What is the best photo editing software? Once up on a time there was just one answer: Photoshop. But times have changed, and while Photoshop has moved on in its own steady way, there's a whole new generation of tools that now go much further.
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 that's not even the best raw processor out there. And to keep your images organized you need a tool like Lightroom to use alongside it.
But even this double-act doesn't provide a whole lot of creative inspiration. You can get lots of different profiles and presets for Lightroom, but these pale in comparison to the scope and variety of the effects in other programs like the DxO Nik Collection, Exposure X6 or ON1 Photo RAW 2021.
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. And for crazy AI-driven reality distortion (and some rather good portrait enhancement tools), Luminar AI might be the tool you need.
So while we still have Photoshop and Lightroom at the top of our list it's only partly because they are still very good, but also to reflect the fact they are still the default choice for so many enthusiasts and creative professionals.
But Adobe's subscription plans are still a deal-breaker for many, so any alternatives. that can match them for features but for a one-off fee are bound to be strong rivals.
Affinity Photo does everything that Photoshop does at a fraction of the price, Capture One is like Lightroom for pros, 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, Adobe Photoshop Elements might seem the obvious choice, but first take a look at ON1 Photo RAW 2021 and Exposure X6. 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
Mac and Windows
Despite its immense power and constant steady improvements, Photoshop is slick and straightforward to use. 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 (or you can use Adobe Bridge, which is simpler). On its own, Photoshop is powerful but limited; with Adobe Lightroom it’s half of the world's most popular image editing double-act. Remember, though, that it's aimed at designers, illustrators and artists, not just photographers.
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 (now just plain 'Lightroom') 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. If only its raw processing was a little less noisy and as good as DxO's or Capture One's...
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 and HDR tonemapping 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 just about the best Fujifilm processing you'll see and also recreate Fujifilm's Film Simulation modes. Fujifilm, Nikon and Sony users can get discounted one-brand versions of the software – but choose the all-cameras version if you work on files from multiple cameras.
Nik Collection 4 is the latest version of the celebrated Nik suite, and consists of eight separate plug-ins which can also be used as standalone programs. Analog Efex Pro is brilliant at analog/darkroom effects, while Color Efex Pro is a hugely powerful suite of filters for individual use or combined into 'recipes'. Silver Efex Pro remains the best digital black and white plug-in ever and is updated in this version with a fresh, modern interface, a new ClearView option and more powerful selective control points. Viveza gets the same treatment and is elevated from a relatively simple local adjustment tool into a much more powerful plug-in. 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. And then there's Perspective Efex, DxO's most recent addition, which offers powerful lens and perspective corrections, tilt-shift effects and advanced wide-angle distortion correction. You can use the Nik Collection 4 plug-ins with Photoshop, Lightroom and from within DxO PhotoLab – or use them as external editors with other programs like Capture One.
Read more: DxO Nik Collection 4 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 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 DeepPRIME 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 DxO's DeepPRIME and ClearView Plus features, and if you want to apply perspective corrections (once built into Optics Pro) you’ll need the DxO ViewPoint add-on too. DxO has also added PureRAW to its software suite – a raw batch processing tool that turns regular raw files into 'Linear DNGs'. Other programs still treat these as raw files with all the tonal and color headroom you would expect, but they have DxO's superior demosaicing, noise reduction and lens corrections pre-applied.
Read: DxO Photolab 4 review
Skylum Luminar is a relative newcomer to the photo-editing scene but it's made a big splash already. Luminar AI offers a complete redesign on earlier versions, focusing heavily on AI effects and 'templates', automatically analyzing your images and suggesting some great looks. 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 AI 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. It can be used as a standalone program, or as a plugin with Photoshop CC, Lightroom Classic, or Apple Photos. It's just a shame that Skylum has stepped back from the more advanced approach in previous versions and placed so much faith in headline-grabbing AI tools.
If you’re just getting started in photography, you may want photo organizing software that's relatively simple to get started with. In which case, take a look at CyberLink PhotoDirector, which has a friendly and approachable interface that beginners will find it easy to get on with. You can import photos or folders directly from your camera and organize them by categories, tags and keywords. There’s also a capable face recognition tool.
When it comes to editing your images, there are a bunch of preset filters as well as basic editing tools. There are also a range of guided edits, such as Dispersion Effect and Glitch Art, that novices looking to improve their pictures will appreciate.
Overall, this software is fairly limited: for example, it only supports six file formats in total (RAW, JPG, PNG, PHI, GIF and TIF). But if you’re just starting out and don’t want to be overwhelmed by too many options, this offers good value, particularly as the price of a lifetime licence includes 25GB of cloud storage.
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 (only adjustment layers), so you can't combine photos, but for many photographers that won't matter. Exposure X6'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 subscription service for Adobe style image sharing and synchronizing 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' feature. 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. Elements 2021 is good value, but its interface, its approach to editing and its Guided Edits are all starting to look rather old-fashioned.
Read more: Photoshop Elements 2021 review
PaintShop Pro 2022 builds on the upgrades in the previous release of the software to provide the best version to date. The price for the Ultimate version makes it a no-brainer over the standard version based on all the extras you receive for a small increase in price, but since this is Windows-only software Mac owners, unfortunately, miss out. Current 2021 users may find there aren’t enough new features to justify an upgrade, although users of older versions and newcomers to the software will not be disappointed.
There aren’t many all-in-one image editing software options available, and perhaps there’s a good reason for it; it’s difficult to be great at everything. ACDSee Photo Studio Ultimate 2020 is fantastic at image cataloguing and Raw processing but falls down with image editing despite offering layers, filters, masking and adjustment layers. However, it's well worth considering for the image management and Raw processing functionality alone. We've reviewed the 2020 version, but the improvements for 2021 are quite modest, with claimed speed improvements and a handful of new features including apart from claimed speed increases in a number of areas, there are only about 6-8 new features including improvements to the crop and watermarking tools. ACDSee is, however, working on an interesting new photo editor called Gemstone. Read our ACDSee Gemstone Photo Editor 12 beta review.
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