You Need a Photo Editing App, But Which One?
Whether you merely shoot with your smartphone or you’re a professional photographer working in a studio, you need software to organize, optimize, and edit your digital photos. Camera technology is improving at a tremendous rate: Today’s smartphones are more powerful than the point-and-shoots of just a few years ago, and pro-level cameras have passed the 100-megapixel mark. Photo editing software is keeping up, with ever-more-powerful features. People who shoot with a three-camera iPhone 11 Pro or with an advanced digital SLR both care how their photos look. To get the best results, you need to import the shots into your PC to organize them, pick the best ones, perfect them, and print or share them online. Here we present the best choices in photo editing software to suit every photographer.
Of course, novice shooters want different software from those shooting with a $52,000 Phase One IQ4 in a studio. We’ve included all levels of PC software here, and reading the linked reviews will make it clear which is for you. Nothing says that pros can’t occasionally use an entry-level application or that a prosumer won’t be running Photoshop, the most powerful image editor around. The issue is that, in general, users at each of these levels will be most comfortable with the products intended for them.
Note that, in the table above, it’s not a case of “more checks mean the program is better.” Rather, the table is designed to give you the quick overview of the products. A product with everything checked doesn’t necessarily have the best implementation of those features, and one with fewer checks still may be very capable, and whether you even need the checked feature depends on your photo workflow. For example, DxO Photolab may not have face recognition or keyword tagging, but it has the finest noise reduction in the land and some of the best camera- and lens-profile-based corrections.
Free Photo Editing Options
So you’ve graduated from smartphone photography tools like those offered by the smartphone operating systems and maybe Instagram. Does that mean you have to pay a ton for high-end software? Absolutely not. Up-to-date desktop operating systems include photo software at no extra cost. The Microsoft Photos app included with Windows 10 may surprise some users with its capabilities. In a touch-friendly interface, it offers a good level of image correction, autotagging, blemish removal, face recognition, and even raw camera file support. It can automatically create editable albums based on photos’ dates and locations.
Apple Photos does those things too, though its automatic albums aren’t as editable. Both programs also sync with online storage services: iCloud for Apple and OneDrive for Microsoft. With both, you can search based on detected object types, like “tree” or “cat” in the application. Apple Photos also can integrate with plugins like the excellent Perfectly Clear.
Ubuntu Linux users are also covered when it comes to free included photo software: They can use the capable-enough Shotwell app. And no discussion of free photo editing software would be complete without mentioning the venerable GNU Image Manipulation Program, better known as GIMP. It’s available for Windows, Mac, and Linux, offers a ton of Photoshop-style plugins and editing capabilities but very little in the way of creature comforts or usability. Other lightweight, low-cost options include Polarr and Pixlr.
How to Edit Your Photos Online
In this roundup, we’ve only included installable computer software, but entry-level photo shooters may be adequately served by online photo-editing options. These are mostly free, and they’re often tied to online photo storage and sharing services. Flickr (with its integrated photo editor) and Google Photos are the biggest names here, and both can spiff up your uploaded pictures and do a lot to help you organize them.
These free options even approach the two entry-level installed programs here, but they lack many tools found in the pro and enthusiast products. The latest version of Lightroom includes a good deal of photo-editing capabilities on its included website, too. Other notable names in web-based photo editing include BeFunky, Fotor, and PicMonkey.
Image Editing for Enthusiasts and Prosumers
Most of the products in this roundup fall into this category, which includes people who genuinely love working with digital photographs. These are not free applications, and they require at least a few hundred megabytes of your disk space. Several, such as Lightroom and CyberLink PhotoDirector, are strong when it comes to workflow—importing, organizing, editing, and outputting the photos from a DSLR. Such apps offer nondestructive editing, meaning the original photo files aren’t touched. Instead, a database of edits you apply is maintained, and they appear in photos you export from the application. These apps also offer strong organization tools, including keyword tagging, color-coding, geo-tagging with maps, and in some cases face recognition to organize photos by people that appear in them.
At the back end of workflow is output. Capable software like Lightroom Classic offers powerful printing options such as soft-proofing, which shows you whether the printer you use can produce the colors in your photo or not. (Strangely, the new version of Lightroom—non-Classic—offers no local printing capability at all, though the latest update lets you send image to a photo printing service.) Lightroom Classic can directly publish photos on sites like Flickr and SmugMug. In fact, all really good software at this level offers strong printing and sharing, and some, like ACDSee and Lightroom, offer their own online photo hosting to present a portfolio of your work.
The programs at the enthusiast level and the professional level can import and edit raw files from your digital camera. These are files that include every bit of data from the camera’s image sensor. Each camera manufacturer uses its own format and file extension for these. For example, Canon DSLRs use .CR2 files and Nikon uses .NEF. (Raw here simply means what it sounds like, a file with the raw sensor data; it’s not an acronym or file extension.)
