Best Photo Editing Software App – 23 Free & Paid Options for MAC & PC
If you’re a photographer looking for the best photo editing software, you’re not the only one.
After all, taking pictures is only half the battle – whether you’re shooting on your phone or the latest mirrorless camera, we all need to edit our photos to make them look amazing.
In the right hands, the best photo editing software can take a dull image to something that can amaze your friends, or even win an award.
In the past, photographers used a dark room to ‘push and pull’ their film as a way to reveal every shadow and highlight, to create their final masterpiece.
Nowadays, with digital, the process is replaced with photo editing software, and there are plenty of options for Mac and PC to choose from.
This is a guide to the best photo editing software in 2021 for photographers of all levels.
(Use the table of contents below to skip straight to your chosen product review.)
Table of Contents
Best Photo Editors & Image Tools in 2021
|Adobe Lightroom||View Price →|
|Skylum Luminar 4||View Price →|
|Exposure X6||View Price →|
|Capture One Pro||View Price →|
|ON1 Photo RAW||View Price →|
|DxO Photolab||View Price →|
|Adobe Photoshop||View Price →|
|Luminar AI||View Price →|
|Paintshop Pro||View Price →|
|Affinity Photo||View Price →|
|ACD See Photo Studio||View Price →|
Best Photo Editing Software for Mac and PC
1. Adobe Lightroom Classic
Despite its rather confusing naming convention, Adobe Lightroom Classic is still our number pick as the best photo editing software here in 2021.
Even with all the competition out there, no one’s been able to match its organisation and photo editing tools, which remain the benchmark for most other photo editing programs.
If you’re a photographer with a high-volume workflow, Lightroom’s ability to batch edit and set import/export presets really can’t be beaten.
For those of us who use metadata (stock photographers, bloggers, website designers, etc.), Lightroom’s options are hard to match, including being able to set import presets – a huge time saver.
This focus on metadata also allows for incredibly useful image search features – you can search by just about anything, including lens type, camera type, and location.
Another star feature of Lightroom Classic is the ability to seamlessly edit in other programs (both Adobe and third party), and then return to Lightroom to finalise the image.
Need to dip into Photoshop for some intensive editing? No problem. Want to add in a new sky using Luminar? Easy!
While other programs offer plugin support, many often just send you out to the other program, offering no easy way back.
Most photographers rely on ‘Presets’ to edit their images – the ability to apply a ‘look’ to a series of photos with one click is a big time-saver, and benefits editing consistency.
Many Lightroom presets are available for free, (with some great ones included in the software), and many other paid presets are downloadable from various industry sites.
A new feature called ‘Profiles’ brings further editing efficiency to the process, with the Profile Browser providing a quick and easy way to sample the various styles.
Other top-of-the-line features include profile-based lens corrections, a powerful dehaze tool, a Healing Brush that works as well as Photoshop’s, and noise and chromatic aberration adjustments.
There’s also HDR and panorama integration, face recognition, optional cloud storage, and a mobile app.
In fact, Lightroom Classic’s integration with ‘Lightroom’, (formerly known as ‘Lightroom CC’ – I told you the names were confusing!), is another top drawcard for this impressive photo editing software.
By subscribing to one of the Creative Cloud Photography Plans, users benefit from a regular desktop-focused workflow with Lr Classic, as well as a cloud-based mobile workflow with Lightroom and its free mobile app.
Being able to start editing a photo in Lightroom on your computer, then continue on a tablet or mobile phone, (with everything backed up to the cloud), is a revolutionary workflow which justifies an Adobe subscription, whether for professional or amateur photographers.
With recent updates to the Lightroom Mobile app, users can even import images directly to their tablet or phone, right from their camera’s memory card, to edit, organise and share them immediately.
The Lightroom app also features a built-in camera, which benefits anyone who uses their phone to take photos. Every image is immediately backed up to the cloud, meaning you can cancel any additional iCloud/Google Drive subscriptions.
Any edit you make on a mobile device will be waiting for you when you return to your computer, with everything kept in perfect sync – this is the future of image editing!
Also included with Lightroom is Adobe Photoshop, a powerful photo editor for more intensive photo manipulation.
As mentioned previously, Photoshop works seamlessly with Lightroom, and also features an excellent iOS and Android tablet app, perfect for those wanting to edit a photo on the go.
There are several plans to choose from (learn how to buy Lightroom here), but the fact remains – Adobe’s move to a subscription model upset many photographers, hence the various alternatives that popped up.
While affordable, the plan tethers you to monthly or yearly payments, which may not suit everyone.
However, the combination of Photoshop and Lightroom as part of the Creative Cloud plan is unbeatable, especially if you consider the enormous benefits of a truly mobile workflow.
2. Skylum Luminar 4
When Lightroom went to a subscription model, a race ensued to provide the best alternative – Skylum Luminar 4 emerged as one of the top contenders as best photo editing software.
Luminar 4 has something for every level of photographers: filters and one-click editing for beginners, and a suite of powerful photo editing tools and special effects for professionals or those ready to experiment.
The enormous popularity of Luminar 4 is due to 2 main factors:
First, the price – a one-off payment of less than $100 is hugely attractive, when compared to the other best image editing software available in 2021.
Secondly, Luminar 4 features artificial intelligence-powered tools that simply aren’t available elsewhere.
Being able to do things like replacing the entire sky of a photo, whilst relighting elements to keep everything looking realistic, is frankly mind-blowing.
This kind of manipulation was previously only the realm of professional retouchers. Still, with Luminar 4, anyone can perform similar edits in just one click of the mouse – check the video below to me replace the sky behind a complicated mess of girders on the Eiffel Tower in a couple of seconds.
As a regular photo editor, Luminar 4 offers most of the same adjustment options as Lightroom, but its strong focus on AI-based auto-correction tools sets it apart for those who want the software to do all the work.
