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      The best photo editing software: image editors for novices through to pros

      best photo editing software
      (Image credit: elenabs/Getty Images)

      Photoshop does have some claim to being the best photo editing software there is, simply because it's the tool most used by professionals and the best-known software tool by far.

      But Photoshop is pretty limited in its approach, and Adobe's subscription-based software plans are not popular with everyone, even now. In fact, there are lots of non-Adobe alternatives which take a different and often more innovative approach to photo editing.

      Photoshop might still be the best at what it does, but what it does may not be what you want!

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      So here's the thing about Photoshop. Despite its mighty reputation, it 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 while that is included in the deal, it's a tiresome extra process that many other programs don't require. If you need to organise your photos (who doesn't?) you need a separate program like Lightroom (included in the same Adobe Creative Cloud Photography Plan). 

      The fact is, 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 rather than wrestling for hours with Photoshop. There's nothing you can't achieve in Photoshop given enough experience and enough time, but it won't necessarily be easy.

      Remember that Photoshop is also for artists, designers, videographers and illustrators too. There's a lot in Photoshop you won't need, and there's only a finite amount of space inside Photoshop for photography-specific tools.

      So Photoshop is great at what it does, but what it does is starting to look pretty limited. Which is why the other programs on our list all deserve a long, hard look. Many are cheaper, many are simpler, many are smarter.

      Lightroom is so powerful you may not need Photoshop at all, Affinity Photo does everything that Photoshop does at a fraction of the price, Capture One Pro is like Lightroom for pros and DxO PhotoLab can make the results from ordinary cameras and lenses look better than you could ever have imagined.

      If you're looking for cheaper all-in-one photo editors, get Adobe Photoshop Elements if you must, but first take a look at ON1 Photo RAW 2020, Exposure X5 and Skylum Luminar. Adobe might still be the big name in photo editing, but don't decide anything until you see what its rivals can do!

      We kick off our list with Photoshop and Lightroom as you get both with the standard Adobe Photography Plan subscription and it is a good deal, whatever you think of the subscription model. 

      The programs that follow are not organized in order of merit. Each one (barring the last) is quite exceptional in its own field. If you are searching for your next photo editing software application, make sure you check out the whole list before deciding. Photoshop may still be the name on everybody's lips, but its rivals really are individually quite superb in their own right.

      1. Adobe Photoshop CC 2020

      Photoshop is the best at what it does, but it doesn't do everything

      PC: Intel Core 2 or AMD Athlon 64 processor 2 GHz, 2GB RAM (8GB recommended), Windows 7 to 10 | Mac: Multicore Intel 64-bit, 2GB RAM (8GB recommended), OS X 10.11 or later | Hard drive: 4GB | Minimum screen resolution: 1024x768 pixels

      Immensely powerful
      Clean, intuitive interface
      Needs Lightroom or Bridge for organizing

      Adobe’s decision to make Photoshop CC a subscription-only product remains controversial. Nevertheless, Photoshop is slick, powerful and constantly improving. 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. On its own, Photoshop is powerful but limited; with Adobe Lightroom it’s half of the world's most popular image editing double-act.

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      2. Adobe Photoshop Lightroom Classic/CC

      The perfect Photoshop companion, but in two quite different versions

      PC: Intel Core 2 or AMD Athlon 64 2 GHz or faster, 2GB RAM (8GB recommended), Windows 7 SP1 to 10 | Mac: Intel 64-bit, 2GB RAM (8GB recommended), OS X 10.12 or later | Hard drive: 2GB (10GB for CC) | Minimum screen resolution: 1024x768 pixels

      Seamless raw editing
      Easy Photoshop 'round-tripping'
      Mobile synchronisation
      Lightroom CC is limited

      Lightroom is an all-in-one image cataloguing, raw-processing and editing program that makes the perfect partner for Photoshop. Lightroom can take care of all your everyday organizing and image-enhancement needs while Photoshop tackles the complex pixel-based processes that Lightroom can’t. If your main work is photo enhancement rather than manipulation, though, 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 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. What worries us is that Adobe seems to be more interested in pushing its Lightroom CC variant, which locks you into Adobe's own paid-for cloud storage. There's still not as much overlap between Lightroom Classic and Lightroom CC as we'd like.

