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Best Photo-Editing Software

By: Tara Tuckwiller on January 31, 2017

Editor's Note: You can spend lots of time and money on pro-grade photo-editing software, but our research indicates that these paid and free programs are a better fit for most users. For pros and the most serious enthusiasts, however, Adobe Photoshop still rules the roost.

Adobe Photoshop Elements 15 Review
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Specs that Matter Operating System -- 64-bit versions of Microsoft Windows 7 with Service Pack 1, Windows 8.1 or Windo Processor -- Windows: 1.6GHz or faster with SSE2 support. Mac: 64-bit multicore Intel processor. RAM/Hard Drive -- 4 GB/5 GB available space

Best photo-editing software

Experts agree that professionals aside, Adobe Photoshop Elements 15 is what most users should turn to for photo editing and simple design. It's cheaper and easier to use than Photoshop, and it comes loaded with fun and handy tools for advanced image-tweaking -- from subtly fine-tuning skin tones to completely erasing an annoying photo bomber.

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GIMP Review
Best Reviewed
Specs that Matter Operating System -- GNU/Linux, Mac OS X, Microsoft Windows, OpenBSD, NetBSD, FreeBSD, Solaris, SunOS Processor -- not specified RAM/Hard Drive -- 64 MB/20 MB available space

Best free photo-editing software

With sophisticated features and tools, it's truly amazing that GIMP costs you nothing. Most reviewers acknowledge that you will need to spend some time with GIMP to get to know its interface and learn the tricks and nuances, but for tech-savvy students -- or anyone -- on a shoestring budget, it can't be beat.

You don't have to spend a mint to get great photo-editing software

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. In fact, you probably already own basic photo-editing software: Most digital cameras come with their own software, and when you buy a new computer, you'll likely find that a photo editor comes standard as part of the package, like Apple Photos or Microsoft Photos. These freebies can hold their own in terms of quick image editing -- cropping, brightening, banishing red-eye. But to get creative, you'll need software that can go beyond basic touch-ups.

Types Of Photo-Editing Software

Paid Photo-Editing Software

Adobe reigns supreme among paid programs. Graphic designers, pro photographers and the most serious amateurs will be most interested in Adobe Creative Cloud, which includes access to Adobe's most advanced photo-editing programs, Photoshop and Lightroom, but it's overkill for nearly everyone else. Instead, Adobe and other companies offer slightly less sophisticated -- and significantly less expensive -- software that will nicely fill the bill, for $70 or less.

Free Photo-Editing Software

Many people don't realize that excellent photo-editing software, comparable to Photoshop in many ways, can be downloaded or used online for free. GIMP and Pixlr are two outstanding examples. But these aren't the best choices for everyone; they come with a steep learning curve and not much support.

Finding The Best Photo-Editing Software

To find our picks for the best free and paid photo-editing software, we turned first to expert sources, such as PCMag.com, Tom's Guide, TechRadar.com and elsewhere. We also looked for user input, turning to sources such as Amazon.com and B & H Photo. The results were our recommendations for the best paid and free photo-editing solutions for most users.

Adobe Photoshop Elements 15 is the all-around gold medalist

If you are not a professional photographer, or the most serious of photographic enthusiasts, feedback indicates that among paid programs, Adobe Photoshop Elements 15 (Est. $80) is the top choice. "Photoshop Elements is like the 'amateur' version of Photoshop," says Rod Lawton at TechRadar.com. "It's a lot more novice-friendly, but you do miss out on a lot of Photoshop's more advanced features."

Elements caters to people who want to get creative with their photos -- without shelling out a huge chunk of money to buy, and time to learn, Photoshop. The current version has some impressive new features that make it even easier to use:

  • Touch screen-friendly interface works well with Windows 10.
  • Smart Tags automatically sort your photos into groups based on what Elements "sees" in them (pets, cars, landscapes, etc.), making it effortless to stay organized.
  • New Guided Edits walk you through tricky Photoshop maneuvers. For example, Speed Pan lets you blur the background behind a moving subject (a Little Leaguer running to first base, for example).
  • Adjust Facial Features tool lets you literally "turn frowns upside down," as Adobe puts it, actually curving the corners of people's mouths into convincing smiles. You can also tweak forehead height, chin length, jawbone shape and more.

That flip-the-frown feature works well in tests. PCMag.com's Michael Muchmore gives his selfie a slight smile, and Tom' s Guide's Theano Nikitas accomplishes the same with a serious-faced fashion model. Still, "it's probably best to use these tools lightly, unless you want your friend looking like a stranger," Muchmore cautions.

Elements comes loaded with fun and handy tools. For example, Frame Creator makes it dead-simple to design your own holiday cards. Photomerge Group Shot lets you combine the best facial expressions from a series of group shots. Scene Cleaner lets you erase distracting photo-bombers.

Drawbacks are few. Elements 15 can be slow, say both expert testers and several owners at Amazon.com.  It gobbles a good-size hunk of disk space, too.

