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The best photo editing software: image editors for novices through to pros

Image: Getty Images
(Image credit: elenabs/Getty Images)

Photoshop is the world's best-known photo-editing software but Adobe's subscription-based software plans are not popular with everyone, and there are lots of non-Adobe alternatives which take a different and often more innovative approach to photo editing.

Adobe's Photography Plans are probably still the best choice for enthusiasts and pros who want or need to use the same tools as everyone else, but there's an increasing number of alternatives which can work alongside the Adobe mainstays and even replace them. 

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So here's the thing about Photoshop. Despite its mighty reputation, it 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). If you need fancy black and white effects, retro/analog effects, HDR or one of dozen other specialised 'looks', you're better off using a custom-made plug-in rather than wrestling for hours with Photoshop.

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 Pro is like Lightroom for pros and DxO PhotoLab can make ordinary cameras and lenses look better than you could ever have imagined.

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!

We kick off our list with Photoshop and Lightroom as you get both with the standard Adobe Photography Plan subscription and it is a good deal, whatever you think of the subscription model. 

A screenshot from Adobe Photoshop CC

1. Adobe Photoshop CC

Photoshop is the best at what it does, but it doesn't do everything

PC: Intel Core 2 or AMD Athlon 64 processor 2 GHz, 2GB RAM (8GB recommended), Windows 7 to 10 | Mac: Multicore Intel 64-bit, 2GB RAM (8GB recommended), OS X 10.11 or later | Hard drive: 4GB | Minimum screen resolution: 1024x768 pixels

Immensely powerful
Clean, intuitive interface
Needs Lightroom or Bridge

Adobe’s decision to make Photoshop 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.

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A screenshot from Adobe Lightroom

2. Adobe Photoshop Lightroom Classic/CC

The perfect Photoshop companion, but in two quite different versions

PC: Intel Core 2 or AMD Athlon 64 2 GHz or faster, 2GB RAM (8GB recommended), Windows 7 SP1 to 10 | Mac: Intel 64-bit, 2GB RAM (8GB recommended), OS X 10.12 or later | Hard drive: 2GB (10GB for CC) | Minimum screen resolution: 1024x768 pixels

Seamless raw editing
Easy Photoshop 'round-tripping'
Mobile synchronisation
Lightroom CC is limited

Lightroom is an all-in-one image cataloguing, raw-processing and editing program that makes the perfect partner for Photoshop. Lightroom can take care of all your everyday organizing and image-enhancement needs while Photoshop tackles the complex pixel-based processes that Lightroom can’t. If your main work is photo enhancement rather than manipulation, though, you might not need Photoshop at all. But 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. What worries us is that Adobe seems to be more interested in pushing its Lightroom CC variant, which locks you into Adobe's own paid-for cloud storage. There's still not as much overlap between Lightroom Classic and Lightroom CC as we'd like.

A screenshot from Affinity Photo

3. Affinity Photo 1.7

An affordable alternative that goes toe to toe with Photoshop

PC: Processor not quoted, 2GB RAM (4GB recommended), Windows 7 SP1 to 10 | Mac: 64-bit Core Duo 2 or better, 2GB RAM, OS X 10.9 or later | Hard drive: 670MB | Minimum screen resolution: 1280x768 pixels

Powerful tools
Cheap to buy
No cataloguing tools
Quite technical

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 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 1.7 has brought improved performance and raw processing.

A screenshot from PhaseOne Capture Pro 11

4. PhaseOne Capture One Pro 12

It's like a high-end Lightroom, with beautiful editing tools and raw output

PC: 2-core CPU or better, 8GB RAM, Windows 7 SP1 to 10 | Mac: 2-core CPU or better, 8GB RAM, OS X 10.12.6 or later | Hard drive: 10GB | Minimum screen resolution: 1200x800 pixels

Excellent raw processing
Layers based adjustments
Great tethering tools

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. Capture One Pro 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 doesn't offer Lightroom's cloud-based 'mobile' synchronisation, but it does have superb tone, colour and image adjustment options.

A screenshot from DxO PhotoLab

5. DxO PhotoLab 3

PhotoLab 3's raw processing and lens conversions are second to none

PC: Intel Core 2 or AMD Athlon 64 X2, 4GB RAM (8GB recommended), Windows 7 SP1 to 10 | Mac: Intel Core i5 or higher, 4GB RAM (6GB recommended), OS X 10.12 or later | Hard drive: 4GB | Minimum screen resolution: Not quoted

Superb raw processing
Excellent lens corrections
Doesn't support Fujifilm cameras
PhotoLibrary improving slowly

DxO PhotoLab is the replacement for 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. It offers folder browsing and searches, and PhotoLab 3 brings support for keywords – but PhotoLab's real strength is its superb raw processing, amazingly effective PRIME denoise tool, 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. Other advances in PhotoLab 3 include a new, powerful ColorWheel tool, more advanced cloning and repair tools and easier management of its extensive local adjustment tools.

