What is the best photo editing software? That's a difficult question to answer because photography has moved on an awful long way since Photoshop first came out. Photographers need more than a simple desktop photo editor these days. It's not just about selections, masks and layers any more – we need non-destructive editing, image cataloguing, raw processing and lens correction tools. We don't just want photo-editing tools, but inspiration too. And with retro looks making a comeback, photography has become just as much about atmosphere as technical correction.
We still put Photoshop at the top of our list, simply because it's the tool most used by professionals and the best-known software tool by far.
But Photoshop is pretty limited in its approach, and Adobe's subscription-based software plans for Photoshop and Lightroom are not popular with everyone, even now. Photoshop might still be the best at what it does, but what it does may not be what you want!
Photoshop alternatives and why we need them
Despite its mighty reputation, Photoshop is just a photo editor. That's all it does. If you need to open a raw file it has to go through Adobe Camera Raw first, and while that is included in the deal, it's a tiresome extra process that many other programs don't require. If you need to organise your photos (who doesn't?) you need a separate program like Lightroom (included in the same Adobe Creative Cloud Photography Plan).
But Photoshopping and organizing are not the only things photographers want to do these days. If you want advanced black and white effects, retro/analog filters, HDR merging or one of dozen other specialised 'looks', you're often better off using a custom-made plug-in or a different application.
Remember that Photoshop is also for artists, designers, videographers and illustrators too. There's a lot in Photoshop you won't need, and there's only a finite amount of space inside Photoshop for photography-specific tools.
So Photoshop is great at what it does, but what it does is starting to look pretty limited. Which is why the other programs on our list all deserve a long, hard look. Many are cheaper, many are simpler, many are smarter.
Lightroom is so powerful you may not need Photoshop at all, Affinity Photo does everything that Photoshop does at a fraction of the price, Capture One is like Lightroom for pros and DxO PhotoLab can make the results from ordinary cameras and lenses look better than you could ever have imagined, and the DxO Nik Collection can apply one-click effects and filters that would take an age in Photoshop.
If you're looking for cheaper all-in-one photo editors, get Adobe Photoshop Elements if you must, but first take a look at ON1 Photo RAW 2020, Exposure X5 and Skylum Luminar. Adobe might still be the big name in photo editing, but don't decide anything until you see what its rivals can do!
Best photo editing software in 2021
Adobe’s decision to make Photoshop CC a subscription-only product remains controversial. Nevertheless, Photoshop is slick, powerful and constantly improving. Its support for selections, masks and layers is unmatched, making it the tool of choice for complex composite images. Despite its reputation for complexity, Photoshop actually offers a very clean, slick interface. There are no ‘novice’ modes, but the tools panel does offer fly-out animations that show you how the tools work and what they do. There are no image browsing or cataloguing tools in Photoshop itself, but since Lightroom is included in the same Photography Plans as Photoshop, that’s not an issue. On its own, Photoshop is powerful but limited; with Adobe Lightroom it’s half of the world's most popular image editing double-act.
Lightroom is an all-in-one image cataloguing, raw-processing and editing program and the perfect partner for Photoshop. If your main work is photo enhancement rather than manipulation, you might not need Photoshop at all. HOWEVER, Adobe has made things more confusing by splitting off the ‘old’ Lightroom, now called Lightroom Classic, for regular desktop storage, and introducing a new, slimmed-down Lightroom CC which stores all your photos online. You get both in the main Adobe Photography Plan, but for us the Classic version is by far the best. It lets you apply one-click presets in a fraction of the time it takes to apply manual edits in Photoshop, and there's a great range of free Lightroom presets out there too.
We complain that there's too much Photoshop doesn't do, but the fact is for many photographers this kind of old-school image-editor is exactly what they need. And Affinity Photo gives you exactly the same thing, but subscription-free, via a single extra-low payment. Affinity Photo is sold at a budget price point, but it has the tools and the features and the power to compete with Photoshop head-on. Serif has focused particularly heavily on the retouching market, with cloning, healing and retouching tools, an Inpainting tool for automatic object removal and a dedicated Liquify persona (workspace) for localized image distortion effects. Affinity Photo is an extremely powerful photo editor with more tools and features than there’s space to list here, from focus stacking to high-end frequency separation – and version 1.8 is a free update for existing users that brings another raft of improvements.
Read more: Affinity Photo 1.8 review
Capture One works both as tethered capture and editing tool for studio photographers with a 'sessions' based workflow and as a Lightroom-style image cataloguing, searching and non-destructive editing tool. It works in a single window rather than in Lightroom-style ‘modules’ and has a highly customizable set of ‘tool tabs’. One of the key differences is its layers-based local adjustment system which makes it much easier to see and edit your changes to your work, and this now includes 'parametric' linear and radial gradient masks which you can edit later. Capture One’s conversions look smoother and sharper than Lightroom's, and Phase One's new co-operative arrangement with Fujifilm means it can produce arguably the best Fujifilm processing you'll see and also recreate Fujifilm's Film Simulation modes. Capture One 21, just announced, brings speed and workflow enhancements, a new Dehaze tool and a new Speed Edit mode.
