Why Trust Me?
Hi, my name is Thomas Boldt, and I’m a graphic designer, photographer and writer all rolled into one. You may have seen my posts here on SoftwareHow reviewing lots of different types of software, but many of my articles are about photo editing software. I test out new photo editors all the time for my own personal photography workflow to see if they are better than what I’m currently using, so it’s a natural fit for me to write about them. Knowledge should be shared, and I’m happy to do it!
I’ve been working in the graphic arts for over a decade, but my interest in both photography and photo editing software started even further back when I first got my hands on a copy of Adobe Photoshop 5 in a high school computer lab. Ever since then, I’ve been testing, experimenting, and working professionally with a wide range of photo editing software, and I’m here to bring all that experience to you. Whether you’re looking for the best of the best or a free alternative, I’ve probably used it and can save you the trouble of testing it yourself.
The World of Photo Editing Software
As the range of photo editors grows more and more capable, it seems like they have all begun to recreate each other’s core feature sets. This is especially noticeable when working with RAW photos, as almost every RAW photo editor has a similar set of development options for adjusting and converting your images. It might even start to seem that there isn’t really any functional difference between the various editors, but there’s more to it than that.
This growing similarity isn’t because the software developers are uninspired, but more because there are a limited number of things that you might need to edit about a photograph. It’s no surprise that all cameras have similar basic functions, and so it shouldn’t be too surprising that most photo editors have the same basic functions as well.
So, you ask, if they’re all fairly similar, what can really make one photo editor better than another? It turns out quite a lot. Much of it depends on how precise you need to be in your editing, but even more of it depends on how well the program functions and how well-designed it is. If a program has the best tools in the world but nobody can figure out how to use them, it probably won’t be much of a success.
When it comes to RAW photo editing, there’s another piece of the puzzle that even many experienced photographers are unaware of: the RAW conversion engine. When you shoot a RAW image, your camera creates a file that is a raw dump of the information from the digital sensor. This gives you more flexibility when you’re editing it later, but it also means that each piece of software has a slightly different way of interpreting the RAW file. You can usually edit them to match, but why would you want to waste your time making simple adjustments that a different program would handle perfectly without your help?
Do I Really Need a Photo Editor?
Photo editors aren’t a necessary part of photography, but they can certainly help in the right situation. Every photographer has felt the frustration of a ruined shot, but with a bit of skill and the right editor you can turn a missed opportunity into a masterpiece. Removing a distracting background or a slight adjustment to the location of a subject can save a shot from being wasted. Even photos that are already great can benefit from a bit of extra TLC.
Most of the photos you see in galleries, magazines or around the web have benefited from some retouching, and basic adjustments like exposure, contrast, white balance and sharpening can improve almost any photo. Some editors are so capable that they completely blur the line between photography and photorealistic painting. There are still a few photography purists out there – usually in the art world – who insist on using untouched images, but they’re making an intentional choice to do so.
If you’re working professionally with photos, having a solid photo editor is a must-have basic requirement. You’ll want to make sure it’s easy to use and responsive, so that photo editing doesn’t slow down the rest of the production workflow. Since imagery is such a powerful tool for sales and storytelling, you need to make sure that every image is polished to perfection, down to the last pixel.
Of course, not every photograph needs to be that heavily edited, and many don’t need any editing at all. If you’re just taking vacation photos to share on social media, you probably don’t need to process every single one through a high-end editor before showing your friends and family.
Most social media and photo sharing sites are happy to resize your images for you, and many allow you quick cropping, filters, and other adjustments. No matter how delicious they look, Instagram snaps of your lunch will still get plenty of hearts without being retouched (although the Instagram app does have some nice basic editing options other than the standard filters).
I’ve also run across people who want to use Photoshop to edit their screen captures or to create internet memes, which is sort of like using a robotic neurosurgeon to apply a band-aid – it’ll do a great job, but it’s definitely more power than you need, and there’s probably a better way to get the same result.
How I Tested and Picked
Most photo editors have the same general goal: polishing your images to look their best and getting them out into the world. They’re not all intended for the same market, as some offer extremely precise professional features while others are focused on quick edits and sharing, but that main goal applies to all editors.
