Which Photography Post Processing Software is Right for You?

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Avatar of Christopher O'Donnell
I'm a professional landscape photographer living on the coast of Maine. Through my work, I like to show a vantage point that is rarely seen in reality; a show of beauty, emotion, and serenity. Feel free to visit my website.

Depending on what area of photography you’re pursuing, there are several mainstream programs you can use to edit your images. Your post process workflow is the most important factor to consider when making your choice -  such as the volume of images and the extent of your editing. Whether you batch edit your images lightly or do intensive editing sessions on a select few, there is a program for your specific style.

Lightroom

Lightroom was developed with the photographer in mind. Whie you can certainly do many wonderful things in Photoshop, the workflow is not always as friendly to photographers as Lightroom can be.

Essentially, Lightroom provides you with many tools and processes that streamlines your editing (such as Modules and the film strip). This is fantastic for photographers who have a large volume of work (think wedding or sports photographers) and would like to apply relatively simple edits to many images at once. Techniques such as black and white conversions, white balance changes, simple blemish removal and skin softening, etc. can be performed easily.

You can also apply similar edits to several images in Photoshop as an action, but Lightroom does it in a more simple, straightforward, and easily reversible manner.

Also, the interface is a bit more user-friendly than Photoshop since the more advanced tools have been omitted to focus more on streamlining your work. Unless you know your way around Photoshop, it may take you a while to figure out where your tools are and how to perform certain techniques. So not only can you perform edits easier and to multiple images in Lightroom, but you can also access your tools more efficiently for the ultimate streamlining of your work.

Aperture

If you have a Mac, then you also have the option of using Aperture, which is much like Lightroom. Comparing these two programs is much like comparing Nikons and Canons, so I’ll try to not get too technical.

Aperture has many great organizational features like Lightroom, although the interface is a bit different. For example, Lightroom has the Develop Module while Aperture has Adjustments. Some users say that Aperture is a bit more streamlined in organizing your images (mainly due to the Books feature), while Lightroom is considered to be better for printing your work.

While there are many “pros and cons” articles comparing these two programs, the reality is that both perform with little difference. The best way to decide on the best program is to download the trial version and give both a test run. One interface will eventually seem more natural to your workflow and style than the other, which is the most important step in choosing the right program (at least when your choices are either Aperture or Lightroom).

Photoshop

While Lightroom/Aperture is perfect for the casual editor who has many images, Photoshop is where the advanced post processing takes place. Exposure blending, panoramic stitching, cloning and other detailed work is done in Photoshop as the previous two programs are not equipped to handle that kind of intricacy.

The biggest benefit of Photoshop is layers – more importantly, the ability to mask and blend layers to create a mosaic of edits in just the right combination. The learning curve is rather steep, but the reward is most certainly worth it.

Photoshop is for sophisticated photo editing, much more suitable for those who spend a few hours on an image but only produce one or two at a time (such as fine art photographers), or for those rogue images from a wedding that need special attention.

As you can see, photographers have several editing options for their images. The best part about these programs is that they all have free trials allowing you to use the program before making an investment. Many photographers will employ Lightroom/Aperture AND Photoshop to get a full spectrum of editing capabilities. For example, a photographer may use Lightroom to go through simple editing and preparing images for the web, but will switch to Photoshop for the more serious edits.

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26 thoughts on “Which Photography Post Processing Software is Right for You?

  1. djib

    I think you should include Gimp. It’s a great processing tool for amateurs. Combined with Rawtherapee, it gives a perfect free (and opensource) suite to process RAW images.

  2. Stephen McGrath

    Call me crazy (or whatever you like), and I’m an avid Lightroom devotee, but there is a place for the free Picasa offering. For some jobs, this little beauty actually saves valuable time that no other app I’ve experimented with can match. Specifically, using ‘I Feel Lucky’ with large batches of ‘post what you shoot’ photos can get your online proofs (or shareable images) taken care of in no time at all. I haven’t found any equivalent batch process that is as accurate or clever in any other tool.

    1. Avatar of Ben LunaBen Luna

      If you shoot RAW format, you should do some post processing. At least sharpening of white balance adjustments. Even the most capable DSLRs produce captures that need basic processing. Photo Shop might be an overkill (for me, at least). It’s like using a hammer to kill a fly. Try the free ones like GIMP or Picasa.

  3. Avatar of Christopher O'DonnellChristopher O'Donnell Post author

    I only wrote about these three programs because they are arguably the most popular and needed explaining to those who want to purchase one but are not sure which is the best choice. The list is certainly not exclusive.

    The others you all mentioned are helpful choices as well and I’m sure we can do an article on them later on. From the user reviews I’ve read, DXO 6 seems to be a great product for the price and is something photographers should look into as an inexpensive but powerful alternative to the mainstream programs above.

  4. Drew

    For those “purists” among us (” Take good images post processing won’t be needed.”) I would offer that for some people the photo is only the start of the vision and creative process.

    The camera is just one of the tools to bring the vision to life and the post process, be it LightRoom, Photoshop or anything else, is just another tool in the creative act of expressing our own uniqueness.