If you’re a preset lover, Luminar 4 has some excellent options – both free and commercial. They tend to be a bit heavy-handed (as do some of the editing sliders) but back them way off and you can come up with some great looks.
Luminar 4 also offers some impressive special effects, many of which are hard to find or create elsewhere. Like the presets they can come on strong, but used judiciously they provide exceptional photo enhancement.
A key benefit of Luminar 4 is that it’s available as a stand-alone editor, as well as a plugin for Lightroom/ Photoshop/Apple Photos, providing a seamless workflow experience which takes advantage of each software’s strong points.
If you’re already established in the Adobe ecosystem, but want the unique effects and AI tools of Luminar 4, the plugin provides fast and efficient access, right from within the Lightroom editing screen.
(It’s also relatively inexpensive when compared to other high-quality Lightroom plugins).
Like Photoshop, Luminar 4 has layers and blending modes, though the selection devices aren’t the same calibre. Still, it creates a level of usability that would typically require both Photoshop and Lightroom.
As for the editing experience, all the various tools are organised into just six tabs which run down the side of the edit pane: Layers, Canvas, Essentials, Creative, Portrait and Pro.
Each tool panel appears when clicked, and disappears when the next panel is clicked, which keeps the workspace uncluttered.
Tools are labelled based on their result, as opposed to the process – i.e. AI Sky Replacement; Sunrays; Matte Look, etc. This makes Luminar 4 simple to pick up, which still offering all the core editing functions necessary for more nuanced edits.
Golden Hour warms things up, and SunRays allows you to place a realistic sun behind your scene, with the rays ‘wrapping around’ anything in the foreground – a sight that’s quite mesmerising.
The AI Skin Enhancer does precisely that, with the AI Portrait Enhancer helping to make people photos look magazine-cover ready.
Then there’s AI Structure which is similar to Lightroom’s Clarity/Sharpen/Texture tools; all rolled into one.
With all the power of each tool, application is ridiculously simple – just click to apply, and Luminar 4 decides the best value for you. Then its a case of tweaking till you reach your desired outcome, but more often than not, the AI gets it right first time.
The places where Luminar 4 still trails behind Lightroom are in its limited import or export options and lack of keywording or metadata options. The image search capacities are also quite limited.
Also, Luminar 4 for Windows still lags considerably behind the Mac version. Its digital asset manager (DAM) also leaves much to be desired, not offering much in the way of image search.
Ultimately Lightroom Classic offers better performance, workflow and output options, particularly for professional photographers.
However, given its unique AI adjustment tools, ease of use for all levels of photographer, and the fact that you can use it as a standalone program or a Photoshop/Lightroom plug-in, Luminar 4 is a superb investment.
There’s also a strong community of support, including numerous forums, Facebook groups, and online tutorials.
Skylum is invested in providing the simplest photo editing solution to users of all standards, and it’s great to see such innovation in Luminar 4.
3. Exposure X6
If you’re looking for an affordable RAW photo editing program with all the core functionality of Lightroom plus a few useful extras, Exposure X6 should definitely be in your sights.
Functioning as a standalone photo editor as well as a plugin for Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom, X6 has been a recent favourite of wedding photographers seeking to manage and edit large volumes of images.
While Luminar 4 falls short in the Digital Asset Management stakes, Exposure X6 has bulk image editing and management performance that rivals the best photo editing software available this year.
Featuring all the core editing features to adjust colour palette, tonal values, composition and more, X6 brings a simple and intuitive workflow to all levels of photographer.
The workspace of Exposure X6 will be familiar for those coming from Lightroom, with panels neatly and logically arranged, and a similar tool naming convention.
However, while Lightroom forces users to hop between various ‘modules’ to edit, organise and share photos, Exposure X6 features just one screen, which vastly improves the entire image handling experience.
An additional benefit over other photo editing software is the ability to fully customise the workspace panels and tools to suit your needs.
The ‘Overlays’ feature is similar to a Photoshop layer, allowing users to add various effects and textures to images, such as a light flare or scratch marks and dust for a film look.
Speaking of film, the number of presets available in Exposure X6 is impressive, with numerous options to replicate popular film stock, as well as others for distinct looks and styles.
For those already ingrained in a Lightroom workflow, the migration process is thankfully straightforward, with all edits and metadata being transferred to your new X6 library.
Importing images can be performed in several ways, with the most straightforward being to simply drag and drop them on the main workspace, be it from your computer’s internal storage or external hard drive.
Refreshingly, files aren’t copied or moved from these locations (as they can be with Lightroom), but simply referenced for access via Exposure X6.
Another great feature is the ability to collaborate on images via a cloud-based service such as Dropbox. For the average user, this could mean editing on multiple computers, and for the pro, editing via a team or studio.
You can check our review of Exposure X6 for a deeper dive into whether this is the best photo editing software for you, or just click the button above to download a free trial.
For those who decide to purchase outright, there’s a one-off payment of less than $120 – great value for money, and not a subscription fee in sight ;-)
4. Capture One Pro 21
Known for its exceptional Raw conversion, fantastic color adjustment options, and exceptional tethered capture features, Capture One Pro has long been the professional photographer’s choice.
This most current update adds in several much-needed features, including Heal Brush, Clone Brush, Before / After tool, layers and even a Lightroom importer.
As expected, Capture One Pro has many of the same features as Lightroom, some of which are more refined – the colour adjustments, noise reduction, and sharpening features in particular.
However, the photo organisation options, while acceptable, still lag behind Lightroom.
Like Lightroom Classic, Capture One Pro uses a catalogue system, giving you the automatic backup options missing in On1 and Luminar.
This can make a bit of a learning curve for getting started, but once you get used to it, you’ll have more versatility than with programs that use your hard drive’s folder structure.
