What the best photo-editing software has

  • Auto-correct. Nearly all photo-editing software has this basic functionality which fixes obvious flaws; it doesn't always get it right, but then you can either undo or make further adjustments.
  • Basic adjustments. Must-have tools include red-eye removal; adjusting brightness, color, contrast and saturation; sharpening and softening; cropping and straightening; and spot healing.
  • Filters and special effects. These are fun tools for converting images to monotone, pencil drawings, watercolor, neon and all kinds of other crazy and cool effects.
  • Image manipulation. Photo merging, removing backgrounds, cloning out distracting objects, noise reduction, and enhancements are helpful to have for more advanced users.
  • RAW conversion. Advanced digital SLR cameras can shoot in either JPEG or RAW format. RAW files are uncompressed and thus much bigger; not all software supports RAW.

Know before you go

Check the system requirements. If your system doesn't have enough free disk space (some programs use up a lot) or if you are on an operating system not supported by a newer software package, you won't be able to run it on your computer.

What kind of training do you need? Novices may want a program that will guide you through the simplest tasks, such as red-eye removal or cropping images. Will there be support (tutorials, guides, forums, FAQ lists) to turn to once you get past the basics and want to move on to more advanced edits?

How about a free trial? Many companies are good about offering a 30-day free trial before purchase. Before buying, give it a shot and see how it goes. If you hate it, move on to something else with nothing lost. If you love it, start shopping for the best deal.

Check for upgrade pricing. If you want to upgrade to a newer version of software you're already using, many manufacturers, including Adobe, offer discounted upgrade pricing. For example, Photoshop CS6 retails for around $700, but users of CS3, CS4 and CS5 pay only $200.

Balance features with ease of use. Photoshop does literally everything, but if you are not heavily involved in photography or graphic design, experts suggest starting with something more basic. It will take time to learn how to use all of the features, and it's easier if you are transitioning from an Elements-like program.

Which file formats are supported? You want to be able to import and export a wide range of file formats, including BMP, TIF, GIF, PICT, EPS, PSD and JPEG. If you have a higher-end digital camera and want to shoot in RAW format (where no processing is done by the camera itself), you'll need software that can process RAW files.

Do you want to use layers and masks? If you plan to do extensive photo editing, these tools are essential. Layering allows you the flexibility to try different adjustments without touching the original image. Masks allow you to work on only one portion of an image.

Consider file storage and management. Most photo-editing software includes some basic image management features, so you can organize files and find photos later. Most enthusiast and professional photographers prefer separate databases for this. That's an entirely different category of software and worth checking out if you anticipate taking more than a few hundred photos.

Look for web and social media integration. The newest generation of photo editors allows you to save images in web format and post directly to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, blogs and other photo-sharing and social sites.

Templates, plug-ins and actions make fast work of simple tasks. Photo-editing software for beginners often includes fun and creative templates for scrapbook pages, calendars, photo books, greeting cards and magazine covers, just to name a few. Plug-ins and actions are functions that are downloaded from third-party sources and can speed up adding specific effects to your images, usually with just one click.

Value expectations: The dollars and cents of it

For the casual user, purchasing a program like Photoshop Elements 11 (Est. $100) makes a lot of sense. You may want to upgrade in a couple years, but it's essentially one fixed price, other than add-on actions and plug-ins, which are time savers and fun, but not necessary. For anyone on a shoestring budget and willing to learn its complexities, GIMP's free software is a reasonable choice. It gets trickier for Adobe Photoshop users.

Adobe is currently transitioning from a one-time download model to a subscription model. You can still download Adobe Creative Suite 6, but going forward all upgrades to that software will be available only in the company's new venture: Creative Cloud. A membership ($50 per month) gets you access to Photoshop, Lightroom and other tools as well as cloud storage for your files. You'll also get free software upgrades for as long as you remain an active member. If you cancel your membership, you lose access to all software in the Creative Cloud as well as your online storage. For now, Photoshop Elements is not part of Creative Cloud.

Deciding whether to become a Creative Cloud member or buy the stand-alone version depends on your individual needs. Read more at Laura Shoe's Lightroom for some insights.

Buying tactics and strategies

  • Research Adobe's Creative Cloud. If you don't currently own any Photoshop CS software, moving to the cloud commits you to the membership as long as you want to use it because once you stop your membership, you're left with nothing. N-Photo has a good article about Lightroom 5 vs. Photoshop CC.
  • Watch the trends. Before you buy, peruse tech publications to see if a new release is scheduled. You may want to wait to take advantage of its new features, or you might be able to score the older version for a significant discount when the new one comes out.
  • Look for online deals. There are retailers beyond Amazon and Best Buy who specialize in software or deal in closeouts. It might only take a few clicks to find what you're looking for at an amazing price.
  • Save on upgrades; get a deal if you're an educator. Photoshoppers upgrading from an earlier version of CS6 will save about $500. And if you work in an educational field or are a student, Adobe offers a version of Photoshop CS6 that is considerably less expensive. You can also get discounts on Creative Cloud subscriptions.

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