The Best Photography Software for 2018

By Jason D. Little / January 30, 2017

Updated: December 4, 2018 to add Capture One's current version.
Updated: January, 31, 2017 to add Macphun Luminar and Macphun Aurora HDR photography software.

When it comes to digital photography software, options abound, perhaps to the point of being confusing. Whether you’re a first time user or in need of an upgrade or looking to make a change, here is an overview of some of the best photography software currently available. Hopefully this will help you make a more informed decision on which application is right for you.

Note: This is our leaderboard for the best overall photography software. We will also be splitting it out into “best photo management software” and “best photo editing” software as sometimes photographers need specialist tools for specialist jobs. But for now, let's jump into what we consider to be the best all round performers for a photographer.

Our Criteria for Judging Photography Software

Coming to a fair conclusion on the best photography software requires scoring various elements of the software with a universal criteria. Coming up with that criteria is a little difficult, but this is what we came up with:

  • Interface / Ease of Use: An assessment of the overall organizational logic of menus, toolboxes, palettes, etc within the photography software and how easy and intuitive they are to use in practice.
  • Fulfillment of Promise: An appraisal of the features and functionality of the software and whether they sufficiently live up to the manufacturer's claims.
  • Photo Editing Quality: A subjective measure of how effectively the available tools in a given application perform various image editing tasks.
  • Photo Management Quality: A subjective measure of the efficiency of the keywording, search, geotagging, and other organizational features of the software.
  • Community: How easy is it to get help and learning from the wider community of users? (Blogs, forums, Youtube videos, freelancers etc)
  • Overall: A broad overview — average of the six judging criteria.

 

SoftwareEase of UseFulfils PromisePhoto EditingPhoto ManagementCommunityOverall
Lightroom7889108.4
Elements7.5897108.3
Photoshop7.510101107.7
Optics Pro 10699847.2
Capture Pro 97.588847.1
Aurora HDR by Macphun1099066.8
Luminar by Macphun1099066.8
Paintshop Pro X86.588746.7
Photo Director 7767856.6
On1 Photo 108.588716.5
Affinity Photo899136

#1 Choice: Adobe Lightroom – Score:8.4

Lightroom has emerged as the cure-all in the eyes of many photographers. It uses the same raw processor as Photoshop and allows for non-destructive image editing; in fact, a great deal of Photoshop’s editing tools are found in Lightroom, with the most glaring omission being layers. It is, indeed, possible to do all your fixing and finalizing (dodging and burning, noise reduction, sharpening, tonal adjustments, lens correction, effects, etc.) in Lightroom and perhaps never give Photoshop much thought. If, however, you do need or prefer to use a feature in Photoshop, Lightroom makes for a seamless round-trip journey into Photoshop and back. And Lightroom does a few things that Photoshop doesn’t do so well — or at all — especially when it comes to serving as a photo organizer, something at which Lightroom excels. Additionally, Lightroom allows you to tag, flag, and rate photos. Also featured is a superb printing module, the ability to create slideshows, the option to export images to the Web, and integrated book creation via Blurb. While not as complex as Photoshop, Lightroom is an expansive application that will take some time to fully appreciate and integrate into your workflow. Lightroom is available for Mac OS and Windows and can be obtained as stand-alone software for US$149 or as part of Adobe’s Creative Cloud Photography plan for US$9.99 per month. A free mobile version of Lightroom is also available for iOS and Android devices. In terms of the best photography software, this is the one to beat.

