In the beginning of this book I discussed my feelings about using the RAW format. I know a lot of photographers do not have my background, so RAW is probably a good option for them, that is why I am including editing options using RAW. I guess you can’t fight city hall. Just because RAW is a very forgiving file format, it doesnt mean that you can get lazy and not use good techniques. It is always better to nail your exposure and composition from the onset with your camera than to try and fix your mistakes and short comings later with your computer.
Photo Editing Basics
Once you’ve got the hang of understanding your camera, exposure basics and how to compose a great photo it’s time to learn a few photo editing essentials to put the finishing touches on your artistic vision. The steps below will get you started on the photo editing process right away. You’ll also find things to think about before you begin editing at the end of this article.
The basic photo editing techniques should be available in even simple editing programs, and each can enhance your images to make them more powerful and shareworthy. Advanced editing software will offer these basic tools and will also include refinements that allow you to do more sophisticated editing that’s outside the scope of this article. You don’t have to do all of the basic editing steps on every image, but the steps you choose to do should be done in the order listed.
The easiest photos to edit, of course, are ones taken by a skilled photographer who takes time to get exceptional shots in the field. (You’ll also want to consider shooting in RAW image format for the greatest editing control. Read Understanding Your Camera to learn more about RAW vs. JPG image formats. You should also be certain your editing program can work with RAW images.) To start learning how to get the best shots, consider taking a hands-on photography course.
Straighten images: It’s always better to pay attention to be sure your horizon is horizontal when you shoot, but straightening is also an easy first editing step.
Crop images: It’s best to crop to improve minor compositional details, like distracting elements at the edge of the frame or repositioning your subject slightly.
Spot-clean images: The outdoors is a dusty place and nature’s gritty elements have a way of finding their way onto your camera lens, and then onto your photos. (Using a lens brush regularly in the field cuts down on this.)
Most editing programs have a spot-removing tool. The name varies: “clone stamping” and “spot healing” are two variations. Programs also let you change your view of a photo to highlight the location of spots. Work your way methodically around your photo until you have a spot-free image.
White balance relates to color levels, not exposure levels. If your image has an overall color tone that you find displeasing or unnatural, you can adjust white balance to fix it. Note that JPG files, because they capture far less digital data than RAW files, offer a minimal amount of white balance adjustment during editing.
Most editing programs let you pick from preset modes like “flash,” “daylight” or “cloudy” to better calibrate the image for the lighting conditions when it was shot. In addition, many have both a “temperature” and a “tint” slider that you can fiddle with to fine-tune the overall lighting cast on an image.
Adjusting exposure: This is the process of making the photo exactly as bright or dark as you want. Note that “noise” (a mottled look) can sometimes be introduced when you crank up the brightness. That’s why it’s always better to get the correct exposure (one that’s sufficiently bright) when you first take the photo.
Adjusting contrast: Contrast is the range of dark to light tones. When it’s extra high, you see a stark image, where all tones, regardless of color, are either very dark or very light. When it’s extra low, you see a flat image where no elements in the frame stand out. Typically, you want a middle contrast that avoids either of those extremes. But if you prefer either of those effects, you can adjust the contrast to achieve that.
How to use the photo histogram: This graphic representation of the tonal range of a photo helps you optimize final exposure levels during editing. You don’t always need to look at the histogram, but it can be helpful when a shot has a large amount of dark area or a large amount of light area. Many editing programs include it on the screen where you adjust exposure, making it easy to reference. A well-exposed photo would give you tones throughout the range from dark to light with more tones grouped in the middle:
Your goal isn’t to always take photos with a histogram like the one above: Evenness of the lighting on the subject largely determines that.
When you have a spike on the left side of the histogram, though, that indicates your photo has a lot of darker tones:
When you have a spike on the right side of the histogram, that indicates your photo has a lot of lighter tones:
You can also eyeball exposure as you edit, but a histogram can be an incredibly useful tool, especially if you get in the habit of looking at it regularly. Here’s an example of the same two photos and their histograms after adjusting the exposure during editing:
Note that a histogram can also be useful when you’re shooting photos. The backlit LED screen on your camera can be hard to see and often makes images look brighter than they truly are. If you look at the histogram on a tricky exposure, you can then adjust exposure settings to get a fuller range of tones, as well as enough tones in both the dark and light areas of the histogram. (Again, the closer you get to a good exposure in the field, the less time you’ll spend editing for exposure later.)
Once white balance is adjusted, you can further refine colors in your photos with the saturation and vibrancy controls. The distinction between the two is subtle: Increasing vibrancy increases color intensity in neutral color tones and maintains color intensity in the brighter colors. Increasing saturation makes all colors throughout the frame more intense. When bright colors pop, it can give the photo a more dramatic look.