A typical RAW photo edit involves opening your image, adjusting elements such as highlight/shadow balance, color tone and correcting lens distortion, then working through more local edits before finalizing your image into a usable format. While I was sorting through all the photo editors I’ve reviewed for SoftwareHow and choosing the best, I stuck to the same set of criteria based around that workflow:
How does it handle RAW photos?
Almost all photographers are shooting in RAW format these days, and if you’re not, you definitely should be. A good RAW editor should offer non-destructive editing tools, accurate highlight/color/shadow conversion, and be well-optimized to handle high-resolution photos in a fast, responsive manner.
How good are its local editing features?
Once you’ve established the general adjustments you want to make to your image, you’ll probably find there are some specific areas that need more attention than others. Some photo editors allow you to make local edits using a layer-based system, while others use pins and masks to highlight areas that need extra work. Both have their advantages, but the most important thing to look for here is just how specific and controlled your local edits can be.
Is the user interface well-designed and easy to use?
As with all software, the user interface of your photo editor is going to be one of the most important considerations. The most powerful editor in the world is no help to anyone if it’s frustrating or impossible to use. A good user interface will help you and work with you instead of getting in the way.
Every professional user tends to develop their own unique way of working with a program, so a customizable interface is a real benefit, but a good default configuration will also allow new users to adapt and learn quickly.
How well optimized is the program for responsiveness?
Slow image processing speed can cause major problems in a workflow. This is more of a concern for professional users who need to edit a large number of high-resolution photos as quickly as possible, but it can still be frustrating for more casual photographers.
A responsive program will open your photos quickly and display the results of your edits without too much time delay for processing. Some of this will depend on the speed of your computer, but some programs handle speed better than others.
Is there any way to manage your photo library?
Not all photo editors come with a way to manage your photos. If you shoot lots and lots of photographs this will be an important concern for you, as a good system of flags, color-coding and metadata tags can make it much easier to sort the good images from the bad. If you’re a more casual photographer (or a bit lazy about record-keeping, like yours truly), you may not need to prioritize this as much.
Is the software affordable?
There is a great range of prices in the world of photo editors, and they don’t all provide the same value for your dollar. If you’re a business user, cost may be less important as it’s all a deductible expense, but it’s still a good idea to keep price in mind.
Some editors are available for a one-time purchase price, while others are only available through a recurring subscription. Many users are put off by the idea of subscription software, but we’ve got several options for editors with perpetual licenses.
Are there good tutorials and community support available?
Learning a new piece of software can take time. Casual photographers have the luxury of learning by doing, but professionals need to get up to speed as quickly as possible so they can stay efficient. But no matter how you’re using your new editor, a good set of tutorials and a thriving community of other users can really speed up and simplify the learning process.
Is it compatible with all versions of Windows?
Some programs are not compatible with every version of Windows. Some are compatible all the way back to Windows XP, but some require Windows 10. Things start to get really problematic when a piece of software isn’t compatible with the latest version of Windows, as being forced to run your program in a compatibility mode might limit its functionality and stability even more.
Best Photo Editing Software for PC: The Winners
The Best Photo Editor for Beginners: Adobe Photoshop Elements
As you might have guessed from the name, Photoshop Elements takes the power of the full version of Photoshop and condenses it down to the most commonly used editing tools. It’s intended for casual home users, but it’s powerful enough to handle all the most common photo editing tasks. It’s not designed around a RAW photo editing workflow, but it can handle RAW photos using the Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) engine shared by all Adobe apps.
For complete beginners to the world of photo editing, Guided mode offers step-by-step wizards for performing a wide range of editing tasks, from cropping a photo to black-and-white conversion to creating photo collages.
Once you’ve grown accustomed to working with your photos you can switch to Quick mode, which skips the guided steps in favor of a direct toolkit, although you can always switch back and forth between modes at any time. If you want even more control you can switch to Expert mode, which expands the toolkit found in Quick mode and gives you access to layer-based editing for easy localized adjustments.
The Photoshop Elements user interface is extremely simple and easy to use, with large design elements and helpful hints available. It still uses the vaguely unappealing light grey tone of the early 2000s instead of the more modern dark grey found in other Adobe apps, but this doesn’t make it less effective. In Expert mode you can customize some of the layout elements if you’re not happy with the defaults, but the options are limited.
