How to pick the best photo editor for your life

creaticity editing

Browsing the App Store for new photo-editing software can be overwhelming. There are dozens of image editors, and it’s difficult to tell which is the right one for your needs.

If you’re already using iPhoto or Aperture, stick with those programs until Photos is released in 2015—it may be all you need. If you’re willing to pay for more features, here are all the big (and subtle) differences between today’s top image editors to help you choose the software that’s best for you.

iPhoto

This image database and non-destructive editor will be replaced by a new app named Photos in 2015, though it’s still one of the easiest places to import, manage, correct, and share your photos. Instead of editing your originals, it stores your edit requests in a database, so you can always revert to your original. It works on a variety of file formats, including raw, and its Adjust panel lets you adjust exposure, color temperature, highlights and shadows (independently), remove noise, and sharpen. A rudimentary healing brush lets you remove small stuff, and you can easily create black-and-whites, add a sepia (brown) or vintage tint, and apply a white, black, or blurry effect to a photo’s edges. iPhoto lets you share images via email and social media sites, and create gorgeous cards, calendars, and photo books—you can print the cards yourself, too, which is handy. On the downside, there’s no way edit a certain area in your image (you can’t lighten teeth, for example), adjustments can be copied and pasted only onto one other image at a time, and you can’t combine images or add text. iPhoto also squirrels your photos away into its own filing system, so you can’t control the directory structure in which photos are stored.

Price: Free.

iphoto

Enjoy iPhoto while you still can. It's being replaced next year.

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom

Like iPhoto, Lightroom’s database lets you import, organize, and edit photos non-destructively, though it uses your file organization structure. Designed for photographers, it sports easy-to-use controls for cropping, correcting exposure, adjusting highlights and shadows, boosting color, adding edge vignettes, reducing noise, correcting geometric and perspective problems, performing precise sharpening, and more. You can copy and paste or sync changes across multiple images, and it has a never-ending history panel, so you can always see and undo what you’ve done. Lightroom doesn’t support layer-based editing (think stackable transparencies), but it has several tools that can be used to affect specific areas of your image. You can remove small objects, duplicate pixels, create black-and-whites, create partial color effects, create color tints (split-tones), apply digital makeup, lighten teeth, and apply changes in a linear or radial fashion, or paint them on by hand. It also lets you create pro-level photo books, printing templates, slideshows, and simple web galleries, plus you can create presets for nearly everything you do in the program (handy for exporting images at certain sizes with watermarks and for uploading to social media sites such as Facebook). Apple’s Aperture is nearly identical, and though it’ll also be replaced by Photos in 2015, don’t switch to another program yet—you’ll lose the ability to undo your Aperture edits. Instead, hang tight until Photos is released.

Price: $150 for perpetual license, included in $10/month Adobe Creative Cloud Photography program and the $50/month full Creative Cloud subscription.

lightroom

Lightroom's powerful Develop module, with a handy list of all your edits in the History panel.

Mylio

Launched in late October 2014, this database-driven, non-destructive editor is generating a lot of buzz. Mylio is designed for everyone who takes pictures (hobbyists and pros) and manages all your photos—iPhone, Facebook, point-and-shoot, DSLR, etc.—in your own directory structure, so you can view them side-by-side and easily search your whole library. Mylio syncs your photos among the desktop and mobile devices you tell it about, so your entire collection is constantly backed up and accessible in multiple places. You can edit, share, and export photos using Mylio, too. Its editing features are much like Lightroom, though without the ability to adjust parts of the photo or create projects. Look for my Macworld review later this month.

Price: $100–$250 per year.

Adobe Photoshop CC

This pro-level pixel pusher is as powerful (and complex) as it gets. Aimed at graphic designers, web designers, and pro photographers, nothing screams digital status like Photoshop mastery. It supports many color modes, including CMYK (crucial for printing newspapers and magazines) and ProPhoto RGB (great for pro photographers), it gives you access to the individual color channels that comprise your image—red, green, blue, and so on—and you can create channels for fancy print effects (spot colors, varnish, metallic coatings, etc.). Photoshop is the original layer-based editor and its layer masks let you hide the content of a layer in specific areas (handy for adjusting parts of your image and for swapping heads). It supports 8-bit or 16-bit editing (the latter supports more colors) and lets you alter exposure and color using a wide variety of methods —it comes with the full Adobe Camera Raw plug-in that sports nearly the exact same panels, sliders, and tools found in Lightroom. You can create simple and extremely complex selections around hair and fur that you can save, and it includes many intelligent tools that let you realistically remove and reposition objects.