Sharpening an image gives it a crisper, cleaner look. Many programs offer multiple sharpening tools. Begin by adjusting the overall amount of sharpness (on a scale from 0 to 100). Start at 50 percent, then adjust the level up or down to get the sharpness you prefer.
Experiment with your editing program’s additional sharpening features to see the effect each produces. One you might try is a “clarity” or “structure” tool. It makes the edges of objects in the photo stand out more, giving the overall image a punchier look.
You need to look closely at individual areas of the frame in order to evaluate the effect of each sharpness adjustment. Having super-fine details won’t matter much for social media posts, but it will make a big difference for any image you plan to enlarge and print.
Note that sharpening an image can’t turn an out-of-focus shot into an in-focus shot. No editing tool can do that. In addition, if you sharpen an image too much you can create an unnatural halo effect around objects in the frame.
6. Finalize Your Photos
After you’ve done all of your editing, set your photos aside. Then come back later and examine them to see if you’re happy with each one. If not, make additional editing adjustments where needed.
Then, because RAW files are so large, you need to convert them to JPGs before you email, post, share or print your edited photos. You should also save all of the final edited versions of images alongside the original images they came from.
Photo editing programs: Options include advanced and expensive pro programs, free open-source online options, and often your camera comes with basic editing software as well. If you get a more advanced program, consider whether you want one that’s cloud-based (a monthly fee) or you want the standalone version (a one-time purchase price). Cloud-based programs stay up to date, and let you store photos in the cloud (an added expense). You can also edit in the field with a tablet or a mobile version of the software, but that assumes you have online connectivity. If you compare pricing over time, though, buying a standalone version of an editing program will usually save you money.
Understand the difference between “nondestructive” and “destructive” editing: Some editing software automatically preserves your originals—nondestructive editing. Others save edited images over originals—destructive editing. Editing involves trial and error, and you need to be able to return to an original file if you make a mistake. So make sure you know if your editing program makes copies of your originals. If it doesn’t, then make a copy of all images you plan to edit before you begin.
Photo Editing for Beginners: A Simple Introduction
Photo editing can be pretty daunting. Open up any post-processing program, and you’ll be confronted by a slew of sliders, tools, and options (it’s enough to make anyone feel overwhelmed!).
Fortunately, basic photography editing isn’t nearly as hard as it seems. There are a few simple steps you can take to get great results right off the bat.
1. Make sure you shoot in RAW
Technically, this guideline is about photographing, not editing – but it’s so important that I feel obligated to include it.
You see, cameras offer two main file formats: RAW and JPEG.
And while the JPEG format is nice for quick snapshots, if you want to do serious photo editing, then you need to be using RAW. It’ll give you far more flexibility; with a RAW file, you can dramatically alter exposure, white balance, color, and more. Whereas JPEG files only allow limited changes (and if you edit a JPEG file too heavily, you’ll end up with various unwanted artifacts, like banding).
One RAW drawback: It’s not an easily displayable format. Before you can send a RAW photo to friends, post it on social media, or post it on your website, you’ll need to use a RAW editor to convert it to a JPEG. Fortunately, programs like Adobe Camera Raw and Lightroom are designed specifically for RAW editing, so they make the conversion process quick and painless.
By the way, you can set the file format in your camera’s menu – and if you’re struggling, check your camera’s manual. These days, pretty much every camera offers a RAW file format (even smartphones!).
2. Start by correcting your exposure
When you bring up a RAW file in your editing program, you may find yourself wondering:
And while you can technically go in a hundred different directions, I’d really recommend you first look at your exposure, which is simply the overall brightness of your image.
You should see a simple Exposure slider in your post-processing program of choice:
But before you adjust it, ask yourself:
How does my photo look? Is it too bright? Is it too dark? Is it just right?
Generally, you want at least some details in the image shadows and some details in the image highlights. Here, a helpful tool is the histogram, which looks like this:
The histogram shows the distribution of tones in your image. Peaks toward the middle of the histogram represent midtones, whereas peaks toward the left represent shadows and peaks toward the right represent highlights. Note that peaks pressing up against either side of the histogram indicate clipped details, which you should generally avoid (so if you do see these clipped areas, it’s a sign that adjusting your exposure is probably necessary).
After looking at your image and analyzing the histogram, simply move your Exposure slider until you get the result that you want.
(If you’re not sure how to proceed, I’d recommend simply pushing the Exposure slider back and forth while watching your image. You’ll quickly get a sense of what looks good and what doesn’t!)
