The Best Photo Editing Software
The Best Photo Editing Software
To find the best photo editing software, we pitted the best tech-giant Adobe has to offer (Photoshop, Lightroom, and Photo Elements) against three highly commended programs to find out which one was user-friendly enough for beginners to approach with confidence, and powerful enough for professionals.
We weren’t too surprised when the industry-standard software — Adobe — came out on top in our tests. Adobe has been refining its signature Photoshop software for nearly thirty years, and this dedication comes through in both its depth of resources and its extensive tool offerings. Whether you simply want to adjust exposure and color tones to minutely adjust the look of your photo, or replace the entire background of your Christmas photo so your family stands on a Hawaiian beach instead of an Iowan cornfield, Adobe's Creative Cloud Photography Plan has the tools to support experts and beginners alike. We loved Adobe’s online forums and guides as well as its in-program tutorials, all of which made this powerful software easier for beginners to pick up with little or no prior knowledge.
That said, Adobe primarily runs on a subscription model — you’ll need to sign up for an annual contract and pay monthly dues, and prices range from $10 to $20 per month. If you’d prefer a one-time purchase and download, Serif Affinity Photo offers many of the same tools as Adobe Photoshop, and only costs $50 before it’s yours forever. While Serif doesn’t offer tutorials to guide you through using different tools and techniques in the app (you’ll have to watch their online video series), we still found it beginner-friendly. We loved its layout, which makes it easy to find and test out different tools, and preview auto-filters (so we can see whether applying a “warm” white balance looks better than a “cool” one). Serif’s primary downside is that it doesn’t have any organizational features; you’ll need to supplement it with your computer’s local organization software, or a separate program, to sort through photos.
Even though both Adobe Photoshop and Serif Affinity Photo offer tools to help on-board beginners, they do have a bit of a learning curve. If you’d prefer a software that lets you edit photos with a few fast clicks, we recommend Adobe Photoshop Elements 2018. While it does have an expert mode (for you to play around with editing photos manually), we primarily loved Photoshop Elements for its Quick and Guided modes. They let you either click a single button to add instant-filters or auto-adjustments to a photo, or walk you through changing exposure levels so you can feel confident manipulating lighting and colors.
How We Found the Best Photo Editing Software
If you’re hunting for the best photo editing software, you’re likely familiar with Adobe Photoshop, whether from past experience, from PCMag’s enthusiasm, or from Creative Bloq’s attempt to help you find “Photoshop alternatives.” Photoshop’s outsized reputation is deserved: Parent company Adobe Systems has been a software pioneer since the early 80s — it invented PDFs in 1993 — and they’ve been continuously improving Photoshop since its first release in 1989. And while Adobe doesn’t like the term “photoshopping,” we’ll be the first to admit that we’re more likely to say “I photoshopped this picture” than “I used a raster-based editing program on this picture.”
But the company now offers multiple options, from a single-purchase Adobe Elements 2018, to a Lightroom subscription, to a monthly Photography Plan, which combines Lightroom and Photoshop. If you’ve never used Photoshop before, it’s tricky to figure out which version is best: What’s the difference between Lightroom and Photoshop? Between Photoshop and Adobe Elements? We set out to compare each option.
We also brought in three non-Adobe photo editing programs: Corel AfterShot Pro3, DxO Photo Lab Elite, and Serif Affinity Photo. These three programs were the closest competitors we could find, and all claim to offer similarly powerful tools. We expected Photoshop (in all of its iterations) to blow the competition out of the water in terms of technical abilities. But Photoshop has a reputation for being difficult for beginners. We wanted to find out which program offered the best balance for beginners: user-friendly, without sacrificing tools or abilities.
After downloading each program and setting up our test photos (featuring Test Corgi: Wally), we booted up each program to see how quickly we could start editing and organizing our photos.
What We Tested to Find the Best Photo Editing Software
- Adobe Photography Plan (includes Photoshop and Lightroom)
- Adobe Photoshop Elements 2018
- Corel AfterShot Pro3
- DxO PhotoLab
- Serif Affinity Photo
For easy navigation, we wanted a customizable interface and well-labeled tools.
All our programs let you make hundreds of photo adjustments — from simple color tweaks to layer and mask creation, but this abundance of options can make even the best photo editing software difficult to navigate. So we looked for programs that made it easy to find the right tools on the first try.