All the editings tools sit in a singular interface, which allows users to toggle through buttons to change functions.
Everything is fully customisable, which is quite overwhelming at first, but soon becomes an intuitive way to produce a more efficient workflow assigned perfectly to your needs.
The ability to have various tool panels ‘hover’ over the main image viewing area is a neat touch, allowing you to drag and drop items wherever you like, making the most of cramped laptop monitors.
Users transitioning from Lightroom can set up their Capture One workspace to mimic it almost exactly. You can even assign the same keyboard shortcuts, to make the migration a lot less painful.
As far as the selection of adjustment tools is concerned, Capture One excels – there’s a macro and micro adjustment for everything any photographer could ever need.
Autocorrect options can be powerful when used judiciously, and the masks and layers tools are almost as powerful as those found in Photoshop.
Using layers allows you to make targeted adjustments to your photos, while still having access to the majority of main image editing tools – not just the ones that apply to the tool you’re using. This allows a much finer level of control during photo manipulation.
One place that Capture One really shines is in its superior RAW conversion – images have noticeably more detail and dynamic range than other photo editing software, right from the intial import.
Other features that make this an exceptional piece of software include the ability to insert annotations, best-in-class tethered camera options, and the fact that it tends to be faster and more stable than Lightroom.
Performance is generally fast and smooth – launching the software for the first time initiates a ‘hardware acceleration’ process, which uses OpenCL/GPU to dedicate memory to things like Previews, sorting, rating, and processing.
You do need a relatively powerful computer to run Capture One Pro smoothly, with at least 8GB of RAM, 10GB of free disk space and an Intel Core i3 (Mac) or Intel or AMD CPU with two cores (Windows), minimum.
The only real strikes against it are the fact that there’s no HDR or panorama options, the steep learning curve, limited plugin support compared to other software, and the price.
The full-fledged version retails at close to $300. There’s also a subscription option at $20/month ($15/month if you prepay for a year) – considerably more expensive than Adobe’s Creative Cloud Photography Plans.
If you’re a Sony or Fujifilm camera user, you can buy the software for around $130, or use a paired-down free version that’s understandably limited.
If you want to give it a try, there’s a free fully functioning 30-day trial available.
5. ON1 Photo RAW 2021
On1 is another company that jumped into the Lightroom-alternative melee. Originally known for its special effects and amazing Portrait plugin, it’s since become a full-fledged piece of RAW photo editing software.
Offered as both a standalone program and a Lightroom/Photoshop/Apple Photos plugin, the newest edition of ON1 Photo Raw 2021 now includes various AI-powered features that make image editing much more powerful.
The newest features include AI Match and AI Auto, Effects (Weather, Sun Flare, Color Balance and Channel Mixer), improved decoding of RAW files (especially for Fujifilm), custom camera profiles with X-Rite, SmugMug integration, improved noise reduction, a map view, a Print Module, speed/performance enhancements, and more.
On1 Photo RAW‘s performance is snappy, especially start up time, which is noticeably quicker than the other photo editing software we tested.
ON1’s Digital Asset Management (DAM) is similar to Luminar but provides keyword, metadata, and advanced search options.
In our review, we noted that the ON1 Photo Raw interface looks very similar to Lightroom’s. Most of the adjustment sliders have the same names, the placement of the editing tools is very similar, and many of the keyboard shortcuts are the same.
Luminar 4’s interface is much sleeker and easier to learn, but the latest version of ON1 Photo Raw made a lot of improvements and now works seamlessly.
Like Photoshop and Luminar, ON1 Photo Raw has layers, blending modes, and masking. The masking options in On1 are superior to Luminar’s, with an AI masking feature and “refine edge” included.
Other features include full integration with Apple Photos, the ability to add text to an image, HDR, panorama photo merging, and the ability to migrate your Lightroom catalogue over to On1’s DAM.
The new Timeline Albums feature provides a simple and efficient way to organise photos automatically, with the software organising files by year, month and day, much like in the iPhone photos app.
In an attempt to keep pace with the various cloud-based image editing workflows on offer by other products, ON1 360 in conjunction with On1 Photo Mobile allows users to view, organise, edit and share photos between computers and mobile devices.
Also new for 2021, Map View allows you to explore where your photos were taken and add location metadata to images that don’t already include embedded GPS.
There are presets aplenty in On1, with over 100 new and trending looks and styles curated from recent photographic trends.
The Effects filters are a fun feature, allowing users to experiment with colour balance, weather, channels and even sun flare – although the latter is not as intuitive as Luminar’s AI version.
ON1 Photo Raw also works well on Windows if you have a computer with at least 4GB RAM (8GB when used as a Photoshop plugin), and 1.5 GB disk space for installation.
If you’re a portrait photographer, you’ll love On1’s legacy portrait plug-in. It provides genuinely excellent skin retouching, eye and mouth controls, and even an automatic face finder that creates a separate mask and adjustment panel for each face.
All of this makes it a cinch to add detail to eyes, whiten teeth, accentuate lips, and improve skin. Many photographers consider the program worth it for the Portrait editing plugin alone.
Instant previews of all editing effects is also a nice touch, allowing users to dial in every setting to taste – there’s a great preview on their sales page here, if you’d like to try yourself before downloading.
At just around $100 for a one-time purchase, you’ll often find ON1 Photo RAW on sale – click the button below to see the latest offer.
6. DxO Photolab 4
Best known for its exceptional RAW conversion, noise reduction and sharpening tools, PhotoLab has long been an add-on of choice for many photographers – it does things that other programs simply can’t match.
With the inclusion of a DAM in this newest version of DxO PhotoLab 4 (review), you can now edit photos from start to finish without using any other software.
