Whether you’re a professional photographer or a serious enthusiast, post-processing and organizing are an essential part of photography. As digital resolution improves, the file size of photos increases, so you can really benefit from software that can quickly process large files, in large batches, and that also incorporates granular editing tools for fixing small details. While professional photographers strive to take perfectly composed shots with flawless exposure levels, most photos could still use subtle touch-ups. Serious photographers also need the file organization and conversion tools found in professional editing software.
While Adobe Photoshop has been a benchmark for professional photographers and digital artists, there are many other substantive competitors to consider. Two notable editing programs are Corel’s PaintShop Pro X9 and DxO Optics Pro.
Professional Photo Editing Software: What to Look For
The best choice for photography software will depend on your preferences. Many people like using one program for organizing and another for editing. Some programs are often used in tandem, such as Photoshop and Lightroom. Some programs, like Portrait Professional, can be used alone or as plugins for Photoshop. Features to look for when you choose professional photo editing software include organization and importing tools, the ability to edit batches and individual photos, the ability to customize your workflow and the options for publishing and output.
If you shoot a high volume of photos, organizational tools are critical. Some sports photographers will shoot thousands of photos in bursts to publish only a handful from a single event. Wedding photographers also take hundreds of shots to document one significant event. For these and many other instances, the most important part of post processing involves the ability to quickly sort through large batches of photos rather than make significant changes to individual photos.
Actions and Customization
Many photographers develop their own style of post processing. Once you’ve established a unique style and pattern of processing, much of what you do can be automated through recordable actions or presets. Many photographers display primarily black and white, or photos that emulate film processing, or something unique to their own brand. If you find yourself using the same actions or techniques of your own, you'll want photo editing software that can automate those actions to save you hours of extra work.
Publishing and Output
If you are working with high numbers of photos or if you frequently publish online to a blog, website or photo hosting service, it helps to have export options that are more sophisticated than simple saving features. Some photo editing software can include sharpening, resizing, adding color profiles and making other finishing touches to batches of photos. Likewise, if the majority of your work goes online for sale, blogging or other methods of publishing, some professional photo editing software can do this automatically.
The more robust editing suites are some of the most complex consumer programs to learn. If you’re new to Photoshop or PaintShop, it may be worth investing in a formal class to get traction on the basic features. There are also countless YouTube channels, blogs and more formal online classes to help you understand the features of these programs.
A simpler option may be finding a program you can pick up quickly. Some programs will walk you through a workflow step-by-step, and if you don't need to work through multiple layers of edits, there are plenty of simpler options that streamline the editing process.
Professional photo editors play an essential part in a photographer’s workflow. Whether you spend hours on individual photographs or quickly make minor edits to batches of photographs, you can find photo software that will work for your needs. For the latest informaiton, see our articles on photo editing software.
ACDSee Pro 8 has a similar interface to Adobe Lightroom. You have five modules along the top – Manage, View, Develop, Edit and Online. This makes movement through your photos a logical step-by-step process. The first iterations of the photo software were as a photo viewer, and that’s where the program excels, even though it offers quite a lot of features now.
This software uses a unique organizational structure. Batches of photos are separated into folders, which are organized into a folder tree. When you click on a folder, your images open up as thumbnails where you choose what you want to work on. From here, you can create categories and manage the metadata. Other photography software applications force you to create a database of pictures, but with ACDSee you’re looking at files and folders that already exist on your drives. You can tag, rate and label photos and then do extensive searches based on these criteria, as well as the GPS location of the shoot.
The benefit to ACDSee’s system is that you can eliminate importing, which can be a lengthy process in other professional photo editing software. The application quickly shows you the contents of a folder, and you can start viewing and editing with little waiting.
You can make all the expected global changes such as white balance, curves, contrast, saturation and exposure. The software lets you select specific colors and tones within an image and work on the selection. You can also apply gradients, advanced color tools, sharpeners and an HDR effect. There are tools for correcting lens distortion and vignetting. You can also localize your edits by brush, and there are corrective tools for removing spots and blemishes.
Many new users report that the software is easy to start using. If you’re accustomed to other photo management systems, you may need to adjust to some of the differences in working through files rather than a database. The editing tools are very familiar, and it doesn’t take significant effort to begin processing photos. ACDSee does have a significant amount of help content available online, including user communities, blogs, tutorials and a YouTube channel.