Each contender met the same baseline standards, allowing us to collapse editing modules we didn’t need, so that histograms and color charts didn’t take up unnecessary screen (and brain) space. We also appreciated that all had guided search features. If you search an action keyword, like “layer,” each program directs you to where you can find the function on your own, so that you don’t need to keep using the search function every time you need to add a layer: You’ll gradually learn where it is on your own.
From here, we dug into how much we could customize each interface. We wanted to be able to rearrange lists of tools to our liking, as well as move individual modules around the screen, letting us keep track of whichever toolset was necessary for any given project: If we were background painting, we would want brush, color wheel, and texture modules open and close-at-hand. If we wanted to work on minute lighting changes, we could close up our coloring modules, and arrange the Brightness and Contrast, Shadows and Highlights, and Exposure modules to our liking.
Most of our programs did well here, but Corel was an outlier. Its interface is not customizable; at most, you can toggle the right and left navigation panels to hide them from view. Instead of being able to pull out every tool we might need for a project — so they’d be ready to go at a moment’s click — Corel forced us to navigate through tabs every single time we needed to switch modules. It made editing photos more time-consuming and annoying than we wanted.
Photoshop Elements 2018 also stood out for its lack of customization — but this struck us as an intentional design choice. The program’s static interfaces make it easy for complete beginners to figure out. You won’t have to worry about accidentally closing an important module, or opening a new one because you mis-clicked. Instead, you’re gently locked into a single editing task (although users looking for more advanced functionality are likely to bristle at this limitation).
To help us become masters, we looked for programs that made learning new techniques easy.
The best photo editing software should also have resources that guide users through unfamiliar functions. Even if you’re a Photoshop whiz, Adobe constantly adds new tools and expands old ones, and beginners are often interested in branching out and expanding their mastery. So we looked for the following:
- Online resources: Every company we tested offers videos, tutorials, and a forum to help answer questions and teach users how to use their program, whether you want to diffuse colors or adjust a background texture.
- Guided Search: As mentioned, we loved that each app had a guided search which patiently showed us where important tools and buttons were located.
- In-app Tutorials: Only Photoshop CC truly gave us in-app tutorials, where it asked if we wanted to learn a technique, and led us through a two- or four-step overview of how to adjust a color, or layer an image.
- Fast Response Time: We paid attention to how quickly each program implemented the actions we clicked on (or undid). We liked being able to switch between different filters and test out news settings rapid-fire. We weren’t impressed with Corel, which repeatedly failed to apply and remove filters, so our one-click fixes soon became five-click attempts.
Only Photoshop CC maintained a perfect score for making it easy to learn new techniques. Its short tutorial guides walk you through basic actions, pointing out the specific button location for each step, to help teach you how to use Photoshop effectively. Photoshop CC goes so far as to assign mini-tutorials to each of its action buttons, from the zoom magnifying glass to the clone stamp tool.
But absolute beginners shouldn’t discount Adobe’s Photoshop Elements 2018. It doesn’t have tutorials in the same way that Photoshop CC does, but the entire Photoshop Elements program feels very much like one continuous tutorial. It doesn’t offer guidance on how to use tools on your own, but it does offer extensive guidance to help you get specific projects done with as little work as possible on your end.
To ensure each program’s tools functioned smoothly and intuitively, we compared “healing brush” performance.
We couldn’t test and compare the performance of every single tool offered by every single program (we’d be looking at hundreds of different functions), so to compare technical performance, we focused on a tool that all beginners are likely to use at some point: the healing brush, which allows you to retouch or repair photos. You select a “good” portion of the photo to copy, and then select the “flawed” section that you want to cover over. In our case, we used the healing brush to repair remove snowy footprints from a backyard photo of our favorite corgi, Wally.
A healing brush isn’t intended meant for large-scale projects fixes like this — you can wind up with unnatural textures when you attempt to “heal” such large swaths of background. We were pushing the tool to its limits. But we weren’t surprised that all of the Adobe products did well anyway, as did Serif Affinity. In all cases, we were able to wipe away dog footprints within a few minutes, leaving an army of Welsh Corgis sitting atop eerily pristine beds of snow. (We technically had to use Photoshop CC’s Clone Tool since it does not offer a healing brush, but it works based on the same concept.)
DxO’s healing brush tool was more difficult. Where we could wipe away snow with a gentle swipe of our mouse in Serif Affinity, DxO stuttered over every action. Instead of having a clean snow surface in minutes, we fought to have the program clean even tiny sections of snow. We also had to backtrack our steps when the app tried to cover the damaged snow with fragments of corgi fur.
