sharpening. If you’ve applied a preset during import, you shouldn’t have to mess with this area much outside of adjusting white balance.
Below it is a list of collapsible tools. That’s where the power of Lightroom shines. There are controls for managing the color balance of an image, adjusting perspective, fixing vignetting and much more.
Lightroom is special because you can make these changes quickly. The bottom shows all the images in your catalog and you can filter out the ones you need with the same tagging system you used during import. If you want to speed up workflow even more, you can use the preset tab on the left side of the screen.
Lightroom comes with presets built in, which, like most Adobe presets, are best classified as “decent.” The most efficient way to get through a shoot is to import a couple of photos, make the edits, save a preset and apply it to the rest of the catalog.
Presets are customizable, as well. If, for example, you don’t want to include the same perspective adjustment in all of your images, you can uncheck that box while saving a preset.
The other five tabs at the top of the interface are largely unnecessary, at least, if you’re delivering photos for the web. “Map” allows you to geotag your images, “book” is a formatting tool for photo books, “slideshow” exports your images as a .mp4 with accompanying music, “print” is a formatting tool for large scale prints and “web” lets you publish a gallery of your catalog online.
All these tabs have their place and, for some photographers, they will speed up workflow. The tabs are irrelevant to many users, though, especially if they’re using an external printing company for copies of their photos.
Of the five, our favorites are “slideshow” and “web.” There are a lot of slideshow applications online, many bundled with malware (read our best antivirus software to learn about which kinds), so having one built in to Lightroom is helpful if you want a quick way to show off your images.
“Web” is an easy way to connect to your website over FTP, creating a pre-formatted HTML page. Though CMS software, such as WordPress, can handle galleries like this with a plugin, Lightroom is a one-stop shop for publishing. If you’ve never used FTP, you can learn about it in our three guides to using WordPress.
- Beginner’s Guide to Using WordPress
- Intermediate Guide to Using WordPress
- Advanced Guide to Using WordPress
Adobe Lightroom Pricing
As with all Adobe products, pricing is a key selling point. The Creative Cloud gives you access to all of Adobe’s products for $50 per month, a steal considering many of the applications would cost $1,000 or more on their own. Students and teachers get a hefty discount, too, getting all applications for only $20 per month.
|Plan:||Photography||Single App||All Apps||All Apps + Adobe Stock|
|Details:||Lightroom & Photoshop CC,|
20GB of cloud storage
|Single Adobe application,|
100GB of cloud storage
|All of Adobe’s desktop products,|
100GB of cloud storage,
Up to 10TB of additional storage
|All of Adobe’s desktop products,|
10 Adobe Stock images per month
You can get a single app for $20 per month with 100GB of cloud storage. If you’re using any other Adobe product, such as Illustrator, we recommend this plan. The cloud storage is a nice addition, but you can get more space for less money (many cloud storage services offer up to and more than 5TB online storage).
Photographers have an advantage, though. Adobe offers three photography plans. You can get Lightroom and Photoshop, plus 20GB of storage, for $10 per month or upgrade to 1TB of storage for twice the price. As long as your focus is on photography, it is an excellent value and the plan we recommend overall.
At the top end, you can get all apps, plus Adobe Stock, for around $80. Adobe Stock is an excellent, but expensive, library of stock photos and videos. For working photographers, it’s unnecessary, though.
Best Adobe Lightroom CC Alternatives
As you can see above, we love Lightroom. At the same time, though, we can see how it wouldn’t work for everybody or how some people could balk at the price. Below follow some of the best alternatives for Adobe when it comes to photo editing.
DxO PhotoLab is similar to Lightroom, but it has better automatic processing tools. Features such as DxO Smart Lighting and Prime denoising work better than comparable tools in Lightroom, but it comes with a hefty price tag at $200 and doesn’t have as many options for formatting and exporting.
The presets are what sets PhotoLab apart. Landscapes, especially, took well to the high dynamic range and denoising filters that DxO applied. There is a lack of manual control compared to Lightroom, though.
PhotoLab has basic raw adjustment for your white balance, but control over your exposure and contrast is limited. Instead of giving you sliders for blacks, whites, shadows and highlights, PhotoLab only offers a slider for exposure and a slider for contrast.
There are manual controls such as a tone curve, but you’re banking on DxO’s behind-the-scenes processing to work. Adjustments for exposure, contrast and color balance are severely lacking.