If you’re looking for a Lightroom alternative with a unique method of working through your files, ACDSee is a great professional photo editor. The software can allow quick viewing of photos, and it has a logical workflow for post processing.
Corel’s PaintShop Pro X9 is feature-rich professional photo editing software with similarities to the higher-end competitors. While it may not excel as an organizer, distortion remover or raw converter, if you’re looking for something with a wide range of editing options and some automated effects, PaintShop is great photography software.
You can use PaintShop as a photo organizer and editor. The tools for organization include a folder tree along the side that allow you to browse your available pictures. Image metadata is readily available for each shot, and you can quickly sort through photos by adding star ratings as well as tags for locations, people or subjects. You can also create profiles for facial recognition, allowing future sorting and automatic tagging for future Facebook uploads. Like other photo organizers, it acts as a database with sortable fields, and you can use these to create Smart Collections that narrow photos by useful criteria. It’s not as quick and doesn’t have the depth of tools that other organizers do, but the application still has helpful organizing tools.
Once you move into editing, you have a wealth of tools available that will be familiar if you’ve used high-end photo editors. You can perform localized and even layered edits. There’s a strong selection of instant effects, and you can see the results in a thumbnail before the entire image is changed. The effects can be applied in multiples, and in layers, and you can choose how those layers interact with each other. Most of the tools along the side panel are familiar to experienced photo editors.
You can also choose from a significant number of plugins from other developers, including scripts. You can download other photographers’ scripts or record your own processing actions and use them on subsequent projects.
Printing, saving and uploading to social media is possible from any module. You can save in a variety of templates for specific online and print uses, such as precise sizing for Twitter, Pinterest, Flickr and other common online photo targets. You can export your work in any of the standard file formats, color and printer profiles, and in some very helpful sizing guides.
If you’re new to Corel’s photo software, the number of tools available in the program can be pretty daunting. Corel offers its own Discovery Center for learning the ins and outs of PaintShop. There are step-by-step classes that walk you through all the features of the program. As with other popular professional photo editors, there are myriad YouTube channels, websites, blogs and other free tutorials available online.
If you’re looking for a feature-rich but inexpensive option for professional photo editing, Corel PaintShop Pro X9 is a good option. You’ll have access to easy-to-use effects and some surprisingly powerful tools. While the organizational portion is a great addition to the photo software, it could be a more logical process for a photographer’s workflow.
CyberLink PhotoDirector Review
If you’re looking for a professional photo editor with a good selection of presets and editing tools but at a budget price, PhotoDirector may be a good option. This software has a sleek gray interface with logically placed panels for your workflow. There’s a good selection of organizational tools, and you have a lot at your disposal for editing.
PhotoDirector has plenty of tools for creating your database of photos. In the import window, you have several options for quickly culling through your photos. You can apply presets, add text, rename photos and omit duplicates. You can then quickly group photos with the same face and add names with the facial recognition feature. Once added, those names become searchable tags in your database. You can also flag photos for later filtering as well as adding star ratings. Compare mode allows you to quickly view photos side-by-side for processing.
You have a lot of tools on hand for editing. This photography software has automated effects as well as global and local adjustments. With global adjustments, you can adjust white balance, tone, curves, levels, HDR, color and sharpening across the picture. Each of these can be turned off and on and interact with each other, much like layers.
Regional adjustments offer smaller tools for making selections or applying localized adjustments, applying gradient masks and other effects. PhotoDirector also has a variety of tools for adding beauty enhancements to portraits. You can also make video adjustments, including motion tracking, color presets and other cinematic effects. You can make some lens and body correction, like vignetting and chromatic aberration. Camera and lens profiles allow for automatic corrections based on your setup.
The program allows you to share your photos directly to social media sites like Facebook and Flickr, although not to some professional sites like SmugMug. You can create your own slideshow and upload it through the exporter directly to YouTube. It does lack some color management and CMYK printing options that you typically see in professional photography software, but you can print on any paper size and apply watermarks upon export.
While the learning curve is significantly lower than some of the larger photo software, there is far less third-party content available online, and it’s difficult to find books to guide you through the program. The program offers free video tutorials, however, and a free PDF guidebook to download or print to help you get acquainted with the workflow.
PhotoDirector has a generous selection of tools available for the price range. It’s a viable alternative to some of the higher-end professional photo editing software.
DxO is a Paris-based software developer known for its ability to correct photo distortion, and that’s where DxO Optics Pro 10 really shines as photography software. While you may not look to Optics Pro for the organization and localized editing tools, it does feature some of the best noise correction and other distortion fixes available to photographers.