That said, even DxO’s halting progress was better than Corel’s. With every program but Corel, a single swipe of the mouse changed a single patch of snow — and we could move on to the next patch. Corel was determined to track every single change we made, resulting in a cluttered mess of tracking circles that obscured areas we were still trying to fix.
Finally, we made sure each program offered four common functions: layers, masks, filters — and a way to organize files.
As a final step, we looked for four tools that beginners are likely to need for common projects — these functions might not be immediately necessary, but they’ll let you tackle tasks a little more complex than wiping away corgi footprints.
Layers let you combine separate images together, or edit specific areas of a photograph. These can be helpful if you’re trying to remove a photo-bomber from your wedding ceremony on the beach, or if you’d like to swap out the snowy background of your cute dog photo, and send him floating through space, instead.
Applying a mask layer is another technique to isolate areas of a photo for specific editing. If you’d like to make changes to the background of your photograph without affecting the subject, or if you’d like to create a cut-out of a tiny dog from one photograph to layer him into a desert landscape in another, you’ll probably use a mask.
Corel and DxO both fail to offer layers and masks. Adobe’s Photoshop Plan offers both.
Adobe’s Photoshop Plan includes two programs: Photoshop CC and Lightroom CC. Photoshop offers layers and masks, but Lightroom doesn’t — so if you choose to order Lightroom on its own, be aware you’re giving up these tools.
We also looked for preset filters. All of our test picks included some kind of automatic filter system, which lets you adjust your photos with a single click. These could either take the form of a typical Instagram filter (you click “Black and White” or “Landscape” and it automatically alters your photo) or auto-adjustments on a tool-by-tool case.
Photoshop Elements 2018’s preset filters were the easiest to use of the test group, and we particularly loved being able to have a mini-preview of all of the filters before choosing one to apply. By contrast, DxO offered a few filters, but made us click “Apply” before letting us see what each would do, and then took a few seconds to process each request. We also weren’t fans of Corel’s preset filters. You only get a handful with your initial purchase — as well as several empty folders that you’re supposed to fill with add-on purchases.
We also gave extra points to programs with organization capabilities: arranging, sorting, and organizing our photos. This usually entailed folder management, a ranking system for photos (so you can pick out which hummingbird picture is the best one), and informational tagging via keywords, geographic location, and face recognition — so you can sort and locate photos by searching for specific criteria. Of our test picks, only Serif Affinty lacked some kind of photo organizer.
We were once again impressed by Adobe. Its Photography Plan is robust, though you will have to access both of its apps to have layers, masks, filters, and organization. Photoshop CC is the more powerful editing tool — you’ll need to manipulate multiple layers here — while Lightroom CC offers sorting and organizing features into its slightly more basic editing capabilities. Both programs offer preset filters as well, so you can adjust your photos to a preset perfection with only a few clicks.
Our Finalists' Features at a Glance
Our Picks for the Best Photo Editing Software
The Photography Plan is unapologetically powerful. Adobe doesn’t attempt to reduce or cut down on the number of tools it offers you through Photoshop and Lightroom to constrain itself into some vision of user-friendliness. But the abundance of user-friendly tutorials and demonstrations, coupled with a surprisingly intuitive design, left us feeling less overwhelmed than we expected.
Photoshop has over sixty basic tools and customizations to choose from, in addition to its more advanced color, lighting, filter, and 3D tools (among others). These basic tools themselves are customizable, so that you can do more than just correct red eyes: You can also specifying how large, dark, or light you want pupils to appear. More advanced tools — everything from saturation and contrast to lens correction, liquefy, and RAW photo processing — are similarly customizable. Actions are also processed rapidly, allowing you to quickly assess whether your experiments are working.
However, despite the number of tools (and how easy it is to fall into the rabbit warren of adjustments and filters), we found Adobe surprisingly easy to use. You should expect a learning curve, since Photoshop is intended to be an extremely hands-on program, but Adobe supports you at every step. It has an abundance of online resources — a hidden benefit to choosing a company that’s been in the field for decades — and Photoshop CC particularly impressed us with its tutorials and guidance, helping us learn both terminology (what exactly the clone tool does) and technique (how to create and add to masks).
To skip the tutorials, change your profile from beginner to professional.While we loved the extensive tutorials, after some point you won’t need the hovering video of how to crop a photo, or clone an image. Changing your settings only takes a couple steps, as is outlined here.
