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Editing Software Explained

by Steph Doran (follow)
Blog (395)      Articles (166)     
Image taken by Nisha Haq

After you’ve been shooting for a while, you’ll probably start thinking about how to get more out of your images. Perhaps your colours aren’t displaying as richly as they are in other photos you see online, or the scenes you’re capturing may not have as much contrast as they did in real life. Using some photo manipulation software to enhance your work can help you to realise the full potential of your images.

But there are many different editing programs, and it can be confusing to know which one to sign up for. You don’t want to spend time learning how to use one, only to have switch and start again later on. The five most commonly used types of editing software are Adobe Photoshop, Lightroom and Photoshop Elements, Capture One and Google’s Picasa.

Each of these programs have pros and cons, and are designed to be used by photographers and designers of various skill levels. A photographer who needs to professionally retouch hundreds of images will have different needs to an enthusiast who just wants to make some basic changes to their family holiday snapshots. Your shooting style and your post-production workflow will dictate which program is best for you to use.

Photoshop CS

Photoshop is perhaps the most well known of the post-processing softwares, so much so that is has become a part of our vernacular. The fact that we commonly refer to any sort of digital enhancing as ‘Photoshopping,’ is proof of this. Photoshop is a professional program, that is standard within the industry. It’s a very powerful weapon of image manipulation, with an abundance of tools. Because it’s aimed at professionals, Photoshop can often be very overwhelming for new users, especially as it doesn’t offer step by step guidance when you are working within the program.

Photoshop is primarily used for image manipulation, and doesn’t have any integrated file viewing or sorting (this needs to be done through an Adobe sub program called Bridge). This means RAW images must be processed in Bridge (or another sub program called Adobe Camera Raw) before being worked on in Photoshop. While this may be a downside for some people, there is a smooth transition of images between Photoshop and Adobe Bridge/Camera Raw. Later versions of Photoshop also offer a built in ‘Mini-Bridge’ for quick file viewing. Where Photoshop really shines is with its ability to alter any image, blend multiple images, and also work with graphics and text. This means if you want to turn a photo into a brochure or a collage, you can do it all within Photoshop.

● Very flexible in terms of what you can do.
● Advanced program with unlimited editing options.
● Ability to save a layered photo (one that has had multiple edits and changes) file to come back to later.
● Ability to alter small selections of an image, rather than editing the entire image
● Ability to blend multiple images together.
● Ability to create and re-play ‘actions,’ a set of recorded steps, so you can apply the same editing techniques to other images you want to edit in the future.
● Advanced image clean up tools (cloning, spot healing, content aware)

● Such a huge program, can be intimidating for new users.
● Most useful for working on one image at a time.
● Not great at working on or syncing multiple images at once.
● Raw processing is done in a separate program (eg: Bridge or ACR)
● Expensive in comparison to other programs (but if you pay a monthly rental fee it’s less expensive than a full year membership)

In a nutshell: Tricky to learn, but endless possibilities for image manipulation.

Best for: Professional photographers, landscape photographers who like to use HDR to blend images, portrait photographers for airbrushing, and creating templates or designs from photographs.

Adobe Lightroom

Lightroom, also made by Adobe, has a strong following and is a fantastic program for streamlining your workflow. It’s the program of choice for working on large sets of images, or altering multiple images at once (which is something photographers greatly appreciate when they work on jobs where they fill lots of memory cards!). To do this Lightroom works from a cataloguing system, which can either be beneficial or tedious, depending on your personal workflow. The ability to use presets (filters that are applied over your image) also makes it quick and easy to reach the results that you are after.

Lightroom uses non-destructive editing, which makes it impossible to destroy your original images. It’s also quite logical to use, so you can begin using the program without having to take an online tutorial. Finally, Lightroom has integrated output processes, which enable you to make web pages, photo books, and slideshows from your images.

● Great for organising, sorting, rating and cataloguing your images (you can cull multiple images at once without having to flip through each one)
● Ability to create photo books, websites and slide shows from within the program.
● You can import, sort, RAW process, retouch, and output in one program.
● Easy to process multiple images at once.
● Contains adjustment brushes, for local adjustments (ie: editing just a section of an image.)
● Ability to shoot tethered, so your images are loaded straight into the catalogue as you are taking them (eg: when on location or in a studio to check that your photographs are turning out well).

● Only basic retouching can be performed (exposure, contrast, colour, spot healing, etc.) You need to use Photoshop for more complicated retouching such as changing the background or blending images.
● Images must be imported into the catalogue, so it often needs to be refreshed.

In a nutshell: A workflow-centric program, great for processing images in large volumes but not ideal for nitty gritty retouching.

Best for: Photographers who need to process lots of images (such as wedding photographers) or photographers who want to create products or albums utilising a large collection of photos.