Note that basic photography editing programs offer additional exposure sliders, and these allow for precise adjustments. For instance, the Highlights slider lets you adjust only the bright areas of the image, the Shadows slider lets you adjust only the dark areas of the image, and so on. Feel free to experiment with these sliders, though always keep your eye on the histogram as you make changes!
3. Select the right white balance
White balance is designed to counteract any unwanted color casts in your photos, and once you’ve adjusted your exposure, it’s the next beginner photo editing step I’d recommend.
Now, your camera will have already applied a white balance of some sort, but it often needs adjustment. A perfect white balance shows the whites in your images exactly as they look in real life (though you can always tweak this later for artistic reasons). Compare the two photos below, one with a too-cool white balance and one with a too-warm white balance:
Do you see the difference? Neither of the photos are properly white balanced, which is where your photo editing WB adjustment comes in handy.
Simply look for the white balance section in your post-processing program:
Select the eyedropper tool, then click on an area of your image that should be a true white color. Your editor will automatically adjust the image for a perfect result (and if you don’t like the effect, or you simply want to adjust the white balance further for creative reasons, you can always move the Temp and Tint sliders until you get a nice look).
4. Boost the contrast (usually)
Contrast simply refers to the difference between the darks and lights in a photo, where intense darks and intense lights creates high contrast, and softer darks and softer lights creates low contrast.
RAW files tend to suffer from limited contrast, so it often makes sense to find your Contrast slider and increase it until you get a nice result:
Though you should always be careful not to take the contrast too far; otherwise, you’ll end up creating a garish, nightmarish effect.
By the way, if you’re after a softer, more ethereal look, you may want to decrease the Contrast slider. That’s what photographers often do when shooting in foggy conditions, where a low-contrast look enhances the mood.
(You also have the option to fine tune the contrast with the Highlights, Shadows, Whites, and Blacks sliders. Have fun experimenting with different effects!)
5. Check the saturation
Saturation refers to the intensity of the colors in your image, which you can adjust via – you guessed it! – the Saturation slider:
By boosting the saturation, you can add pop to your image, and so I do often recommend you add a bit of saturation – but carefully, like seasoning to a meal. It’s easy to go too far, and then you’ll end up with an unpleasant result.
Some post-processing programs offer an alternative, called vibrance. This is like saturation, but tends to be more subtle. If saturation isn’t giving you the look you’re after, go ahead and try vibrance instead. Or start by trying vibrance, then move on to saturation. The order isn’t important; it’s all about experimenting to achieve the effect you want!
On occasion, you should even decrease the vibrance and/or saturation. For instance, if you want a moody image but the colors are just too bright and powerful, try reducing the saturation. Here, a little change can go a long way, and by subtly dropping the saturation, you can get an interesting cinematic effect.
5. Reduce noise and increase sharpening
Find the portion of your post-processing program that deals with detail:
And adjust both the sharpness levels and the noise levels.
Now, most RAW photos can do with a bit of sharpening. So go ahead and boost the sharpening amount (be sure to zoom in to 100% while you do this; that way, you can see the effects up close). If your image includes certain areas that you don’t want sharpened – a person’s face, for instance – consider boosting the Masking slider, which will ensure the sharpening only targets the more detailed areas of the shot.
Finally, while every image doesn’t need noise reduction, if you zoom to 100% and see little speckles, you’ll probably want to reduce both luminance noise and color noise. Note that too much noise reduction will decrease sharpness and look all-around bad, so don’t go overboard! Instead, boost the Luminance slider slightly, check the result, and then fine tune. Do the same to the Color slider.
And you’re done! At this point, you can always dive into more advanced photo editing applications (e.g., adjust specific colors or work with the tone curve). Or you can export your image as a JPEG for sharing and viewing!
I am going to wrap up this chapter doing something that I don’t usually do and that is to include a buyer’s guide of editing software. I am doing this mainly because there are so many options out there that it can be very confusing for the new photographer. Which is precisely the market that this
The Best Photo Editing Software
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 150-megapixel mark. Photo editing software is keeping up with ever-more-powerful features. People who shoot with either a five-camera Galaxy S21 Ultra or an advanced digital SLR both care how their photos look. To get the best results, you need to import the shots into your PC, organize them, pick the best ones, adjust them, and print or share them online.
I have listed the best choices in photo editing software to suit every photographer.
Adobe Lightroom Classic
Best for Professional Photo Workflow
Adobe’s Photoshop Lightroom remains the gold standard in pro photo workflow software. It’s a complete package, with top-notch organization tools, state-of-the-art adjustments, and all the output and printing options you could want.
