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Best photo editing software 2021

Best Photo Editing Software 2021
(Image credit: Adobe)

People are increasingly turning to the best photo editing software to improve the pictures they take. Enthusiast photographers will use tools like Lightroom to add that extra layer of polish to their images, while graphic artists will employ photo editing apps to improve images, and manipulate photos into whatever they need to complete a project. Even if you’re just someone who loves to post on Instagram, these photo programs can make a huge difference to your pictures.

While purist photographers insist that even the best photo editing software dulls your camera skills, we think this is extremely unfair. Firstly, while it’s every photographer’s goal to get it right in-camera, it’s not always possible. There are myriad reasons why something may go slightly wrong while shooting a photo, from the camera’s light meter being fooled by a bright sky and returning a silhouetted image, to the loose nut between the camera and the ground getting the settings wrong. Image editing software can help, particularly if you’re shooting in your camera’s raw image format, which captures all the data from the sensor. Secondly, there’s real artistry in properly editing an image, and the ability to properly use photo editors is a genuine skill.

We tested eight of the best photo editing software packages available in 2021, choosing from a combination of single-payment and subscription services from Adobe, Corel, CyberLink, Serif and more. We consulted a photographer to add comment on our choices, our products were tested and reviewed by a photographer, and we analyzed over 800 user reviews to bring you our independent, expert guide to photo editing software.

Our promise to you

There are two main ways that you can edit your photos. There’s the one that improves what’s already there, as you crop and straighten the edges, deepen the color saturation, adjust the sharpness, and perhaps apply a profile that removes lens distortions. Then there’s the one that comes closer to illustration, as you add or remove elements from the scene, replace the sky with something more dramatic, widen your subject’s eyes, or turn the entire color image into a high-contrast black-and-white masterpiece with a single click.

Thanks to photo editing software, an image shot on one of the best smartphones can rival one captured with a DSLR camera or even one of the best mirrorless cameras. The very best photo editing software takes it one step farther, too, by adding powerful organizational abilities to the package. Once you start filling folders and hard drives with image files, you’ll need some way of keeping track of them, and there are some great all-in-one packages out there that will fulfil all your still-image needs.

Our 3 Best Photo Editors

What the experts say

To help you find the best photo editing software for you, we spoke to David Morgan, Creative Director at CyberLink, to find out what he suggested. Morgan says: "Find an editor that makes sense to you, that can allow you to create very easily in the beginning so you can feel that rush of making some thing and not get bogged down by anything overly complicated."

He also notes that when it comes to choosing a particular editor for yourself, you should be lead by your own creativity. "I think everyone comes to photography in the beginning for different reasons and might not even fully know what they are wanting to create. For me however, I think the most important thing when starting any new creative endeavor is simply to create, create and create." Finding an editor that allows creativity, whatever your style of skill level, should be a key factor in making your decision.

Best Photo Editing Software overall

Adobe Lightroom CC is our best photo editor overall

(Image credit: Adobe)

Adobe Lightroom CC

The best photo editing software in 2021, thanks to a powerful toolset and broad range of options

SPECIFICATIONS

Type: Subscription | Works with: Windows and Mac | Smart-device app: Yes | HDR editing: Yes | 360 photo editing: Yes | Photo stitching: Yes | Cloud storage: 20GB-1TB | Built-in organizer: Yes | Download size: 458MB

Reasons to Buy

Superb for photo enhancement
Simple to use
Cloud support and companion app

Reasons to Avoid

Not as versatile as Photoshop

Adobe Lightroom CC is that perfect blend of accessible, powerful, and cost effective that we look for in photo editing software. It has all the tools you need to enhance, organize, and publish your photos, and the basic editing functions will allow you to clean up imperfections, crop and skew photos, and remove any unwanted elements. It has features for enhancing specific areas, boosting colors in skies and foreground objects, and extremely powerful auto-correction options for amateurs and beginners. 

What the users say

Adobe Lightroom gets an impressive 4.7 out of 5 for its app via the Apple App Store, with users praising the ease of use, tutorial features, and the support for Apple Pencil. There are low numbers complaining of crashes. On the Google Play Store it gets 4.3 out of 5, with similar positive comments about how powerful and easy it is, with occasional grumbles about bugs.

