There are numerous photo editing apps – Adobe Lightroom, different flavors of Photoshop (Elements, CC), PaintShop Pro from Corel, Affinity Photo, Gimp just to name a few more popular ones. Then there are also specialized apps like Photomatix Pro, Oloneo (both to create HDR images), PTGui (panoramas) or Helicon Focus (focus stacking). And also plug-ins to other apps, like Topaz collection or Nik Collection.
Such broad choice might become a problem for photographers starting their adventure with photo editing. Which one do I need? Which will be sufficient for me? are the questions they might ask. And it’s quite difficult to find an answer.
In this article I’ll pick a few of the more popular photo editing apps and will try to provide short characterization of each of them, mentioning their strengths and weaknesses. I’ll focus on the photo editing apps this time, so will leave products like Photomatix or Topaz aside. But maybe will write on them in a separate article.
Here are the apps that I’ll describe today:
- Photoshop Elements,
- Photoshop CC.
Adobe Lightroom isn’t just normal photo editing app. It’s something more. It’s main focus is in fact to organize your photos and it’s the only app on this list that offers functionality like that. It doesn’t do the same thing as Picasa or Adobe Bridge for instance, i.e. it isn’t a simple photo browser where you have list of folders and files inside them. It’s more a photo database – it doesn’t include your source photos, it holds reference to them. It allows you to quickly search through your photos based on whatever criteria you can think of. You can even find photos taken on a given day using specific lens and aperture of f/4. This might seem useless but it’s really great that you can use so many different criteria!
Apart from organizing photos, Lightroom offers a lot of traditional photo editing features. With each release more and more editing tools are added. The result is that I tend to do most of the editing in Lightroom 6, which is the most recent version, now. I only use Photoshop CC if I have to do more serious editing. Lightroom 6 allows you to change exposure of the image, contrast, colours, apply lens corrections. You can also apply some adjustments locally, using a brush, graduated filter or radial filter. You can also remove noise or increase sharpness of your image. And most of that tools work really great.
And what’s great at any time you can go back to your original photo, or even have same photo with multiple edits (but without using additional disk space!), as edits aren’t done on the image itself – they are kept separately from the image until you decide to export it (save to another file).
And if that’s not enough, you can install numerous plug-ins inside Lightroom, like Topaz or Nik, which will make Lightroom even more powerful.
Lightroom has some flaws, however. For me the user inteface is very unintuitive. I had problems when I started using it because it seemed so complicated! Even today, after several years of using it almost everyday, I sometimes have difficulties finding particular options because they are hidden somewhere in some awkward manner.
Another big problem for me is Lightroom’s speed. Despite supposed improvements in this regard in version 6, it still runs very slowly for me – from importing photos, to browsing the library to doing some editing – everything seems so slow!
BTW you can read my review of Adobe Lightroom here: http://hdr-photographer.com/2015/04/lightroom-6-review/
Price: boxed version available for 149 USD or monthly subscription – 9.99 USD
- Great for organizing photo library
- Has powerful RAW converter built-in
- Allows easy editing of photo
- Complicated unintuitive user interface
Adobe Photoshop Elements
For years Adobe Photoshop Elements, smaller brother to Photoshop CC, was a little crippled. It was limited to 32-bit version and 16-bit editing was fairly limited. Things are changing, however. Most recent version, Elements 13, now runs in 64-bit mode and thanks to that you can use full processing power of your computer and work with very large images.
Unfortunately working with 16-bit images is still very limited. For instance you cannot use Adjustment Layers and you can’t apply certain filters (fortunately most of the photography related ones, like blurs or sharpening works fine). It means that you can only work destructively with your images in 16-bit mode.
Also Photoshop Elements doesn’t have some more advanced tools you can find in CC version, like merging to panorama or focus stacking.
Other than that Photoshop Elements is powerful photo editor app that offers a lot of features present in Lightroom and Photoshop CC (e.g. it uses same RAW converter, offers Adjustment Layers).
There is one more interesting thing about it, especially for beginners. You can work in a number of “views” depending on your experience level (in “less-experienced views” some tools will be hidden).
Price: 99.99 USD
- Powerful photo editor offering a lot of features from it bigger brother, Photoshop CC
- 16-bit editing is still very limited
- Still missing some photography tools present in Photoshop CC
Adobe Photoshop CC
Everyone knows Photoshop. It’s the most powerful and popular photo editing app on the planet. And I could stop here. But the problem is, Photoshop isn’t for everyone. It’s so huge and complex that you will probably never use most of its features. And due to its complexity it might be overwhelming at the beginning. Or even after some time. Photoshop isn’t tool created just for photographers – it’s a tool used by painters, designers, illustrators, and yeah photographers too. However, such broad audience means there are a lot of tools that will never be of interest to you.
