While recent reports have pointed to a decline in camera sales, the photo editing software market is only getting stronger. As of this year, the market size sits at around $760 million—and that number is expected to grow to $1,030 million in the next five years.
As the demand for top-notch visuals continues to rise, the photographer’s toolkit is expanding from your typical gear and hardware to include a roster of invaluable editing apps and programs.
Why is editing your photos important?
In the past, when we’ve interviewed members of the 500px Content Team (and Contributors from the community), almost every single one has mentioned the importance of photo editing. In today’s marketplace, it’s not enough to take a stellar photo.
Those images also need to be technically perfect—color correction, noise reduction, and meticulous cropping all play a pivotal role in whether or not a photo strikes a chord with image-buyers.
In time, the age-old question, “What camera did you use?” could become, “What software did you use?” But, with so many programs to choose from, where should emerging and established photographers start?
Without further ado, here are just a handful of the best photo editing software for beginners and professionals alike. Whether you’re looking for a photo editor for PC or Mac, this list has something for everyone.
Adobe Photoshop Lightroom Classic: Best Overall (7-day free trial available)
Lightroom combines the best of both worlds—it’s jam-packed with editing capabilities, but it’s not as complex as its sister app Photoshop. While this means that it doesn’t have all the tools you could possibly imagine, it gives you all the essentials you need to fix your exposure and colors.
It also provides lots of bells and whistles to improve your photo editing workflow: face detection, camera-based corrections, gradient adjustments—plus a new texture slider, batch merging for HDR and panoramas, and flat-field correction to get rid of shading and lens cast.
Lightroom excels not only on the editing front but also when it comes to asset management. It’s the perfect tool for organizing and refining your metadata. If you’re dealing with a large number of images for clients and Licensing agencies, this software is a no-brainer.
While you might prefer to fine-tune certain images in Photoshop later down the line, Lightroom makes it quick and easy to edit in batches and prepare your photos for uploading online.
Adobe Photoshop: Most Advanced (7-day free trial available)
This photo editing software hardly needs any introduction—it has almost everything a photographer or graphic designer could ever want, from simple editing capabilities to advanced masking and layering tools.
Because Photoshop comes equipped with so many tools and options, the learning curve can be steep for beginners—though there are countless tutorials available to help, whether you find them on 500px, YouTube, or within the app itself.
While the price of Photoshop ($20.99/month) might not be worth it to the hobbyist, this much-loved software delivers an array of high-powered features for the creative professional, including content-aware crop, camera-shake reduction, multiple undos, and face-aware liquify (for editing facial expressions).
Affinity Photo by Serif: Best Value (10-day free trial available)
This program includes many of the advanced editing capabilities you’ll find with Photoshop, but at a fraction of the price (you can own it today by paying the one-time fee of $49.99). While Affinity Photo isn’t geared towards organizing or managing your files, it shines in the retouching department and offers impressive focus stacking, HDR, and panorama features.
Affinity Photo is well-suited both to photographers just getting started with editing and retouching, and those familiar with other apps who’d like a change of pace. This summer, Serif, the makers of Affinity Photo, also rolled out updates in terms of performance and speed, so that you can work on complex multi-layered images in a fraction of the time.
Luminar by Skylum: Most Intelligent (7-day free trial available)
With full RAW support and layers support, this editing software also comes with an array of management tools, a user-friendly interface, and an impressive roster of unique AI features, including a sky enhancer and “human-aware” technology for quick and easy edits. Often, you’ll be able to make accurate corrections to your photos with help from just a single slider—though you can certainly go more in-depth with layers and masks.
You can buy Luminar 3 for a one-time fee of $69 (no subscription payments!), and you’ll also receive dozens of “Luminar Looks,” developed by professional photographers to make your images stand out. Many of them are tailored by genre, ranging from portrait presets to drone filters and everything in between.
Capture One by PhaseOne: Best for Pros (30-day free trial available)
Comparable to Lightroom, this software is on the pricier side, but for studio photographers, the cost is worth it for a few reasons. For starters, its tethering tools are top-notch, so you can preview your images instantly while shooting. Capture One also comes with advanced color editing for flawless portraits and fashion shots.
Putting aside its stellar RAW engine, it’ll also streamline the organizational process with easy-to-use keyword tags. What’s more, you can customize the interface to suit your day-to-day workflow and create keyboard shortcuts for quick editing. While Capture One is a longtime favorite of studio photographers, its relatively new luminosity masks have made a big impression with landscape photographers as well.
GIMP: Best Free
As the only free photo editor on this list, GIMP offers a surprising number of pro-level features, including layer masks, personalized brushes, and an animation package. While it won’t provide all of the advanced tools you’ll find in a paid program, this is one of the best online photo editors around, and it’s a great point of departure—especially if you’re not sure what additional programs you’d like to add to your toolkit.
GIMP has an active community behind it, so it’s always improving and releasing new plug-ins and online photo effects along the way.
DxO Photolab Elite: Best Noise-Reduction (30-day free trial available)
Thanks to its powerful Prime de-noise technology, this program excels when it comes to noise-reduction, so if you’re shooting regularly at a high ISO, this could be the best option for you.
If your camera model is supported, it also offers great auto-corrections for a faster, smoother workflow. Photographers will also appreciate its powerful local adjustment technology for seamless and intuitive editing.
ACDSee Photo Studio Ultimate: Best All-in-One (30-day free trial available)
Since it supports layers, this digital asset manager and RAW editor empowers users to do everything in one place, without switching between programs. Known for its high-speed performance, the most recent version comes with a range of innovative features—including an AI facial recognition tool, a focus-stacking tool, and a blended clone tool (which combines smart erase and clone effects).
As a bonus, there’s no need to import your files into this program. Simply open them up, and ACDSee will automatically add them to your database for easy photo editing.
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