Workflow history and comparison options show you exactly what the effect is when you make changes, and we love the tutorials that explain all Lightroom's functions. Dig deeper and you can customize and save your enhancement process for batch editing, organize your images, export them to other apps like Photoshop and more. It's incredibly versatile without ever being overwhelming. 

The companion app for phones and tablets is very impressive too. You can perform almost all the editing and enhancement functions via your phone - quickly and easily - and if you're using the Creative Cloud version of Lightroom you'll instantly have access to your library of edits. The downside? It's not as good for graphic design and image editing as Photoshop, but is unbeatable for enhancement. You'll likely buy via Creative Cloud subscription, which is expensive at $9.99 per month but... you really do get what you pay for.

Best Photo Editor for bigger projects

Adobe Photoshop CC - best for editing options

(Image credit: Adobe)

Adobe Photoshop CC

An immensely powerful package, which is ideal for full edits

SPECIFICATIONS

Type: Subscription | Works with: Windows and Mac | Smart-device app: Yes - multiple | HDR editing: Yes | 360 photo editing: Yes | Photo stitching: Yes | Cloud storage: 1TB | Built-in organizer: No | Download size: 1.2GB

Reasons to Buy

Unrivalled editing options
Handles huge design projects
Loads of tutorials

Reasons to Avoid

Very resource hungry for your computer

For full edits of images, design projects, and total overhauls of all kinds of graphics and design elements... you can't get better than Photoshop. While Lightroom is more focused on photo enhancement, and editing on the move, Photoshop is the Adobe companion app that lets you change everything about your image. From simple crops and level-changes through to layer-work, vectors, masks and total overhauls of subjects and background, Photoshop is the best at this kind of work.

What the users say

Users are positive about Photoshop CC. On the App Store, it has an 'Editor's Choice' award, and users have awarded the iPad version 4.2 out of 5. Pricing is a key complaint, but overall people feel it scales well to tablet and that the changes to the core app are sensible. Early versions of the software were rated lower, so we have seen progress here.

What's more, Photoshop CC isn't all that difficult to use, as there are tutorial videos, guided edits, and hints and tips built into the interface itself. The main issue you'll have it working out what tool achieves the effect you want to get. 

In terms of pure editing, the AI powered selection and enhancement / replacement options are great, if not perfect, and there are a whole bunch of tools to help you duplicate and stitch together images and objects. Want to integrate with graphics and text? Yes, you can do that too.

Controversially, Photoshop is no longer available as a lifetime license, and only comes as part of Creative Cloud, which is the only real downside we see. It's quite expensive, but combine it with Lightroom in the Photography Pack, and you have every tool you need to make perfect photos and image projects.

Best Photo Editor for beginners

CyberLink PhotoDirector 12

(Image credit: CyberLink)

CyberLink PhotoDirector 12

A superb app, PhotoDirector 12 is easy to use and great value for money

SPECIFICATIONS

Type: Subscription | Works with: Windows and Mac | Smart-device app: Yes | HDR editing: Yes | 360 photo editing: Yes | Photo stitching: Yes | Cloud storage: 50GB | Built-in organizer: Yes | Download size: 2GB

Reasons to Buy

Large, free stock image access
Easy to use and get pro results from
Great value

Reasons to Avoid

Some file compatibility missing

The latest version of this photo editing software - PhotoDirector 12 - is a formidable app. It's well priced, simple to use, and comes with an extensive set of tools to give your images a real wow-factor. It's perfect for enhancing amateur photos, and pictures that form the basis of creative design projects and fun combination shots. PhotoDirector 12 is all about maximizing the potential of the image with as little difficulty as possible; from enhancing a simple selfie, all the way through to making surreal art and professionally-printed photography. The fact that you get free access to thousands of Shutterstock images as part of your subscription is a serious bonus too!

