Choosing the right photo editing software can seem a bit daunting. There is a wide array of options out there, but which do you choose? Let’s take look at some of the points to thinks of before making a decision about what photo-editing software to choose.

1. Check the Tech Requirements

Make sure your computer has the necessary power and ability to run your image editor. Photoshop and Lightroom among others are very memory intensive and can grind an underpowered computer to a complete halt. Also, check that your graphics card can handle your image editor’s requirements. Check the minimum specifications required for an image editor before you buy or download.

2. Estimate Your Budget

How much are you willing to spend? There are basically three options to suit all budgets: free, mid-range and high-priced photo editing software. You cannot expect a free photo editor to have all the features of priced ones, but it depends on what you want to use it for.

Some editors have two different versions – the free or cheap one, and an upgrade which you pay for. The upgrades have more features, but you should consider whether it’s worth it for you to upgrade first.

  • Free Photo Editing Software

There are free photo editors out there in abundance, and some of them are online based, so you don’t have to download and run on your computer. However, free image editors are often very basic in the tools they offer. A lot of them don’t use layers, so any editing you do is destructive – it makes the changes on the original image instead of on a separate layer.

Some of the free editors also have restrictions which can be removed with additional payment. A few of the free editors will only let you export your files at a low resolution unless you buy an upgrade. While this may be fine if you are just wanting photos to put on social media, it won’t do if you want to make decent prints.

Some will only run on Windows platforms, so be sure to check the program is compatible before you download.

If you decide to go with free photo editor for the start, check out a whole list of them. Also, here you can find the comparison of online photo editors.

Still, a couple of the free editing programs deserve a mention, as they stand out from the crowd.

GIMP: GIMP has been around for a long time, but don’t let that fool you – it’s still a very powerful image editor. It has a lot of the things you may need, including healing brushes, curves, levels and selection tools.

Complete beginners with photo editing may find GIMP quite hard to get used to at first, as it has a steep learning curve!

Paint.NET: This is a good choice for those who want a basic photo editor that is easy to use. It’s not as powerful as GIMP, but if your computer is somewhat underpowered, Paint.NET is a great choice that won’t suck up all your available memory.

  • Mid-Priced Photo Editing Software

Mid-priced photo editing software will give you a lot more than the free versions. They aimed at hobbyists wanting to improve their photos for social media but has the tools pro photographers are looking for too. Usually, you can expect non-destructive editing, and some professional photo retouching tools such as selections, layer masks, and brushes. Some of them, like Luminar, also has different workspaces for specific types of images, such as black and white, portrait and landscape, with a set of tools that are handy for each type.

In general, they are a good place for a beginner to start, as some of them are very user-friendly, and more intermediate users will still find them powerful enough for their needs.

Here are a few of the mid-priced editors out there: Serif Affinity Photo, Photoshop Elements,  Corel Paintshop Pro – there is a dozen. Here is a useful comparison of some of them.

  • High-Priced Photo Editing Software

There aren’t many top-end photo editors out there, probably because Photoshop and Lightroom are very hard to beat for professional results. With high-priced software, you get more professional tools and features than mid-priced and free ones, but you have to consider whether you will use it enough to justify the cost.

For example, Phase One Capture One Pro, which the majority of commercial photographers use for shooting tethered to a PC or laptop has a price of around $299 plus VAT. It probably isn’t going to be a choice for beginner photographers, but for those who are serious or are professionals, it’s maybe a worthwhile investment.

The most popular combo of image editors out there, Adobe Photoshop/Lightroom CC Bundle is only available on monthly subscription for $9.99 (There was a big storm of controversy when Adobe announced that the pro versions of Lightroom and Photoshop would now only be available via subscription. The monthly price isn’t worth it for casual users, but for pro photographers it is invaluable.

3. What Are You Going to Use Your Software For?

What features of editing software are important to you? Do you mainly shoot landscapes, people, street photos? Some editors have presets and filter especially for different types of images, and Luminar has specific workspaces dedicated to them.

If you shoot portraits you’ll need a powerful editor that has retouching capabilities for skin such as Photoshop. GIMP is also worth a look if you’re on a restricted budget.

Photoshop, Capture One, and GIMP probably aren’t your best choice for simple photo editing for social media or the family album.

If you are serious about printing high-quality images, then Photoshop and Lightroom are the software with the capabilities you need.

4. Does The Software Support Plugins?

Third-party plugins are useful additions to have. You can get specific plugins for different jobs that are often far better at that job than the host program, that is why editor’s ability to support plugins is important. There are a lot of different plugins available: for selecting and masking areas of your images, for digital noise removal, for creative effects, for black and white editing etc.

Some editors actually work as plugins to Photoshop or Lightroom. Luminar, Alien Skin and Nik’s Effects editors are among them.

5. How Easy is it to Use?

You don’t want to spend money on an image editor just to find it too hard do anything with. Generally, the more powerful and feature-rich editors are going to take more time to master than the simpler ones. There are plenty of tutorials on the internet about image editing, so it’s not too hard to find help and inspiration.

6. Does it Support RAW Conversion?

If you have a DSLR and you shoot only in JPEG, I would advise using RAW format instead. When you shoot JPEG, your camera only captures a fraction of the image data available, because it has to compress it to the small-sized JPEG. It also applies its own sharpening, saturation and contrast adjustments to the image.

The raw file format is uncompressed, and the camera does not apply alterations to it. It has the edge over JPEG because all of the colors and tones are captured in it. However, you cannot open a RAW file on your computer the way you can with a JPEG. To see them, you need a RAW converter.

Lightroom is an image editor and RAW converter, while Photoshop needs Adobe Camera RAW to convert the images to TIFF files, so it can read them. Not all photo editing software is created equal in this respect! It’s worth checking on the website if it will support RAW files before you buy/download. Some of the free ones don’t.

Some editors have a built-in RAW converter. Some, like GIMP and Paint.NET, need a separate plugin to be able to convert RAW files.

7. Try Before You Buy

A lot of the photo editing software companies allow you free trials of their products, which is a useful way to see if it’s suitable for your needs before you commit to buying them. The length of time the free trials last does vary, so it’s worth doing some research on it.

Of course, if you get a free image editor, you have nothing to lose!

8. Important Tip: Calibrate Your Monitor

To get the best out of your images, you really need to make sure your monitor is showing true color and brightness, or your photos may look radically different when you view them on another screen.

The most thorough way to calibrate is by using a screen calibration device, which checks your screen and applies adjustments to optimize the colors, contrasts etc.

They can be quite expensive to buy, but they are a worthwhile investment if you are serious about your photography.

If you don’t use a calibrator, try to adjust the controls on your monitor so that all the important things like brightness, color, contrast etc are all within normal levels.

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