DxO makes up for it, in part, with local adjustments. You can select areas in your image in an elliptical shape to adjust exposure, contrast, color balance and sharpness for those areas. It’s similar to Lightroom’s masking tool, but has fewer controls.
Overall, PhotoLab is best suited for those who want a quick edit. You can easily find your images and apply one of the excellent presets. DxO’s ClearView and noise reduction are especially impressive, but manual control over your image is not.
You can get the best of both worlds, though. PhotoLab installs a Lightroom plugin when you purchase it, so you can transfer a file from one application to the other to gain access to DxO’s great processing algorithms without losing the manual control of Lightroom.
LightZone is a free, open source alternative to Lightroom. It a has a similar interface, but not as many settings for batch processing and a poorer overall workflow. Still, it’s free and the small community around it is active.
It’s strange calling LightZone an alternative to Lightroom as it came out before Adobe’s digital darkroom. The original LightZone was released in 2005 and changed the way digital photo editors worked. Instead of using layers, it provides a non-destructive workflow.
You edit through a series of modules, each offering a different aspect of processing. You can add seven tone curves or adjust color across 13 modules. The interface and tools you use are customizable, meaning you can build the UI to include only the relevant controls.
This system doesn’t come without drawbacks, though. You can only edit images individually, tabbing back and forth between your library and the edit page. LightZone doesn’t import your files, either, so there aren’t settings to apply a preset before editing.
The interface is buggy, as well. During our testing, modules would go into an endless stream of duplication or not load at all. It appears these bugs are largely graphical as the application still responded, there was just visual glitching.
Still, it’s free. LightZone is a powerful, but clunky, Lightroom alternative that you should try. It has a lot of options as long as you take the time to learn the interface.
Best Photo Editing Software for Design: Adobe Photoshop CC
Photoshop takes the focus off of batch processing and optimized workflow and puts it on features and tools. While you won’t use Photoshop for editing thousands of photos, you may use it to make a few special.
It uses a layering system, meaning you can build your image any way you’d like. For example, you could find a stock image of fog and layer it over an image you’ve taken to create atmosphere.
Even though we’re labeling it best for design, it works for professional photographers, too. Photoshop is a powerful photo editing application that pros can use to fix or augment photos with a hands-on approach.
Photoshop can handle photo restoration in ways that Lightroom can’t. It can restore old photographs that have been mangled through spot healing, masking and patching. While there are parallel tools in Lightroom, there isn’t the same level of control.
As with Lightroom, Adobe constantly updates Photoshop CC. Let’s take a look at some of the most recent features, as well as the hallmarks of the program.
Adobe Photoshop Features
Photoshop uses a layer-based editing approach. You build your final image by adding new layers and blending them together. A layer may be a separate element, such as replacing the sky, or an adjustment layer for controlling the overall look of your image.
It works in a top-down way, meaning any layer put above another layer will affect those underneath it. For example, if you wanted to add a layer of fog to an image, you’d have to set that layer on top, so it’d be above your current photo.
Photoshop excels at photo editing with its masking tools. You can create simple masks using the built-in tools, but Photoshop’s content-aware masking is more impressive. Using the magnetic lasso tool, for example, you can draw around an object in your image and Photoshop will try to define the straight lines to create the perfect selection.
Between layering and masking, the photo editing process is entirely different. Photoshop forces you to think about an image outside of normal adjustments, using elements to augment or correct an image.
There are basic editing controls, though. Photoshop will automatically create a new layer for each adjustment you add to an image and, like other layers, they only affect what’s underneath them. Experimenting with blending modes and opacity for them can lead to unique results.
There are new features geared toward using Photoshop better with Adobe Creative Cloud. Our favorite is Lightroom integration. You can search and open images from Lightroom in Photoshop without having to export them to your desktop first.
Adobe also introduced the Select Subject feature in January. It allows you to select the prominent objects in your image to create a mask. You can refine the selection using the Select and Mask workspace.
There many other features in Photoshop, including upsampling, the Smart Sharpen filter and conditional actions. It’s a dense program with tools for nearly every photo editing task, as long as you take the time to find where they are.
Adobe Photoshop Photo Editing
Editing an image in Photoshop isn’t as simple as it is with Lightroom. You open images individually and often spend a lot of time on each.
If you open a RAW file, Adobe will open Camera Raw. It mirrors the tools in Lightroom, allowing raw adjustments before importing the file to Photoshop. It doesn’t look as nice as Lightroom, though.
The process after importing is complicated. There are so many tools in Photoshop that no single project will use them all. We’ll run through basic things you can do with a RAW file in Photoshop, but learning the program requires spending a long time using it.