#2 Choice: Adobe Photoshop Elements Score: 8.3

Long considered by some users to be a dumbed-down version of Photoshop, Elements has made considerable headway in its most recent versions. While it is true that Elements is a lighter take on the all-powerful Photoshop, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Elements provides many of the same features found in Photoshop, and all of the features needed for competent and comprehensive photo editing, including the processing of raw files, tonal corrections, retouching tools, and layering. Elements also sports Photomerge technology which allows you to merge different parts of different photos to make one ideal photo — useful for group portraits, panoramas, and faux-HDR. Content-aware functions are present, along with a variety of selection tools and brushes (though none of these are as feature-heavy as what you’ll find in Photoshop). Elements has limited 16-bit and vector support, fewer blend modes, and doesn’t support extensions. These limitations are unlikely to impact photographers who need to do essential edits without the complexity and potential confusion associated with using Photoshop. Elements’ utilitarian-yet-powerful feature set and easy to navigate interface make it appealing to photographers of any skill level. Elements will also appeal to those who prefer a stand-alone product, as it is not tied to Adobe’s Creative Cloud and can be purchased for Windows and Mac systems for US$99.99.

#3 Choice:Adobe Photoshop Score: 7.7

Everyone knows the name. Even non-photographers are aware of this software, as it has infiltrated popular culture and been co-opted into everyday language (“This shot has obviously been Photoshopped.”). Adobe’s flagship application is often thought of as being the go-to choice for professionals, and such a reputation isn’t unwarranted. Photoshop can be mind-bogglingly sophisticated, boasting features useful not only to photographers but also to those who work with video, illustration, and graphic design and in a clear leader for best photography software in terms of actual image editing. Photoshop can process raw files and allows for non-destructive global and local editing, including extensive layering and masking options, the application of innumerable effects, powerful noise reduction and sharpening processes, a full array of color correction tools, lens corrections, and everything you’ll need to do comprehensive photo retouching. Needless to say, Photoshop is a complex piece of software with a considerably steep learning curve; it does, of course, offer basic tools and plenty of automation (exposure, levels and curves, and white balance just to name a few), but some may still find Photoshop a bit overwhelming. If you are willing to tackle Photoshop’s learning curve, you will likely discover that it is the only image editing application you need. Photoshop doesn't have “in-built” file management; this is handled via Adobe Bridge, should you choose to use it. Bridge seems to have as many fans as it does detractors. Photoshop works with Windows and Mac OS and is available as part of a cloud-based subscription service (known as Adobe Creative Cloud, hence the current Photoshop CC moniker), starting as low as US$9.99 per month with four different Cloud plans to choose from. The last version of Photoshop to be released as a stand-alone product was Photoshop CS6; it was released in 2012 and Adobe will no longer update the software with new features. Either way, Photoshop is going to be on the podium of any current discussion on the best photography software.

#4 Choice:DxO Optics Pro 10 Score: 7.2

DxO Optics Pro has carved out its place in the world of photography software in no small part due to its superior handling of lens correction (some might also make a case for its noise reduction capability). Sure, other applications offer distortion correction but Optics Pro takes a different approach than the user submitted lens profiles that Lightroom, as an example, uses. According to Michael Muchmore of PCMag.com, “DxO Labs actually shoots thousands of shots on test patterns at different lighting conditions to create lens and camera profiles for each camera and lens supported to tune these corrections. The auto-correction is far better than you see in most photo software, and it's often all you need.” While Optics Pro 10 offers image processing and editing tools that may result in better overall image quality, its utility as a file manager leaves a lot to be desired. Fortunately, round-tripping with Lightroom is possible in Optics Pro 10, so you can use DxO’s noise reduction and distortion correction tools and send your images right back to Lightroom. With raw support for more than 250 cameras, DxO Optics Pro comes in two editions — Essential and Elite. The Elite edition takes all the features of the Essential edition (selective toning, batch processing, optical corrections, raw conversion, etc.) and adds items such as raw file denoising, ICC profile management, dehazing, and preset editing. DxO Optics Pro 10 Essential Edition retails for US$129.00 while the Elite Edition costs US$199.00. Both editions are available as downloads for Windows and Mac and both have the option of purchasing a CD software backup for US$14.90.