Photoshop Elements

Like Photoshop CS, Photoshop Elements is a fantastic tool for image manipulation. Elements shares a lot of features with its bigger brother CS, but it’s aimed more towards the everyday user, rather than the professional or working photographer. What’s important to note with Elements, is that it is not simply a cheaper or simpler version of Photoshop CS. It does contain less features than the full CS version, but over the years Adobe have added more and more tools to the software, making it a strong program in its own right.

Elements also contains an organiser, which is an in-built image viewer; a feature not included in the CS version of the program. This may appeal to amateur photographers, who are looking for an ‘all in one’ program. The software also offers guided workflows and a simpler layout, which can prevent new users from becoming overwhelmed.

● Photos can be organised, edited and shared all from the same program.
● Great for beginners as it’s quite straightforward and logical to use.
● Although simpler than Photoshop CS, it still contains lots of features.
● Contains a guided editing mode, to assist inexperienced users.
● Well priced (monthly or annual memberships can be taken out).

● Doesn’t contain the full set of tools and features that Photoshop CS contains.
● Doesn’t support the Pen tool and associated selections.
● Doesn’t support as many colour spaces (eg: CMYK) which limits printing options
● Limited support for 16-bit images.

In a nutshell: A user-friendly version of Photoshop with enough features for most hobbyists.

Best for: Photographers who want to make simple changes, such as adjusting the light and exposure, cropping, straightening horizons, etc but want more options than what is available in Lightroom, and who don’t have huge amounts of images they need to edit.

Capture One

Capture One is a professional program that was developed by Phase One that many people who previously used Apple’s Aperture program switched to (after Aperture was discontinued), because of it’s similarity to Aperture. It was designed with high image quality in mind, and so has many powerful RAW processing tools. Capture One is targeted at professional photographers, but is still very user friendly and easy to navigate. It allows users to organise and process their images, and offers tethered shooting, so files can be transferred directly from camera to computer as they are taken.

Capture One contains great processing options, including excellent colour correction and perspective manipulation. It’s arguably the best RAW processor in terms of image quality and flexibility, and is fast and efficient to use. Capture One also allows you to apply changes to multiple images at once, making it a strong bulk processing tool. There is a layered editing tab within the program, and the ability to clone, mask and work with local adjustments, but it’s use is slightly limited when compared to using layers in Photoshop.

● Includes a brilliant RAW processor.
● Excellent colour management and adjustment tools.
● Ability to work in sessions or catalogues.
● Easy to save output presets, in the form of ‘recipes.’
● Great image quality.
● Ability to use layers.

● May be intimidating to new users.
● Does not support all camera profiles and file types
● Although you can work in layers, they are clunky compared to Photoshop.
● The full version of Capture One (Pro) is expensive.

In a nutshell: A workflow-centric program, great for processing images in large volumes.

Best for: Professional photographers or photographers who shoot heavily with RAW files.


Picasa, made by Google, is a simple program that allows you to organise and view your images, as well as manipulate them digitally. The main drawcard of Picasa is that is is free, so it a fantastic starting point if you are a beginner, or aren’t ready to commit to some of the pricier software options. Because of its simplicity, Picasa is intuitive to use, but its applications are limited. It does, however, have great facial recognition software.

Picasa also offers the ability to upload images into online galleries, however it has limited storage space and uploading and downloading is often slow and inconsistent. The desktop program supports RAW files, and gives you the ability to make minor adjustments to images, but these adjustments are very basic.

● Picasa is a free program.
● You can sort, edit, and share your images from the same program - it will import all the images on your computer every time you open it.
● Easy to use, it is designed for beginners and therefore has a simple user interface.
● Editing information is stored as an “ini” file, so all revisions are reversible without saving lots of copies.
● Strong facial recognition technology, which is handy for sorting family photos.
● Uses a link-like system to sort, store, add and subtract images from albums, so original images are not touched.
● Ability to email your photos to people directly from the program.
● Geotagging and mapping is a feature of Picasa.
● Supports RAW files.

● Limited adjustments can be made to images.
● Tagging, rating, and sorting falls apart if the original image is altered or moved (when using albums.)
● Cannot stitch images together (eg: to make panoramas.)
● Can’t use actions or presets

In a nutshell: A free program with limited features.

Best for: Total beginners and people who want to organise large amounts of photos.


There is no definitive “best” program, and as you can see no one program offers the perfect ‘all-in-one’ solution. The software that you choose will depend on your style of post-production, and how drastically you want to manipulate your images. You may even find that you use more than one program, depending on what you are shooting. For example, it’s quite common for photographers to use Lightroom or ACR/Camera Raw to do their RAW processing, and then bring the file into Photoshop for a final polish.

Most of these programs offer free trials, so you can shop around and test them all out before you make a choice. Once you start using some of the different post-production software, you’ll get a feel for what works best for you.

Photoh is creating a series of video tutorials for photographers who want to learn the features of Photoshop in a simple way. They will be available in 2016 so stay tuned for a release date.

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