Which is the best photo-editing program available out there? Which raw converter works the best? Every year various websites and magazines do comparisons of the best programs available and come out with recommendations. I have played around with a few programs and seen other photographers work on them. Here is a basic insight into some of the available options from my personal point of view.
(Nikon D200 with Nikkor 18-35mm lens. Clicked as raw and post-processed)
There are three components to image editing programs that have to be considered before finalizing your work-flow.
1. Raw file’s post-processing (also called demosaicing)
2. Actual image editing
3. File sorting and viewing (cataloguing)
So, here is a list of some common programs and my impression of their advantages and disadvantages.
Gimp with ufraw
Gimp is an opensource program that is available for windows, mac and linux. It is very powerful, customizable and there is extensive documentation available on the internet. These things make it a very easy to learn program. All the common tools required are provided along with some really simple implementations of some of the complicated methods such as perspective control. For post-processing raw files an external converter is required and ufraw integrates well with it. This is one program which I end up using whenever I want to get some work done real quick.
Gimp does not have any cataloguing capabilities and is limited to 8 bit files. There is a file manager built in but nothing much to talk about. The GUI is very configurable but it is difficult to do so. I prefer to use the default GUI and if I happen to inadvertently make any changes to it, it is simply a task of deleting the gimp folder in the user’s folders (location of which depends on the operating system) and relaunching the application. Another gripe is that while trying to save as jpg, the images have to be exported using the menu. jpg images can’t be directly saved using the ‘save as’ functionality
One of the most advanced softwares. It is not free. The present version is sold as a service on a monthly subscription basis. It has built in raw converter and everything required for a good image editing program. Adobe keeps updating the raw file support and most of the new cameras are supported by it. There is a huge assortment of third party plugins available to further enhance the workings. Some of the most advanced image editing tools are available in Adobe Photoshop. Among the image editing tools available, it has some of the most powerful blur tools. The color management is also very detailed. It is therefore not a wonder that edited photographs are now commonly called as being ‘photoshopped’. Adobe Photoshop is therefore the leader when it comes to photo editing.
On the downside, it requires good amount of computer’s resources. It does not have any image cataloging capabilities. I would have mentioned the cost too but with the subscription model, it is no longer a constraint. For some users, the subscription model (CC) is not a very comfortable option. In that case do take a look at Affinity Photo or any of the other options.
This is another offering from Adobe which photographers consider as a stripped down version of Adone Photoshop but with in built cataloging option. This is a complete workflow solution in one program and very useful for photographers interested in batch operations. Don’t let me discourage you when I say the ‘stripped down version’. In my experience the most commonly used tools in post-processing are all there. However if you want to actually edit the image, make changes using layers, use masks or want to use any of the powerful tools available in Adobe Photoshop then you will be stuck. Though marketed as a lighter version for most photographers, I consider Lightroom as an extension of Adobe’s offerings. Photoshop and Lightroom complement each other.
Initially, the learning curve with Lightroom is steep but after the basics are clear, the nuances are easy to master.
Its main strength lies in demosaicing or its raw converter. Its converter is supposed to be the best one among all the available converters across all platforms. the color rendering is the best among all programs. The only downside is that it does not support plugins. So, no third party filters can be used with it.
Corel’s PaintShop Pro
This is the present avatar of the JASC’s Paint Shop and available for Windows. Many consider it as the best low cost alternative for photoshop. The program runs very stable on 64 bit systems from what I have heard. Photographers who use it frequently find some of its tools ineffective and workflow slow, especially while switching between manage, adjust and edit modes. Somehow the review sites rate it quite high. I have personally never used it so no comments from me.