What the users say

PhotoDirector 11 (the previous version) has an average score of 3.1 out of 5 on Amazon. While most are happy with how easy the tools are to use, a number of people have complained about the download process and the poor support options. Some of these problems appear to be related to the Amazon download, however. 'Go direct to CyberLink for a better overall experience,' seems to be the message. We will update this info when PD12 has been available a little longer.

We love the value you get from PhotoDirector 12. It's a significantly lower price than the Adobe software packs, but you get most of the tools you need for all kinds of edits and a generous 50GB of cloud storage for your photos. There's a CyberLink app for smart devices too, which allows you to edit on the move via smartphone or tablet.

It's surprising how many options you get here. You can work in layers, and set masks and paths, and work on HDR images. You get access to a large library of stock images and music tracks for creative projects, and a whole bunch of pre-set filters and processes to make your edits easy. The main downside is that PhotoDirector doesn't offer the same standard and range of tutorial options, and it can be a little easier to over-edit an image than some of its rivals. Overall, though, it's superb, and the 365 version of PD12 comes with 50GB cloud storage too.

Best single payment Photo Editor

PaintShop Pro 2021

(Image credit: Corel)

PaintShop Pro 2021

Looking to pay once for your editor? PaintShop Pro is the one to get

SPECIFICATIONS

Type: Single payment | Works with: Windows | Smart-device app: No | HDR editing: Yes | 360 photo editing: Limited | Photo stitching: Yes | Cloud storage: None | Built-in organizer: Yes | Download size: 3GB

Reasons to Buy

Good value software
Extensive set of features
Lovely workspaces

Reasons to Avoid

No Mac version

Corel PaintShop Pro 2021 is the newest, strongest version of the classic image-editing program. It's very good, and gives the Adobe suite a run for its money, especially when it comes to value and ease of use for beginners (we especially like the new workspaces). While you'll pay $120 per year for PhotoShop and Lightroom, this comes in at $80 for a one-off payment.

What the users say

This software is very new, and only has five ratings on Amazon, but they are all 5-star. Users praise the diversity of tools you get, and the long history of innovation PaintShop Pro enjoys. There are no user criticisms at this point, and we will update our User Review section when more comments are available.

You don't lack for features with PaintShop Pro 2021 either. Everything you'd expect to find is here; from basic editing tools that allow you to crop, enhance, and remove blemishes from a photo, all the way through to advanced features like layers, masks, HDR edits, and creative filters. While the AI driven enhancement tools aren't quite as accurate or effective as the Photoshop and Lightroom versions, they're still very good.

The only real downsides here are that there's no Mac version and, while it is a very advanced program, it's also very draining on system resources. If you're looking to edit across multiple devices, you should choose something else, as this is a single-use license, and there is no companion app for mobile or tablets. Still, for $80, you get a fantastic editor on your PC.

Best Photo Editor for iPad

Affinity Photo is a super pro-level editor

(Image credit: Affinity)

Affinity Photo

A good all-rounder, and great for HDR, although it is complex to use

SPECIFICATIONS

Type: Single payment | Works with: Windows and Mac | Smart-device app: Yes - iPad | HDR editing: Yes | 360 photo editing: Yes | Photo stitching: Yes | Cloud storage: None | Built-in organizer: Yes | Download size: 1.3GB

Reasons to Buy

Great HDR editing options
Very affordable
Good compatibility

Reasons to Avoid

Quite tricky to use

Affinity Photo is one of the lesser-known brands in photo editing, but it's also one of the best. You get an incredibly versatile editor with Affinity, and it near-rivals Photoshop for power and range of tools. The main downside is that it isn't as easy to use, and there are fewer tutorials, so it will take some learning before you're proficient.

What the users say

G2's users have Affinity Photo on a respectable 4.5 out of 5 overall score. Many users note that it's superb for photo editing and manipulation, but that it isn't as good for illustration projects. Some even rate it above the Adobe programs, which is high praise.

Affinity is designed to be used across devices, and works especially well for iPad and across the Apple ecosystem. While we really like the desktop version, it comes alive on a tablet or professional drawing surface. Many of the tools in Affinity are designed for full creative projects, so if you're looking for a simple photo enhancer this is perhaps overkill.