      3. Affinity Photo 1.8

      An affordable alternative that goes toe to toe with Photoshop

      PC: Processor not quoted, 2GB RAM (4GB recommended), Windows 7 SP1 to 10 | Mac: 64-bit Core Duo 2 or better, 2GB RAM, OS X 10.9 or later | Hard drive: 670MB | Minimum screen resolution: 1280x768 pixels

      Powerful tools
      Cheap to buy
      No cataloguing tools
      Quite technical

      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 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 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

      Best photo editing software: Capture One Pro 2020

      4. PhaseOne Capture One Pro 2020

      It's like a high-end Lightroom, with beautiful editing tools and raw output

      PC: 2-core CPU or better, 8GB RAM, Windows 7 SP1 to 10 | Mac: 2-core CPU or better, 8GB RAM, OS X 10.12.6 or later | Hard drive: 10GB | Minimum screen resolution: 1200x800 pixels

      Excellent raw processing
      Layers based adjustments
      Great tethering tools

      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. Capture One Pro 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 arguably the best Fujifilm processing you'll see and also recreate Fujifilm's Film Simulation modes. Capture One doesn't offer Lightroom's cloud-based 'mobile' synchronisation, but it does have superb tone, colour and image adjustment options. Version 2020 brings improved color editing and high dynamic range tools. As a value proposition, Lightroom is better, but for editing tools and output quality, Capture One is in a different class.

      A screenshot from DxO PhotoLab

      Best photo-editing software: DxO Nik Collection 2.5

      (Image credit: DxO)

      5. DxO Nik Collection 2.5

      The Nik Collection is still the supreme plug-in suite

      PC: Intel Core 2 or AMD Athlon 64 X2, 4GB RAM (8GB recommended), Windows 7 64-bit SP1 to 10 | Mac: Intel Core i5 or higher, 4GB RAM (8GB recommended), OS X 10.12 or later | Hard drive: 4GB | Minimum screen resolution: Not quoted

      The world's best plug-in suite
      DxO PhotoLab Essential included
      Superb raw results
      Limited/basic browsing capabilities

      There's a good deal of crossover between the DxO Nik Collection and PhotoLab, since the Nik Collection bundles a copy of PhotoLab Essential for image browsing, raw processing and local adjustments carried out on images ahead of sending them to the Nik plug-ins. If you're interested primarily in raw processing and image quality, PhotoLab on its own will do the job; if you're more interested in creative effects, get the DxO Nik Collection. This includes three quite superb and individually powerful tools: Analog Efex Pro is brilliant at analog/darkroom effects, Color Efex Pro is a hugely powerful suite of filters for individual use or combined into 'recipes', and Silver Efex Pro remains the best digital black and white plug-in ever. Viveza is quite good for 'dodging and burning' color images, 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.

      Read more: DxO Nik Collection 2 review

      6. DxO PhotoLab 3

      PhotoLab 3's raw processing and lens conversions are second to none

      PC: Intel Core 2 or AMD Athlon 64 X2, 4GB RAM (8GB recommended), Windows 7 SP1 to 10 | Mac: Intel Core i5 or higher, 4GB RAM (6GB recommended), OS X 10.12 or later | Hard drive: 4GB | Minimum screen resolution: Not quoted

      Superb raw processing
      Excellent lens corrections
      Doesn't support Fujifilm cameras
      PhotoLibrary improving slowly

      DxO PhotoLab is the replacement for 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 new PhotoLibrary window to browse your image folders, create Projects and carry out basic filtering and housekeeping tasks. It offers folder browsing and searches, and PhotoLab 3 brings support for keywords – but PhotoLab's real strength is its superb raw processing, amazingly effective PRIME denoise tool, 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 the PRIME denoise and DxO’s ClearView Plus feature, and if you want to apply perspective corrections (once built into Optics Pro) you’ll need the DxO ViewPoint plug-in. Other advances in PhotoLab 3 include a new, powerful ColorWheel tool, more advanced cloning and repair tools and easier management of its extensive local adjustment tools. For outright quality from raw files, DxO PhotoLab is the best there is.