One technique to enhance an image is to add a gradient of opposing colors to both sides, then adjust the blending mode. As you can see in our example image, we used green and orange to add a layer of depth to an otherwise boring shot.
To do that, add two new layers. On both, select the gradient tool from the toolbar and make sure your foreground color is set to the hue you want. Drag the gradient slider across the image while holding the shift key to create a straight gradient. After both are done, you should barely be able to see your original image.
Next, experiment with blending modes on the two layers and adjust the opacity until you get the desired look. For this image, we used Lighter Color as the blending mode and set opacity around 20 percent.
Photoshop also has a long list of tools for image restoration. We found the image of a boy riding his bike below in the Wikimedia Commons. It has an uneven white border and plenty of dirt, which, thankfully, Photoshop has tools to fix.
We cropped the image to remove the white borders and adjusted it with the thirds overlay for better composition. After that, we went crazy with the spot healing brush to remove the dirt, hair and imperfections from the image. Finally, with level and curve adjustments, we get our restored image.
You can add digital art to an image in Photoshop. It has full brush support, something Lightroom doesn’t, which means you can use a drawing tablet or freehand with a mouse to create illustrations.
That is where Photoshop blurs the lines between photo editing and graphic design. It has a full array of design tools including brushes, patterns, text and more. You could ditch photography altogether and just use Photoshop as a design tool.
There are issues with that, though. Photoshop is pixel-based, meaning all graphics it creates render in pixels, no matter how high the resolution. It may work for a small flyer or online graphics, but using Photoshop to design a logo intended for a billboard will cause problems.
If you’re focused on graphic design, we recommend using Adobe Illustrator. It’s vector-based, meaning that information between two pixels can be filled in. Instead of a diagonal line that looks like a staircase, a vector can predict what should be in the gaps and color sections of the pixel to look like a smooth line.
You can learn more about the differences between pixel-based and vector-based applications here.
Photoshop can handle many different tasks. If photo editing is your focus, as defined by making basic adjustments to color, exposure, etc., then Lightroom is for you. More complex photo editing jobs are best suited for Photoshop.
Adobe Photoshop Pricing
There isn’t much to go over here. Photoshop and Lightroom have the same pricing scheme. Still, there are things you should think about when choosing a plan.
Photoshop and Lightroom are two applications with the same goal. If you’re strictly a photographer, it’s worthwhile to own both, even if you use one more than the other. In many cases, Lightroom is a bread-and-butter editing software, while Photoshop is used for more intense tasks.
If you do more than photography, it’s worth an upgrade to the full Creative Cloud. While $50 per month is nothing to take lightly, the level of value is unmatched by the competition.
Best Adobe Photoshop CC Alternatives
As with Lightroom, we love Photoshop but can understand why hobbyists might turn pale at the price tag. Here are a few good alternatives.
Affinity Photo is an inexpensive Photoshop alternative that some professionals prefer over the staple Adobe product. It has all the key features, including raw image processing, retouching and multi-layered compositions, as well as support for professional file extensions such as PSDs.
It’s like Lightroom and Photoshop combined. There’s a separate area for raw adjustments that you can use before going into the main interface. You get the a similar tool set to Lightroom’s without any layer selection.
Affinity calls these areas “personas” and there are five to choose from. The “photo” persona mirrors Photoshop, with layer-based adjustment, masking tools and effects. “Develop” deals with all raw adjustments which must be made before moving to another persona.
The “liquify” persona shows a grid where you can push, twist and mangle your image. In the most conservative case, it can be used to grow or shrink sections of your image to make a subject stand out.
The “tone mapping” persona is used to manage the contrast and color balance in your image. You can make most of these adjustments in the “develop” persona, but “tone mapping” gives you more control. The “export” persona deals will all exporting details, including the pixel format and metadata.
At only $50, Affinity Photo is a great value. It has comprehensive photo editing controls that span Lightroom and Photoshop. It’s an alternative, though, because of the workflow established between the two Adobe products.
Corel PaintShop Pro
Corel touts PaintShop Pro as “the ultimate Photoshop alternative.” It’s easy to see why, too. There’s a comprehensive set of photo editing tools, including RAW support, HDR processing, lens correction and batch processing.
You can manually adjust images using its suite of makeover tools. Corel has controls that enable you to remove blemishes, smooth wrinkles, restore tarnished images and eliminate red eye. There are also content-aware editing tools to move or delete a selection from an image or have Corel intelligently fill in the area.