It comes at a good price too, at just over $50, so you're getting a lot of editor for your money. It claims to be the only photo editor that has a full 32-bit HDR working process, which is good if you're working with High Dynamic Range imagery and projects, and it has all the features you'd expect like layer working, 360 photo editing, and photo stitching.

Best Photo Editor for amateurs

Adobe Photoshop Elements is a basic version for lighter use

(Image credit: Adobe)

Adobe Photoshop Elements 2020

A more basic version of Photoshop, ideal for beginners

SPECIFICATIONS

Type: Single payment | Works with: Windows and Mac | Smart-device app: No | HDR editing: No | 360 photo editing: No | Photo stitching: Yes | Cloud storage: No | Built-in organizer: No | Download size: 6.5GB

Reasons to Buy

Clear workspaces for beginners
Good range of filters and tools

Reasons to Avoid

Expensive for what it is
Lacks some advanced features

Looking to get started in photo editing, and some basic graphic design? Photoshop Elements is a good starting point, as it offers a range of workspaces that will take you from pure beginner through to intermediate and advanced user. This is basically a stripped-back version of Photoshop CC, with a handful of the more advanced features missing, and a few more tools specifically targeted at a more casual audience.

What the users say

Photoshop Elements 2020 gets a 4.4 out of 5 from Amazon users, who lavish praise on the ease of use and the range of photo editing tools available. However, negative reviews note that it is a drain on system resources, and that there are problems downloading via Amazon. Again, going via Adobe is the way forward for this.

We like that you start out with the Basic workspace, and work up to Expert, which contains things like layers, transformation tools, and other features more advanced users will take advantage of. There are no vector tools as you'd find in other Adobe programs, but most beginners won't be using these anyway.

It comes with 130+ filters for photos, 55 guided tutorials, and a bunch of pre-made templates for photo books and other common design themes. It even has a bunch of text editing tools, and is capable of HDR editing and panorama creation. Good for a basic version of Photoshop, then, but because it's $100 at list price, we can't recommend it over other programs like CyberLink PhotoDirector and PaintShop Pro 2021 which offer more for less money.

Best Photo Editor for quick edits

Luminar AI

(Image credit: Luminar)

Luminar AI

A great tool for quick edits, but lacks depth as a standalone solution

SPECIFICATIONS

Type: Single payment | Works with: Windows and Mac | Smart-device app: No | HDR editing: Yes | 360 photo editing: No | Photo stitching: No | Cloud storage: None | Built-in organizer: No | Download size: 3.96MB

Reasons to Buy

Perfect for quick special effects
AI tools intriguing and helpful
Plenty of online documentation

Reasons to Avoid

Gimmicky
Best as a complement to other apps 

Luminar AI is a leftfield choice for the best photo editor. Its developer, Skylum, has been producing the Luminar series for a while - the main series is at version 4 - and has been gradually integrating AI-powered tools into it in the same way Adobe has been adding Sensei-backed tools, such as context-aware clears and fills - into Photoshop.

What the users say

Being a new release, there are only two user ratings on Apple's App Store so far, but they're both five-star. It's available there as a seven-day free trial, something not offered by the official store.

What sets Luminar AI apart, however, is that it inverts the usual balance. Instead of a traditional editor with AI additions, it’s an AI editor with traditional additions. Therefore, instead of worrying about Levels, Curves, and Saturation sliders, you’re faced with something rather more like an advanced version of Instagram - there are plenty of one-shot filters, which Luminar either calls Looks or Templates, that you can fiddle with to get the desired effect. The AI part comes from the way the app analyzes your images, identifying parts such as eyes for reshaping, and noisy areas for smoothing. There are a few traditional tools, such as cropping, but here the AI takes its place too, suggesting crops and ratios to show off your images to their best.

While Luminar AI is lots of fun, and is perfectly capable of producing eye-popping images on its own, it’s a bit gimmicky and better suited to a place in a multi-app image editing workflow.

Photo Editing Software buying advice

What computer should you use for editing?