Why We Picked It
Lightroom Classic is the top workflow software choice of working professional photographers. It shines at letting you import and organize your photo collection, and offers the best tools for correcting and enhancing photos in a raw file process. Lightroom Classic includes features not found in the non-Classic version of Lightroom like printing, soft-proofing, tethered shooting, and plug-in support. It lacks, however, features amateurs and hobbyists can benefit from, like basic video tools and lots of learning content.
Who It’s For
Lightroom Classic is primarily for professional photographers. When pros talk about Lightroom, they invariably mean Lightroom Classic. It’s also only for those willing to pay a recurring subscription fee. People who refuse to pay a subscription can choose alternatives including Capture One and DxO PhotoLab, but that means doing without Adobe’s cutting-edge imaging technology.
Adobe’s Lightroom is unquestionably the leading professional photo-workflow software. The one question is, which Lightroom should you use? The photo software is now available as two separate applications: the consumer-targeted Lightroom and the pro-oriented Lightroom Classic, reviewed here. Lightroom Classic offers professional photographers a powerful way to import, organize, and correct everything they shoot. Both require a subscription; the software is no longer offered for a one-time price. Recent updates add new AI masking tools, adaptive presets, Super Resolution upscaling, local hue adjustments, a Texture slider, and more. The program earns a rare five-star rating and a PCMag Editors’ Choice award.
Best for Detailed Image Manipulation and Design
Photoshop is the most advanced image editing software bar none. It’s suited to serious photographers and designers alike, for things like layer editing, working with raw camera files, drawing, typography, and collaboration. Though it’s now subscription-only, the company frequently updates the software with cutting-edge features like its new AI Neural Filters.
Why We Picked It
Photoshop is the most powerful image-editing software on the planet. It’s often where Adobe puts its latest state-of-the-art features first, including the new AI-powered Neural filters. Photoshop includes the complex layer, masking, text and shape tools, gradients, and filters that professional designers and photographers need. You can also bolster it with a wealth of third-party plug-ins for even more power.
Who It’s For
Photoshop is for professionals and serious image editing enthusiasts. It includes a massive number of tools, but its interface is has gotten more manageable in recent versions, with things like a clear Home screen to get you started, hover-over help tips, and a persistent search box at the top. As with other Adobe offerings, however, it requires you to pay a subscription fee, otherwise you can’t continue using it.
Photoshop started the digital image manipulation revolution more than 30 years ago, and Adobe’s groundbreaking application continues to be the best photo editing software money can buy (or rent, to be more precise). If you need layered image editing, typography, drawing, and a multitude of effects, you need Photoshop. Designers and photographers alike find the most—and the most advanced—tools available for their crafts in this application. And it’s not set in stone. Adobe updates things frequently, adding innovative capabilities and support for new formats. Because of this state-of-the-art leadership position and the polish and usability of the software, Photoshop gets a rare rating of five out of five stars and is an Editors’ Choice winner among image editing applications.
Adobe Photoshop Elements
Best for Photo Hobbyists
Adobe Photoshop Elements is an excellent option for photo hobbyists who don’t want to pay a subscription or learn complex Photoshop techniques.
Why We Picked It
Photoshop Elements includes many features found in Photoshop proper, but it wraps that functionality in a friendlier interface that emphasizes hand-holding. It also dispenses with the subscription requirement. The program’s Guided Edits ease the process of creating stunning effects with their photos. You still get layers, filters, and a smart Organizer utility to keep track of your photo collection.
Who It’s For
Adobe describes the audience for Elements as “memory keepers,” those members of the family who want to create appealing keepsakes from family occasions or vacations. It nevertheless lets you see the processes behind creating impactful Photoshop effects. Elements is a good choice for those who can’t abide paying a subscription, because it’s available for a reasonable one-time purchase price.
Photoshop Elements brings much of the visual magic pioneered by Adobe Photoshop to nonprofessional consumers. Adobe’s consumer photo editing software continues to make splashy Photoshop effects possible for novices. Like Adobe’s pro-level Creative Cloud applications, new features in the 2023 Elements version add web functionality and take advantage of Adobe’s AI technology, called Sensei. Elements provides many of Photoshop’s tools and capabilities without requiring you to sign up for a subscription, as its big brother does. With its wealth of tools and ease of use, Photoshop Elements remains a PCMag Editors’ Choice winner for enthusiast-level photo editing software.
Best for Cloud-Synced Easy But Powerful Photo Workflow
Photography enthusiasts will appreciate this updated version of Adobe Lightroom. This professional photo workflow program is slick and nimble, and it now boasts most of Lightroom Classic’s photo-editing tools.
