Most professional photographers, graphic artists and designers choose Adobe Photoshop (*Est. $700), partly because it's the industry standard, with the most support, instruction and plug-ins available. If you're considering a career in one of these fields, experts say you might as well resign yourself to learning Photoshop. The latest version, CS6, offers a completely redesigned interface and new features like content-aware tools, layer search, tilt-shift blur and some basic video-editing tools.
Reviewers like the new interface, and most aren't bothered that its design is much darker than previous versions. Intensive tasks (including the liquify filter) run faster, which is a huge benefit for time-crunched professionals. Experts also appreciate the inclusion of some basic video-editing tools, although it won't replace a full editor for video professionals. "The noticeable speed boost provided by GPU acceleration of key features, combined with the background saves, make this a no-brainer upgrade in my opinion," says Dave Girard at ArsTechnica.com.
One of the biggest knocks against Photoshop is the steep learning curve required to master the software and its many tools. The newest version is no exception, as many of the photo-editing tools may not be the most intuitive for beginners. Some also question the necessity of such powerful software for the average consumer. "In an age when you can edit photos on your phone or a tablet using apps as cheap as $1, is there still a place for a $700 desktop behemoth?" asks Scott Gilbertson at Wired. However, most reviewers say CS6 is a worthy upgrade for current Photoshop users. "Some of the new features have impressed us more than others, but finding so many ways to improve this mature, capable editor is a huge achievement," says Ben Pitt at ExpertReviews.
Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 4 (*Est. $150) was originally created as companion software to Adobe Photoshop and is designed to speed up the workflow involved in processing images from camera to final version. It also serves as an image-management tool. The editing tools have improved from the original version to the point that many pros say they seldom reach for Photoshop any more. You can also install modules for web integration -- to export an edited photo directly to Facebook, for example.
Lightroom 4 includes more video support (you can now preview and share videos directly in Lightroom), redesigned exposure sliders, geotagging and book-publishing tools. It's also much less expensive than previous versions -- Lightroom 3, for example, cost $300. Experts say Lightroom 4 is a must-have for anyone who processes RAW images, as it provides cleaner edits than any other photo-editing software. "It's also arguably the most responsive photo-management and raw-processing software," says Ben Pitt at ExpertReviews. Most complaints are minor. PCMag.com would like to see facial recognition -- a feature available in competing photo-editing software -- but it still gives Lightroom 4 an Editors' Choice award.
Its capacity to stand alone as an image manager, editor and web publisher makes Lightroom viable as an intermediate step between Adobe Photoshop Elements and Photoshop CS6. If you're taking more photos than Elements can catalog well, or want to go beyond Elements without buying Photoshop, it's worth considering Lightroom as your main photo software. It's not a substitute for Photoshop when it comes to digital graphics in general, but for editing photos, reviews say it's now very deft and capable.
For Mac users only, Apple's Aperture (*Est. $80) is similar to Lightroom. Aperture was developed earlier than Lightroom, paving the way with nondestructive editing that automatically preserves the original files from the camera. Reviews praise Aperture, but Lightroom earns even more top recommendations -- both for speed and editing prowess.
The latest version, Apple Aperture 3, is integrated with iPhoto, so the two programs share the same photo library. Other new features include multiple white-balance modes and more powerful highlight and shadow recovery. Some reviewers prefer Aperture's organizational tools to those in Adobe Lightroom, while others say the editing tools aren't user-friendly.
"It is hard to see many professional photographers and enthusiasts switching from Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop to go through the hassle of learning another software package of a type that's notoriously complicated to get to grips with," says Dan Sung at Pocket-lint.com.