6. ON1 Photo RAW 2020

A great do-it-all app with almost endless effects, filters and capabilities

PC: Intel Core 2 Duo, Xeon, or better, 4GB RAM (16GB recommended), Windows 7 to 10 | Mac: Intel Core 2 Duo, 4GB RAM (16GB recommended), OS X 10.12 or later | Hard drive: 1.5GB | Minimum screen resolution: 1280x720 pixels

Great range of effects
Support for layers
Non-destructive editing
There's a lot to take in

ON1 Photo RAW is perhaps the single most complete solution of all the programs here, and the 2020 version brings a host of improvements, including AI auto adjustment and AI match options, four new 'weather' filter effects, new effects presets and – coming over the next few months – cloud sync and a mobile app. ON1 Photo RAW 2020 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 2020 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.

Best photo editing software: Exposure X5

(Image credit: TJ Drysdale/Exposure)

7. Exposure Software Exposure X5

Analog fans and discerning editors will love Exposure X5's tools and 'looks'

PC: Intel Core 2 or compatible, Windows 7 64-bit or later | Mac: Intel Core 2 or compatible, OS X 10.10 or later | Hard drive: Not quoted | Minimum screen resolution: 1280x768 pixels

Powerful all-in-one editing tool
Easy non-destructive editing
Wide range of presets
Scanning large folders can be slow

Like ON1 Photo RAW 2020, Exposure X5 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 have the layer compositing support you get in ON1 Photo RAW 2020, but it hits back with a neater, simpler interface, some beautiful effects and straightforward and effective tools. Like ON1 Photo RAW 2020, 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. Version 5 has added powerful and effective selective masking tools, new presets and improved lens corrections with automatic and manual chromatic aberration control.

Best photo editing software: Skylum Luminar 4

(Image credit: Skylum)

8. Luminar 3/4

Luminar brings clever filters, organising tools and AI to image editing

PC: Intel Core i5 or better, Windows 7 64-bit or later | Mac: Early 2010 Mac or better, OS X 10.11 or later | Hard drive: 10GB | Minimum screen resolution: Not quoted

Wide range of filters and tools
Customisable workspaces
Non-destructive workflow
No virtual copies yet

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 3 introduced Luminar Libraries with fast, painless photo import, 'live' folder monitoring and search tools like those in ON1 Photo RAW and Exposure X. But Luminar 4 is due for release on November 18 2015 and Skylum sees this as more than just an upgrade, and more like a 'new beginning'. Luminar 4 will usher in more of Skylum's AI technologies including an AI Sky Replacement filter and AI Structure, with more artificial intelligence to come. Luminar 4 will also roll the regular Luminar and the Luminar Flex plug-in into a single purchase.

Best photo editing software: Adobe Photoshop Elements 2020

(Image credit: Adobe)

9. Adobe Photoshop Elements 2020

Elements is a classic old-school editor, but its appeal is dwindling

PC: 64-bit 1.6GHz or faster, 4GB RAM, Win 7 SP1 to 10 | Mac: Multicore Intel 64-bit, 4GB RAM, OS X 10.11 or later | Hard drive: 5GB | Minimum screen resolution: 1280x800 pixels

Friendly interface
Guided edits
Raw processing limited
Many effects are crude

Photoshop Elements is very much the ‘amateur’ version of Photoshop, with a simplified, family-orientated interface and an increasingly heavy emphasis on family 'memory keepers'. Photoshop Elements 2020 is actually two programs, not one. It consists of the Elements Organizer and the Elements Editor, which do work together but can also work as standalone programs. The Organizer can browse your photos folder by folder, but it also offers albums for bringing your photos together ‘virtually’ and Smart Tags which identify common subjects automatically, saving on time. From the Organizer, you can open images directly in the 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, and an Expert mode with the full range of tools. The Guided mode is a good idea and the 2020 version adds to the list of effects, but many of these effects look crude and dated, while the Expert mode has hardly moved on at all. It feels like Elements is just treading water these days, as it's overtaken by fresher, faster and trendier rivals.

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