Adobe has included a ‘Home’ screen which is dedicated to new tutorials, ideas and inspiration. It’s updated with new content from Adobe fairly regularly, and provides an excellent way to sharpen your editing skills on new projects without having to leave the program. I can’t help but feel the ‘eLive’ section from previous versions was a better way to handle this, but Adobe has tried to centralize a lot of its tutorial content on their website.
Because it shares some of the same programming base as the full version of Photoshop, Elements is quite well-optimized and handles editing tasks quickly. You may notice some delay when using step-by-step wizards, but this is usually because Elements is making multiple edits in the background automatically to complete your project.
Adobe Photoshop Elements costs $99.99 USD for a perpetual license, no subscription required. If it sounds like the right program for you, be sure to read my full read my full review here on SoftwareHow.
The Best Intermediate Photo Editor: Zoner Photo Studio X
Zoner Photo Studio has been in development for a while, but somehow hasn’t gotten the recognition that it deserves. It’s an extremely capable hybrid of Lightroom-style catalog manager and Photoshop-style precision editing, and it’s constantly receiving new features and bug fixes from the developer.
The interface is clean and familiar to anyone who’s used a modern photo editor, and there’s plenty of tutorial and knowledgebase articles available online to help new users learn the basics. A convenient tab system similar to the one used in your web browser lets you open multiple Library, Develop and Editor windows all at once, which is a big productivity improvement over simply having multiple files open.
The editing tools are capable and responsive in both non-destructive and layer-based editing modes. You don’t get quite the same flexibility in pixel-based edits that you’ll find in Photoshop, but ZPS should be able to handle all but the most difficult reconstructions.
This isn’t to say that Zoner Photo Studio is completely perfect, of course. The interface is fairly well-designed by default, but I’d prefer to have some more customization options to match my workflow (and maybe hide the ‘Create’ module, which I’ll probably never use).
The way it handles camera and lens profiles for automatic correction could definitely use some improvement, and you may want to double-check that there are profiles available for your camera/lens combinations.
ZPS does explain here that they intentionally use such a clumsy profiles implementation to avoid paying licensing fees to Adobe, which should amuse anyone looking for an alternative to the Creative Cloud ecosystem. Since it’s already so cheap, though, I wouldn’t mind a bit of a smoother user experience at a slightly higher price.
My previous choice for the Intermediate category was the also-excellent Affinity Photo from Serif, but ZPS has leapfrogged it in terms of ease of use, features, and value. Unfortunately, they do require you to purchase your license as a subscription, but the cloud storage space that comes with it helps ease the sting a little bit.
The Best Professional Photo Editor: Adobe Photoshop CC
For anyone in the world of professional photo editing, Adobe Photoshop is the best editor available on the market right now. After 30 years of development, it’s got the most impressive feature set of any image editor, and is treated as the industry-standard editor by almost everyone working in the graphic arts.
The sheer number of features means that it can be very overwhelming for casual users, despite the impressive amount of tutorial instruction available from a wide variety of sources – it’s just that big. Not every user needs Photoshop as their editor!
When it comes to general image editing, there’s almost nothing that Photoshop can’t do. It has the best layer-based editing system, the widest range of adjustment options and some truly impressive tools. You can do basic photo editing or create complex photo-realistic artwork with the same tools.
If you’re editing RAW photos, they’ll open first in the Adobe Camera RAW window, allowing you to apply non-destructive edits to the image as a whole, as well as some limited local adjustments. The edits are then applied to a copy of the image opened as a Photoshop document, where you can work on anything from more localized adjustments to complex edits such as focus stacking, HDR tone mapping and other major changes to the structure of the image.
The user interface is almost completely customizable, down to the color of the background and the size of the interface elements. You can work with one of Adobe’s predetermined layouts known as ‘workspaces’, or create your own workspace suited to your particular needs.
There is no library management system for handling your files, although Photoshop is bundled with Bridge and Lightroom which offer these features if you must have them. Lightroom provides cataloging and general edits to be applied to entire photoshoots, and then Photoshop provides the finishing touches on special images. This makes for a bit of a more complex workflow, but it’s worth it in my opinion.
The biggest issue that most users have now with Photoshop is that it requires a monthly subscription to an Adobe Creative Cloud plan, which costs between $9.99 USD per month for Photoshop CC and Lightroom Classic, or $49.99 USD per month for the full Creative Cloud software suite.