The DxO Nik Collection is the latest version of the celebrated Nik suite, and thoroughly updated here to include a new workflow and a new tool. The Nik Collection includes three quite superb and individually powerful creative tools: Analog Efex Pro is brilliant at analog/darkroom effects, Color Efex Pro is a hugely powerful suite of filters for individual use or combined into 'recipes', and Silver Efex Pro remains the best digital black and white plug-in ever. Viveza is quite good for 'dodging and burning' color images, HDR Efex Pro is pretty handy as an HDR merging/effects tool, and while Sharpener Pro and Dfine feel pretty dated now, they can still be useful for output sharpening and noise reduction respectively. The big news, however, is the arrival of Perspective Efex, which offers powerful lens and perspective corrections, tilt-shift effects and advanced wide-angle distortion correction. Version 3.3 celebrates the Nik Collection's 25th birthday with 25 new presets.
Read more: DxO Nik Collection 3 review
DxO PhotoLab is the replacement for the old DxO Optics Pro, adding local adjustment tools from DxO's acquisition of the Nik Collection software to make it a more powerful all-round photo-editing solution. You use the new PhotoLibrary window to browse your image folders, create Projects and carry out basic filtering and housekeeping tasks, but PhotoLab's real strength is its superb raw processing, amazingly effective PRIME denoise tool (Elite edition only), excellent local image adjustments and highly effective (and automatic) lens corrections. The image quality produced by PhotoLab is second to none. On the downside, you’ll need the more expensive Elite edition to get the PRIME denoise and DxO’s ClearView Plus feature, and if you want to apply perspective corrections (once built into Optics Pro) you’ll need the DxO ViewPoint plug-in. PhotoLab 4's biggest new feature is its new DeepPRIME noise reduction, which is better even than the existing PRIME tool and faster too. What it can do with high ISO raw files is incredible and unmatched.
Skylum Luminar is a relative newcomer to the photo-editing scene but it's made a big splash already. If you like the idea of an all-in-one photo-editor that can both organise your images and edit them with a fully non-destructive workflow, then you're in the right place! It even supports image layers, masks and montages. Luminar 4 is a very powerful and effective mid-range photo-editor which is pioneering some very effective AI editing tools. Its AI Sky Replacement filter is quite exceptional, and its portrait enhancement tools are more subtle and effective than ever you'd expect in an all-round image editor. Luminar 4 rolled the regular Luminar and the Luminar Flex plug-in into a single purchase – so it can be used as a standalone program, or as a plugin with Photoshop CC, Lightroom, Photoshop Elements or Apple Photos. However, Luminar AI is imminent and offers a complete redesign, focusing heavily on AI effects and 'templates', automatically analysing your images and suggesting some great looks. Watch this space!
Like ON1 Photo RAW 2021 (below), Exposure X6 is a relatively little-known program that deserves a lot more recognition than it gets. It’s a subtle, powerful and efficient all-in-one photo editing and browsing tool that specializes in analog film effects and comes with a huge library of simple one-click preset effects. It doesn't offer image layers, so you can't combine photos, but for many photographers that won't matter. Exposure X5's strengths are its neat, simpler interface, some beautiful effects and presets and straightforward and effective tools. Like ON1 Photo RAW 2021, it also offers non-destructive adjustments and 'virtual copies' to try out lots of different looks for a single image without having to save additional files. Exposure X6 brings an Auto Enhance feature, GPU accelerated processing, improved noise and highlight handling and a new color replacement tool.
ON1 Photo RAW is perhaps the single most complete solution of all the programs here, and the 2021 version brings new color selection and replacement tools, a new Spot Healing Brush and new portrait and landscape enhancement tools. There's also an optional ON1 360 subscription service for Adobe style image sharing and synchronising with mobile devices. ON1 Photo RAW 2021 has a built-in hybrid browsing and cataloguing module that gives you fuss-free exploring of your image folders but more powerful search tools if you need them. It has an Edit module with Develop, Effects, Portrait and Local (adjustment) panels, and the Effects module alone has a vast array of filters that can be adjusted, masked and combined in an infinite array of permutations. It pulls off a particularly amazing trick, incorporating layers, masking and compositing tools into its fully non-destructive workflow. ON1 Photo RAW might not be as well-known as some rivals, but it's worth any keen photographer taking a look, especially with its fresh, crisp and modern new interface.
So far, every program in this list has been a stellar performer perfect for its own particular audience. Elements 2021 brings new Adobe Sensei AI powered features including animated 2D and 3D GIFs and a clever new 'face tilt' feaure. The Elements editor, which has an eLive mode for inspiration and tutorials, a Quick mode for fast and simple effects, a Guided mode with an ever-expanding list of effects walkthroughs (three more added in the 2021 version), and an Expert mode with the full range of tools. You can get Photoshop Elements on its own, or with Adobe Premiere Elements as a bundle – Premiere Elements does for video what Photoshop Elements does for photography.
Read more: Photoshop Elements 2020 review
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