Generally speaking, we recommend a more powerful computer for photo editing, as most of the programs you'll find require significant system resources. We have a list of the best laptops and best home computers if you're thinking of upgrading.

For us, it doesn't really matter whether you use a Mac or PC. Many design professionals use Mac but, honestly, it makes very little difference unless you're planning to continue your work on an iPad Pro. Even then, some services cater for a Windows / iPad hybrid use. 

In terms of specs, you need to be looking at an Intel 9th-gen or above core i7 or i9 as your CPU. Some software packages come with a CPU optimizer, but they still take a toll. You need to work from an SSD, and you really should be working with 16GB of RAM. Ideally, 32GB if you're doing serious graphic design work.

Look for monitors or laptop displays with Adobe RGB compatibility if you're planning to use Photoshop and Lightroom, and aim to have a 4K display if you can afford it. 

Why does file compatibility matter?

Most professional photographers prefer to work with RAW images since it gives them more control over brightness, color and overall image quality. PSD is another popular file type since it saves the individual layers of your photos so you can edit them at any time. If you plan on becoming a serious photo editor, it is best to learn to work with these files.

If you take a lot of photos and plan on editing them on a regular basis, it can really help you save time if you get a program that offers batch processing. For example, if you wanted all of your photos to be a little brighter, you can use batch processing to quickly brighten all of the photos you select instead of taking the time to do it individually. This feature is commonly found in the photo organizing section of photo editing software.

General tips on photography and editing

One of the most crucial parts of editing is taking a good picture to begin with. You’ll save hours of work if you learn to set up your camera and lighting correctly from the start.

- To capture better details, get as close as you can to your subject while still keeping it in focus.

- Try not to work in direct sunlight, as the harsh cast shadows can be very distracting. This is why many photographers prefer to shoot on cloudy days or during the golden hours – just after sunrise and just before sunset when the light isn’t as harsh.

- If you must work in direct sunlight, try to counterbalance the sun's harshness with diffuser or reflector panels, the camera flash, light boxes, and shade.

- Learn how to use shutter speeds. To capture crisp details in fast-moving subjects, such as wildlife, you need a shutter speed of over 1/500th of a second.

- Engaging landscape photography often has a foreground, middle ground and background. Try to incorporate all three when taking a shot.

- When taking portraits, try to help your subjects loosen up. You’re more likely to capture genuine expressions and body language this way.

- Practice, practice, practice. If you want to get better, get out there and learn. Experiment with aperture sizes and learn which lenses and settings you like best.

- If you make too many edits, your image may look less organic, amateurish or downright bad. Be conservative with your edits – as the saying goes, “less is more.”

- Keep a copy of the original image in case you don’t like your edits. Before finalizing a photo, focus on something else for 10 minutes and then come back to it. Your fresh eyes will be able to tell if the image looks good or if it needs tweaking.

- Learn from the pros. Many photographers offer tips on YouTube or their websites. Ask questions and learn as much as you can.

- Pace yourself. Photography equipment and editing software are expensive, so you’ll likely have to acquire everything bit by bit.

Photo Editor glossary

  • AI processing/driven: Where the software uses processing power and cloud learning to predict how to edit or enhance your image for you
  • Bleed: Where the image goes beyond the area that will be trimmed, printed, or framed
  • Blending: The ability to merge sets of photos together, picking elements of each
  • Clone: Where you use one area of an image to populate another
  • Crop: Remove a part of an image
  • Defringe: Remove fuzzy lines on objects, to make an image sharper
  • Dehaze: Remove fog or hazy background to make an image clearer
  • Dispersion/diffusion: The ability to pixelate or break up the edge of an image
  • Export: To move or save a file to a different format or program
  • HDR: High Dynamic Range, a technique used to increase luminosity and color beyond standard images.
  • Layers: The ability to stack parts of an image, and edit them separately
  • RAW: A photo format that captures all the data from your camera's sensor
  • Stitching: Adding photos together to create a larger scene
  • Transform: To manipulate and change the dimensions or shape of an image
  • Workspace: A specific layout for the tools and features of your chosen software

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