This should be an easy answer, right? Actually, no, because each of the editing applications featured here has its own particular strengths and weaknesses. It’s not as simple as comparing a checklist or creating a comparison table. We all attach different weights to different features, and we don’t even all need the same features. You can even say software is like a camera – sometimes we just like the way one looks and feels over another.
So here’s a list of very good image editing applications, any of which could be exactly what you’re looking for. I have split them up into different categories because photo editing applications cover a much broader range of workflows and user types they used to – though there is still a lot of crossover.
Table of contents
All-in-one cataloguing/editing/RAW processing tools
These are programs that combine image cataloguing and searching tools with non-destructive editing of both JPEG and TIFF files and RAW files too. Lightroom is the obvious example, but there is Capture One too. Apple Aperture would have fallen into this category before it was scrapped.
1. Adobe Lightroom Classic
Lightroom Classic CC is the regular ‘desktop’ based Lightroom, or the ‘original’ version. Lightroom Classic is Adobe’s professional image cataloguing, RAW processing and editing tool and works both as a companion and an alternative to Photoshop, offering almost all the enhancements and adjustments most photographers are likely to need. For multi-layer composites and sophisticated masking, however, you’ll still need Photoshop or some other software that supports layers. Lightroom Classic comes with the Adobe Photography Plan.
2. Adobe Lightroom CC
Lightroom CC is Adobe’s new ‘web first’ Lightroom, and there are some key differences compared to the Classic version. The first is that all your images are stored online and only a proportion are stored on your computer in a short term cache. This approach means your images 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. It’s slicker and faster, but some important tools, like Smart Collections and Virtual Copies, are gone. Lightroom CC (now just called ‘Lightroom’ by Adobe) comes with the Adobe Photography Plan but it also available in its own Lightroom-only plan with 1TB cloud storage included.
3. Capture One 21
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 and offers superior RAW processing, more advanced editing tools, layers-based local adjustments and a choice of workflows. As well as importing images into a Lightroom-style catalog, you can also use a simpler Sessions workflow which could suit commercial photographers in particular. It is also very effective for tethered studio photography. Capture One is available for a single license fee or as a subscription, and there are cheaper editions specifically for Sony, Fujifilm or Nikon cameras.
All in one cataloguing, editing and effects tools
This category is very similar to the one above, except that these programs have a broader scope and are pitched at different user levels. All three can display and edit RAW files as seamlessly as Lightroom and Capture One above, but do not necessarily offer the same RAW processing quality or features. They do, however, offer a wider range of image effects and incorporate bitmap/raster editing tools that Lightroom and Capture One don’t have.
4. ON1 Photo RAW 2021
ON1 Photo RAW 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 a single standalone browsing, organizing and editing app which can also work as an effects plug-in for Lightroom or Photoshop. As well as browsing and cataloguing/search tools, it has a terrific set of effects filters, support for image layers and masks and portrait enhancement tools. ON1 2021 is available for a single payment or as a subscription version with Lightroom-style online storage and synchronisation included.
5. Exposure X6
Exposure Software, previously known as Alien Skin, is not the biggest name in the photo editing market, but it 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 while its RAW processing is not the best, its library of analog looks and effects is genuinely inspiring. Exposure X6 is sold for a one-off license fee.
6. Skylum Luminar 4/AI
Skylum Luminar has made its name with a radical new workflow of Looks and AI filters, and Luminar AI is an even bolder step into the future (or leap into the unknown), putting AI enhancements right at he center of the software and switching its focus from regular photo enthusiasts towards what Skylum sees as a much larger market of less knowledgeable but equally ambitions content creators. Is Luminar AI dumbed down? Perhaps in terms of its approach, though Skylum would say it’s smarter than any other software. Luminar 4’s layers support is gone, for example, but Luminar AI can now suggest ideal ‘looks’ using AI. Luminar AI is available for a one-off license fee or with a subscription that includes extra content and tools.
The two DxO applications in this list aren’t easily categorised with the others. Depending on our workflow, PhotoLab might do everything you need of a photo editor, and the DxO Nik Collection is still the best plug-in suite ever.
7. DxO PhotoLab 4
PhotoLab 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. PhotoLab is sold for a one-off license fee.
8. DxO Nik Collection 3
DxO bought the Nik Collection from Google and has now released it as a commercial package once again. Previously, the Nik Collection also included PhotoLab Essential, but this has now been removed from suite. Nevertheless, 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 and a whole new Perspective Efex plug-in to bring the total up to eight. The DxO Nik Collection is sold for a one-off license fee.
Traditional image editing tools
Photoshop is still considered the best photo editing application in the world, which is probably fair, though you allow for the fact that there is a lot that it doesn’t do, as users’ needs have changed and evolved. Photoshop, and traditional image editors like Photoshop, don’t offer image cataloguing, for example, seamless raw processing, off-the-shelf non-destructive effects and so on. Nevertheless, for complex layering, image effects, masking and manipulation, sooner or later you’ll need to turn to Photoshop, or something like it.
9. Photoshop CC
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.
10. Affinity Photo
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. It’s regular price is cheap enough, but Affinity does offer periodic promotions which reduce the price still further.
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