Choosing the best image editing software used to be easy. You would just say Photoshop, and that would be it. Some people still do.
The fact is, though, that the whole field of image editing has opened up to a far wider audience who want to do a lot more with their images – and more quickly and simply – than Photoshop was ever designed for. This is how Life after Photoshop came about.
Image editing software now has to do more than retouching, compositing and detailed Photoshop style manipulation. Photographers want software that will organize and catalog their images, offer creative and inspiring preset effects, let them try out different image ‘looks’ on single images, add an effect to whole folders full of images at a time… and so on.
The fact is, everyone will be looking for something different in their software, so trying to put this list in order of merit really doesn’t make much sense. This is even more true for people like me who use two or more applications to get the full spread of features they want. So it seems to me the simplest and most ‘neutral’ way to list these programs is in alphabetical order. I do have my favorites, of course.
Best photo editing software for layers, composites and Photoshop style editing
- Affinity Photo: it’s really the only contender, and short of putting in Photoshop itself, there’s nothing else that matches Affinity Photo’s power, depth and professional capabilities
Best photo editing software for image management
- Adobe Lightroom Classic: for all-round organizing, searching, keywording and filtering, I’d say Lightroom Classic has it, but Capture One is very close with its own strengths
- Capture One: Capture One offers not just regular catalogs, but managed catalogs (like Aperture used to) and sessions with ‘live’ folder views – it might just work better for you than Lightroom
- Adobe Lightroom: The web-based version of Lightroom brings the ultimate convenience of having all your images everywhere, but the organizing tools are weaker and cloud storage costs extra
Best photo editing software for RAW processing
- DxO PhotoLab Elite: DxO’s lens corrections are excellent and even counter edge softness, its raw processing is first rate, and its DeepPRIME process is in a class of its own for noise reduction and detail
- Capture One: Capture One is close second, with excellent RAW processing straight out of the box, the widest range of adjustment tools and a great balance of detail and noise
- Adobe Lightroom/Lightroom Classic: it’s the RAW processing tool that everyone uses but which I think its the worst because of its ‘gritty’ default noise rendering, which is note always easy to alleviate without losing detail
Best photo editing software for effects
- DxO Nik Collection: the scope of this collection, its tools, its effects and its sheer inspirational quality make it the best all-round effects too by far, in my opinion
- ON1 Photo RAW: this is a wide-ranging program and effects are only a part of what it does, but I think they are the best part, not least because of its excellent preset library
- Exposure X: another all-in-one organizer, editor and effects tool where the effects are definitely the star of the show – and especially good for fans of old-school analog looks
- Camera Bag Pro: never heard of it? I’m not surprised, but it’s well worth a look as a clever and different effects tool that has some great presets and doesn’t cost a lot
- Skylum Luminar Neo: it’s only on this list because it would look odd if it wasn’t, but I find a lot of Luminar’s AI tech pointless showboating and its subscription/extensions marketing strategy seems to change every week
Best all-in-one photo editing software
- ON1 Photo RAW: this program is a clear winner for me because it does so much and stays bang up to date. Its organizing is OK, its editing tools are good and its effects are excellent
- Exposure X: I would put Exposure X a close second. It’s clearer and simpler to use than ON1 Photo RAW, but its RAW processing isn’t the best and it can’t do multi-layer composites
- ACDSee Photo Lab: so far I’ve only tested the Mac version, but the Windows version is on my list. I find it clunky and expensive with no obvious advantages over its rivals
- Corel PaintShop Pro: Another Windows-only program I don’t like very much. It could be good for novices, but it seems to live in its own little time-warp and can be basic and annoying to use
I now review both Mac and PC software, but I prefer programs that come in both Mac and Windows versions. The reviews and tutorials on Life after Photoshop are based on these Mac versions and I make the assumption (rightly, I hope) that the Windows versions will be the same. With Windows only software, naturally, I work only on a Windows machine.
This article is designed to offer a simple overview of the photo editing software market and Photoshop alternatives in particular. You can follow the links to the individual reviews for more information, and I always recommend you download trial versions of programs to try them out and get a sense of how well they fit with your own shooting and editing style.
The list below is alphabetical. I try to keep up with the latest versions of everything, so if there’s a previous version in the list, I promise I will get around to it!
Note: Life after Photoshop is funded by affiliate revenue. This is now pretty much universal amongst online publishers. If you click on a link to download a trial version or buy a program, Life after Photoshop may receive a commission from the publisher. It makes no difference to the amount you pay and helps offset this site’s running costs.
Verdict: 2.5 stars ACDSee Photo Studio for Mac 8 is the MacOS version of ACDSee’s all-in-one Photo Studio application. From its features, it looks like a strong rival to Lightroom or ON1 Photo RAW, for example, but the reality is very different. It’s both basic and technical at the same time, it’s missing features many might take for granted, and it looks like a Windows program ported on to the Mac, even if it isn’t.
Verdict: 4.5 stars Lightroom Classic’s latest masking tool updates make it more powerful than ever, though it’s still not fast to use and its interface is quite cluttered and oppressive. And do we still need all these different modules?