Why We Picked It
Lightroom is a more consumer-targeted version of Adobe’s storied Lightroom Classic photo workflow software. Its simpler interface and cloud storage for all photos should appeal to that group. But don’t think it’s not chock-full of powerful image editing tools—at this point matching those in Classic. With great face-organizing tools, cloud syncing, and AI search, Lightroom is one of the best apps for finding any photo in your collection from any device, and its rich set of learning and community features are a boon to any budding photo editor.
Who It’s For
Lightroom appeals to serious amateurs who don’t need printing, plug-ins, or tethered shooting capability. It’s for those who don’t mind paying a recurring subscription fee and like having all their photos backed up to the cloud for anywhere-access.
Adobe’s Lightroom photo editing software has long been a favorite among professional photographers. The app now comes in two flavors: Lightroom and Lightroom Classic. The first is primarily for serious amateur photographers who want to access their photos online and use powerful editing and organizing tools. It’s also loaded with help, tutorials, and community features. The second, Lightroom Classic, retains the program’s traditional interface and tool set for working professional photographers. At this point, Adobe has added most of the older app’s features to bring the newer sibling up to parity with Classic. The newer program still lacks local printing, tethering, and plug-in support, among other things, however, so veteran pro users will want to stick with Lightroom Classic, a PCMag Editors’ Choice winner.
Conversely, Adobe is now bringing some features to Lightroom but not to Classic, particularly tools that are more likely to be of interest to amateur consumer photo enthusiasts than professionals. A standout among them is the Discover photo sharing community, where users can upload their (PG-rated) images for others to see. The latest major update from June 2022 includes new features in Discover, such as user search and “remix,” whereby other users can edit photos you’ve shared. Another key Lightroom (non-Classic) exclusive is the ability to trim and make image adjustments for video clips. Also new to Lightroom, but not new to Classic, are red-eye removal and a side-by-side comparison view.
Best for Noise Reduction and Camera Profile Corrections
Though it’s still not a complete photo workflow solution, DxO PhotoLab can deliver image corrections beyond what’s possible in other software.
Why We Picked It
DxO can automatically make your photos look better, but nevertheless offers a deep quiver of powerful photo correction and editing tools. The software developer, which branched out from the well-known camera equipment testing company, pioneered several technologies that went on to be used by other software products. Lens-profile-based corrections, geometry fixes, and deep, time-consuming noise reduction have all shown up later in competitors. DxO’s DeepPrime noise reduction is unmatched and can make unusable photos usable—PhotoLab is worth it for that alone. It’s also excellent at removing chromatic aberration and automatically fixing lighting with its SmartLighting tool. Finally, its U Point technology offers unmatched control over local adjustments.
Who It’s For
DxO PhotoLab is mostly for professionals who need to get the best out of their raw camera files, but engaged amateurs may find it appealing, too. If you just need the noise reduction and lens corrections, the company’s more limited (and less-expensive) DxO PureRAW product will be of interest. Both can be used as Photoshop and Lightroom plug-ins, as well. PhotoLab is not for those looking for a cheap solution, but its pricing is one-time perpetual, not subscription.
Now a separate entity from the DxOMark camera equipment testing lab, DxO has long been among the most dynamic photo editing software makers. PhotoLab 5 continues DxO’s tradition of automatic lens and camera body-based image correction, unmatched noise reduction, and other innovative image tools. The software incorporates Nik U Point local selection technology for some excellent local adjustment tools. For the latest version, DxO updates U Point with more control, speeds up DeepPrime noise reduction, includes more keyword and metadata management tools, and adds support for Fujifilm X-Trans cameras. The software deserves a place in every serious shooter’s digital photography toolbox, though we wish it were stronger at workflow.
Corel PaintShop Pro
Best for Budget-Conscious Image Editors
Corel continues to add new photo editing possibilities to its PaintShop Pro software, making it a worthy Photoshop alternative on Windows for a budget-conscious, one-time price.
Why We Picked It
This longtime Photoshop competitor offers enough tools for many designers and photographers who don’t want to make unending subscription payments to Adobe. Corel even updates PaintShop Pro with advanced AI tools like Portrait Mode, Background Replacement, Style Transfer. Designers can work with text, brushes, patterns, and painting tools on both raster and vector images, and hobbyists get a ton of creative effects and filters. Raw camera file support, mask selection, scripts, tone curves, layers, and plug-in support are at your disposal, just like in Photoshop.
Who It’s For
PaintShop Pro is for designers and photographers, both amateur and professional, who need deep image editing capabilities including layers, raw camera file support, masking, brushes, text, and textures. You even get some AI fixes and effects. It’s great for those who don’t want to pay a subscription and don’t need Adobe’s collaboration and other proprietary tools.