#5 Choice:PhaseOne Capture One Score: 7.1

Capture One has been evolving and is perhaps nowadays the most powerful RAW development software out there thanks to its masking capabilities and precise color correction features. It has a complex user interface, but it has the benefit of being dynamic, therefore you can move everything around to even emulate the working space of Lightroom. The last version delivers better color interpretation, faster performance, and more flexible control. New features includes advanced masking functionality, an even more efficient and intuitive user experience, plug-in compatibility, and Fujifilm film simulation styles (an absent feature in the previous versions). One of the most interesting things that Phase One has made is the plug-ins feature, designed to address the needs of photographers and creatives looking to share, edit and collaborate on their images, the Capture One plug-in ecosystem opens up for powerful third-party extensions. There are several pricing options from $180 to $417, the difference is the array of styles that come bundled with the software.

#6 Choice: Luminar by Macphun Score: 6.8

Typically, when an application attempts to do too much it fails miserably in one or more categories. Luminar avoids such a pitfall, successfully serving the needs of beginner, intermediate and experienced photographers. It is a non-destructive RAW image editor that does exactly what it says and does it efficiently and effectively.

Luminar is able to be an all-in-one app not because it dumbs anything down, but because it presents users with a bevy of diverse, powerful, photography-specific tools wrapped in an interface that adapts to each user.It takes the very best parts of the company’s other apps and sort of reimagines them and places them under one roof. It all just works. It may be late in the year, but Luminar is easily one of 2016’s best image editing options.

aurora-hdr

Read our full review of Macphun Luminar here.

#7 Choice: Aurora HDR by Macphun Score: 6.8

Typically, when an application attempts to do too much it fails miserably in one or more categories. Luminar avoids such a pitfall, successfully serving the needs of beginner, intermediate and experienced photographers. It is a non-destructive RAW image editor that does exactly what it says and does it efficiently and effectively.

Luminar is able to be an all-in-one app not because it dumbs anything down, but because it presents users with a bevy of diverse, powerful, photography-specific tools wrapped in an interface that adapts to each user.It takes the very best parts of the company’s other apps and sort of reimagines them and places them under one roof. It all just works. It may be late in the year, but Luminar is easily one of 2016’s best image editing options.

Read our full review of Aurora HDR by Macphun.

#8 Choice:Corel Paint Shop Pro X8 Score: 6.7

Like some of the other software covered in this overview, Corel Paint Shop Pro X8 is designed to essentially be three applications in one, as evidenced by the three tabs that live atop the interface.

Manage – You can manage your photos via a Lightroom-esque interface that allows for tagging, rating and a variety of annotations such as place information.

Adjust – Next you can move on to make basic enhancements to your newly imported images, a task made simple and intuitive with the use of sliders. With Paint Shop Pro X8 you can crop, straighten, and clone; there’s even a “makeover” option, designed with portraits in mind, that removes red-eye and blemishes. You also have access to a satisfying amount of artistic filters, similar to those you’d find on Instagram.

Edit -The Edit panel exposes the true power of Paint Shop Pro, revealing all the tools and features that make this application a viable alternative to Photoshop: raw processing with support for more than 300 cameras, selection tools, layers, HDR processing and more. Paint Shop Pro X8 is available is a Windows-only application and is available in two varieties — the standard edition of Paint Shop Pro X8 and Paint Shop Pro X8 Ultimate. The Ultimate edition includes additional plug-ins and filters and costs US$99.99, while the standard editions carries a price tag of US$79.99.