Optics Pro has fewer options for organization than some of the other professional photo editors. The tools for importing are basic, and the options for creating a selectable database are few. You can rate your photos, but other tools for narrowing a search are missing, like color codes, geotags and face recognition. You can create groupings that you can work on together. The program offers a one-click feature for exporting photos to and from Adobe Lightroom, in case you want an organizer with more options.
Where Optics Pro 10 really shines is in the corrective tools. Not only are you equipped with some of the best lens and camera profiles to correct distortion, but other issues like vignetting, chromatic aberration and noise removal reportedly exceed the corrective measures of most of DxO’s competitors. Most of these actions are automatic. Because DxO has profiles for most lens and body combinations, the software can identify your hardware and correct for shortcomings. Unique to this program is ClearView, which instantly removes haze from photos.
You can directly export to several online photo hosts, such as Flickr, Facebook and others with one click. You can also export your photos quickly to other applications without any hassle, and sending them to a drive promises to be quick. You can publish in any of the standard formats, and you can do so in batches.
Because the software has a large number of controls for adjustment, some people may find it daunting to pick up. The most powerful tools available in the program are easily automated and don’t require much effort to learn. Some of the differences are minor between this and other photo editors. Rather than a simple exposure adjustment, DxO offers the lighting tools designed to recover underexposed portions of your photos. You can adjust highlights with exposure compensation. The tools are powerful, but they may feel unfamiliar at first if you’re accustomed to other professional photo editing software.
If you’re looking for a strong application to fix some of the shortcomings of your hardware with smart raw image processing, DxO Optics Pro may be a great option. Optics Pro promises to be a great stand-alone product, but it also works seamlessly with other programs like Adobe Lightroom.
Adobe Lightroom Review
Adobe stands out in the professional photo editing software market by offering its photographer’s packages as a subscription service as well as single purchase products. Photoshop and Lightroom are packaged together and are continually updated with new features. Alternatively, you can buy each separately as a standalone product without the updates, and if you wish to receive updates you’ll need to buy the next version – assuming Adobe continues to offer new versions of its photography software as standalones in the future.
Photoshop and Lightroom are two completely different portions of a photographer’s post-processing workflow. While they’re both powerful post-processing applications in different ways, they work best in tandem. Perhaps a useful way to think of the two is that Lightroom is best for importing, exporting and large-scale editing; Photoshop is better for dialing down to finer editing, editing selections, creative work and spending time on single photographs.
If you shoot large numbers of photographs in a single setting, an organizational tool like Lightroom is indispensable. With Lightroom, you import the photographs directly by the program. Then you can quickly tag, rate or delete photographs in an efficient way with single keys or clicks. Lightroom recently added a facial recognition system that quickly learns to categorize your subjects. The software also creates collections, either manually or automatically, and you can organize by category, rating, subject or another method.
Lightroom also allows you to quickly burn through large numbers of photographs. If you have a large number of photographs taken in the same setting and the color is off, you can highlight them all and correct the white balance all at once. Likewise, if you discover that a batch of photographs needs any kind of editing such as exposure, contrast, lens distortion, vignetting or final sharpening, you can change the photos all at once or copy edits from one photograph to others in the batch.
If you use both Photoshop and Lightroom together, you can move from your organization in Lightroom to more ambitious changes in Photoshop; once you’re done in Photoshop, the changed photograph will again appear in Lightroom ready for exporting or publishing along with the rest of your batch. Lightroom features a wide array of exporting options, and any of your chosen methods of pre-printing sharpening, color and printer profiles, and book or online publishing can likewise be done in large batches.
Much of Lightroom's user interface is intuitive. The panels that guide you through your workflow are prominently displayed and easy to move through. You can begin navigating the program without any special training. Most people will benefit from some minor training or online resources to become really efficient with their work. Adobe offers a lot of online resources, including instructional videos. Because Lightroom is used by so many photographers, there is a wealth of free training available online if you want to become extra efficient with your time in the program.
Lightroom is a powerful professional photo editor that works as a standalone application, but it works especially well combined with Photoshop. An organizational tool like Lightroom is an important part of post-processing, especially for photographers who shoot a lot. If you need a method to get through large batches, Adobe Lightroom is a great photo software option.