Like On1 and Luminar, DxO PhotoLab 4 conveniently uses your computer’s hard drive and existing folder hierarchy for its DAM, in contrast to Lightroom, which uses a confusing catalogue structure.
Once your images have been imported into DxO, you can make use of its advanced rating system, add keywords, and/or search for your other files as you see fit.
As a RAW image converter, DxO is hard to beat. Its automatic lens and camera-calibrated corrections manage to achieve results that are a couple of steps above other image editing software – Capture One Pro is the only other photo editor that comes close.
Signature tools include DeepPrime for noise-reduction, a Smart Lighting Module, an excellent dehaze tool, the best noise reduction on the market, and Nik’s U-Point local selection technology for spectacularly precise local adjustments.
Other features include tons of presets, customisable workspaces, virtual copies, and excellent metadata and keyword options.
For those who shoot architecture, the keystone corrections in DxO are essential. Portrait and landscape photographers will love the auto-micro contrast, ClearView (for brightening the horizon), and various spot-metering tools.
Where the latest update to DxO PhotoLab 4 shines is in its completely redesigned approach to managing colour, with a new HSL (Hue, Saturation, and Luminance) Tool which can help you produce more creative and natural-looking images. There’s also a neat watermarking preview feature and a completely customisable workspace.
The DxO ColorWheel is a new colour adjustment tool that you can use to select colour ranges from eight separate channels, fine-tune values, select replacements, and adjust transitions and tints creative effects.
The Uniformity Slider helps standardise colour variations within a specific range, while the Saturation and Luminance Sliders now work independently of each other, allowing users to convert photos to black and white without the use of complex masks.
Render matching is another useful feature, which allows you to match the rendering of over 60 cameras, meaning your RAWs can look more like the JPEG previews shown on the back of your camera screen.
PhotoLab 4 doesn’t have HDR merging or panorama stitching, but that might come in the next update. The workflow module could also use a bit more work, but overall this is one excellent piece of software.
Offered as both a plugin and a standalone program, DxO PhotoLab 4 comes at two pricing levels: Essential ($129) and Elite ($199). Essential comes with all the standard features, but if you want to make use of DxO’s excellent noise reduction, dehaze tools, multiple exports and the ability to customise your workspace, you’ll need the Elite version.
Runs on Windows 7, 8, and 10, as well as on Mac OS X – click the button below to learn more about system requirements and see the latest offers.
7. Adobe Photoshop 2021
Anyone who knows anything about photo editing and graphic design will have used one of various the Adobe Photoshop versions. Now with Photoshop 2020, has evolved into much more than its humble beginnings.
Photoshop is defined as a ‘raster graphics editor’ developed by Adobe for Windows and macOS. It was created in 1988 by Thomas and John Knoll and has become the industry standard for all the various facets of digital art.
Photoshop is also used for image editing, manipulation and retouching, and offers similar tools to any other software in this realm, but to the nth degree – there are often several ways for performing the same function in Photoshop, be it changing a background colour, cloning elements, frequency separation, or any of the myriad other photo editing tasks.
Then there are the special effects and healing tools that only Photoshop can accomplish – AI-assisted tools like content-aware scale and fill often leave me with my jaw on the floor. Being able to recreate a scene that doesn’t already digitally exist is a powerful feature for photographers – see my example video below.
Other newer features that aid photographers, in particular, include improved subject auto-selection (helps with background removal), an improved lens blur tool, customisable warp functions, new preset panels, and an advanced Adobe Camera RAW integration.
With the latest 2021 update, Adobe Sensei bring AI to the new Neural Filters and Sky Replacement features – the Smart Portrait mode offers one-click image manipulation as you’ve never seen before, changing subjects’ expressions, gaze direction and even age!
In addition to making AI-powered adjustments to portraits, Neural Filters also includes features to help repair damaged images, including Photo Restoration, Dust and Scratches, Noise Reduction, Face Cleanup, JPEG Artifacts Restoration and even a way to colourise a black and white image.
While Adobe Camera RAW is excellent for adjusting exposure, contrast, highlights, shadows and all the other various image editing tweaks, it can only work on one image at a time, with edits stored as separate XMP sidecar files.
Similarly, Photoshop isn’t designed to browse or batch-edit multiple images at once – it is possible with the file viewer and actions, but at its core, Photoshop is a graphics design tool, and no match for Lightroom when it comes to organising and editing photos.
Fortunately, Photoshop is included with Lightroom in the various Adobe Creative Cloud Photography Plans, making it a handy addition for editing tasks that simply aren’t possible in Lr.
Getting images from Lr to Ps and back again is a cinch, with PSD files retaining all the editing history (and layers) of any work performed in Photoshop.
Then there’s the Photoshop iPad app, allowing you to take your edits on the road, syncing your progress from desktop to mobile device. Paired with an iPad Pro and stylus, it offers a fun and powerful (if not slightly overwhelming) experience and is 100% free, whether you are an Adobe subscriber or not.
(You only need to pay monthly if you want to use the desktop version, and/or store your edited files in the Adobe cloud.)
The only big caveat of Photoshop is its steep learning curve. Tools and features are hidden away, and it’s challenging to dive right in without first consulting Google for a tutorial. That’s why so many alternatives have popped up, offering a vastly simplified UI, such as Inpixo Photo Studio.
That said, anyone who manages to tame the beast is many rungs ahead of even the most adept Lightroom user, with Photoshop giving access to an unlimited world of image manipulation and creative potential.
8. Luminar AI
I’ll keep this write up short as you can read all my thoughts about Luminar AI in the full review, but suffice to say, it’s a truly impressive piece of software.
Functioning more like a smartphone app than a desktop image editor, Luminar AI is one of the most simple pieces of editing software I’ve ever used, making it perfect for beginners.
