What is the best photo editing software? We’ve reviewed some of the top image-editing programs on the market in recent months. We decided to put them all head-to-head to find out which is the best photo editing software, offering photographers the most complete package of features and ease of use along with value for money.
Photoshop CS has long been considered the world’s best photo editing software, and it’s now the standard by which all image-editing programs are judged. But it’s not without flaws – it’s both complicated and expensive.
Photoshop is a broad design tool aimed at a variety of users including illustrators, artists and designers, and while these capabilities don’t take anything away from its photographic features, they complicate the interface and, in some cases, the tools too.
The cost, however, is the big factor for most photographers. Photoshop CS6 has a list price of £661, which is more than many people spend on their cameras!
There’s an unseen cost too, in that Adobe has always stopped releasing updates for the previous version’s Adobe Camera Raw plug-in when a new version of Photoshop is released, so if you buy a new camera you’ll need a new copy of Photoshop too.
And, of course, Photoshop CC changed everything and comes with its controversial subscription plan.
Enhance or manipulate?
The most expensive application in this test group costs less than half as much as Photoshop, and on average they’re not much more than one tenth of the price. The question is whether these programs can really replace Photoshop, and to answer that you need to decide what you want your editing program to do.
Generally, we do things with our photos: either make them the best they can possibly be, overcoming the limitations of the camera or the shooting conditions, or turn them into something new, either with special effects, by combining them with other images or by turning them into slideshows, prints or gifts.
Basic photo enhancements such as cropping, levels, white balance adjustments and sharpening are easy – all of the programs tested here will do that. But image editors these days need to go further.
Many people now shoot raw format files to exploit the maximum dynamic range of the camera’s sensor and choose key settings like white balance, contrast and saturation on the computer.
The quality of the raw conversion makes a difference too – each application interprets and processes raw files differently, and some, such as DxO Optics Pro, can correct for lens defects too, such as chromatic aberration, distortion, edge softness and vignetting (corner shading).
You can improve your images further by enhancing and adjusting specific areas. For this you’ll need to be able to make selections or, at the very least, ‘brush’ adjustments on to your images in a controllable way.
Photoshop has gaps too
Photoshop does actually have some significant gaps in its armoury. While it’s very good at combining and manipulating images, it doesn’t go that one step further – if you want to share them with others or turn them into photo projects, you’ll need to find other tools to do it with.
And Photoshop doesn’t make much of an effort to help you organise your pictures either.
It does come with Adobe Bridge, which displays the contents of your folders as thumbnail images and enables you to examine and alter the image ‘metadata’, such as captions, keywords and copyright data, but it’s not designed for displaying, organising and searching large image collections in the way that many of these other programs are.
This is why many feel programs such as Photoshop Lightroom and Apple Aperture could be the future, especially those who take pictures for a living. They place equal emphasis on organising your photos as well as enhancing them.
What’s more, the photo enhancements offered by Lightroom and Aperture are non-destructive and reversible. Your original photos remain untouched, and all the changes you make are virtual.
You can export new versions of your photos with your adjustments applied, but until then your edited photos can be changed at will.
Our round-up of Photoshop alternatives doesn’t just list programs that offer the same or similar tools as Photoshop, but for less. It also has programs that approach photography in a different way.
So don’t imagine that Photoshop is still the only serious choice photographers, because any one of the six applications on test could change your mind!
Now on to the tests…
PAGE 1: Why you might want a Photoshop alternative
PAGE 2: The photo editing software we tested
PAGE 3: How we tested this photo editing software
PAGE 4: Best photo editing software – our top Photoshop alternative
Adobe Lightroom: what every photographer must know about the alternative Photoshop
Best photo editing tips for beginners: 18 quick fixes to common image problems
13 photo editing mistakes every photographer makes (and what you can do about it)
101 Photoshop tips you really have to try