Yet another open source software which is available only on linux systems. It has all the required features making it a complete workflow solution. The interface is not too friendly and has a learning curve to it. For accessing the images, the folder has to be first imported into the software. For working on files from another folder, the same process is to be repeated and as a result the earlier folder is no longer visible. The folder import function is irritating. If only it had a way to link a folder tree directly. For working on images, user has to switch of darkroom mode from the lighttable. This may seem unusual to new users but it makes handling of the images easy (unlike in Corel’s PaintShop Pro). Darktable needs refinements but still it is the best solution on linux machines. It is easy and provides all the commonly used functions for good demosaicing of the images. Photographers who use both linux and windows systems have compared it to Adobe Lightroom in functionality. Darktable should be used along with a dedicated photo-editing program (like Gimp) to achieve complete control.
A powerful but free option that also features the complete workflow. The learning curve is steep with it. I am yet to find a serious photographer who uses it.
DxO Optics Pro
It is supposed to have very effective noise reduction and basic correction tools. Sadly it lacks the needed tools for proper photo editing. I use Nikon and so for me Capture NX-D makes more sense on Windows platform.
A lot of photographers whom I know, use this as the sole program to manage images. It has good interface which can be customized. ACDSee Pro also provides lots of ready to use effects. I have seen it being used by them but have never tried it myself.
This is a discontinued software from Nikon but if you have a Nikon camera supported by this version, nothing beats it. Go for it if you are comfortable with the thought that the software is not the latest and does not support the newest Nikon cameras.
Capture NX-D is the new raw converter offered officially by Nikon, for free. When it was launched initially, it was frowned upon for crippling the power of Capture NX-2, which was a paid software. I see it as a View-NX on steroids. For those unfamiliar with Nikon’s software, View-NX is their solution for cataloging and basic image conversions. Nikon Capture NX-D provides all the basic tools required for post-processing the images. The control-points (biggest attraction of Capture NX-2) are missing from it but then if you have to use that level of retouching in your photographs, opt for one of the dedicated photo-editors like Adobe Photoshop or Affinity Photo. It runs light on system, features fast workflow and is very easy to master. If you are a Nikon user and needs only demosaicing and cataloging solution without bothering much about photo-editing, then do try this out.
This is a gem of a program which was earlier available only on Mac. Recently it has also been made available for Windows. It is a very fast and easy to use program which runs light on system resources. The first thing that is seen on launching the program is how responsive it feels. It has some really great controls especially when it comes to colors. Raw files look different from other programs but on observing them closely, they seem to resemble the original scene very closely. The raw converter is one if its main strengths. With the launch of Windows version this may become a game changer. It has good demosaicing and photo-editing capabilities. Cataloguing is not present as is the case with most of the dedicated photo-editors. Most of the common photoshop plugins are supported by Affinity Photo too. The biggest gripe is that the camera settings are not used as a default starting point for working on raw files. Saving and exporting files takes some getting used to. Overall it is touted as a very good program and the best alternative to Adobe Photoshop.
(Rose – Nikon D200 with Sigma 105mm macro lens, f/10, 1/160 sec at ISO 400,
clicked raw and post-processed on Gimp)
These are just a few names that I commonly keep hearing about. There are many more equally good programs out there. Some of them may be even better than the ones I have listed. Zoner Photo Studio, Cybelink Photo Director, Photoshop Elements are some more programs with good reviews. What is important is to find the most comfortable work-flow and master the program whichever it may be (Mastering Gimp/Photoshop/Lightroom…). Whatever program you become comfortable with and actually start using will be the best image editing program for you.
Apart from choosing a good computer, photo editing program and designing a proper workflow, color management is one aspect that is often neglected. I’ll be writing about it sometime soon in another article. If you are still clicking jpg, it is time to switch to raw and post-process (Post Processing RAW).
If you are new in the post-processing field, these are my suggestions-
- Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Lightroom if you are comfortable with the subscription model (on Windows and Mac).
- Affinity Photo if you want to pay once for the licensing fees and use the program without any internet connection (on Windows and Mac)
- Gimp should be your first choice if you are looking for a free software on any of the popular operating systems.
For those of you wondering about what programs I use- I am trying to learn Gimp on linux and Affinity Photo on windows.