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What is the Best Software for Digital Photography?

written by: Annette Pope•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 1/17/2011

In the days of film, images were coaxed into existence through chemical baths and patience. While patience should still be practiced in photography today, digital photographers utilize more modern methods of development. Discover what is the best software for digital photography and your needs.

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    Photography is a profession divided. Great debates rage on, filling photography forums with topics ranging from the ideal number of megapixels, the best camera system and whether film is superior to digital. Emotions run high on both sides of these debates, but one thing that most professional photographers will agree on is the fact that images should never be abandoned once that shutter clicks. Photo editing software is a staple in the workflow of most professional photographers, and should be considered by all photographers—amateur and professional alike—as an important and vital step in the photography process.

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    Why Use Editing Software?

    There are a lot of flat out incorrect ideas when it comes to photo editing software. This misinformation is usually passed around by the photography “purists”, or those who believe that an image should be displayed straight from the camera, completely untouched by post processing software. Some of the more popular misconceptions regarding photo editing software are:

    Myth #1 – Photo editing software can make a bad photo into a good one.

    In a word, no. While editing programs can help improve an image by recovering lost details or correcting for white balance and contrast errors, there is no software on the market that can “fix” a photo that is hopelessly blurry, horribly composed or horrendously lit. As the old saying goes, “garbage in, garbage out”. Editing software is meant to enhance images, not correct for poor photography.

    Myth #2 – Any photographer worth his salt will get everything right in the camera.

    Ideally, yes, a knowledgeable photographer will adjust his camera's settings to get the best image possible. But every camera has its limitations. Sometimes the right settings aren't quite enough. Or sometimes the photographer has a specific look in mind that no camera can provide. That's where post processing with photo editing software comes in.

    Myth #3 – Using photo editing software is like lying to the viewer.

    Some people think that editing a photo somehow degrades it because this processing alters what was actually captured. While this is true for the many scandal magazines that utilize editing software to place a well-endowed celebrity in the arms of Bigfoot, that's not quite what the average photographer will use it for. Removing a pimple, smoothing out a bride's skin tone or adding a vignette may not be factually accurate, but it does portray the subject in a favorable way.

    Photography, as with most other visual arts, is a way of telling a story or expressing an emotion. Using photo editing software to enhance, de-emphasize, add or subtract elements within the image helps the photographer achieve the look and feel he or she was aiming for when the shutter clicked. Photo editing software should not be viewed as dishonest or cheating the viewer, but merely another tool in a photographer's arsenal to create great images.

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    The Best Software for Digital Photography - What to Look for in Photo Editing Software and GIMP ReviewWhen deciding what is the best software for digital photography, it's important to know what to look for in the different programs available. Comparing programs means comparing their features, support system and user control. Photo editing software ranges from a simple "fixer" that just straightens and crops images, to larger, more controlling programs that can alter colors, remove elements within the image and even add special effects. Know what's important to you will help you narrow down the type of program you're looking for. Read about what to look for in a photo editing program in this informative article.
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    What to Look For in Editing Software

    Figuring out what is the best software for digital photography isn't as simple as it sounds. There are numerous photo editing programs available, ranging in price from free to hundreds of dollars, and offering varying levels of options and performance. No one program will work for everyone, but there are enough choices available so that everyone should be able to find one they like. Keep three things in mind when looking for a photo editing software:

    Features – You never know what you may need to do with your images once you take them. Some photographers may only need to straighten and crop their images, while others may like to perform extensive adjustments. Different programs offer different levels of features and options, so compare programs to get the choices you want and need.

    Support – Some programs offer updates to support new camera formats that are released after the program was written. Also look for customer support in the form of online help files, customer service phone numbers and email addresses to send in questions.

    Ease of Use – Like most other types of programs, photo editing software runs the gamut when it comes to ease of use. Some programs are very intuitive and can be learned quite easily, while others require a higher learning curve, often in the form of separate instructional books.

    One more thing to keep in mind when looking for photo editing software is to determine where you are on the photographer spectrum. Are you a hobbyist or an amateur photographer who just enjoys taking pictures, or a professional—or aspiring professional—who's always on the lookout for ways to make your images stand out and look their best? Narrowing down your investment in photography will help determine how much of a program you need, as well as how much you should budget for one.

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    GIMP, which stands for GNU Image Manipulation Program, is a free, expandable photo editing program capable of performing a variety of actions for photo enhancement and manipulation. It can perform simple adjustments such as straightening or cropping, as well as more involved actions using layers and various selection and art effects tools. Considered by many as an inexpensive alternative to Adobe Photoshop, GIMP may also respond sluggishly and take a long time to learn.


