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.
So this list of the best image editing software is broken down into different sections for different features, and the same program might crop up more than once. It’s very much a personal list and targeted more at intermediate and advanced users rather than outright beginners.
It’s not Mac-only, even though I work exclusively on a Mac. Almost all the programs here 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.
I have nothing against Windows and Windows software. One day I hope to get around to ACDSee and PaintShop Pro and other Windows-only tools. For now, though, staying on top of the big names on both platforms is a full time job in itself.
One more 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.
So let’s get started and check out the best image editing software right now.
Best regular photo editors: Photoshop and its alternatives
Sometimes a straightforward photo editor is all you need. Maybe you use other tools for image cataloguing and preset effects and you just want a program for complex layering, selections and retouching? Here’s my choice:
1. Adobe Photoshop
It might sound like a cop-out, especially on a site like Life after Photoshop, which is all about Photoshop alternatives. But the fact is that for this kind of work Photoshop is still the best. But it does mean getting an Adobe Photography Plan subscription, and though the tools are slick, Photoshop is not the quickest or most memory-efficient software by any means.
2. Affinity Photo
Affinity Photo runs Photoshop a close second, in my opinion. It’s a little more technical, to my mind, but it’s extremely good at tone mapping and HDR (far better than Photoshop, in my opinion), it has built-in focus stacking and panorama merge tools and can match Photoshop’s layering and compositing tools. It’s also very cheap and there’s no subscription.
3. ON1 Photo RAW
ON1 Photo RAW isn’t as sophisticated at masking, layering and compositing as the two programs above, but it is a very capable all-in-one tool that does a lot more besides and you may find it’s plenty for your needs and a better all-round tool into the bargain.
4. Pixelmator Pro (Mac only)
I like Pixelmator Pro a lot. It seems to have a bit of an identity crisis, covering photo-editing, design, painting and illustration, but it’s fast, effective and very likeable. It’s not as in-depth as Photoshop or Affinity Photo but it covers the basics perfectly well and throws in some unexpectedly clever tools and image effects.
Best image cataloguing tools: Lightroom and its alternatives
Not everyone needs full blown cataloguing tools. I do, because I have tens of thousands of ‘stock’ images I use and re-use all the time for various camera and lens tests, how-to software tutorials and reviews. Some folk get by perfectly well with a simple folder structure. If that’s you, then you probably don’t need this section.
1. Capture One Pro
I would probably give Lightroom Classic the edge for image catalog organization, but Capture One Pro has a couple of other tricks that put it in front. One is its ‘Sessions’ workflow, which isn’t just for tethered shooting in a studio – you can also use it as a regular ‘live’ folder browser (no imports needed) with some useful cataloguing capabilities here too.
2. Lightroom Classic
Lightroom Classic is starting to look somewhat dated, especially next to the newer Lightroom CC (or just plain ‘Lightroom’ to Adobe). Lightroom Classic has a fussy, claustrophobic interface, it’s not exactly fast and you do need to import images into the library, but its organisation tools are very good and it supports both plug-ins and external editors.
3. Exposure X
Exposure X is not designed as cataloging tool but it does the job pretty well. You don’t need to import images but you can still create Collections and Smart Collections. Its filtering tools are pretty good too, so although Exposure X is still at heart an analog effects and image enhancement tool, it can organize your images very effectively too.
4. ON1 Photo RAW
ON1 Photo RAW is a mixed bag for photo organizing. You can import folders into its catalog for faster and more effective organizing, but it can also work directly with your image folders – the boundaries are a but blurred. And although you can create albums, ON1 seems to have dropped its smart album feature, which is disappointing.
5. Lightroom (CC)
Now if your top priority is to have all your images available everywhere ‘in the cloud’, then Lightroom should go straight to the top of this list. Otherwise, it’s sadly lacking. You can create Collections, but it doesn’t support Smart Collections and its metadata filtering tools are less sophisticated than Lightroom Classic’s.
Best image effects software
Sometimes, it’s not in-depth editing tools that you need, but quick and inspiring ‘looks’. Some software is MUCH better than others than this. With programs that specialise in preset effects, you’ll find it much easier to achieve a signature ‘look’, and that other designers ideas can take your images in directions you might never have thought of.
1. DxO Nik Collection
This is still the best creative plug-in suite there is, in my book. Some of the plug-ins are less useful today, like Dfine, Sharpener Pro and (IMHO) Viveza, but Analog Efex Pro, Color Efex Pro and Silver Efex Pro are spectacular, HDR Efex Pro is handy both as a plug-in and a standalone tool, and Perspective Efex is useful too if you don’t want to use your host software’s tools.
2. Exposure X
Exposure X specializes in analog, film and darkroom effects but has a large library of regular enhancement presets too. Its strength is in its simple and direct editing tools, terrific texture, border and light leak overlays, and it’s especially good at bokeh effects too. If Analog Efex Pro (above) wasn’t so good, this would be right at the top of the list.
3. CameraBag Pro
I’ve been using this for a while but I’ve only properly reviewed it recently. It’s a standalone app rather than a plug-in, and it offers a large selection of creative preset effects with some pretty advanced adjustment tools for modifying these or adding your own. This is pretty much all it does, but It’s enough to earn it a place on this list. I like it a lot.
4. ON1 Photo RAW
ON1 Photo RAW has always come with a large library of preset effects, which are both very varied and of a very high standard. There is even a standalone ON1 Effects program if this is all you want, rather than the full suite of cataloguing/editing tools in ON1 Photo RAW. The effects are created by combining individual filters and settings which you can mix and match manually.
Best RAW processing software
Lots of photographers shoot RAW files for extra processing flexibility later. However, the results you get vary considerably from one program to another. Lots of photo editors now offer RAW support, but many – surprisingly – struggle to match the definition and noise levels of in-camera JPEGs. There are only three/four programs I rate highly for RAW processing:
1. Capture One Pro
Very close to being the best, and while DxO’s RAW engine is better yet for high-ISO images and lens corrections, Capture One Pro is fast and effective and – crucially – supports Fujifilm X-Trans cameras. Capture One is also a powerful cataloguing tool with seamless RAW processing, so that’s another reason to put it in first place.
2. DxO PhotoLab
DxO’s RAW processing is simply superb. It typically squeezes more detail out of RAW files than you thought your camera capable of – even more so with cheaper consumer gear – and its DeepPRIME high ISO noise reduction is the best there is. Its lens corrections go further than others to correct edge softness too, but its lack of support for Fujifilm X-Trans sensors is a big drawback.
3. Lightroom Classic/Lightroom CC
Adobe’s RAW processing engine, used in both versions of Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw, is convenient, but not great. Its highlight and shadow recovery and color adjustments are great, but its default noise reduction is hopeless for higher-ISO images, and using the noise sliders quickly smudges fine detail. You can’t really get close to the quality of the top two above.
4. DxO PureRAW
This is an interesting alternative from DxO. It basically takes the RAW engine from PhotoLab and uses it in a simple batch processing engine to turn your RAW files into optimized JPEGs or Linear DNGs – which work like RAW files in other programs except that DxO’s superior demosaicing and processing is pre-applied. Again, though, there’s no Fujifilm X-Trans support.
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 Pro: 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
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.