      Best photo editing software: Skylum Luminar 4

      (Image credit: Skylum)

      7. Luminar 4

      Luminar brings clever filters, organising tools and AI to image editing

      PC: Intel Core i5 or better, Windows 7 64-bit or later | Mac: Early 2010 Mac or better, OS X 10.11 or later | Hard drive: 10GB | Minimum screen resolution: Not quoted

      Wide range of filters and tools
      Customisable workspaces
      Non-destructive workflow
      No virtual copies yet

      Skylum Luminar is a relative newcomer to the photo-editing scene but it's made a big splash already. 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 3 introduced Luminar Libraries with fast, painless photo import, 'live' folder monitoring and search tools like those in ON1 Photo RAW and Exposure X. But the
      all-new Luminar 4 is more than just an upgrade, and more like a 'new beginning'. Luminar 4's new 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. Luminar 4 also rolls the regular Luminar and the Luminar Flex plug-in into a single purchase - so can be used as a standalone program, or as a plugin with Photoshop CC, Lightroom, Photoshop Elements or Apple Photos. Luminar updates keep on coming thick and fast, and this program just keeps on getting better.

      Best photo editing software: Exposure X5

      (Image credit: TJ Drysdale/Exposure)

      8. Exposure Software Exposure X5

      Analog fans and discerning editors will love Exposure X5's tools and 'looks'

      PC: Intel Core 2 or compatible, Windows 7 64-bit or later | Mac: Intel Core 2 or compatible, OS X 10.10 or later | Hard drive: Not quoted | Minimum screen resolution: 1280x768 pixels

      Powerful all-in-one editing tool
      Easy non-destructive editing
      Wide range of presets
      Scanning large folders can be slow

      Like ON1 Photo RAW 2020, Exposure X5 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 have the layer compositing support you get in ON1 Photo RAW 2020, but it hits back with a neater, simpler interface, some beautiful effects and straightforward and effective tools. Like ON1 Photo RAW 2020, 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. Version 5 has added powerful and effective selective masking tools, new presets and improved lens corrections with automatic and manual chromatic aberration control.

      9. ON1 Photo RAW 2020

      A great do-it-all app with almost endless effects, filters and capabilities

      PC: Intel Core 2 Duo, Xeon, or better, 4GB RAM (16GB recommended), Windows 7 to 10 | Mac: Intel Core 2 Duo, 4GB RAM (16GB recommended), OS X 10.12 or later | Hard drive: 1.5GB | Minimum screen resolution: 1280x720 pixels

      Great range of effects
      Support for layers
      Non-destructive editing
      There's a lot to take in

      ON1 Photo RAW is perhaps the single most complete solution of all the programs here, and the 2020 version brings a host of improvements, including AI auto adjustment and AI match options, four new 'weather' filter effects, new effects presets and – coming over the next few months – cloud sync and a mobile app. ON1 Photo RAW 2020 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 2020 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.

      (Image credit: Adobe)

      9. Adobe Photoshop Elements 2020

      Elements is a classic old-school editor, but its appeal is dwindling

      PC: 64-bit 1.6GHz or faster, 4GB RAM, Win 7 SP1 to 10 | Mac: Multicore Intel 64-bit, 4GB RAM, OS X 10.11 or later | Hard drive: 5GB | Minimum screen resolution: 1280x800 pixels

      Friendly interface
      Guided edits
      Raw processing limited
      Many effects are crude

      So far, every program in this list has been a stellar performer perfect for its own particular audience. Photoshop Elements, however, is much harder to recommend. It is very much the ‘amateur’ version of Photoshop, with a simplified, family-orientated interface and an increasingly heavy emphasis on family 'memory keepers'. Photoshop Elements 2020 is actually two programs, not one. It consists of the Elements Organizer and the Elements Editor, which do work together but can also work as standalone programs. The Organizer can browse your photos folder by folder, but it also offers albums for bringing your photos together ‘virtually’ and Smart Tags which identify common subjects automatically, saving on time. From the Organizer, you can open images directly in the 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, and an Expert mode with the full range of tools. The Guided mode is a good idea and the 2020 version adds to the list of effects, but many of these effects look crude and dated, while the Expert mode has hardly moved on at all. It feels like Elements is just treading water these days, as it's overtaken by fresher, faster and trendier rivals.

      Read more: Photoshop Elements 2020 review

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      • SunnyMoon
        Thank you for the article! I love these words about Photoshop, everybody knows it and thinks it's the best one to start with just because it is a giant, while being the giant doesn't mean being good for the newbies. I personally started with Photoworks software and then added Photoshop Elements. It is true that Photoshop has lots of tools a professional photographer simply wouldn't need, leave alone the newbies, so I think the Elements is a better choice. C1 is a decent soft, too.