This subscription does give users access to the latest version of the program, but some feel that user concerns are being ignored and there aren’t enough new feature updates. With Zoner Photo Studio X nipping at its heels, we may soon have a new ‘Best Professional Photo Editor’ unless Adobe can keep up with the competition!
You can read the full review of Adobe Photoshop CC here on SoftwareHow.
The Runner-up Choices
Serif Affinity Photo
Serif has only recently released Affinity Photo for Windows, but it has rapidly become an excellent option in the crowded world of photo editors. It’s only in version 1.8 at the time of this writing, but it already provides almost all the features found in software that has been around for a decade longer. It’s intended for photographers at the hobbyist level and above, although it may not be quite developed enough for the most demanding professionals – at least, not yet.
The interface for Affinity Photo is a mix of excellent choices and couple of odd touches, but overall it’s quite easy to use and well-designed. The layout is uncluttered, the color scheme is muted, and you can customize the interface as much as you might need. It puts the focus right where it belongs: on your photo.
My favorite part of the interface experience is a tool that runs constantly in the background known as Assistant. It allows you to customize the way the program responds based on the specific circumstances, although I wouldn’t mind seeing a few more options added. I haven’t run across anything like this before in an image editor, but other developers could learn a thing or two.
You can read the full review of Affinity Photo here.
$69 one-time purchase. Support Windows 7, 8, 10, and macOS 10.10. 5 or above.
Luminar is the latest photo editor available from Skylum Software, formerly known as Macphun. Since all of their editing programs are now available for Windows as well as macOS, this seems to have inspired their change of name.
If you’ve ever used Skylum’s excellent Aurora HDR photo editor, the Luminar interface will be immediately recognizable. Overall, it’s clean, clear and user-friendly, although I found it quite odd that the default interface configuration leans heavily on showcasing presets and actually hides the RAW editing controls. Users have to select a workspace on the right panel to display the appropriate editing settings, which seems like a very unwise choice to me.
There are a number of preset workspaces, from ‘Professional’ to ‘Quick and Awesome’, which provide an interesting preset range of options. Professional is by far the most comprehensive, and offers an excellent range of editing tools. There are several tools available for automatically reducing color casts which I’ve never seen in another editor, and which work surprisingly well with a bit of tweaking.
If you’re a professional photographer who dislikes the Adobe subscription model, Luminar is definitely worth your consideration. There is room for improvement, but it’s a strong contender that will only get better with each new version. Available for Windows and macOS, a Luminar perpetual license will only set you back $69. Nicole reviewed the macOS version of Luminar, and you can read her full review here.
Phase One Capture One Pro
$299 one-time purchase or $20 USD per month subscription
Capture One Pro is a very close second to Adobe Photoshop CC in the world of professional image editing. It was originally developed by Phase One for use with their proprietary (and expensive) medium-format digital camera line, but it has since been opened up to support a full range of cameras from other manufacturers. Of all the RAW conversion engines, it is widely regarded as the best, with excellent depth in shadows and highlights as well as excellent color and detail reproduction.
Since my previous review of Capture One Pro, the developers have reworked a lot of the interface elements that bothered me. There are now a lot of interface customization options that weren’t available before, and the inclusion of the Resource Hub (shown above) makes it much easier for new users to get up to speed.
It still doesn’t feel like it is designed for casual photographers, and I’d bet that even most professional photographers will be fine with something a bit easier to use. Capture One Pro is a very close second-place for the best professional photo editor, only losing out on price and complexity. But if Capture One keeps improving the user experience, the leaders may have some serious competition.
Read the full review of Capture One Pro here.
Adobe Lightroom Classic
$9.99 USD per month subscription, bundle w/ Photoshop CC
Despite not ranking as one of the best photo editors, Lightroom is a program that I use as part of my personal photo editing workflow because of its excellent library management system. Unfortunately, I tend to take my photos into Photoshop for localized editing and finalization, and not everyone appreciates a slower dual-program workflow.
Speed is definitely one of Lightroom’s major failings. Module switching takes longer than it should, and it definitely chugs along when zooming to 100% or creating high-resolution previews of your images. Adobe claims that it made major speed improvements in the latest update, but it feels like something they say each release without much noticeable improvement. Lightroom still doesn’t feel quite as snappy as some of the other editors.