PaintShop Pro has graphic design tools, as well, including layers, masking and text. The way it handles drawing is different from Photoshop, though. You can draw with vectors, making for smooth and expandable digital illustrations.
You can script repetitive tasks in PaintShop Pro, which is our favorite feature. Corel will record your on-screen actions and assign them to a macro. Use it in the interface and Corel will take care of the task automatically.
It’s twice the price of Affinity, but has more features. A single rate isn’t bad, either, considering you’ll spend about as much on Photoshop within a few months. It doesn’t have the optimized workflow of Lightroom, but PaintShop Pro is still an excellent Photoshop alternative.
Why We Recommend Adobe
As Adobe focuses more on subscription-based solutions, competitors push their single rate in their marketing. There’s merit to paying more for software and owning it forever, but we still think a subscription Creative Cloud is a better value.
The issue with single-rate software is updates. A year of using Photoshop may cost the same amount as PaintShop Pro, for example, but once the 2020 version of Corel’s software is released, you’ll need to upgrade.
Creative Cloud’s advantage is synergy. You get a smooth transition between Adobe products and constant updates. You’ll pay the same rate no matter how many new features are introduced, too.
There are things we like more about the alternatives than our recommendations, from power level to usability, but, considering the onslaught of updates and relatively low monthly rate, Adobe still holds this section of the content market tightly.
The Best Free Photo Editing Software
For those truly out of pocket, let’s take a look at some free Adobe alternatives. While some of these may lack in key features, they could very well be the perfect fit for your particular situation.
Microsoft or Apple Photos
Microsoft and Apple Photos are surprisingly powerful photo applications for their respective operating systems. You get tools for exposure, contrast, white balance and more, making for a simple photo editing process for images from your phone or point-and-shoot camera.
Microsoft Photos can edit photos and videos. You can create slideshows, intertwining video clips and photos, add 3D effects, such as lightning, and adjust music and speed for your exported clip. It’s a small editing package that’s best used when taking photos for yourself.
Apple Photos doesn’t have video support because iMovie is available for that, but it does have a larger set of editing tools. You can use the built-in filters for a quick edit or dive in to adjusting the highlights, shadows and contrast.
Apple includes a three-channel tone curve, as well, which is a useful feature for those looking to get their hands dirty with photo editing. It has about as much power as Lightroom mobile and is a nice way to introduce yourself to the world of photo editing without getting a full-blown suite.
GIMP is a free Photoshop-like editing tool available for macOS, Windows and Linux (it comes standard on most distros). It’s open source, too, so you can download plugins or write your own if you’re fluent in C++, Scheme, Python or Perl.
It has a strong community of professionals and hobbyists. Despite being free, you could use GIMP to make money, whether it’s by creating digital artwork or touching up scans of tarnished photographs.
The biggest deterrent is the interface. GIMP is powerful, but not intuitive, which is a dangerous combination for professional software. If you spend the time to learn it, you’ll get excellent results. If you’re coming from Photoshop or want a streamlined workflow, though, GIMP isn’t the best choice.
The same could be said if you’re moving from GIMP to Photoshop, too, so it comes down to what you’re familiar with. It somehow seems a perfect fit for Team Penguin, though, thanks to its arcane interface. Check out our best VPN for Linux for more examples of tailor-made geek products.
Fotor is a free, online photo editing tool that’s aimed at people who don’t know much about photo editing. It’s powerful enough, but the interface and naming are more like Instagram than Lightroom.
Still, it has its place. For quick edits, Fotor is excellent. You can edit images from your hard drive or import them from Dropbox (read our Dropbox review). Images can be used in collages or as part of a design using one of Fotor’s many templates.
The free version is restricted, though. You have a limited amount of storage space for your edited images and watermarks and there are occasional ads. It’s around $3 per month if you purchase an annual plan or $9 if you pay month-to-month. For that price, though, it’s best just to use Adobe’s photography bundle.
Photo editing is a complex and varied process, but recent versions of staple software have made it more accessible than ever. We think the Adobe products that have long been the industry standard are still tough to beat, especially for photo editing.
As camera sensors increase in megapixel count, so do file sizes. Storage and reliable backup are key points for any working photographer. Make sure to check out our best online backup services and the 3-2-1 backup rule to to keep your data secure. We also have an article on the best photo management software to keep your collection of manipulated snaps in order.
What photo editing application do you use? Let us know in the comments below and, as always, thanks for reading.