Photo editing can mean a lot of different things, from simple color grading and cropping to making images nearly unrecognizable from the original version. Because of this range of complexity, there are many programs out there that focus in on one aspect of photo editing, and others that try to do it all. With so many options and things to consider, it can be hard to figure out what’s best for you.
Because of this, we searched through the various options available today to find the best photo editors whether you’re a complete newcomer looking to learn, a hobbyist wanting to branch out, or a professional looking to switch programs or add another tool to your toolkit.
What to Look for in a Photo Editor
Photo editors are complicated pieces of software that can vary in features a lot. However, there are few general things to look out for.
- Design: The software should be fairly easy to navigate, which does get harder to pull off in more complicated programs. But, even if a program has a nearly endless number of options available, that doesn’t excuse it from doing a good job at presenting those options.
- Performance: There’s a lot going on behind the scenes of a photo editor. Since photo editing is a relatively complex thing for computers to process, it’s understandable that these programs are fairly intensive on your system. But, that doesn’t mean they can’t be improved and programs that are well optimized definitely get bonus points.
- Pricing Model: We’ve seen many programs turn to a subscription-based pricing model instead of a one-time purchase. Whether or not you’re okay with paying for a subscription is up to you, and fortunately, there are still quite a few editors out there that are a one-time purchase or even free.
With all that out of the way, let’s get into the editors.
The Obvious Choices: Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom
Adobe is ubiquitous with professional creative work in the modern world. As such, it makes sense that its photo editing software is worth looking at.
In the world of photo editing, there is no name more well-known than Adobe Photoshop. And to be fair, this level of popularity is well-deserved. Photoshop is arguably the most powerful that exists today.
Photoshop is great for creating digital artwork, editing photographs, and creating composites. The base program lets you do pretty much whatever you want (assuming you have the skills required) but Adobe also updates the program regularly with new features and improvements.
Arguably, Photoshop’s greatest strength is its community. Not only are there a ton of resources and tutorials available online to help you learn your way around the software, but there’s also a small army of third-party developers working to expand the capabilities of Photoshop with plugins.
If Photoshop has one problem, is that it’s overwhelming for newcomers, so it’s worth mentioning Photoshop Elements—a toned-down version of Photoshop aimed at hobbyists and amateurs. It’s not as powerful as the full Photoshop but it’s still a great piece of software available for the (one-time) price of $74.99.
Adobe Lightroom was made to provide photographers with the simplest way to enhance their photos. Everything from the contrast level to shadows is adjustable via simple sliders, and there’s also a collection of presets you can try out as well. Lightroom lacks the overwhelming complexity of Photoshop and allows you to make your pictures look professionally edited in a matter of minutes. It’s a great tool for any photographer to have whether you’re starting or have been doing it for years.
Lightroom also has a great photo viewer mode that makes it easy to keep pictures organized.
Both Lightroom and Photoshop are available in Adobe’s photography bundle which is $9.99 a month and gives you 20 GB of cloud storage (which can then be bumped up to 1 TB for $19.99 a month). Of course, both programs are also available in the Adobe Creative Cloud Suite ($52 a month) which includes all of Adobe’s products.
The Photoshop Competitor: Affinity Photo
Many programs have tried to compete with Photoshop as the go-to professional photo editor. Affinity Photo is definitely the most formidable of all of these, and many people prefer it over Photoshop.
Using Affinity, you can edit your photos, create compositions, and draw digital artwork. Its feature set doesn’t perfectly match Photoshop’s, but for the most part, if you can do it in Photoshop, you can do it in Affinity Photo.
Affinity Photo is newer than Photoshop and it definitely shows—the program has a modern touch that even the current versions of Photoshop lack. Many of the standard features in Affinity are more refined than Photoshop’s, with stuff like editing text and moving images feeling smoother and less clunky. You also get live editing previews, so, for example, when you’re scrolling through blend modes you can see them switch in real-time instead of needing to actually select one to see the updated image like in Photoshop.
Affinity Photo is also more affordable. Instead of a monthly subscription like Photoshop, Affinity Photo is a simple, one-time purchase of $49.99. This lower price and the modern design makes Affinity Photo an easy recommendation to those new to photo editing.