It is worth mentioning that the Photography Plan combines two Adobe applications — Lightroom CC and Photoshop CC — into one bundle. Lightroom CC is Adobe’s dedicated photography software, released in 2007. If you’re working with large quantities of photos, you’ll want to take advantage of Lightroom’s organization system: It can rank photos out of five stars, tag photos if you want to mark the best or worst of a set, and allows you to edit information to keep track of where you took a photo. It also has some great editing tools for adjusting exposure, color, and lighting (plus some really fun optics, detail, and geometry tools). Subscribing to Lightroom CC (either on its own or as part of the Photography Plan) also gives iPhone and iPad users access to a mobile version of the software.
Photoshop CC, meanwhile, won’t do much to help you stay organized — but has more tools and more advanced tools than Lightroom. Lightroom can’t create layers and masks, so it’s more difficult to manipulate individual sections of a photograph. Additionally, Lightroom’s toolbars aren’t customizable. It’s easy to find tools when you need them, but you won’t be able to personalize your interface.
Even though you can purchase subscription plans to Lightroom and Photoshop independently, we recommend starting out with the 20 GB Photography Plan, which gives you the most powerful editing tool (Photoshop CC) and an excellent organizer app (Lightroom CC). Adobe also offers a 14-day free trial on their products, letting you test run either or both programs.
Our only complaint about Adobe’s Photography Plan is that it’s a subscription service; you’ll sign up for a year-long contract and pay fees monthly rather than making a one-time purchase and owning the software outright. While this subscription is significantly cheaper than the one-time purchase model that Photoshop used to follow (complete with a painful $1500 price tag), if you cancel your subscription, you’ll lose access to all of the programs and tools, as well as any photos that remain in Adobe’s proprietary format. Make sure you’ve completely exported your library if you decide to cancel your contract.
Of the photo editing software programs we tested, Serif Affinity Photo came closest to replacing the Adobe Photography Plan for best overall, beating out Adobe’s other product, Photoshop Elements. Whether you’re a hobbyist just starting out, or a professional looking to try out a less-expensive Photoshop, Serif Affinity is worth a look.
This software has a slightly more limited range of tools and resources, though still enough to compete with Photoshop and Lightroom. But we were primarily drawn to Serif Affinity Photo because of how easy it was to use. Its sleek control panel (customizable to suit your needs) looks like it’s going to present too much information too quickly, with twenty-two adjustments options immediately available on your righthand dashboard. However, each one is neatly packaged so that if you want to adjust the white balance of your photo, you can quickly find and open that particular folder. From there, you’re offered some immediate preset options (for white balance, you have default, warm, and cool shown as small previews in the module), or you can manually adjust color tones and pick out your white balance.
One of the keenest edges Serif Affinity has over Adobe’s Photography plan is that it’s a one-time purchase of $50, rather than a $10 or $20 monthly subscription. This means that, depending on your cloud storage needs (in turn based on how many photos you have and their editing needs), Serif Affinity becomes the more affordable plan after five months, possibly as early as three months. This comes at one notable cost: Serif Affinity doesn’t offer any organization tools. If you’re dealing with hundreds or thousands of photos that you need to organize, or would like to sort by place, date, or personalized keyword, you’ll want to reconsider Adobe’s Photography Plan, or take a look at Photoshop Elements 2018.
While Adobe Photoshop Elements 2018 won’t win best overall photo editing software, we have a soft spot for this program. If you’re just trying to create, say, annual holiday cards, and the idea of learning new photo editing terms, tools, tricks, and techniques feels daunting, Photoshop Elements transforms the process into a few simple clicks, with a couple of sliders you can adjust if you’re feeling adventurous. That’s it. Photoshop Elements 2018 gives you high-quality photographs without a technical learning curve — so long as you stay within its predetermined adjustments.
We love that Photoshop Elements offers three tiers of photo editing: Quick, Guided, and Expert. Quick is simply that: with a few auto-adjustments, possibly a camera filter or picture frame, you can take your photograph from raw image to printer-ready. Guided gives you a few more options — forty-seven to be precise — where it will walk you through step-by-step the process of adjusting brightness, straightening or resizing a photo, or guide you through some fun filters to add an artistic flair to your photo.
Even though its Expert mode is more advanced than either the quick or the guided mode, it doesn’t compete with our top picks. In addition to its clunky 90s-era design, it lacks all of the tools found in Photoshop CC or Serif Affinity Photo. That said, it could be a good introduction when you feel like trying out some additional techniques outside of the guided programs.
Like Serif Affinity Photo, Photoshop Elements 2018 is a one-time purchase. It costs $100 — twice as much as Serif Affinity Photo, but is unbeatable for its one-click photo editing.