There’s virtually no learning curve – you just import your image and the artificial intelligence-powered ‘Templates’ suggest the starting point for the edits, all dependent on the contents of the photo.
From there, you can make further AI-powered edits, or take full control with any of the regular tools – there’s even a masking option if you want to add or remove an effect.
The actual AI features are incredibly powerful, but also a cinch to implement – performing complex edits like slimming a subject’s torsos, changing eye colour or even adding fog to a landscape, are all just a mouse click away.
It certainly feels a lot like cheating! Luminar AI will appeal to anyone who’s more interested in the final result than in the process. It’s perfect for anyone who doesn’t know the first thing about editing a photo and can allow complete novices to perform professional retouching in seconds.
What it lacks, however, are all the DAM features for pros, as well as intricate export options, layer-based editing and any kind of keywording – for those, you’ll need either need to use the Plugin, or opt for Luminar 4.
9. Corel Paintshop Pro 2021
If you’re looking for an alternative to Photoshop that doesn’t feature a subscription fee, here’s your answer: Corel Paintshop Pro 2021 (yes, it’s already a year ahead of us!)
I have a graphic designer friend who remembers starting his studies with an outdated version of Paintshop Pro many moons ago – he was startled at just how far this impressive photo editing software has come along.
Now boasting numerous powerful AI-Powered tools that go well beyond free Photoshop alternatives, PsP has become a fully-featured graphics manipulation tool that provides excellent value for money.
AI Upsampling is an incredibly useful feature for those of us with lower megapixel cameras, or for when we’ve cropped in on an image and require it larger, without degrading quality.
Then there’s AI Artifact Removal, which does a fine job at restoring fine detail and original colours in JPEGs, and AI Denoise which helps clean up images shot at high ISO.
The Sea-to-Sky™ tool is a somewhat unusual addition but allows drone and underwater photographers access to a one-click solution for enhanced contrast and clarity.
AI Style Transfer is a fun tool that transforms photos into stylised artwork, much like the popular smartphone apps and Instagram filters.
For photographers and fans of HDR, the new HDR Studio offers a great way to get that unique look with AI-powered presets.
You can preview, organise, and streamline your photo editing workflow in the Manage workspace, which also allows you to add keyword tags to your photos, create catalogues, make batch edits to multiple images at once, and review metadata and file information.
If you need to extend its capabilities, Paintshop Pro supports various 64-bit plugins from Adobe, Topaz Labs, Nik Collection by DXO and many more. You can even import and export PSD files to work across platforms.
Aside from all the photographer-specific tools, Paintshop Pro 3 remains a graphic design software, with all the brushes, colour palettes, gradients, patterns and manipulation tools you’d expect.
Much like Photoshop, the workspace is not immediately intuitive, and with various customisation options available, there’s a steep learning curve to get going. There’s also no mobile app.
However, as a one-off payment for both the Ultimate and Pro editions, PaintShop Pro is a fantastic option that represents a unique amalgamation of Lightroom and Photoshop in one.
10. Affinity Photo
If you’re looking for a pro photo editor that combines the photography tools of Lightroom with the nuanced controls of Photoshop, Affinity Photo is an excellent choice.
Unlike the other photo editing software on this list, Affinity Photo takes more after Photoshop than Lightroom. It comes with layers, masks, smart objects, colour management, and both CMYK and RGB editing, as well as decent Raw file conversion.
That being said, Affinity Photo’s primary focus is photography, so it lacks a few of Photoshop’s extra features (like 3D editing).
Other than this, Affinity Pro’s main difference with Photoshop is how the tools are organised. It uses “personas” instead of workspaces and that might take a little getting used to for folks used to Photoshop.
As far as the learning curve is concerned, much like Photoshop, the tools in Affinity Photo are quite in-depth and will take some time to explore and learn. Luckily the interface is quite logical, and if you’ve used Photoshop before the tools will make sense.
In fact, it’s the learning curve and lack of quality tutorials that provide the most significant barriers to new photo editors. Affinity Photo is a pretty deep program and could use more high-quality educational resources.
Still, if you’re looking for a single piece of photo editing software that can replace the Lightroom/Photoshop subscription, Affinity Photo is pretty much your best bet.
From focus stacking and panorama stitching to HDR merging and digital painting, it has just about everything you could want in a photo editor.
What’s more, at less than $50 Affinity is an absolutely amazing deal.
11. ACD See Photo Studio
Although lesser known than some of the other software on this list, ACD See Photo Studio has long been a mainstay for photographers looking for a Lightroom alternative.
It comes with a full suite of photo editing tools, a lightning-fast digital asset management system, and several secondary tools (facial recognition, skin smoothing, and blended cloning), that make this program a joy to use.
One of the most significant advantages of ACD See Photo Studio is just how fast it is. Where Lightroom can often be sluggish, Photo Studio uses a GPU-accelerated engine and claims to be the “fastest digital asset management software you can find.” The layers engine and adjustments are also blazing fast.
Another compelling feature of Photo Studio is its Advanced Light EQ tool, which allows you to make local adjustments to the lighting in your image without affecting the entire photo.
As mentioned before, the layers engine is exceptionally fast and includes most of the masking, blending, text, and layer effects of Photoshop. Other features include cloud syncing, colour grading, batch processing, and advanced keyword management.
Both the Ultimate and Pro versions have HDR, focus stacking, and importable keyword lists, as well as Light EQ. There’s even a mobile app that allows you to send photos and videos directly from your mobile device to Photo Studio.
If you’re a Windows user, we recommend the Ultimate version, which provides the all-important layers feature, allowing multiple non-destructive edits to your photos.
For cloud storage, you can buy a subscription plan for under $90 per year, which will give you all of ACD See’s top products (including a video editor), up to five users (Mac or Windows), 50 GB of cloud storage, and the ability to showcase your work via ACDSee Web galleries.