Photoshop is a magnificent tool, but many of its users could do everything they need to in Corel’s photo editing software, PaintShop Pro, without having to pay a monthly tribute to Adobe. PaintShop Pro supports layers and lets you edit both raster and vector image formats—something you’d need two of Adobe’s Creative Cloud apps to do. You miss out on some of the Adobe flagship photo editor’s most advanced tools, however, including 3D modeling, detailed typography, and face liquefy. PaintShop Pro’s Performance is faster than in earlier versions, but in some photo editing operations it lags Photoshop. Likewise, while PaintShop Pro’s interface has improved greatly over the years, it’s still not quite as polished and unified as Photoshop’s. If you’re a Windows user who’s not committed to the Adobe ecosystem, PaintShop Pro is a worthy alternative, especially given its low cost.
Best for Combined Workflow, Editiing, and Effects
Photo workflow and editing program CyberLink PhotoDirector offers a smooth interface and powerful tools. New color tools, animated effects, iStock Getty Images, and object selection are among the many improvements in the latest version.
Why We Picked It
CyberLink makes some of the most powerful and innovative video editing software around, and the company has applied its deep imaging expertise to photo editing in PhotoDirector. The software combines Lightroom-like organization and workflow tools with Photoshop-like layer image editing in a clear, intuitive interface. The company is constantly producing new effects and templates. The software is available as either single purchase or subscription, which adds online storage and a steady stream of updated tools and content.
Who It’s For
PhotoDirector is for enthusiasts who want an all-in-one workflow and image editing application. Its also a good choice for those who don’t want a recurring subscription fee, though a subscription is an option, which gets users frequent updates and lots of creative content, along with online photo storage. The subscription option also gets users access to stock images from Getty.
CyberLink’s PhotoDirector started life as a workflow alternative to Adobe Lightroom. It has since taken on functions found in Photoshop and added hand-holding help features like those in Photoshop Elements to become an all-in-one photo editing application for photo enthusiasts. CyberLink continually adds new tools like adjustment layers, masks, painterly AI filters, text kerning, and guided edits. The software matches Photoshop with AI sky replacement, people masking, GIF animation, and many other impressive AI-powered effects. You also get stock media from Shutterstock—and now iStock by Getty Images, too—if you buy PhotoDirector via subscription. Both one-time purchase and subscription options are available. Though some might see all this as feature-creep, the program remains impressive in both its usability and breadth of capabilities.
While PhotoDirector does indeed give Adobe a run for its money in terms of photo workflow and image editing, it lacks some powerful features found in Lightroom and Photoshop, such as raw camera file Profiles and geotagged maps. Still, it goes beyond Lightroom with drawing tools, face-beautification tools, and blur effects. Unlike Photoshop, it also includes nondestructive workflow and collection organization features. Face tagging, content-aware object removal, and other advanced capabilities are at PhotoDirector users’ disposal. There’s even a body-slimming tool, which many of us will appreciate after adding pandemic pounds.
Phase One Capture One Pro
Best for Raw File Rendering
Capture One offers professional and prosumer photographers excellent detail from raw camera files, as well as local adjustment, advanced color, and layer tools, but it still trails in photo-organizing features.
Why We Picked It
Capture One gives Adobe Lightroom Classic the most competition among pro photographers. It is super-powerful professional photo workflow software. It does the best job of interpreting a camera’s raw image data to deliver a sharp, accurate photo among software we’ve tested. It also includes an abundance of adjustments and local edit tools, as well as layers and advanced color grading. A unique Speed Edit feature lets you get to frequently needed tools with a keypress. Capture One still trails Lightroom in some workflow abilities, however, such as face recognition and geotagging.
Who It’s For
Capture One is squarely aimed at pro photographers, and its interface could be intimidating to those not willing to put in the time to learn it. It has strong support for tethered shooting, collaboration features, and a new iPad app lets you edit on the go. The program is priced like a professional application, too, available as both a subscription (costing more than Lightroom’s) and a one-time purchase.
From Phase One, the maker of top-end photography equipment like the 150-megapixel IQ4 150MP, comes Capture One Pro 22 photo editing software, sometimes known as C1. Capture One offers digital photo importing, raw camera file conversion, image adjustment, local and layer editing, and some organizational features. Capture One Pro recently got a few new tools, such as HDR merging, panorama stitching, Dehaze, and a clever new system for quick editing called Speed Edit. The software supports tethered shooting (aka capturing, hence the software’s name) with a live monitor view and focus tools for controlling a camera with the app. Capture One is a strong competitor to Editors’ Choice winners Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, DXO PhotoLab, and others in the pro photo workflow space, thanks to its deep arsenal of professional photo editing tools and flexible interface.
