Choosing the best image editing software is complicated, not just because there are so many alternatives, but because they all do different things. It all depends on what you look for most in your photo editing software.
Here are ten programs with ten different approaches. Some programs are strongest for image cataloguing, some are best at RAW conversions, others are classic Photoshop-style image-manipulation tools or specialise in one-click image effects.
I don’t cover every single photo-editing application on Life after Photoshop because that would mean diluting the attention each program gets, so I try to stick to a list of favorites.
There are dozens more programs out there on the market that have lots of fans and lots of qualities, but I have a specific set of criteria I try to apply to any image editing application:
- It has to be better than Photoshop – not just cheaper, but actually better. Photoshop is extremely powerful at technical adjustments, but that’s as far as it goes.
- It has to push the boundaries in its design, speed, technical quality, creativity or improve the whole photographic experience in some way. Low-cost ‘me too’ programs won’t do.
- It’s not about the cost. I’m aware that some photographers are very sensitive to pricing (and very anti-subscriptions), but these programs have been selected for what they can do, not what they cost.
- I use a Mac, and I know a lot of other people use Windows computers. However, all of these applications are available in both Windows and Mac versions.
- Life after Photoshop is not anti-Photoshop because of Adobe’s subscription plans. It’s not anti-anything. It’s designed to show that what Photoshop offers is a very limited approach to image editing, and that there is a whole world of alternative software out there with better workflows, better tools, better effects and, ultimately, better images.
Here are my top ten image-editing tools. They are arranged alphabetically rather than in order of merit. Which one is best will depend entirely on what you’re looking for, and will change from one user to the next.
The first three programs on this list are available only as part of Adobe Photography Plans (they are available separately, but these plans are by far the cheapest option). Adobe’s subscription-based software plans are controversial. Even now, many folk object on principle to ‘renting’ their software and would rather buy a licence outright. But the Photography Plan starts at just £10/$10 or so per month (on a yearly plan) and offers you two of the most important pro editing apps on the market for the cost of a cappuccino a week. You might not like the principle, but Adobe’s offer is a bargain. There are three variations on this plan, and three key products: Lightroom Classic CC, Lightroom CC and Photoshop CC.
The best for cloud/mobile sync
Lightroom Classic CC is the regular ‘desktop’ based Lightroom, the ‘original’. Lightroom CC is Adobe’s new ‘web first’ Lightroom, and there are two key differences. The first is that your images are stored online and cached local on your computer. This means they are available everywhere on all your devices, but also that you have to pay a hefty extra $10 per month per terabyte (approximately) for the online storage. The second difference is that Lightroom CC is a stripped back, streamlined version of Lightroom Classic. Some tools are gone but the whole experience is a lot slicker.
The old ‘desktop’ Lightroom
Lightroom is Adobe’s professional image cataloguing, RAW processing and editing tool. Lightroom is not a perfect cataloguing tool, but it’s probably the most popular among experts for large-scale professional image management. Lightroom is a great Photoshop alternative for photographers because it offers almost all the enhancements and adjustments most of us are likely to need for improving individual images. For multi-layer composites and sophisticated masking, however, you’ll still need Photoshop or some other software that supports layers.
Still the best for pixel editing
This site is called Life After Photoshop, but there are still times when only Photoshop will do the things you need, so it would be petty to leave it out. It’s still the best professional photo editing/ manipulation/ retouching/ compositing tool there is, and if you go for the regular Adobe Photography Plan, you get Photoshop CC and Lightroom CC together. Indeed, if you want Photoshop, you have to subscribe to one of Adobe’s software plans. End of story. I don’t write a lot of Photoshop tutorial content because that would defeat the purpose, but I’ve written about it a lot in the past. I know what it can do.