Verdict: 4 stars Lightroom is Adobe’s bold vision of a cloud-based photo organizing and editing tool where all your images can be organised, edited and viewed anywhere on any device. For mobile users and content creators it’s a clever and effective proposition, but for regular photographers, while its editing tools continue to impress, its restrictions, the closed nature of its editing ecosystem and its cost remain a major barrier.
Verdict: 4.5 stars Affinity Photo 2 is not a huge leap forward from version 1 for photographers, but more a major refresh and rebranding for Affinity. It remains an extremely powerful professional Photoshop rival at an exceptionally low price. Its tone mapping is superb, its RAW processing can now be applied non-destructively and its central Photo personal is hugely powerful.
Verdict: 4.6 stars CameraBag Pro is an effects tool with a wide range of great-looking preset effects and useful manual adjustments too. Best of all, it works with video as well as stills.
Verdict: 4.8 stars Capture One 23 is a professional Lightroom rival that offers a step up in both image quality and editing tools, and supports a greater variety of professional workflows. The RAW processing is excellent, the editing tools are powerful and the new Cull view, layered Styles and improved Variant handling alone make the upgrade look worth it. Capture One is not cheap, but it’s designed for professional, quality-orientated workflows.
Verdict: 3 stars Paint Shop Pro 2023 offers a lot for the money, but in use it’s clunky, dated and often counterintuitive. The image organization and RAW processing tools are adequate and no more, and while the editing and effects tools are all right, it’s clear that Corel is pitching Paint Shop Pro at a fairly basic ‘crafting/project’ user.
Verdict: 4 stars: DxO FilmPack 6 is a powerful film simulation tool, but its main strength – technical accuracy – is offset by its lack of local adjustment tools.
Verdict: 5 stars Only a modest amount has changed here from Nik Collection 4, but it was already so good there was little room left for improvement. If your photography needs an injection of inspiration, style, or creativity, this is where you’ll find it. Even if you already have version 4, the new Color Efex Pro 5 and Analog Efex Pro 3 could make it worth upgrading.
Verdict: 4.5 stars PhotoLab 6 has important improvements over version 5 which make it even better for quality fixated photographers. The PhotoLibrary organizing tools are catching up at last and the new DeepPRIME XD processing is superb. Add in the excellent editing tools and local adjustments, and you have perhaps the best RAW processor of all.
Verdict: 4.6 stars: DxO PureRAW 2 is a raw ‘pre-processor’ which applies DxO’s bespoke lens corrections and unmatched noise reduction to RAW files – and it now integrates with a Lightroom Classic workflow and processes Fujifilm X-Trans images too.
Verdict: 3.8 stars DxO ViewPoint 4 takes distortion and perspective correction to a new level, with Volume Deformation correction, a new ReShape local warping tool and more. But its core perspective correction tools will likely already exist in any host application you choose to launch it from. For ultimate perspective and distortion control, it’s hard to fault – as long as you do actually need what it does.
Verdict: 4.5 stars Exposure X7 is a great all-in-one program for cataloguing your images, enhancing and retouching them and adding a huge range of evocative analog film effects
Verdict: 4.5 stars ON1 Photo RAW 2023 is probably the closest thing there is to a photo editor that does absolutely everything. This version adds AI subject recognition and masking features. ON1 Photo RAW’s scope and ambitions are impressive, though the AI doesn’t always work perfectly and ON1 Photo RAW 2023 can sometimes feel sluggish.
Verdict: 4 stars: Pixelmator Pro is Mac only and has fairly lightweight photo editing features, but it’s very fast, unexpectedly clever, and blends in text, vector and paint tools to turn your photos into posters, illustrations and more.
Verdict: 4 stars Radiant Photo sounds like countless other ‘magic’ photo apps and plug-ins that use the power of AI to make your photos perfect. The difference is that it works. Not every image will be transformed equally, but the dullest, most difficult and downright impossible images are the ones that get the most benefit.
Verdict: 3.3 stars Luminar Neo uses Skylum’s latest AI tech for results that can be spectacular, variable or, occasionally, somewhat pointless, though there’s no denying its ability to transform regular photos into more ‘idealized’ versions of reality. But its constant updates, complex bundles, extensions and paid add-ons don’t inspire a lot of confidence.
Verdict: 3.3 stars $199 is a lot of money to pay for a simplified AI photo fixer and there’s not even a trial version, just an ‘unconditional’ money back guarantee. When it works, Photo AI is good, even spectacular, but the image and its problems have to fall within its window of fixability. Photo AI is also slow, over-aggressive with noise reduction and can only fix the right sort of blur.
What do I use?
This changes fairly often according to the latest software updates and what I’m reviewing or writing tutorials about at the time.
My regular go-to tools, however, are:
- Capture One: for cataloguing, organising, seamless RAW editing, basic enhancements and as a digital hub for other external editors and plug-ins
- Exposure X: for a number of favorite preset effects with a style that none of the others can easily recreate
- DxO Nik Collection: for essentially the same reason, and as an almost unending source of inspiration
- Pixelmator Pro: for routine image resizing, web optimisation and export, annotations and illustrations – and some effects not available elsewhere