Buying guide: Best photo editing software: we rate 8 top image editors

Buying guide: Best photo editing software: we rate 8 top image editors

Best photo editing software

Photoshop’s reign as the king of image editors could be nearing its end as it comes under attack from not one direction, but three.

Photoshop’s first problem is that it’s quite specialized. It can edit, enhance and manipulate your images with enormous depth and subtlety. But that’s all it does. It can’t catalog and search your whole photo library, it won’t help you share photos and it’s not designed for instant one-click effects and simple batch processing.

Photoshop’s second problem is that it’s not the best at everything it does. Raw processing is becoming increasingly important for quality-conscious photographers and Adobe Camera Raw, Photoshop’s raw conversion add-on, is powerful enough, but does not deliver the best quality.

Photoshop’s third problem is called Serif Affinity Photo. Currently a Mac-only program and still in beta, it takes up the cudgels to battle Photoshop head-on in the professional image editing territory it’s held for so long. Affinity Photo is cheap, fast and applies effects live, in real time, in a way that makes some Photoshop processes look plodding.

We have picked a winner, but it’s a double-act rather than a single program, and the rest are catching up so fast that this could all change again very quickly.

Adobe Photoshop CC 2014

1. Adobe Photoshop CC 2014

Still the most powerful image-editor, and Adobe’s controversial subscription plan could pay off

Platform: Mac and PC | Image-editing: Yes | Cataloguing: Limited | Raw conversion: Yes

Photoshop is both sophisticated and limited . For layers, masks, selections, retouching and complex, multi-step imaging processes, it’s impossible to beat, and it manages to present these tools in a remarkably clean, fast and efficient interface. On the downside, it doesn’t offer a library of single-click creative effects – for this you need extra plug-ins. Photoshop is like a giant box of spanners – it has all the tools you could possibly want, but it’s not going to show you how to fix your car. Worse, it doesn’t offer proper image cataloguing tools (Adobe Bridge is really just a glorified folder browser), so for that you need the next program in our list…

Read: Photoshop CC 2014 review

Lightroom CC/Lightroom 6

2. Adobe Photoshop Lightroom CC/Lightroom 6

Adobe’s professional image cataloguing tool is the perfect partner to Photoshop

Platform: Mac and PC | Image-editing: Limited | Cataloguing: Yes | Raw conversion: Yes

Lightroom CC and Lightroom 6 are the same program, but the CC version is subscription-based, integrates with Adobe’s Creative Cloud and synchronises with Adobe’s free Lightroom Mobile apps. Lightroom 6 is the regular standalone version. Lightroom combines an image cataloguing database with ‘non-destructive’ editing tools. It means that you can make non-permanent adjustments to an image which you can change later – and your original photos are never modified. The image-editing tools are the same as those in Adobe Camera Raw (Photoshop), but presented in a different interface. They can’t do everything – for selections, layers, masks and many more complex effects you’ll still need a program like Photoshop – but for everyday image enhancements and picture ‘styles’, Lightroom is perfect.

Read: Lightroom CC/Lightroom 6 review

Serif Affinity Photo

3. Serif Affinity Photo

Serif shrugs off its budget background with a stunningly powerful Photoshop rival

Platform: Mac | Image-editing: Yes | Cataloguing: No | Raw conversion: Yes

Best-known as a developer of budget Windows creative applications like PhotoPlus, Serif has branched out into professional Mac software with its new ‘Affinity’ range. Affinity Designer, the company’s vector drawing/illustration app has already caused a storm and Affinity Photo, its Photoshop rival, looks set to do the same. It will cost £39.99/US$ 49.99 from the Mac App Store, and not only undercuts the annual subscription to Photoshop but is sold as a regular, ‘perpetual’, licence. We’ve had a long, hard look at the beta version, and it’s obvious this is no dumbed-down ‘consumer’ Photoshop. It’s powerful, it’s fast and it meets Photoshop head-on. This is the real deal, folks.