Many users have also expressed concerns that Lightroom Classic is now in it’s ‘end of life’ phase, meaning that it may soon stop being actively developed by Adobe in favor of the new Lightroom CC. This doesn’t seem to be happening, but I’m growing more and more frustrated with the constant changes and issues that crop up regularly thanks to Adobe’s constant update model.
DxO PhotoLab 4
$129 Essential Edition, $199 Elite Edition, on sale for $99 / $149
PhotoLab is one of the newest editors around, and DxO has been churning them out almost suspiciously quickly. They’ve gone through 4 editions since the program was first released a couple of years ago, replacing their previous editor, DxO OpticsPro.
DxO is well-known for their rigorous testing of camera lenses in everything from DSLRs to smartphones, and they bring all that expertise to their own photo editor. Their control of optical quality is superb, thanks to the extensive knowledge of lens behavior across a wide variety of conditions. Combine that with an industry-leading noise reduction algorithm (only available in the Elite edition, unfortunately) and you’ve got a very promising RAW editor.
I’m personally not a big fan of the U-point control system they use for local edits, despite how . Perhaps it’s just because I learned editing using brushes in Photoshop, but U-points never felt as intuitive to me.
DxO also recently purchased the excellent Nik Efex plugin collection from Google, which has some promising integration with PhotoLab, but I think they’d do better to focus on improving their library management tools.
Corel Aftershot Pro
$79.99 one-time purchase, on semi-permanent sale 30% off
Aftershot Pro is Corel’s challenge to Lightroom, and it’s primarily based around how much faster Aftershot Pro is at processing images. You don’t need to import your photos into a catalog to use their management system, and the RAW editing tools are good with a solid RAW conversion engine. Aftershot Pro also offers local layer-based editing, but the system is unnecessarily complex and finicky to use: you don’t use brushes, you define areas to be edited with lasso-style shape tools.
Aftershot seems to balance out its cheap price by expecting that you’ll purchase some of their preset adjustment packs, which can be purchased from inside the program. Combine the microtransaction model with limited tutorial support and annoying local adjustments, and Aftershot Pro needs more work before it’s ready for the spotlight.
Unfortunately, version 3 was released several years ago and there has been no discussion of version 4 that I can find, so it may never reach the winner’s circle.
On1 Photo RAW
$99.99 USD one-time purchase, or $149.99 annually for On1 monthly subscription
On1 Photo RAW has come a long way since I first reviewed it. At the time, it was a decent editor being held back by a poorly designed interface, a problem which On1 has now finally corrected. Unfortunately, the redesign of the interface seems to have introduced some new issues, such as visual artifacting along RAW photo thumbnails in the catalog and other display issues.
Photo RAW has a good library organization system, the now-familiar complete set of RAW editing tools, and layer-based editing. The latest version has upped the focus on preset packs (largely because they can be sold as microtransactions), which always annoys me personally but might be useful for other users.
All this comes at a monthly subscription price that is roughly on par with Adobe’s Lightroom/Photoshop bundle, which makes it a terrible value proposition. I have hopes that future versions of Photo RAW will improve on the user interface and suddenly On1 will have a great program, but until then I can’t recommend it to anyone.
Corel PaintShop Pro
$79.99 USD, one-time purchase
Corel has positioned PaintShop Pro as an alternative to Photoshop, and it’s the only image editor that has an even longer development history – it turns 34 in 2021. Unfortunately, it hasn’t benefited from that long development cycle quite as much as Photoshop has. Its RAW file handling is far more basic, as though they want to force users into working with Aftershot Pro – they even go so far as to advertise for Aftershot in the RAW editing window.
The latest version is heavily pushing AI-powered tools such as upscaling, denoising, and artifact removal, but I’m not sure these tools are appealing enough to overcome the other issues with Paintshop Pro.
ACDSee Photo Studio Ultimate
$149.99 USD one-time purchase, subscriptions available
ACDSee is a decent introductory-level photo editor that is hampered by some frustrating user interface design decisions. It has good library management and RAW editing tools, but the localized editing systems using layers is clunky and needs some more polish. The strangest part is that ACDSee has added some very interesting ways of interacting with the various tools, but then messed up some more standard methods like keyboard shortcuts.