Best for Clean Interface, Filters, and Unique Fixes
Luminar Neo has unique AI photo tools like power line and dust removal as well as a vast selection of effects and adjustments, all in a clear, pleasing interface. Workflow and organization are weak points, however.
Why We Picked It
Skylum Luminar is a well-designed photo application (created by a brilliant technology team in Ukraine) with unique, innovative tools, like AI-based power-line removal. Another, AI Relight, lets you change lighting for different parts of a photo, based on distance from the camera. Luminar also excels at fixing drab skies in your shots, as its name suggests. The interface is clear and simple.
Who It’s For
Anyone who wants to have a lot of fun enhancing their photos should check out the easy-to-use Luminar, whether pro or amateur. The program is a good value for a reasonable one-time price. Lightroom and Photoshop users can also use Luminar as a plug-in for their main photo application.
The impetus for Skylum Luminar Neo was the desire for a photo app that makes extensive use of AI to improve and enhance your digital images. It retains the earlier Luminar application’s sky replacement and extensive set of filters, while adding unique depth-based relighting and power-line removal tools. It also gets layer support with a library of textures and overlays. Other new features of Luminar Neo include performance boosting and mobile app syncing. Unique adjustment tools and filters—and the fact that you can install it as a Photoshop or Lightroom plug-in—make it a worthy addition to any photographer’s software toolkit.
Adobe Photoshop Express
Best for Mobile Photoshop Tools
Adobes’ entry-level photo editing app is a freemium offering that lets you do some cool things with photos for free, but you’ll need to pay if you want to use its best features.
Why We Picked It
If you want some nifty Photoshop effects and image correction and want it on mobile as well as desktop, Photoshop Express is for you. A free version gets you partway there, but the cheaper, $34.99 per year subscription gets you the full set of filters, effects, borders, stickers, and retouching tools. It even includes Photoshop’s Face-Aware Liquefy and auto-masking.
Who It’s For
Photoshop Express is primarily for smartphone photo shooters who want to improve and jazz up their images with text and effects for social posting.
If Photoshop, Photoshop Elements, Lightroom, and Lightroom Classic are all overkill for you, but you still want to improve or enhance your pictures a bit, Adobe offers the free Photoshop Express. This free photo editing app is available for mobile, web, and desktop platforms. Express features Adobe’s renowned imaging smarts, with a deep supply of tools for correcting and embellishing your photos. Far from being the basic, stripped-down photo editor it was when it launched, Express has a lot of features, most of them aimed sharing online. The catch? You need to pay if you want to use many of its best features.
Best for All-in-One Photo Tools
ACDSee’s pro-level software offers many powerful photo organizing and editing tools, combining functions of both Lightroom and Photoshop, but its interface can get overwhelming.
Why We Picked It
ACDSee offers a full panoply of photo editing tools for both professionals and amateurs, with features found in both Adobe Lightroom Classic and Photoshop. Easily organize and view your collection and use powerful lighting and color correction tools. Face recognition, layer editing, curves, and gradients are just some of its many capabilities.
Who It’s For
ACDSee is suitable for professional photographers and serious amateurs who want both workflow and full pixel and layer editing in one application. Its one-time price will be appealing to those who don’t like the required subscriptions for Adobe’s competing products.
Like Adobe, ACDSee has been around since the early days of digital photography. Despite its comparative lack of name recognition, ACDSee’s photo workflow and editing package, ACDSee Photo Studio Ultimate, has long had partisans who prefer it to Lightroom. ACDSee continues to develop its software, which now includes Photoshop-like layer-editing capabilities. Some of the program’s tools, such as its Light EQ adjusters, are particularly good. It’s also one of the faster photo workflow apps but still falls short of its top competitors in initial raw camera file conversion quality, effectiveness of some corrections, and interface usability.
Which Photo Software Should You Use?
Novice photographers with a smartphone 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 more comfortable with the products intended for them.
Note that, in the spec table below, it’s not a case of “more check marks means better.” Rather, the table is designed to give you a quick overview of the products and how they square up. 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. Whether you even need the checked feature depends on your photo workflow. For example, DxO Photolab may not have face recognition, but it has the finest noise reduction in the land and some of the best camera- and lens-profile-based corrections.
What Is the Best Photo Editing Software for Beginners?
If you’re just starting to dip your toes into photo editing, your options are getting better all the time. The obvious places to get started are with operating systems’ free, included applications, Apple Photos, Google Photos, and Microsoft Photos. These all include the basic light and color editing tools in simple interfaces. For more details on these options, check out the section below.
