Choosing the best photo editing software is difficult, not just because there are so many software alternatives on the market, but because they all do different things. Some are strongest for image cataloguing, some are best at RAW conversions, others are classic Photoshop-style image-manipulation tools or specialise in one-click image effects.
So here’s a diagram that shows these four main types of photo editing as overlapping circles so that we can be more systematic about working out what these programs do and where their strengths lie (click on the diagram to see a larger version).
Best photo editing software diagram explained
It might look complicated, but the principle is simple. You pick an area you’re most interested in, and see which programs appear in that circle.
More than likely, though, you’re interested in two or three different types of photo editing, so here you just look for where these circles/activities overlap and see which programs lie inside this overlapping area.
Alternatively, just pick a program you’re interested in, and see where it fits into this diagram to get an idea of the scope of its abilities.
- This diagram does not show every single photo editing tool in existence. These are just the big name apps I use and write about for Life After Photoshop. In other words, this is my shortlist of photo editing apps I really rate.
- I use a Mac, and I know a lot of other people use Windows computers. However, almost all these apps are available in both Windows and Mac versions. Even Serif and MacPhun are now developing Windows versions of their software.
- I am aware that most of these apps can open and edit RAW files directly, but I have not included them all in the RAW circle. I’ve restricted this to programs which make RAW conversion a speciality, not just an ability.
The list of programs
Here’s a list of all the different applications in the diagram, with brief comments for each and a link to a full review where available.
Apple Software’s late lamented photo cataloguing and editing app is, in my opinion, much better than Lightroom for image organisation but fell behind for editing tools. You can’t get it any more, but it still runs on the latest Mac OS and you can still use it. I’m thinking of starting an Obsolete Software channel for this and other classic apps that should never have been dropped.
Lightroom is Adobe’s professional image cataloguing, RAW processing and editing tool. It works alongside Photoshop as part of Adobe’s CC (Creative Cloud) plans, but you can buy it as Lightroom 6 for a regular license fee – though without some of the Creative Cloud perks and possibly not for much longer. Lightroom is not a perfect cataloguing tool (I prefer Aperture) but it’s probably the best we’ve got for large-scale professional image management and its RAW/editing tools are terrific.
This site is called Life After Photoshop, but there are still times when only Photoshop will do the things you need, so it would be petty to leave it out. It’s still the best professional photo editing/manipulation/retouching/compositing tool there is (Serif might not agree), and if you go for the Adobe Photography Plan, you get Photoshop CC and Lightroom CC together. Today, if you want Photoshop, you have to subscribe to one of Adobe’s software plans. End of story.
Adobe’s subscription-based software plans are controversial. Even now, many folk object on principle to ‘renting’ their software and would rather buy a licence outright. But the Photography Plan is just £10/$10 or so per month (on a yearly plan) and offers you two of the most important pro editing apps on the market for the cost of a cappuccino a week. You might not like the principle, but Adobe’s offer is a bargain.
DxO is a French company that specialises in image testing and precise optical corrections. DxO Optics Pro does just two things: (1) automatic optical corrections for an ever-expanding list of lenses, (2) really good RAW conversions with great noise control, accurate colour and subtle tonal rendition. It’s limited (no localised adjustments) and complex (especially for tonal adjustments), but it can with a single click reveal image quality you didn’t know your camera and lenses were capable of.
If DxO Optics Pro is relatively limited in its aims, DxO ViewPoint is super-specialised. It delivers precision geometric corrections for all kinds of perspective distortion and is particularly well suited to architectural photography. It can be used as a standalone application, but also integrates with DxO Optics Pro to provide all this perspective power within the DxO Optics Pro interface.
Surprisingly for a company whose software is dedicated to precision and technical accuracy, DxO also makes this film simulation plug-in. It aims to replicate the analog ‘look’ of a large number of classic films and throws in a range of borders, light leaks, textures and other effects to add an evocative ‘aged’ look to your images. Like ViewPoint, it works as a standalone app but also integrates into DxO Optics Pro. Its one weakness is the lack of any localised adjustment tools.
Phase One is a Danish company specialising in professional medium format cameras. Capture One is its pro-level image capture and RAW processing app, but it’s evolved steadily into a high-end Lightroom rival. Its RAW conversions are superb, its adjustment tools match Lightroom’s (many find them better) and Capture One can also create image catalogs for your entire image library. It’s beautiful but pricey, and you may find a few consumer-level cameras or lenses aren’t supported.
• Capture One Pro 9 review (the updates in version 10 are relatively few)
This was once marketed as ON1 Perfect Photos, a collection of plug-ins brought together within a single interface. It’s now been refined and re-imagined as ON1 Photo RAW, a single standalone app which can also works as an effects plug-in for Lightroom or Photoshop. It offers simple but effective image browsing tools, a terrific set of effects filters, support for layers and masks and the ability to open and process RAW files. It has some rough edges, but it’s versatile and great value.
Serif used to be best-known for its low-cost Windows creative and design apps such as DrawPlus, PagePlus and PhotoPlus, but the company has re-invented itself and its products to provide professional-quality alternatives to Adobe applications at low prices and with a conventional, ‘perpetual’ license. Affinity Photo might be cheap, but it really does have tools, features and functions to rival Photoshop’s in a professional environment.
It’s not the biggest name in the photo editing market, but Alien Skin has been making highly rated photo and design plug-ins for a long time. Exposure started out as a film simulation plug-in specialising in analog/retro film looks, but has evolved into something much bigger. It can now work as a standalone app too, incorporating its own folder browsing tools, and offers non-destructive editing for RAW files as well as JPEGs.
MacPhun is, as its name suggests, a publisher of Mac software. Or at least it was until now. It’s latest application, Luminar, will come in a Windows version too. Luminar is an interesting new image-editor and effects generator that offers a long list of effects and tool ‘filters’ you can use in isolation or in combination. It also lets you combine and blend images in layers, though without the sophistication of Photoshop.
The MacPhun Creative Kit 2016 is the precursor to Luminar, and although it’s still on sale, it’s clear that MacPhun is devoting all of its attention now to its latest project. Nevertheless, the Mac-only Creative Kit is still rather good, containing Intensify (localised contrast), Tonality (arty black and white), Snapheal (easy object removal), Noiseless (easy noise removal), Focus (bokeh and depth of field effects) and FX Photo Studio (a collection of wild and striking effects, but with little control).
I’m not calling this the Google Nik Collection any more since Google has officially announced that it’s no longer developing it. That’s extremely disappointing, because this is the finest collection of effects plug-ins there is, from Silver Efex Pro’s beautiful black and white to Analog Efex Pro’s rich and imaginative film looks. Color Efex Pro, HDR Efex Pro and Viveza are classics too.
Choosing the best photo editing software – where next?
This article is designed to offer a simple overview of the photo editing software market and a way of categorising the things you want to do with your photos and the programs that can help you do it. You can read the individual reviews for more information, but look out for more articles like this one that take a closer look at these individual categories and which programs are best in each one.