The broad range of ACD See products can be somewhat confusing, and it’s not immediately apparent which features are available to which operating system.
To clarify, the Mac product (aka ‘Version 6’) can correct exposure, clarity, sharpness, lighting, colour, noise and details, among other essential photo correction tools. However, it lacks most of the other editing features found in Pro and Ultimate, which are Windows-only products.
The Mac version is marketed more like a digital asset manager, and not a fully tooled editing suite, and is also included as part of a ‘Home Pack’.
With all it has to offer, it’s a wonder that ACD See’s Photo Studio isn’t a program with more name recognition.
It trails behind Lightroom in its user interface and the quality of its RAW conversion and lens corrections, but given that you can buy it outright with some excellent features, it’s definitely worth a try.
12. Zoner Photo Studio X
While every man and his dog has heard of Adobe, the name ‘Zoner’ isn’t nearly as familiar, despite being a producer of photo editing software for almost the same amount of time.
Zoner Studio X is a Windows-only full photo workflow and image editing program with a monthly subscription fee that’s more affordable than Lightroom.
It offers layer support, presets, retouching tools, video editing, cataloguing, and multiple feature addition and enhancements throughout the year – as you’d expect with a popular subscription product.
Colour editing, in particular, is a strong-point of Studio X, with a fun and intuitive ‘360° color shift’ tool allowing you to quickly and change luminance, hue and saturation, to replace any colour in your image.
Using an eye-dropper, you’re able to click and drag on any colour in an image, with Studio X automatically choosing the right mix of hues and ratios – particularly useful for perfecting the colour balance of foreground and background elements in landscapes.
Switching on an ‘advanced’ mode gives access to the type of granular colour editing tools usually associated with high-level editors such as Capture One Pro and Photoshop.
The tabbed user interface is neatly arranged like a web browser, with customisable panels and tools which allow you to make the most of your workspace.
Importing of images is simple, with Zoner Studio X reading from your existing computer file system. Unfortunately, you can’t apply effects on import as you can with Lightroom, but adding presets and auto-corrections later is simple and relatively fast.
Studio X offers various useful selection tools, and even a content-aware resize, and whilst they’re no match for Photoshop, it’s nice to see them included for basic editing tasks.
The Zoner Photo Cloud provides online photo storage, and ‘Zonerama’ is for online photo galleries and to discover other photographers’ work. Subscribers get 20GB of cloud storage, which you can access within Studio X as a folder in the Navigator panel.
If you’re a Windows user and need most of the online storage capabilities and image editing functionality of Lightroom, Photo Studio X is an attractive alternative.
13. Photoshop Elements 2021
Fully-fledged Photoshop certainly isn’t for everyone. Despite being bundled with an Adobe Photography Plan with Lightroom, there are plenty of photographers who still scratch their heads over its confusing interface and advanced tools.
For those of you not ready for an Adobe subscription, or indeed, prefer a more straightforward, more intuitive image editor for your photos, Photoshop Elements 2020 is a great option.
Don’t be fooled by its simplified user interface – Photoshop Elements 2020 packs some powerful features into its modest appearance.
Thanks to the baked-in AI-powered Adobe Sensei functionality, you’re now able to automatically select subjects in an image, with the software identifying foreground and background elements, making things like background removal 10x easier than before.
Auto-selection in Photoshop Elements also allows you to create shallow depth of field effects as if you’d shot a scene with a larger aperture lens.
One impressive photo editing feature that will undoubtedly appeal to those of us who have an archive of scanned film negatives is the ability to colourise a photo (converting black and white pictures to colour).
Another handy feature for portrait photos is the Smooth Skin option, with one click reducing wrinkles and blemishes, and a Smoothness slider available for further fine-tuning.
There’s a lot of hand-holding with the clear labelling of tools, and smart use of spacing between elements in the friendly interface – Photoshop Elements seems to be aimed at the older generation, but that’s not to say that anyone else can’t benefit from its simplicity and ease of use.
If you’re looking for the best photo editing software without any significant learning curve, Photoshop Elements 2020 is the one to check out.
Best Photo Editing Software (FREE)
As we dip into the best free photo editor options of this guide, it’s worth mentioning at this point that to some extents, you do get what you pay for.
Free software is incredibly attractive, and depending on your needs, it can be an acceptable solution, notably for non-professionals.
However, as you’ll see with DarkTable and the other open-source, free editing solutions on this list, there are some small compromises to be made.
Darktable is a free, non-destructive RAW open source photo editor, which runs on various operating systems including Linux. Anyone can add new features and capabilities to the program, with developers encouraging you to contribute and participate in the building of a better application.
The main photo editing workspace is clear and straightforward, with a well-designed and friendly interface for something that doesn’t command a price.
You view your files in the ‘lighttable’ tab, with editing taking place in the ‘darkroom’. Under ‘other’, you have map, print, slideshow and tethering modules, all of which load near-instantly.
There are plenty of colour correction tools and effects features, and batch edits are possible if a little clunkier than a paid software option.
You can find or make your own presets quite quickly, and there’s a central library of various presets by photographers who have contributed their own, all for free – you can find some great film-look presets that emulate Kodak, Fujifilm and other film stock.
The presets can be used for both importing and exporting your images, and you can even create other automations to help further speed up your workflow.
A unique exposure feature fixes the ISO of a photo when you choose the wrong settings in-camera – useful for beginners, or anyone not used to balancing exposure via the usual means in post-production.
Several of the modules use 32-bits per channel Lab colour, which some users find allows more extensive pushing/pulling of files during the editing process.
DarkTable tends to fall short in accurate camera profile matching. Still, contributors do a great job in offering support for new cameras and lenses – the automatic lens correction is particularly impressive, and rivals any paid software.