Nikon Capture Review
Nikon Capture NX2 is an aging raw converter and professional photo editor directed primarily at Nikon users. If you’re looking for software that works particularly well with the raw NEF files, and don’t need an all-encompassing organizer, Capture NX2 may be the right fit for your needs.
Capture isn't a great file organizing tool. The importer works well, and you can easily work with large quantities of images, but there aren't any of the database tools that make the high-end professional photo editing software great. Upon import you can add star ratings and tags to the photos. GPS-enabled cameras will give you pinpoints on a global map to allow for location organization. The tethering feature is a standout feature of this professional photo editing software.
When you import photos, you can make raw adjustments to aspects like white balance, noise, sharpness, contrast and brightness. You can also apply a “quick fix,” which is an adjustment in exposure, contrast, highlights and shadows with the help of a histogram. There are also options for camera and lens correction, some of which are automatic and others you can control with sliders. There are a few brushes for removing blemishes, sensor dust and other imperfections. There are also options for levels and curves that can be treated like layers and easily masked for regional changes. The majority of features are accessible to non-Nikon shooters, but they’d need to be saved into TIFFs before importing. The most notable and useful feature, raw processing, only works with Nikon’s raw NEF files.
If you wish to export to other programs, such as Adobe Lightroom for management, they won’t be able to read any changes you’ve made to the NEF files. You’ll need to export as TIFFs or JPGs, which means you’ll lose options for work in other programs. If you use Capture as a standalone program, particularly if you aren’t shooting large numbers of photos, this may not be a tremendous drawback. You can export in batches and print on just about any paper size.
Capture promises to be an easy program to learn, and most of the workflow should be quite intuitive. You aren’t inundated with tools that may go unused, and the process of moving from one step to the next is logical. If you need help, there is a Capture knowledgebase on Nikon’s website, and because it's popular photography software for Nikon users, there are ample resources online to learn from the experience of other users. There’s also a generous number of books available to learn the workflow.
If you’re a Nikon shooter looking for an inexpensive alternative photography software, Nikon Capture NX2 is a good option. While other camera brand files can be used in Capture, they need to be converted in another program first, which may be prohibitive enough to make it a poor consideration. There is a significant list of features that are easy to navigate and learn, making it a good choice of photo software for budget photographers or newcomers.
While Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Lightroom are a powerful combination for professional photo editing and graphic design, both are strong standalone applications. You can purchase each program as a standalone license or as a subscription service.
Lightroom and Photoshop Creative Cloud are sold together at a monthly or annual rate. If you subscribe to the creative cloud, Adobe frequently updates and adds features that can greatly enhance the program. If you purchase the standalone license for CS6, you take the program as is, and will have to purchase it again in the future if you wish to upgrade. This method of purchase is a bit hard to locate on Adobe’s site. Adobe definitely wants you to purchase the subscription for both.
As a stand-alone application, Photoshop isn’t an organizational tool. This is the role Lightroom is largely meant to play when they work in tandem. Using Photoshop alone would require that you import, organize and cull out your photographs with your computer’s operating system or a separate photography software program for organizing.
Where Photoshop really shines is in the power of the editing tools, including layering your edits, as well as in the plugins, recordable actions and raw processing. The tools are arranged neatly around the center panel where your photograph appears. Behind the setup, and buried in menus and panels, is perhaps the largest selection of tools and most powerful features available to photographers for editing. You have so many tools available that, for new users particularly, it’s best to begin with some form of training. Adobe features a wide array of training tools through its website, including instructional videos. Because Photoshop is such a prolific tool among the photographer community, there are countless websites, YouTube channels, blogs, books, university courses and podcasts available – often free – to help you begin editing.
If you go with the standalone version of Photoshop, another piece missing from the puzzle are powerful publishing and exporting tools that come with the Lightroom CC combination. You can convert your raw imagine into any industry standard format and with any color or printer profile necessary. But if you’re working with large numbers of photographs, or if you frequently publish online or to books, Lightroom and other programs will automate a lot of these actions and allow you to perform the same actions with multiple photographs at once.
If you need powerful professional photo editing software, Photoshop might be your best bet. If you’re on a budget, would rather automate most of your workflow, or aren’t interested in taking on the steep learning curve, there are several photo software alternatives to Photoshop that may work for your style of post-processing.
Portrait Professional Studio Max specializes in one task: editing portraits. This professional photo editing software is designed to make your photo editing quick and intuitive.