Cheap, subscription-free Photoshop alternative
Affinity Photo comes from Serif, once best-known for its low-cost Windows creative and design apps such as DrawPlus, PagePlus and PhotoPlus. The company has re-invented itself and its products to provide professional-quality alternatives to Adobe applications at low prices and with a conventional, ‘perpetual’ license. Affinity Photo’s low price point in no way reflects its power and professional status. This is a full-on professional photo-editing tool that competes head-to-head with Photoshop but at a fraction of the price. The layout and some of the terms are a little different to Photoshop, so it make take a little acclimatisation, but this subscription-free Photoshop alternative is the real deal.
DxO PhotoLab 4
Supreme lens corrections and RAW processing
This is the replacement for the old DxO Optics Pro and is much more powerful thanks to the introduction of local adjustment tools, following DxO’s purchase of the Nik Collection and its U-point adjustment technology. PhotoLab’s raw processing is superb and its optical corrections can make even average lenses look terrific. You do really need the Elite edition for the best results, though, and the ViewPoint and FilmPack add-ons to get the maximum benefit, and these cost extra. The new DeepPRIME tool in PhotoLab 4 Elite is spectacular at processing high-ISO RAW files.
DxO Nik Collection 3
Still the best and most powerful set of filter effects anywhere
DxO bought the Nik Collection from Google and has now released it as a commercial package once again, bundling DxO PhotoLab Essential too, to provide a central browsing and RAW processing/pre-editing tool for the Nik plug-ins. This is still the finest collection of effects plug-ins there is, from Silver Efex Pro ’s beautiful black and white to Analog Efex Pro’s rich and imaginative film looks. Color Efex Pro, HDR Efex Pro and Viveza are classics too. Long-time users won’t notice many changes, but DxO has updated the suite for compatibility with today’s software and operating systems, and has added some new presets too.
Atmospheric and evocative analog effects
It’s not the biggest name in the photo editing market, but Alien Skin has been making highly rated photo and design plug-ins for a long time. Exposure started out as a film simulation plug-in specialising in analog/retro film looks, but has evolved into something much bigger. It can now work as a standalone app too, incorporating its own folder browsing, cataloguing and search tools, and offers non-destructive editing for RAW files as well as JPEGs. With curves, color adjustments, retouching tools and adjustment layers, it’s a really good everyday photo-editor, but its library of analog looks and effects is really inspiring.
ON1 Photo RAW 2020
The all in one software with everything
This was once marketed as ON1 Perfect Photos, a collection of plug-ins brought together within a single interface. It’s now been refined and re-imagined as ON1 Photo RAW, a single standalone app which can also works as an effects plug-in for Lightroom or Photoshop. It offers both browsing and cataloguing/search tools, a terrific set of effects filters, support for image layers and masks and the ability to open and process RAW files. ON1 2020 is now out together with the company’s cloud-based ON1 360 synchronisation service, though this will tie you in to ON1’s storage in the same way that Adobe does. ON1 Photo RAW is big on value and scope.
Capture One 20
Lightroom Classic beater with better tools, better processing
Capture One is its pro-level image capture and RAW processing app, previously owned by Danish company Phase One but now split into a separate company. Capture One has evolved steadily into a high-end Lightroom rival. Its RAW conversions are superb, its adjustment tools surpass Lightroom’s and Capture One can also create image catalogs for your entire image library. It also offers a ‘sessions’ based workflow for pro photographers and tethered studio work.
Skylum Luminar 4
Eyepopping editor soon to be replaced by Luminar AI
Skylum’s innovative photo organising, editing and effects software has gone through some major changes and redesigns since its launch, and is now pioneering AI image adjustments designed to take away the effort of manual masking, and augmented reality tools for replacing skies and adding objects to your scenes. It has an integrated image library/browser, offers non-destructive editing tools and supports multi-image composites via layers and blend modes. It also works as a plug-in for Lightroom and Photoshop.
This article is designed to offer a simple overview of the photo editing software market and a way of categorising the things you want to do with your photos and the programs that can help you do it. You can read 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.
Read more: Best image cataloguing software