I don’t cover every single photo-editing application on Life after Photoshop because that would mean diluting the attention each program gets, so I try to stick to a list of ten favourites.
There are dozens more programs out there on the market that have lots of fans and lots of qualities, but I have a specific set of criteria I apply to any photo-editing application:
• It has to be better than Photoshop – not just cheaper, but actually better. Photoshop is extremely powerful at technical adjustments, but that’s as far as it goes.
• It has to push the boundaries in its design, speed, technical quality, creativity or improve the whole photographic experience in some way. Low-cost ‘me too’ programs won’t do.
• It’s not about the cost. I’m aware that some photographers are very sensivitive to pricing (and very anti-subscriptions), but these programs have been selected for what they can do, not what they cost.
I do want to stress that last point. Life after Photoshop is dedicated to discovering the inspiration, effects and creative potential offered by the best photo-editing applications. It’s not about saving money or dodging subscriptions.
So in alphabetical order here’s the list of ten top photo-editing apps covered on Life after Photoshop and why. This list might change in the future as programs get removed and new ones added, but for now, this is it.
1. Adobe Photoshop
Yes, this site is called Life after Photoshop, but we need to keep sight of what Photoshop can do to make sure we’re choosing something better. I don’t write a lot of Photoshop tutorial content because that would defeat the purpose, but I’ve used Photoshop a very great deal and still do, so it needs to be on this list as a yardstick for the rest.
2. Adobe Lightroom
Lightroom is a great Photoshop alternative for photographers because it offers almost all the enhancements and adjustments most of us are likely to need for improving individual images. For multi-layer composities and sophisticated masking, you’ll still need Photoshop or some other software that supports layers.
3. Alien Skin Exposure X
Exposure X has evolved from an analog film effects plug-in into a fully featured standalone program which you can use to browse, organise and edit your photos. With curves, colour adjustments, retouching tools and adjustment layers, it’s a really good everyday photo-editor, but its library of analog looks and effects is really inspiring.
4. DxO PhotoLab
This is the replacement for the old DxO Optics Pro and is much more powerful thanks to the introduction of local adjustment tools, following DxO’s purchase of the Nik Collection and its U-point adjustment technology. PhotoLab’s raw processing is superb and its optical corrections can make even average lenses look terrific.
5. DxO Nik Collection
The poor old Nik Collection has been passed from Nik to Google and now DxO, but hopefully it’s now found a long-term home. It’s back to being a paid-for collection after a short spell of being offered free by Google, but three of its seven plug-ins are unsurpassed as creative photographic tools: Analog Efex Pro, Color Efex Pro and Silver Efex Pro.
6. ON1 Photo RAW
Like Exposure X, this is another plug-in (actually a suite of plug-ins) which has evolved into a powerful standalone tool that offers image browsing and cataloguing, a big library of effects filters, good everyday enhancement tools, local adjustments AND support for image layers, masks and composites within its non-destructive editing workflow.
7. Phase One Capture One
Capture One is a direct rival to Adobe Lightroom for features but actually costs a good deal more. Whether or not you think that’s worth it depends on how highly you rate its superb raw processing, logical and powerful workflow, choice of catalog- or session-based working and excellent tethering tools – it’s aimed at pro users and quality-conscious amateurs.
8. Serif Affinity Photo
Forget the low purchase price. This is a full-on professional photo-editing tool tha competes head-to-head with Photoshop but at a fraction of the price. The layout and some of the terms are a littlle different to Photoshop, so it make take a little acclimitisation, but this subscription-free Photoshop alternative is the real deal.
9. Skylum Luminar
Skylum’s innovating photo editing and effects tool is based around an interesting arrangment of custom workspaces, customisable filters and preset ‘looks’. It’s fun, inventive and affordable, and all it’s lacked until now is image browsing tools – but these are coming in a major Luminar 3 update in December 2018.
10. Skylum Aurora HDR
HDR software can produce spectacular images in the right hand, but HDR processing is hard to get right – it’s too easy to end up with wild, unrealistic, supersaturated images with obvious ‘glow’ artefacts, excessive noise and a flat, ‘overprocessed’ look. Aurora HDR has evolved, however, into perhaps the slickest, most effective and most artefact-free HDR software yet.