However, great thing with Photoshop is that at the beginning you might be using only some basic functions. But as your knowledge and experience grow, you don’t need to switch to another app – all features are already there. Maybe hidden from your eyes but you can get access to them easily. And that’s like that all the time. Even I, after several years in Photoshop, am still learning, still discovering exciting features to make my photos even better.
Price: monthly subscription – 9.99 USD
- You can do almost everything you imagine with it
- If there is something you can’t do in Photoshop, there are plug-in that allow to do that
- Very nice clean UI
- Might be a little overwhelming at the beginning
If you are on a budget Gimp might be a great option because it’s the only software on this list that is completely free! Yes – and if you’re a developer there is more – it comes with complete source code (so you can learn quite a lot from it).
Another great thing about it is that it’s multi-platform. It will work not only on Windows and OS X but also on many Linux distributions where there aren’t that many photo editing apps to choose from. So if you’re on Linux that might be your best option.
As for photography editing it offers all basic adjustments you can think of (colour saturation, levels, curves, etc.) and a lot of photography filters. There are also a lot of plugins enhancing capabilities of this software even further. I even remember a plugin that allowed using Photoshop plugins (like Topaz) and a lot of them actually worked!
Unfortunately, for me there are two big issues with Gimp (and they are the reason why I switched to Photoshop several years ago). The first is lack of built-in RAW converted. If you want to open RAW images you need to download separate program (UFRaw is quite popular for that), convert your RAWs with it and then open the image in Gimp. Some might argue that in Photoshop, Adobe Camera RAW (ACR) is also separate program but it’s slightly different, especially as both photoshop and ACR are developed by the same company.
Anyway RAW conversion is something that you might overcome but there is one bigger issue for me – lack of Adjustment Layers. This term might be cryptic to you so let me explain. In Photoshop you have ability to work non-destructively – you can apply contrast, saturation or even filters like blur and see their effect but at the same time you have access to original pixels of your image and can change them at any time. Why this might be useful? Imagine making a lot of adjustments, changing colour and contrast for about an hour. And after that time you could realize that in fact adjustment that you did at the very beginning was unnecessary and that image would look better without it. Thanks to Adjustment Layers you can do that – you just need to disable this very adjustment and you’re fine. In Gimp you don’t have such option as you have to modify pixels in the image whenever you’re adjusting your image. In worst case you would need to start your editing process from the very beginning. Of course Adjustment Layers are something that you can live without… until you try them. Then there is no coming back.
If you aren’t sure whether this app is worth your time, let me tell you something – I started with it and was pretty satisfied. At that time the main issue was a little awkward user interface but from what I can see, it’s much better now. So Gimp might be a good starting point but probably sooner or later you will decide to switch as it might limit you a little too much.
- Supports numerous platforms including Linux
- A lot of basic photography tools and filters
- Gimp is missing a few important features (like adjustment layers)
- No RAW support built-in
- A bit old school UI
What apps do I use?
Right now I’m using two apps from the above list: Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop CC. Recently I try to do as much editing as possible directly in Lightroom – to save myself some time and also to make my workflow simpler, and it works quite often. If I need to make specific adjustments (e.g. local adjustments to contrast or colour) or I want to make my image perfect I open my photo in Photoshop and continue from there. However, to make things more complicated I’d like to mention that I’m currently slowly switching from Lightroom to Capture One 8. My first impressions are that it offers much better image quality. At this stage I cannot recommend it though because I’m still learning it so I’ll probably update this post in a month or two.
So what would I recommend right now? If you’re on budget, you can give Gimp a try – even with some limitations I mentioned it’s still very powerful photo editing app that should be sufficient for you for quite some time. If you can afford it, I would recommend Photography subscription plan from Adobe – this way you’ll get both Lightroom and Photoshop CC for 9.99 USD per month what isn’t much given how great both apps are. This way you would have not only 2 very powerful photo editors but also a tool to organize and browse through your photos. With ever growing collection of images this might become really important at some stage.
Please note that I don’t recommend Photoshop Elements. Even though it’s getting more and more powerful there are still certain things that you can’t do in it. Also for some reasons I never liked it, found it too basic.