Elements' closest competitor, Corel Paintshop Pro X9 (Est. $40), costs less and is "relatively easy to use," Nikitas says. But PaintShop Pro isn't as full-featured and capable, and it's Windows-only. Muchmore prefers Elements, naming it his Editors' Choice.

Another contender, Serif Affinity Photo 1.5 (Est. $50), intrigues experts. It's more advanced than Elements -- more like a less-expensive answer to Photoshop itself.

"I've been tweaking pics and reviewing image editing apps for two decades, and this is the first one I can remember that I might actually want to use," says The Register's Adam Banks, after a thorough test.

"A fast, efficient and genuine Photoshop alternative," says Matthew Richards at TechRadar.com. It's fast, slick and packed with pro features -- in fact, testers say you'll rarely find any Photoshop task it can't do. However, it has a steep learning curve. "It lacks in beginner-friendliness," Richards says. It's available for both Mac and Windows.

Adobe Creative Cloud: Pro-level (and pricey) photo-editing software

No discussion of photo-editing software would be complete without at least touching on the grand daddy of then all, Adobe Photoshop. However, these days, you can't buy Photoshop -- you have to rent it as part of Adobe's suite of cloud-based photo tools.

Adobe Creative Cloud Photography (Est. $10 per month) gives you access to cloud-based full versions of both Lightroom (Adobe's pro-level digital darkroom program that lets you catalog and process images into professional-quality photos) and Photoshop (for more complex photo manipulation). The good news is, you always have access to the most updated version. The bad news is, you never stop paying for it -- Adobe doesn't sell the latest versions of Photoshop or Lightroom outright anymore.

For pro photographers, graphic designers and the most serious hobbyists, Creative Cloud is a slam-dunk: "the absolute best in photo correction and manipulation," PCMag's Muchmore says.

For most people, though, it's almost certainly overkill. Unless you need to turn out truly professional-quality photos for profit -- or just because you can -- experts unanimously recommend instead opting for Adobe Photoshop Elements 15 (Est. $80) as the less expensive, easier-to-use choice.

GIMP is the best free photo-editing program

"Can you get Photoshop for free?" asks Audley Jarvis, to kick off What Digital Camera?'s test of the free photo editors out there. The answer? Yes, you can -- kind of.

In test after test, GIMP (Free download) (GNU Image Manipulation Program) proves that it can, surprisingly, do most of what Photoshop does .It's free of charge, too, so designers, photographers or students on a strict budget -- basically, anyone "who can't or won't shell out hundreds of dollars to Adobe," says Enid Burns at DigitalTrends.com -- can get the pro-level editing tools they need.

It even looks reassuringly like Photoshop, Jarvis says. You'll find your toolbox (with crop, lasso, healing tool, clone tool, etc.), histogram, etc., right where you expect them to be. You'll be able to do sophisticated edits -- correct barrel distortion, create multiple layers, apply filters and more -- just like in Photoshop.

So, if GIMP is free, why does anyone buy Photoshop? Experts say Photoshop can still do some things GIMP can't -- and it does them faster, with the reliability and tech support of a polished, paid, professional program.

GIMP is "not without its crashes and glitches – that's the too-many-cooks open source development philosophy in action – and it lacks the polish of its commercial rivals," says Alex Cox at TechRadar.com. "Some of the filters, in particular, seem as if they haven't been touched since it was first released 20 years ago."

GIMP is a free download. If you'd rather not take up space on your computer (or if your processor is wimpy), Pixlr (free) is a free photo editor that's entirely Web-based -- no download necessary.

You don't even need to register. Just go to the Pixlr website, and start editing. Choose from Pixlr Editor ("a watered-down version of Photoshop," TheHighTechHobbyist.com's reviewer calls it) or Pixlr Express, which "is really for playing with your photos," Burns says. "You can put a stain on a picture to make it look like you rested a coffee mug on the photo, for example." Pixlr also offers iOS and Android apps, as well as a downloadable desktop version for Mac or PC.

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 to remove spots and blemishes from faces, or anywhere else.
  • 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.

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. Also consider the types of support (tutorials, guides, forums, FAQ lists), and their quality, that will be available to your once you get past the basics and want to move on to more advanced editing.

How about a free trial? If you are considering a paid photo-editing program, keep in mind that 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. If you are considering a free program, there's no cost at all to try it out, with nothing lost, except perhaps a little (or maybe a lot) of time if things don't work out.

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 first.

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 (not all do).

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.

Expert & User Review Sources

To find the best photo-editing software, we first studied expert tests. PCMag.com, TomsGuide.com, What Digital Camera? and TechRadar.com. All offer up-to-date insights regarding the best photo-editing software. To find top free photo-editing software, we consulted some of the same sources, including What Digital Camera? and TechRadar.com, as well as some additional ones such as DigitalTrends.com, TheHighTechHobbyist.com and PhotographyBlog.com. Owner reviews are essential, too; Amazon.com and B & H Photo are the best sources for these.

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