    • Free!
    • Vast collection of tools and features
    • Comparable to Photoshop in versatility
    • Available for Windows, Mac and Linux operating systems


    • High Learning Curve
    • Can be sluggish to use

    Bottom Line:

    If you like Photoshop but lack the funds for the high price tag, GIMP may be the best option for you. It's versatile, powerful and compatible with the three main operating systems in use today. GIMP is powerful enough for professional photographers, but affordable enough for amateurs who don't mind spending some time learning the ropes.

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    The Best Software for Digital Photography - Adobe Photoshop Elements and Adobe LightroomChoosing what is the best software for digital photography depends upon your individual needs as a photographer. For those who want control in a simple, intuitive user interface, Adobe Photoshop Elements may be all you need. For higher level photographers and professionals, Adobe Lightroom may be a great editing program to start with, or use for a bulk of your processing needs. Read about the pros and cons of these popular programs in this informative article.
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    Adobe Elements

    The company Adobe is practically synonymous with “photo editing programs” and the entry level image editor is Photoshop Elements. Best for hobbyists and other non-professionals, Photoshop Elements provides versatility in an intuitive, easy to use package. Users can perform simple photo edits and add special effects to their images, and beginners can utilize a guided tutorial for help.


    • Intuitive, well organized layout
    • Good for hobbyist photographers
    • Guided level for beginners
    • Available for Windows and Mac operating systems
    • Feature rich


    • Expensive for those who only need basic editing tools
    • Light on professional level features

    Bottom Line:

    While intuitive and full of features, Photoshop Elements is mostly for the hobbyist photographer. This program doesn't offer enough features and control that most professionals desire, but for those non-professional photographers interested in coaxing the most out of their images, Photoshop Elements may be for you.

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    Adobe Lightroom

    A step up from Photoshop Elements, and directed more towards professional photographers, is Adobe Lightroom. This more expensive program offers more options and features to professionals, who use it as a way to process the RAW file format from their cameras. Lightroom can also be incorporated with its big sister program, Adobe Photoshop, and is sometimes used as a way to pre-process images before polishing them completely in Photoshop. But some professionals use Lightroom alone for their processing and finishing needs.


    • Handles RAW file formats
    • Works with both PC and Mac platforms
    • Edits photos without saving over the original file
    • Aids in workflow for professionals


    • Expensive if you're not a professional
    • Some actions can be slow
    • You still may desire Photoshop for more control, which adds to the expense

    Bottom Line:

    Adobe Lightroom is a professional quality photo editor and not generally marketed to the hobbyist photographer. Photography enthusiasts and professionals find Lightroom's RAW file processing speed convenient, as is the fact that any editing done to images remains in the program and does not save over the original file. The changes and edits are applied to the image when the photo is exported, which can be configured to be performed in batches to save time.

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    The Best Software for Digital Photography - Adobe PhotoshopWhen it comes to deciding what is the best software for digital photography, the one name that will always rise to the top of the list is Adobe Photoshop. This versatile, professional level photo editing program has become a staple in the workflow of most professional photographers, with good reason. The use of layers, special effects and adjustments help any photographer willing to put in the time to learn the program make their images look their very best. Read about this very popular editing program in this informative article.
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    Adobe Photoshop

    The grand-daddy of all photo editing software programs, and the one most people think of when they think of “photo manipulation”, is Adobe Photoshop. This program has gained fame and infamy alike with its ability to alter elements within a photo, such as adding, deleting or replacing objects. Layers allow the user to work on different parts of the image without causing havoc with previous alterations, and plug-ins are available to add new special effects and techniques.


    • Extremely powerful professional level photo editing software
    • Countless plug-ins available, with new ones developed continually
    • Works for PC and Mac platforms


    • Expensive
    • High learning curve
    • Can slow your computer by using a lot of RAM

    Bottom Line:

    Considered by many as the best software for digital photography, Adobe Photoshop is the must-have program for professional level photographers interested in making their images look their very best. Versatile, powerful and expansive, Photoshop allows photographers the tools necessary to stretch their creativity and artistic vision past the limitations of their camera equipment.

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    The best software for digital photography is ultimately whichever software that fits your personal photographic needs best. For those who want all power and versatility of Photoshop but can't afford a nearly $700 price tag, GIMP may be the perfect program. Photographers who don't want to spend long hours learning a program may find Photoshop Elements works best for them. Or there may be a program not on this list that works better. Research and comparisons are the key words when it comes to choosing a program that's right for you, and your final decision shouldn't be swayed by the popular vote. Read reviews, use your best judgment and go with a program that will ultimately help your photography, not slow it down.

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    Consumer Search: Photo-Editing Software – Reviews -

    Adobe: Photoshop CS5 -

    GIMP: About GIMP -