#9 Choice: Cyberlink PhotoDirector 7 Score: 6.6

Cyberlink’s PhotoDirector software may suffer from a lack of name recognition in comparison to the other heavy-hitters on this list, but if you spend some time with the application you will discover that it isn’t necessarily out of its depth here. In fact, the current version, PhotoDirector 7, is capable of doing much of what the more popular software can do and can certainly do everything a photography enthusiast would need it to do. PhotoDirector 7 can process raw files, with support for all the major camera manufacturers such as Fujifilm, Canon, Olympus, Nikon, Leica, Sony, Pentax, Panasonic, and Samsung, and several obscure/obsolete digital cameras like the AgfaPhoto DC-833m, Apple QuickTake 150, and Polaroid x530. Similar to Paint Shop Pro, PhotoDirector embodies an intuitive, easy to use workflow that is allocated across three tabs: Manage, Adjust, and Edit. PhotoDirector 7’s photo manager/organizer will seem familiar enough to Lightroom users, as you can tag and rate images and sort according to a variety of criteria, though the sort feature isn’t as powerful as what Lightroom provides. Basic image editing is a snap with PhotoDirector’s “people beautifier,” object removal, and portrait retouching tools. Also included are cloning and healing tools, numerous adjustment brushes, facial recognition, and geotagging. It is unlikely that PhotoDirector 7 would compete squarely with Lightroom, Photoshop, or Affinity Photo, but it may be a perfect alternative to Paint Shop Pro or Elements. There are three different options available when you go to purchase PhotoDirector 7; the Deluxe package is a Windows-only application that will run you US$59.99. The Ultra package and Suite package include additional advanced features such as layer based editing, split toning, and automated lens correction, and both are available for Windows and Mac OS machines. The Ultra package costs US$144.94, while the Suit package with its color grading tools for video costs U$S149.99. All versions of the software are available for download.

#10 Choice: On1 Photo 10 Score: 6.5

On1 Photo 10, which replaces On1’s Perfect Photo Suite 9.5, is all about ease of use, refinement, and versatility. Photo 10 incorporates a file Browser that lets users view, sort, and rate images in a package reminiscent of Adobe Bridge. The Effects module contains a plethora of color and black and white presets which can be customized once applied (be warned that applying presets can be slow). The Enhance module is where you go to recover shadows and highlights, remove redeye, and reduce noise. The Layers module may be Photo 10’s anchor point, as it greatly simplifies the selection, masking, and object removal processes. Yes, you can perform these tasks in Photoshop, but for most people Photo 10 presents a considerably easier-to-use alternative. On1 Photo 10 is available for Mac and Windows for a cost of US$119.99. It can be used as a stand-alone application or as a plug-in for Adobe Photoshop, Lightroom, and Elements, and for Apple Aperture. Photo 10 can also be used as an extension for Apple Photos.

#11 Choice:Serif Affinity Photo Score: 6

Billed as a true Photoshop alternative, Affinity Photo is a relatively new player in the image editing game. Affinity Photo’s user interface does bear a passing resemblance to that of Adobe’s Photoshop and, indeed, carries nearly all of the same features — from raw processing to layers to ICC color management to 3D effects. Affinity Photo has a notable advantage over Photoshop in terms of ease of access, as its layout is a bit more intuitive; all of Affinity Photo’s basic image editing tools are front and center and, by default, the only tools you see when you run the application for the first time. But with one mouse click you can open up the full array of advanced editing tools offered by Affinity Photo, a move that even more closely aligns Affinity Photo with Photoshop in both form and function. Affinity Photo does not feature any sort of photo management system, so you will have to make use of other software for that. Serif’s Affinity Photo is a stand-alone application that will set you back US$49.99. While Affinity Photo has spent its life thus far as a Mac exclusive, Serif will introduce a Windows version of the software, with a free beta version coming summer 2016. If you’re not interested in subscription based software, Affinity Photo’s asking price in relation to the features it provides (virtually the same as Photoshop and certainly more than Elements, while being less expensive than both) makes it a no-brainer.

And the Best Photography Software of 2017 is…

Clearly, options for the best photography software are abundant. You may find that no one application fits all of your requirements but the good thing is that you can’t really go wrong with any of the software covered here. Whether you’re willing to forgo certain features for a lower price, or if price is no concern and you just want the best product on the market, or you’re looking for the best bang for your buck, there is something out there for you — even if it isn’t on this list. The most important thing you can do before diving into a purchase is research your options; this overview is a good place to start.


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About the author

Jason D. Little

Jason Little is a photographer (shooting macros, portraits, candids, and the occasional landscape), writer, and music lover. You can see Jason’s photography on Flickr, his Website or his Blog.

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