Read: Serif Affinity Photo hands on review

Phase One Capture One Pro 8

4. PhaseOne Capture One Pro 8

Capture one is a high-end rival to Lightroom and delivers high-quality results

Platform: Mac and PC | Image-editing: Limited | Cataloguing: Yes | Raw conversion: Yes

Capture One started out as a dedicated software tool for Phase One’s professional medium-format cameras, but it’s been developed into a very powerful raw conversion and image-editing tool for any camera owner. It’s now a strong rival to Adobe Lightroom. Like Lightroom, it can import your images into a centralised, searchable database and then apply non-destructive adjustments and preset effects. Your original images are never directly modified, and the changes are only made permanent when you export processed JPEG or TIFF versions. Capture One Pro 8 produces smoother, sharper, richer raw conversions, but it doesn’t support external editors – its one big failing.

Read: Phase One Capture One Pro 8 review

Adobe Photoshop Elements 14

5. Adobe Photoshop Elements 14

Elements is a great image-editing tool, but version 14 brings just a handful of changes

Platform: Mac and PC | Image-editing: Yes | Cataloguing: Yes | Raw conversion: Yes

Photoshop Elements is like the ‘amateur’ version of Photoshop. It’s a lot more novice-friendly, but you do miss out on a lot of Photoshop’s more advanced features. Elements’ big draw used to be the massive price differential, but you can now get a year’s subscription to Photoshop CC and Lightroom for not much more than the price of an Elements licence. Elements’ main strength is its ability to cater for all kinds of user, but the novice-orientated interface can grate, the editor lacks proper curves adjustments and the version of Adobe Camera Raw that’s included is a bare-bones, cut-down version of the real thing. Version 14 adds a de-haze tool, shake reduction, new guided edits and sundry other enhancements, but it’s a routine annual refresh rather than a new program.

Read: Photoshop Elements 14 review

Corel PaintShop Pro X8

6. Corel PaintShop Pro X8

Corel’s veteran image-editing software is brought right up to date

Platform: PC only | Image-editing: Yes | Cataloguing: Folder browsing | Raw conversion: Yes

PaintShop Pro’s aim is to rival Photoshop’s versatility and image editing power, but to be easier to use and cost a fraction of the price, and almost all of Photoshop’s most useful tools have an equivalent in PaintShop Pro, and though they often work slightly differently, it doesn’t take long to adapt, especially with help from the Learning Centre. However, even with version X8’s speed enhancements, some tools can be frustratingly sluggish, and then there’s price to consider. Back when Photoshop cost a hefty one-off payment, PaintShop Pro could indeed be had for a fraction of the price. However, these days an Adobe Creative Cloud subscription for Photoshop and Lightroom costs just £8.57/$ 9.99 per month, which over a year isn’t significantly more than the £79.99/$ 99.99 cost of PaintShop Pro, especially if you upgrade PaintShop Pro annually.

Read: Corel PaintShop Pro X8 review

Cyberlink PhotoDirector 6

7. Cyberlink PhotoDirector 6 Ultra

PhotoDirector 6 is like a third-party homage to Lightroom, but with some twists of its own

Platform: Mac and PC | Image-editing: Limited | Cataloguing: Yes | Raw conversion: Yes

Lightroom has clearly had quite an influence on software developers, because PhotoDirector 6 mirrors almost everything it does, with a workflow split into Library, Adjustment, Edit, Slideshow and Print panels. The Adjustment module is equivalent to Lightroom’s Develop module, and even offers more or less the same tools, right down to its graduated and radial filter effects. But PhotoDirector takes a step further in its Edit panel, offering a whole host of effects not available in Lightroom – though these are mainly aimed at amateur users, including a whole section on ‘Beautifier’ and ‘Reshaping’ tools. But PhotoDirector is missing Lightroom’s depth – and it doesn’t support external editors.

Read: PhotoDirector 6 review

DxO Optics Pro 10

8. DxO Optics Pro 10

Optics Pro 10 extracts the best quality possible from your raw files and your lenses

Platform: Mac and PC | Image-editing: Limited | Cataloguing: No | Raw conversion: Yes

All raw conversion tools are not the same, and DxO Optics Pro is the perfect example. Optics Pro started out as a tool for correcting the distortion, chromatic aberration, edge softness and vignetting that almost all lenses exhibit, using lab-developed correction profiles. It’s been extended to include sophisticated raw conversion tools for getting the maximum definition, dynamic range and colour information from your pictures. It does offer a range of tone and colour adjustments, but no localised adjustments. On the plus side, it produces superb results. On the downside, you will still need other tools for manipulating and organising your images.

Read: DxO Optics Pro 10 review

See also:

TechRadar: Photography & video capture news

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