It’s also refreshingly fast to use – you can simply drag and drop images or folders into Darktable, for it to read the files from where they currently exist – no confusing cataloguing here.
There’s obviously no cloud-based storage solution or the mobile apps of an Adobe product. Still, there are surprising additions such as tethered shooting, selective colour correction, snapshots, multiple moveable masking options, and a completely customisable workspace. You can even add third-party modules.
The most significant advantage of Darktable over Lightroom and other subscription software is that you’ll never be reliant on paying your subscription for the privilege of editing and organising your images.
If you use it for long enough, you’ll probably experience the odd glitch or crash, typical of opensource software, but for its non-existent price tag, Darktable is the best photo editing software for those with zero budget who are willing to experiment a little.
Billing itself as a free alternative to Adobe Lightroom, RawTherapee is a powerful cross-platform RAW open-source photo processing system.
You’ll find all the usual exposure editing settings and controls, as well as some excellent additions like tone-mapping, black and white presets, and an intuitive dynamic range compression tool.
Then there’s something unique to RawTherapee called the L*a*B adjustment tool – a three-dimensional colour space designed to approximate human vision, as opposed to the RGB colour space which models the output of physical devices.
This aims to keep the tone separate from the colour, allowing you change one without affecting the other – the ‘L’ relates to lightness, ‘A’ defines how green/magenta the colour is, and ‘B; is the yellow/blue component.
If de-mosaicing is your thing, RawTherapee offers two algorithms which allow you to composite pixel-shift RAW files with automatic ghost masking, multiple-frame RAW file support, dark frame subtraction, flat field correction, and hot/dead pixel correction!
If this all sounds complicated, that’s because it is! For a free photo editing software, RawTherapee is remarkably involved, with enough panels and sliders in the Editor module to have any photographer scrambling for a tutorial.
Tabs run down the left side of the main workspace, with the Editor, Queue and File Browser loading instantly. Importing images and folders is simple, with the program reading from your existing hard drive structure.
The number of unlabeled icons is a little daunting at first and require a brief mouse-hover-over to reveal what they control.
Labels are tiny and difficult to read, and in general, the UI leaves a lot to be desired.
However, when you get used to the layout, you realise just how much powerful editing potential is contained within all the complexity.
For a free, open-source image editor, RawTherapee’s features are hard to beat. There’s adequate support, including great online documentation (trust me – you’ll need it!), and a lively community of users and developers.
Without a doubt, GIMP is the best-known free Photoshop alternative here in 2021.
As an acronym for ‘GNU Image Manipulation Program’, GIMP an open-source, cross-platform image editing platform for Windows, Mac, FreeBSD and Linux, and it’s lightweight enough to fit on a USB stick!
If you’re a photographer, graphic designer or illustrator with a limited budget, GIMP offers many powerful features that with other software you’d have to pay to use.
The user-interface takes some getting used to and isn’t as refined as Photoshop, but as with any editing software, once you’re familiar with it, movements become second nature.
It’s also completely customisable, with dialogues allowed to float anywhere on the screen.
All the essential image editing tools are there: noise reduction, cropping, colour adjustment, gradients, brushes, curves and image enhancements.
It can handle all the usual file types, including RAW, JPEG, TIFF, PSD, GIF and more.
It used to be extendable via plugins, scripts and brushes via the ‘Registry’, although this has retired until someone else accepts ownership – as is the way with unfunded software! However, numerous GIMP plugins can still be found via elsewhere online.
Photoshop has many more bells and whistles, not to mention a fully-featured mobile workflow, but if all you require is free, simplified image processing, GIMP is a worthy contender.
Best Photo Editing Software for Specific Tasks
While the above photo editors can handle various image retouching and photo manipulation tasks, there are times where it’s better to use a standalone program or plugin for a task.
Here are those ‘specific use’ tools that make things easier and produce the best results.
NIK Collection 3
EISA awarded this suite of 8 powerful photo-editing plug-ins for Adobe Photoshop, Lightroom and DxO PhotoLab ‘best photo software 2020-2021’ – a hugely popular choice for serious photographers and retouchers who require a little more out of their existing editing tools.
The various plugins produce a wide range of effects, such as great black & white conversions, colour adjustments and creative treatments, and comprehensive geometric corrections – ‘Perspective Efex’ is particularly impressive and more powerful than the generic perspective straightening tools found elsewhere.
It also allows you to recreate those fun ‘miniature’ tilt-shift lens scenes, by creating dramatic shallow depth of field effects that are much more realistic than using a blur gradient in other photo editing software.
If you’re a fan of black and white imagery, the Silver Effex Pro plugin (shown above) is by far the most comprehensive tool to create stunning monochrome images – the number of filter options is quite overwhelming, with all popular film stock also supported, and even a Silver Halide print.
Then there’s Color Efex Pro, Viveza, Dfine, Sharpener Pro, Analog Efec Pro and HDR Efex Pro – all bizarrely requiring over 5gb of free space on your computer’s hard drive.
All the plugins offer a unique non-destructive workflow, allow you to export images as TIFF files from Adobe Lightroom Classic, then tweak plugin edits as many times as you like while keeping your original adjustments safe and reversible.
There’s even a handy ‘Nik Selective Tool’, which hovers over your existing Photoshop workspace, letting you recall your favourite filter presets – click each one launches a separate child window for you to continue the edit.
Nik Collection is a lifetime license with no subscription, and there’s a free trial so you can test the waters too.
High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography is still a popular genre for both amateur and professional photographers alike.
Maximising the shadow and highlight ranges of an image can bring some genuinely breathtaking effects when applied in moderation.
For fans of HDR, there’s no other better non-destructive editor than Aurora HDR.
Traditionally, photographers would take 3-5 different exposures of the same scene and then combine them in Lightroom to get the best tonal range for an HDR image.
