With the abundance of photo-editing software on the market, you shouldn't have to see a picture of a red-eyed kid at a birthday party ever again. Most digital cameras come with their own software, either a proprietary application or a third-party program like Adobe Photoshop Elements. When you buy a new computer, you'll likely find that a photo editor comes standard as part of the package, like Apple's iPhoto, which can hold its own in terms of quick image editing. But to get creative, you'll need software that can go beyond basic touch-ups.
Many people don't realize that excellent photo-editing software, comparable to Photoshop in many ways, can be downloaded for free. Most reviewers cite GIMP as the best free software available, but there are other options like PhotoScape and Google Picasa that might be right for some. GIMP isn't for everyone; it comes with a steep learning curve and not much support.
Moving into the realm of commercial software, Adobe reigns supreme. It produces Photoshop Elements 11 (Est. $100) , which is aimed at casual users; the more sophisticated Photoshop CS6 (Est. $700) , suitable for designers, professionals and serious amateurs; and Lightroom 5 (Est. $150) for photographers who shoot RAW and need to quickly process large collections of images. Corel PaintShop Pro X5 ($55 ) and DxO Optics Pro 8 (Est. $100) do not hold the same sway with experts as Adobe products do.
Adobe has made a big change to its software sales model in 2013. While the company will continue to sell the latest versions of its software, going forward new releases will be available via Adobe Creative Cloud, a subscription service. For a monthly fee (Est. $50), you can access a number of Adobe products, including Photoshop and Lightroom, and you're allotted cloud storage for your files as well. However, once you stop paying, you lose access to all that software and must move your files elsewhere. You can still purchase Adobe Creative Suite 6 for a one-time fee, but the company has no plans to release new versions of that software outside of the Creative Cloud service. Users will have to decide how much they're willing to pay and what kind of access they need.
We turned to sources like ArsTechnica.com, DigitalCameraReview.com, Expert Reviews, PCMag.com and PC Pro to find out what the pros are talking about. Most of these experts have been reviewing software and photo technology for years and are already familiar with older versions of the software they review, providing excellent baseline comparisons. We tally their favorites to come up with our picks, which are truly the top of the heap.