As the title suggests, it’s only meant for portrait work, but it can make dramatic changes with only a few clicks. It processes quickly and works as a plugin for Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop. The software promises to be easy to master without significant training.
Once you load a portrait into the program, Portrait Pro identifies the number of faces and asks whether the subjects are male or female. It will place a series of lines on each face to identify portions of the face, like the nose, chin and eyes. You’ll then review the lines and make sure they have the right placement, and then the program goes to work. The software will do a series of changes, including facial sculpting, blemish removal, color correction, lighting changes and teeth whitening.
After the processing, you’ll be presented with a row of sliders along the side panel where you can adjust the degree of the changes. The program places an original next to the processed version, and you can choose variations on the suggested improvements.
If you’re a portrait photographer, this software may add useful features to your toolbox. If you tend to shoot a lot, you’d benefit from a separate program for organization, and if you need to make adjustments to parts of a photograph beyond the face, another editor would be a critical addition. You can do batches of photos with the software by making a selection of photos and allowing the program to make determinations on its own, or you can make adjustments with the sliders later.
This professional photo editor is designed to be easy to learn. Once you’ve tried a handful of images, you should likely have feel for how the program works and what the limitations are. Some users report that the program requires a degree of restraint, and in some circumstances the effects can look overblown if you don’t dial them down.
If you can’t dedicate the time to learning a larger, all-encompassing photography software program, or if you want an additional tool dedicated to portraiture, Portrait Pro Studio Max is a good option. You can use the software to make global changes across a collection of portraits.
Serif PhotoPlus Review
Serif PhotoPlus X8 is filling a void as a low-cost, feature-rich alternative to Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop. The large toolset takes practice to master, but you’re still missing some of the more powerful aspects of competing photography software. PhotoPlus feels a little like PC programs from years ago, with tiny icons and light-gray and white panels.
You can import and organize in a straightforward way. Once you install the program, the Organizer will automatically grab all the photos in your image folder. You can organize by star rating and various tags, but not by facial recognition, flagging or other tools commonly found in photo editing software. Likewise, the organizational tools are scarce and not very powerful. However, importing is quite easy, and you have the option of culling out photographs and tagging them during the import process. You can also open multiple files for editing and cycle between them in one session. For organization, however, X8’s Photostack is one of the weaker options if you’re looking for an all-in-one program.
The intended workflow isn’t as intuitive as it should be for a professional photo editor. There isn’t a clear progression between importing and organizing, making global and regional corrections, and exporting your images. You open separate windows for each, and unless you know what you’re looking for, you can miss whole windows of tools. There’s a dedicated Cutout Studio for making selections. The Photofix window does have most of the tools you’d expect, and you can make quick changes to white balance, exposure, brightness and contrast.
PhotoPlus has a large number of editing options, although it's missing some important ones. For example, you can make lens correction adjustments including vignetting, color fringing and barrel distortion, but there aren’t lens and body profiles, and none of the actions are automatic. There are, however, great options for working with layers and intuitive tools for fixing old photographs and enhancing portraits. The surface blur tool allows easy removal of blemishes and wrinkles without removing important facial detail.
There is a generous filter gallery for applying effects, and you also have a split screen available to see a before and after. You can add filter layers over the original – so the process is nondestructive. You can also make the layers interact with each other, with varying levels of opacity and blending modes. X8 also has non-destructive editing; for example, you can crop to specific aspect ratios and later change your mind.
You have a few options for sharing that include Facebook and Flickr, and you can geotag your photos and see the results on a global map. You can print to just about any paper size, in CMYK, and there are a few layouts to choose from to print multiple photos to single sheets. You can print in varying resolutions and color profiles, and you can export in the common file types for sharing photos.
One of the best features for new PhotoPlus users is a Learn tab in the startup window. You’re greeted with video tutorials for making the most of each of Serif’s features. Serif PhotoPlus also has an extension help system online and an in-program help tab for quick answers. There are a few trainings online from third-party channels as well. There are so many available tools in the program that the learning curve is steep, so you’ll likely need to delve into some of the available training materials to take advantage of all the offerings.
If you’re looking for a cheaper alternative to some of the all-inclusive programs for photographers on the market, Serif PhotoPlus X8 may be a good choice. The dated appearance, weaker organizational options and basic tools may be drawbacks for some, but PhotoPlus is feature-rich photo software that has a lot of offer. Hobbyists will appreciate the options that mirror higher-end editors, but professionals would miss the logical workflow and powerful organization of other editing programs.