ACDSee has the makings of a strong contender with Photo Studio Ultimate, and with a bit more development and refinement it may find itself in a top spot in either the beginner or the intermediate category. But until that day comes, you’re better off with one of our winners.
Read the full review of ACDSee Photo Studio Ultimate here.
$29 for a single computer, or $49 for up to 5 license.
Photolemur is a simplified photo editor that uses artificial intelligence to correct for a number of different photographic issues at once. Dehazing, contrast adjustments, color recovery and tint adjustments are taken care of with absolutely no input from the user to produce an optimized image. Sounds too good to be true, right? Unfortunately, like most things that sound that way, it is. It’s a very promising idea that has a future, but it’s not quite there yet.
My testing showed some improvement over the original images, but it really depends on the source image you’re working with. In the shot below of the icebound shores of Lake Ontario, it does a decent job of adding contrast to the sky and correcting the general under-exposure, but it can’t correct the horizon angle.
On this casual shot of Juniper the cat, however, it actually manages to make the image worse by oversaturating the colors. A few clicks in Lightroom was enough to save the image, but Photolemur wasn’t able to achieve anything close to the same results on its own.
Photolemur has an incredibly simple interface which may appeal to casual users, but I found it a bit frustrating. The only user control is found in the bottom right, allowing you to control how much of the image ‘boost’ is applied. This means that it will probably do a good job of fixing up your holiday snapshots (which it can batch process) but professionals and even most beginners are going to want something with more control.
Available for Windows and Mac, it’s fairly affordable at $35 for a single computer license or $55 for up to 5 devices, but it’s possible to find much better value in a more complete editor.
Free Software Options
While there are a huge number of photo editors for sale, the free software world also has some interesting programs to offer. Here are a couple of the free software options that let you perform some more basic photo editing tasks, although they don’t really approach the level of polish you can expect from a paid program.
Photo Pos Pro
This program makes it into the free section by a slim margin, because it has both free and paid versions available. The free version is fully feature-rich, but it limits resolution you can export your final images in. If you’re just working on images you want to share online, that shouldn’t cause any problems for you – and the price is right. I scanned it with MalwareBytes AntiMalware and Windows Defender and found no issues, and it didn’t try to install any third-party apps.
The user interface is very similar to that of Photoshop – to the point of being an almost exact copy. It has limited RAW support, although it doesn’t offer any of the non-destructive RAW editing options that you would find in a paid program. I wouldn’t want to have to use it for all my editing, but it should be able to get the job done – eventually.
While it’s memorably named, GIMP actually stands for GNU Image Manipulation Program. This doesn’t refer to the wildebeest, but rather to the open source GNU General Public License that governs how it can be edited by the community. It actually has a surprisingly long development history, dating back to 1996 – but unfortunately, while it’s quite powerful and much beloved, it sometimes feels like the user interface hasn’t been updated since then.
The latest release has tried to address the interface issue, and while it’s somewhat improved, it’s still nowhere near polished enough for the regular, heavy-duty usage that professionals demand.
While it actually has an impressive featureset and excellent plugin support, the frustrating aspects of working with rapidly become apparent. It has no native RAW support whatsoever, which limits its use as a photo editor to working with JPEGs. While the GIMP website touts its use in films, the claim rapidly loses steam when you learn that the only article they link to is about Scooby Doo, a flop from 2002.
The entirety of the program has been developed for free, which is undoubtedly an impressive achievement, but it has the feel of a program designed by programmers. It’s functionality-driven, and pays no attention to user experience. Hopefully, someday soon a UX designer and a programmer will sit down and create a better front-end, but until then, it’s not going to be useful for much serious photo editing. Unless you’re on Linux, of course, where your non-virtualized options are extremely limited.
Phew, that took some time – but hopefully by now, you’ve got a much better sense of what’s available in the world of photo editing software for Windows PCs. There are some great paid options and some interesting free software alternatives, although any serious editor will be happy to pay for an editor that has been carefully tested and proven in professional work environments. Whether you’re a beginner photographer, intermediate-level or the most demanding pro, I hope this roundup review helped you find a program that suits your style!
Did I skip over your favorite Windows photo editor? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll give it a try and let you know what I think!