Worth particular mention if you’re a more ambitious beginner is Adobe Lightroom, the non-Classic version. This includes the Discover community in which photographers and editors can share their entire process from raw image to final product. It even lets you submit your photos for the community to try their hands at. For in-program editing tutorials, Photoshop Elements, with its many Guided Edits that show you how to create arresting effects, is an excellent option. And even the latest versions of Photoshop itself include plentiful help and learning content, though I recommend going through a basic online course for learning Photoshop. If you just want the basics and don’t have ambitions to do advanced editing, check out the free options in the next section.
What Is the Best Free Photo Editing Software?
If you’ve outgrown the stock photo editing apps on your phone, like those preinstalled with the camera or the effects included in Instagram, does that mean you have to pay a ton for high-end software? Absolutely not.
Desktop operating systems typically include decent photo software at no extra cost. For example, the Microsoft Photos app included with Windows 10 (and updated for Windows 11) may surprise some users with its capabilities. In a touch-friendly interface, it offers a good level of image correction, auto-tagging, 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 plug-ins like the excellent Perfectly Clear(Opens in a new window).
Ubuntu Linux users are also covered when it comes to free included photo software. They get 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(Opens in a new window). 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(Opens in a new window).
Can You Edit Photos Online?
In this list of the best photo-editing software, we’ve only included installable computer software. That said, entry-level photographers may be adequately served by online photo-editing options. These web apps are mostly free, and they’re often tied to online photo storage and sharing services. Flickr(Opens in a new window) (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 are good but lack many tools found in paid photo-editing software. But some paid apps are now releasing web versions. The latest version of Lightroom, for example, has a web app with a good deal of photo-editing capabilities included. And Adobe announced a basic web version of its flagship Photoshop app, currently in beta. Other notable names in web-based photo editing include BeFunky, Fotor, and Photofx(Opens in a new window), and PicMonkey.
What Is the Best Image Editing for Hobbyists
Most of the products in this list are suited for enthusiast photographers and prosumers, which includes people who genuinely love working with digital photographs. The apps are not free, and they require 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, they maintain a database of edits that you apply and that appear in photos you export from the application. These programs 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. (Strangely, the new version of Lightroom does not offer built-in local printing, though the latest update lets you send images to a photo printing service.) Lightroom Classic can directly publish photos on sites like Flickr and SmugMug. In fact, all good software at this level offers strong printing and sharing, and some, like ACDSee and Lightroom, include 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 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 winner 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. Topaz Studio offers a slew of fun photo effects, but it’s completely lacking in workflow features.
Content-aware tools let you 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 the most intuitive. 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.
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.
What Is the Best Professional Photo Editing Software?
At the very top end of the image editing pyramid is Photoshop, which has no real rival. Its layered editing, drawing, text tools, filters, selection capabilities, plug-in support, and color tools make it the industry standard. (Adobe recently removed its 3D editing tools because of the changing graphics hardware landscape; you can find 3D functionality in the company’s new 3D Substance line of applications.) The company continues to add unique, state-of-the art features.
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 capable of raw file editing.
Those who need tethered shooting—controlling the camera in the software from the computer while it’s attached—may want Capture One, which offers a lot 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 PureRAW is another tool pros may want in their kit, because of its excellent lens-profile based corrections and unmatched DeepPrime noise reduction. Skylum Luminar, too, offers unique AI-powered features like automatic powerline removal, which can instantly improve many a landscape or cityscape. It also has unique depth-based lighting options You can use either standalone or as a Photoshop plugin.
Capture One, DxO PhotoLab, PaintShop Pro, and Lightroom offer precise tools for local selections. 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. Of course, you find all this in Adobe Photoshop, too.
Photoshop (and its included companion, Adobe Camera Raw utility) is where you find Adobe’s latest and greatest imaging technology, such as AI-informed Neural Filters, 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, and realistic, customizable brushes.
Plug-Ins and Subscriptions
Another advantage of pro-level photo editing software is that it supports 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, an online Portfolio site, and multiple mobile apps. It makes the app more affordable for prosumers, too, when you consider that a full copy of Photoshop’s top-end version used to cost a cool $999. That said, we list several apps here that don’t require subscriptions.
Other vendors have started following in Adobe’s footsteps when it comes to subscriptions. Usually these deals include all updates, new templates and effects, and in some cases, such as with CyberLink PhotoDirector, access to stock images from big names like Getty.
Great Photos Also 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 out, make sure to educate yourself with our Quick Photography Tips for Beginners and our Beyond-Basic Photography Tips. That done, you’ll be ready to shoot great pictures that you can make better with the software featured here.
Rei.com, “photo editing basics.” BY Braden Van Dragt and Eugene Mezereny; photography-school.com, “photo editing for Beginners: A simple introduction. ” BY Lily Sawyer; buyersguide.org, “Top 10 Photo Editing Software 2022.”;