You can also create vector-based art with it—art that’s based on points and paths instead of pixels—either by converting text, by drawing with its mighty Pen tool or by using built-in shapes; you can edit the points and paths of vector art, and use its powerful brush engine to create paintings from scratch. Photoshop also lets you create 3D objects, record actions (keystrokes), edit video (it supports multiple video and audio tracks), create animated GIFs, and animate layer content using key-frames.

Photoshop is no database though, so you can’t use it to import or manage photos; however, you can do that using Adobe Bridge (separate download; free with Photoshop subscription). Adobe Bridge isn’t a database either, so it doesn’t store your edit requests in a catalog like iPhoto, Lightroom and Mylio; instead, it’s an image browser and batch-processing tool.

Price: $10/month with Adobe Creative Cloud Photography program or $50/month for full Creative Cloud subscription.

photoshop

Among Photoshop's many superpowers is the ability to apply precise motion using its Path Blur filter.

Adobe Photoshop Elements

Powerful yet user-friendly, this consumer-level editor is a scaled down version of Photoshop. Its three editing modes—Quick, Guided, and Expert—can accommodate any skill level (Guided mode includes step-by-step instructions for many practical tasks.) Elements also lets you create prints, books, cards, and calendars (though the templates are lame), Facebook cover images, etc. and easily share images via email and social media sites. Its database component, the Elements Organizer, lets you import and organize images, as well as edit photos non-destructively—it doesn’t store edit requests, it merely lets you save multiple versions of the same image and tracks the copies. Elements supports layers and layer masks, and includes tools that you can use to remove and reposition objects, though it miraculously includes Photoshop’s powerful Refine Edge dialog box for selecting hair and fur. (It also includes a scaled-down version of the Adobe Camera Raw plug-in.)

On the downside, Elements only supports RGB color mode, it doesn’t let you access individual color channels, or edit 16-bit files. You can create text, though formatting options are extremely limited, and while you can create vector-based art using its shape tools, you can’t edit points and paths, nor is there a Pen tool that you can draw freehand with. Elements includes many Photoshop filters, including the powerful Liquify for extreme pixel pushing and subject reshaping, but lacks the Blur Gallery and the ability to use Smart Filters.

Price: $100 for perpetual license; not part of the Adobe Creative Cloud.

elements

Here you can see a puzzle effect applied in Guided mode, which was manipulated further in Expert mode.

Pixelmator

Pixelmator is a nice alternative to both Photoshop and Elements, as it has similar functionality but no database component. It doesn’t support CMYK mode (save through soft-proofing) though it does work in ProPhoto RGB and sRGB, it supports 8- and 16-bit editing, layers, and layer masks. You can push a photo through text and create selections (though it doesn’t have anything like the Refine Edge dialog box to help you select hair or fur). You can correct exposure and color (it has both Levels and Curves adjustments), draw vector-based art by freehand (you can edit the individual points and paths, too), create text (with limited formatting), and perform some pixel-pushing through Warp, Bump, and Pinch tools. You can also remove and duplicate objects, apply a slew of preset effects (think filters), create paintings, and easily share images via email or social media sites.

Price: $30; $10 for the iPad version.

pixelmator

The incredibly powerful Pixelmator has a slew of slick effects, like the Circle Splash shown here.

As you can see, there are many image editors to choose from depending on your needs. If you’re into scrapbooking, try Photoshop Elements or Pixelmator. Engineers, high-end retouchers, restoration artists, web professionals, fine-artists and die-hard graphics gurus need Photoshop CC. Everyone else may be best served by embracing Lightroom (or Apple’s forthcoming Photos app) as their organizational, image improvement, and project creation tool. Lastly, everyone should keep an eye on Mylio, as it just might be the photo management tool of our dreams. Until next time, may the creative force be with you all.

PhotoLesa.com founder Lesa Snider teaches the world to create better graphics. She’s the author of the best-selling Photoshop: The Missing Manual books, coauthor of iPhoto: The Missing Manual, author of The Skinny Book ebook series, a founding creativeLIVE instructor, and regular columnist for Photoshop User and Photo Elements Techniques magazines.

Update: This story has been updated to reflect that Aperture is not a free program.

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