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.

Our Picks for the Best Photo Editing Software


Most Powerful
Adobe Creative Cloud Photography Plan
Adobe Photography Plan
The most powerful range of photo-editing tools, combining Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop. Pricing starts at $9.99 per month for an annual subscription.

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).

Hovering over the individual tools in Photoshop's left-hand bar pops up five-second gifs that demonstrate each tool.

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.

Software
Cloud Storage
Price*
Photography Plan
Lightroom CC
Photoshop CC
20 GB
$9.99 / month
Photography Plan
Lightroom CC
Photoshop CC
1 TB
$19.99 / month
Lightroom CC
Lightroom CC
1 TB
$9.99 / month
Photoshop CC
Photoshop CC
100 GB
$19.99 / month

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.


Easiest to Dive In
Serif Affinity Photo
Serif Affinity
A cheaper alternative to Photoshop. Not quite as powerful, but a little more intuitive for beginners. A one-time $50 purchase.

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.

Runner-Up
One-Click Editing
Adobe Photoshop Elements 2018
Photoshop Elements
A one-time $100 purchase, this program does most of the work for you — good if you value quick, easy results over learning new techniques.

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.

Our Photo Editing Software Review: Summed Up

Photo Editing Software
Best for...
Adobe Creative Cloud Photography Plan
Powerful Software
Serif Affinity Photo
Easy Learning
Adobe Photoshop Elements 2018
One-Click Editing