You don't have to spend a mint to get great photo-editing
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
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.
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
Finding The Best
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, (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
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
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
Elements' closest competitor, (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
(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 (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,
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
What the best photo-editing
- 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.
manipulation. Photo merging,
removing backgrounds, cloning out distracting objects, noise reduction, and
enhancements are helpful to have for more advanced users.
Know before you
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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
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.