Working with raw files provides some big advantages when it comes to correcting (often termed adjusting) photos. Since the photo you see on screen is just one interpretation of what’s in the raw file, the software can dig into that data to recover more detail in a bright sky, or it can fully fix an improperly rendered white balance. If you set your camera to shoot with JPGs, you’re losing those capabilities.
Enthusiasts want to do more than just import, organize and render their photos: They want to do fun stuff, too! Editors’ Choice Adobe Photoshop Elements includes Guided Edits, which make special effects like motion blur or color splash (where only one color shows on an otherwise black-and-white photo) a simple step-by-step process.
Content-aware tools in some of these products let you do things like move objects around while maintaining a consistent background. You can also remove objects entirely—say you want to remove a couple of strangers from a serene beach scene—and have the app fill in the background. These edits don’t involve simple filters like you get in Instagram. Rather, they produce highly customized, one-off images. Another good example is CyberLink PhotoDirector’s Multiple Exposure effect, which lets you create an image with ten versions of Johnny jumping that curb on his skateboard, for example.
Most of these products can produce HDR effects and panoramas after you feed them multiple shots, and local edit brushes let you paint adjustments onto only specific areas of an image. Affinity Photo has those features, but its interface isn’t intuitive, and it lacks management and lens profile corrections. Zoner Photo Studio X combines Lightroom and Photoshop features in a lower-priced subscription, but it’s just not up to the level of the Adobe software.
Capture One, PaintShop Pro, and Lightroom offer more-precise tools for local selections in recent versions. For example, they let you select everything in a photo within a precise color range and refine the selection of difficult content such as a model’s hair or trees on the horizon.
Some of the products in this group have started adding what’s sometimes termed AI style transfer—where the style of Picasso, Japanese watercolor, or another art mode is applied to the photo. The effect became a craze with the Prisma app several years ago, and it can still impress. PaintShop Pro and CyberLink PhotoDirector both offer this. PaintShop recently added other nifty AI features as well, including the impressive AI Upsampling, AI Denoise, and AI Artifact Removal tools.
Professional Photo Editing Software
At the very top end of image editing is Photoshop, which has no real rival. Its layered editing, drawing, text, and 3D-imaging tools are the industry standard for a reason. Of course, pros need more than this one application, and many use workflow programs like Lightroom, AfterShot Pro, or Photo Mechanic for workflow functions like importing and organization. In addition to its workflow prowess, Lightroom offers mobile photo apps so that photographers on the run can get some work done before they even get back to their PC. Photoshop recently got an iPad app, as well, but that’s not yet proficient with raw file editing.
Those who need tethered shooting—taking pictures in the software from the computer while it’s attached to the camera—may want Capture One, which is offers lots of tools for that along with its top-notch raw-file conversion.
Photoshop offers the most image editing capabilities, though it doesn’t always make producing those effects as simple, and it doesn’t offer a nondestructive workflow, as Lightroom and some of the other products do. Of course, users with less-intensive needs can get all the Photoshop-type features they need from other programs in this roundup, such as Corel PaintShop Pro. DxO PhotoLab is another tool pros may want in their kit, because of its excellent lens-profile based corrections and unmatched DxO Prime noise reduction.
Photoshop (and its included companion, Adobe Camera Raw utility) is where you find Adobe’s latest and greatest imaging technology, such as Content-Aware Crop, Camera Shake Reduction, Perspective Warp, Subject Select, and Detail Enhancement. The program has the most tools for professionals in the imaging industry, including Artboards, Design Spaces, 3D imaging, and realistic, customizable brushes.
Professional Plug-ins and Subscriptions
Another advantage of pro-level photo editing software is that you can take advantage of third-party plug-ins such as the excellent Nik Collection by DxO and Editors’ Choice winner RNI All Films 5 Professional (among many others). These can add more effects and adjustments than you find in the base software. They often include tools for film looks, black-and-white options, sharpening, and noise reduction.
Some users have taken umbrage at Adobe’s move to a subscription-only option for Photoshop, but at $9.99 per month, it hardly seems exorbitant for any serious image professional, and it includes a copy of Lightroom, online services like Adobe Stock, and multiple mobile apps. It definitely makes the app more affordable for prosumer users, too, when you consider that a full copy of Photoshop’s top-end version used to cost a cool $999.
Great Photos Require Capable Cameras—and Skills
If you’re an absolute beginner in digital photography, your first step is to make sure you’ve got good hardware to shoot with, otherwise you’re sunk before you start. Consider our roundups of the Best Digital Cameras and the Best Camera phones for equipment that can fit any budget. Once you’ve got your hardware sorted, make sure to educate yourself with our Quick Photography Tips for Beginners and our Beyond-Basic Photography Tips, too. That done, you’ll be ready to shoot great pictures that you can make better with the software featured in this story.