For Smarter Editing: Skylum Luminar 4
We’ve seen developers experiment more and more with using AI for photo editing, and Skylum, at least on the consumer side of things, seems to really be leading the charge with Luminar 4.
This program is all about removing as many actions that you would typically have to do. You can replace the sky with a single click, adjust lighting with the drag of your mouse, and perform quick color grading at the press of a button—it’s quite impressive.
Now, it doesn’t always work perfectly; the program can make mistakes. But you can always manually adjust as needed. Luminar 4 is even available as a plugin for Photoshop, so if you want to combine the more powerful manual features of Photoshop alongside these AI enhancements, you can do just that.
Luminar 4 is available as a one-time purchase in a few different packages. The basic edition costs $89 and comes with two licenses for the program. The plus edition costs $163 and comes with two licenses and some pre-packaged assets of the moon and various skies. Finally, the max edition is the same as the plus edition but comes with Skylum’s HDR focused photo editor Aurora HDR and costs $262.
One-Click Touch-Ups: Ashampoo Photo Optimizer 7
If your photo editing needs only consists of quick color grading and contrasting work, there’s no need to have anything as complicated the programs mentioned so far. And Ashampoo’s Photo Optimizer is the perfect showcase of that.
At the click of a button, Photo Optimizer will color grade, balance light levels, and add contrast—basically, it makes the image look as good as the program is capable of. You can even do big batches of photos all at once. When it comes to making pictures look great, there’s nothing simpler than this.
Ashampoo Photo Optimizer 7 is currently available for $39.99, but you can score it on sale for less than $20 a lot of the time. There’s also last year’s version of the software that still has a lot of the same features but is free (although, it has stopped receiving updates).
Free and Open-Source: GIMP
On the surface, GIMP may look like a fairly standard photo editor. However, it has two killer features that make it worth considering. Not only is it a powerful photo editor that’s completely free, but it’s also open-source.
That means anyone with the programming knowledge can open the source code and change or add just about anything. This opens the door for third-party plugins, which can add a whole new collection of features. If there’s something you want to do in GIMP that the program can’t natively do, there’s a good chance someone has created a plugin for it.
This level of third-party support is what makes GIMP such a great piece of software. For newcomers, it’s a great option to try out since its free and, even for professional use, with the correct plugins installed it can easily rival the likes of Photoshop and Affinity Photo.
Simple, Lightweight, and Free: Paint.NET
Microsoft Paint was likely many people’s first foray into any form of photo editing since it was pre-packaged with Windows, but, by today’s standards, it’s pretty outdated. Paint.NET was created as a free, more powerful alternative to Microsoft Paint years ago, and still gets frequent updates today. It’s a fantastic free photo editing program.
The design of the app does still feel a bit dated. But, that doesn’t stop it from doing what you need it to. While the feature set might not be as deep as tools like Photoshop and Affinity Photo, you’re still able to do all the photo editing basics of cropping, resizing, and drawing, along with some more complicated effects.
Paint.NET won’t blow you away, but for simple photo editing tasks, the simple design makes it a great option. The problem with more advanced programs is that you have so many options available that it can make performing the simple tasks complicated. You won’t have that with Paint.NET. The program is also well optimized which is a great thing to see.
Paint.NET is free to download and use (the dotPDN download). But, if you feel like supporting the developer, you can also buy it on the Microsoft Store for $6.99.
Best Online Photo Editor: Photopea
If you’re not a frequent photo editor, having software take up space on your hard-drive is unnecessary. This is where online photo editors can be great, and Photopea is definitely the best of the bunch. It’s also an exceptional resource for Chrome OS users.
Photopea is surprisingly advanced for an online editor, with plenty of options available. The design of the web app is also extremely similar to programs like Photoshop. Photopea being web based means less processing is being done on your system and is instead handled in the cloud. This can help with performance a lot (especially for less powerful systems like Chromebooks), but you still might run into occasional stuttering depending on what you’re doing.
Photopea is free, but if you want to get rid of ads and gain access to more a more complete edit history of your projects, you’ll want to get the Premium plan which is $9 every 30 days.