  5. Avatar of John McGarityJohn McGarity

    I think I lean toward what Drew said to a point. do as much as possible in-camera. From white balance, to exposure (I bracket like it’s a sin!), to cropping. Cropping most importantly. I use a combination of the three mentioned in the post as my digital darkroom. For any minor crops, I find that Lightroom is better than Photoshop. It also allows me to batch process my images for tonality, & go off the grid with creative touches and adjustments in B&W as well as saturation. Photoshop is more of an extra tool that I use when I want to focus on maybe one or two images AFTER Lightroom. I use adjustment layers to go even further & see what I’m doing to it. Kind of like gels in a darkroom. I use Aperture for all of my file management and archiving. I’m still learning all the adjustment tools & the interface. When I do, I will probably work as much as possible from Aperture. It’s streamlined perfectly with my library & I have ready to use tools for books, print services, & other products. Plus it’s easier for me to share through Flikr, FB, & any other publishing source.

  6. Pingback: WHICH Light Stalking: Which PHOTOGRAPHY POST PROCESSING SOFTWARE IS RIGHT FOR YOU? | The Desk of the Renaissance Man

    1. Ben

      I use LightZone. It is closest to the way I used to process photographs – in a wet darkroom. I guess you can tell I come from film photography until I got swept away by this new technology – digital photography. At least I work with dry hands.

  7. Dennis

    The important thing is to select a program you can stay with for a long time. That’s part of the appeal of programs that were reviewed. It takes a lot of timeand effort to learn a program like these to choose one that will grow with your skills and knowledge and that will challenge you to improve. Nice review.

  8. David

    I use a combination of Lightroom and Photoshop. I feel that this gives me the quick simplicity of Lightroom and the deep tweaking ability of photoshop, if it is needed for some photographs.

  9. Will Dochertaigh

    I’ve been using ACDSee for many years. Now using ACDPro 3 – for editing, PP and cataloging, Raw process i’ve never had a reason to consider switching to anything else.
    Price and utility are both great.
    No, i have no affiliation with them, just a satisfied customer for 12 years.

  10. Luke Stanton

    I am a recent qualified photogrpaher who is going to concentrate on wedding photography. I am looking for software at a reasonble price which is suitable to layout wedding albums and produce a number of effects on specific photohraphs. I have looked at Photoshop however this seems a little expensive, so is there anything else which is adequate?

  11. Rebecca

    If money were no object I will lean toward Lightroom. However my budget is pretty limited (can you say Photoshop Elements or less) so none of the software you mention is on option for me. I would love to hear what others think about less expensive software.

  12. Avatar of Peter BryentonPeter Bryenton

    When travelling light, reducing financial risks from damage, loss or theft, I carry an old laptop with an antique version of Photoshop.

    As for post production, over 40 years in darkrooms has taught me that that’s where fine prints are made. For me the digital process is no different. Yes, getting it right in the camera always saves time later, but polishing that basic image later pays dividends.

  13. Will McA

    Well said Peter.

    Post-processing is an artform, it is more than just fixing what you got wrong when you took the photo, and neither is it necessarily changing a photograph beyond all recognition so that it doesn’t represent reality anymore.

    Interesting how none of this puritanical zeal existed in the days when post-processing meant getting down and dirty in the dark room. They’ve all sprung up in reaction to digital post-processing.

    Perhaps because developments in user-friendliness with digital post-processing means it’s no longer the dark art it once was.

  14. Avatar of Dennis SuittersDennis Suitters

    I find it interesting that no one’s mentioned CinePaint, which is a Forked project from GIMP. CinePaint is used by top level CG Houses, particularly if they use Linux. CinePaint is also capable of handling 32bit Images, and especially the .exr format.

    Just my two cents, there’s plenty of choices, to suite everyone’s needs, it’s just matter of what’s affordable. I was please to see LightZone being mentioned, as I’m a Linux tester for this software, and have been pleasantly surprised time after time with this little gem.

    After all, the creativity of the finished images comes from the creativity of the individual, the software is just a tool to achieve the end result.

    Happy Snapping Everyone.

  15. Avatar of Mark PashiaMark Pashia

    I got into photography about 18 months ago and got my first DSLR four months later. I had always used Paint Shop Pro for photo editing, but a buddy got me to try out GIMP and I have never looked back! Everything that can be done in Photo Shop can be done in GIMP, however it is not always done in the exact same way. Their are many tutorials for GIMP on the web, but sometimes I just have to play for a few hours to find the method that matches up with Photo Shop tutorials, but I get there eventually. I shoot Canon, so I have used the money that most spend for Photo Shop or Lightroom to upgrade to Canon L series lenses!!! I am much happier buying pro quality lenses than wasting money on software. GIMP is free in both senses of the word. It costs nothing and no single company controls my future!!! GIMP is open source and should always be free.

  16. nick

    Lightroom is fantastic but I get really fed up (polite version) with photoshop (CS4 extended) it is non-intuitive, laborious and very overpriced. One task that takes me too long on PS is arranging and resizing objects on several layers because I have to go to the layers palette, click on the layer the object is on, go to the edit menu, select deform tool, perform the deformation and select ok by which time I’ve forgotten where I wanted it. With Paint Shop Pro (not mentioned) all I have to do is click on the object in question, the layer is selected and a deformation ‘box’ appears – simples! Love things like the patch tool though.

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