With Aurora HDR (review), you’re able to do this merging of exposure brackets from multiple files, but you can also produce the effect with just a single RAW file (i.e. a single exposure) with tone mapping, to quite a remarkable effect.
You can also apply various presets and Look-Up Tables – LUTs are usually used in movie making but can offer some great looks to still images too.
If you’re a landscape or cityscape photographer who’s serious about HDR photography, Aurora HDR is an essential app.
Topaz DeNoise AI
Shooting at high ISOs is often unavoidable in low light, particularly if you use a camera with an APS-C sensor or smaller.
Lightroom, Luminar and pretty much every other premium photo editing software will offer a noise reduction feature in some form or another. Usually, they do a decent job at it, especially if you’re not pixel peeping or delivering large photos to clients.
However, there comes a time when something more powerful is needed, and for that, Topaz DeNoise AI (review) offers a simple and extremely effective solution.
The standalone app is simple enough to use, with the automatic settings doing a great job at reducing noise. You can choose between two noise reduction models, and tweak various settings to recover details and enhance sharpness.
Photo Mechanic 6
Photo Mechanic is a piece of software created for sports, wedding, photojournalism, and any other photographer who shoots in large volumes and requires a lightning-fast editing workflow.
For years, I ignored the need for a separate photo ingesting, tagging and browsing tool – after all, I had Lightroom, so why would I need another piece of software that overlapped in functionality?
However, once you use Photo Mechanic 6, you’ll understand why so many professional photographers rely on it for handling their images.
In a word, PM is fast. In two words, it’s lightning-fast – you get the idea. You’re able to import thousands of images in record times and start tagging, viewing and organising them well before the import has even finished.
(Try doing this with any of photo editing software, and even if it is possible, your computer will likely grind to a halt.)
Now in the latest iteration, Photo Mechanic 6 is a 64-bit application, allowing even better caching of images, which improves thumbnail/preview generation speed by around 2-3x, and it was already fast before!
You’re able to copy only the images you need from your memory card to your hard drive, and any image ratings you made with your camera are preserved – something that isn’t the case with some Fujifilm models with Lightroom.
The UI is slick and streamlined, with far less distraction than before. If you have two monitors, you can even set up one as the Contact Sheet and the other for Image Previewing.
If your photos are geotagged, Photo Mechanic intelligently uses the GPS coordinates to insert all the relevant location details into your metadata.
There’s also a crop tool and slide shows, although most users ignore these completely – the ingesting/metadata insertion features are worth the cost alone.
The bottom line is this – no matter what other image editor you’re currently using, if you shoot in high volumes, do yourself a favour and use Photo Mechanic 6 to ingest your images.
Getting them from PM to your main app afterwards is as simple as dragging and dropping, and you’ve just saved yourself a ton of time.
Topaz Gigapixel AI
If there’s one piece of software that I consider essential for anyone who builds photo albums (or prints large images for their walls), this would be it.
Unless you own one of the recent high megapixel cameras, you’re likely limited in how large you can print a photo without the quality degrading. That’s where Topaz Gigapixel AI steps in.
With a simplified interface and a unique face refinement feature, Gigapixel uses artificial intelligence to do the previously impossible – enlarge a photo losslessly (i.e. make your image bigger without losing image quality).
You can blow a picture up by up to 6x the original size using the default settings, or go crazy and enlarge further if you’re printing for the side of a bus, or a more likely situation – enlarging a portion of an image which has been cropped heavily.
Processing speeds leave a little to be desired, especially if you’re running an older computer or several processor-intensive apps at once. However, if you’re happy to wait, you’ll be delighted with the results.
Topaz Sharpen AI
Image sharpening is another one of those features that’s offered by all the premium photo editing software in 2021, but that doesn’t mean they all do it as well as they could.
The interface is intuitive and straightforward, with an auto setting that takes care of everything for you. You can fine-tune Sharpness, Suppress Noise and even Add Grain, and fiddle around with three different sharpening models to experiment with what looks best.
Image sharpening is one of those things that’s easy to do in any photo editor, but it’s hard to make it look perfect. An over-sharpened image looks terrible, so it’s nice to know there’s a tool like this one to help you out.
Snap Art 3
This one is filed last in the ‘just for fun’ category, but if you’re a photographer who likes experimenting with artistic effects on your images, you’ll love Snap Art 3.
Labelling itself as a ‘Natural Media Art Creator’, this simple and hugely enjoyable editing app loads as a plugin from within Exposure X5, Lightroom or Photoshop, or sits on your computer as standalone software.
Looks include various creative styles such as colour pencil, comics, crayon, impasto, oil paint, pastel, watercolour and more – you can see one variation of ‘comic’ in the image above.
Although creative art effects exist in several of the other programs listed in this guide, Snap Art 3 provides the broadest selection and offers a refreshingly fast-loading and intuitive way to apply them to your existing images.
Even writing this as a professional photographer who’d usually turn his nose up at ‘silly filters’, I have to say it’s hugely fun and addictive to apply watercolour effects to my landscape images, comic looks to photos of friends, and make random pictures look like a Picasso work of art.
There are plenty of smartphone apps that offer something similar, but it’s great to have a larger workspace to play around with on a computer, with additional masking, tuning and other adjustment features.
It should be clear at this point that there are plenty of options for editing and organising your RAW photos here in 2021.
While free photo editors do exist, premium software offers so much more, and despite the allure of one-off payment options, subscription plans tend to ensure consistency in valuable updates and feature additions.
Whatever app, tool or plugin you end up using, remember that they can often be used in conjunction with your existing programs without interrupting existing workflows.
Leave any questions below and good luck with your quest for better-looking photos!
Disclaimer: All recommendations are impartial and based on user experience, with no bias to the products or the brand. The products in this post may contain affiliate links.