While cameras and smartphones are getting better and better at taking pictures, the best photo editing software can make your images look truly amazing.
Before you share a photo with friends and family, spending a few minutes touching it up can mean the difference between a picture that's looked at once versus one that be saved and cherished. If you're planning to take your pictures and print them out in a photo book, then you'll definitely want to use some editing software to make sure those images really pop.
Beyond lighting, the best photo editing software can help you get rid of unwanted objects in your images, and making sure everyone has a smile on their face. Regardless of what you want to do with your photographs, there’s a slew of photo-editing programs from which to choose.
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What is the best photo editing software?
After testing the leading photo editing software, Adobe Photoshop Elements 2021 emerged as our top pick for its robust yet accessible editing tools. It's available for PCs and Macs, it also has a gentle learning curve for novices, as well as tons of features to make the most of your photos. And, the program grows with you: As you gain experience, you can move out of the beginner mode to gain full control over all its features.
Photoshop Elements has an AI that analyzes your images, and can automatically apply effects and create collages. A helpful organizer also lets you label and find photos by keyword, tags (people, places and events), and ratings (1 to 5 stars).
New features for the 2021 version include adding motion to static images, moving and resizing objects more easily, and fine-tuning facial features.
If you're a Windows user, you may get even more out of Corel PaintShop Pro, which has more tools and is in some ways even more accessible.
When it comes to the best free photo editing software, Gimp has all the tools you could want, and works on Mac, Windows, and Linux systems. However, it has a steep learning curve, so we wouldn't recommend it for novices.
The best photo editing software today
While there aren't a huge number of changes from last year's version, Adobe Photoshop Elements is our pick for best photo editing software overall for its ease of use, fun creativity and underlying power. While there's not much new from last year's version, Adobe's excellent interface and robust toolset— as well as the fact that Photoshop Elements works on both Macs and PCs—make it the best photo editing software around.
As before, three interfaces (Guided Edits, Quick Edits, and Expert Mode) make this program accessible for users of all experience levels. Adobe's Sense AI can intelligently analyze and tweak your images, saving you a step or two if you're in a hurry. And, a new subject selection tool makes it easier to create cutouts of individuals and pets, and a Smooth Skin tool is great at getting rid of wrinkles.
Read our full Adobe Photoshop Elements review.
In many ways, Corel PaintShop Pro is superior to Photoshop Elements, as it's a powerful program, yet is easy for novices to grasp, and has some additional tools, such as 360-degree photo editing. It's also touch-screen compatible and has a new streamlined workspace.
PaintShop Pro (and the upgrade, PaintShop Pro Ultimate) are also usually much less expensive than Photoshop Elements, making it a bargain.The biggest knock against Corel vs. Photoshop is that while Photoshop Elements is available for both macOS and Windows PCs, PaintShop Pro is a Windows-only program.
Read our full Corel PaintShop Pro review.
Photographers who want to quickly and easily touch up batches of photos will find no better product than Adobe Lightroom. Available not just for Windows and Macs, but also Android and iOS devices, this cloud-based program allows you to access and edit your photos anywhere, on virtually any device.
Those who want to perform more extensive edits (such as removing unwanted objects or adding multiple layers, text, and more) would be better suited with Photoshop Elements, but if you want to efficiently make your photos look better, no matter where you are, Adobe Lightroom is the best photo editing software for the task.
Read our full Adobe Lightroom review.
The ultimate when it comes to photo editing software, Adobe Photoshop CC has it all. This latest version increasingly relies on Sensei, Adobe’s highly touted artificial intelligence engine, to facilitate a host of impressive features. The most high-profile of these include Sky Replacement, new Refine Edge selections. Plus, Neural Filters help simplify complex workflows.
Adobe Photoshop CC is available only as a subscription service; for $53 per month, you get Photoshop as part of an entire Creative Cloud package that also includes 20 CC desktop and mobile apps like Illustrator, Dreamweaver, Premier Pro, InDesign, After Effects, plus fonts and 100GB of cloud storage. For $10 per month, you get the Photography plan, which offers Photoshop, Lightroom and Lightroom CC for the desktop and 20GB of online storage. For $21 per month you get the same Photography Plan with 1TB of online storage.
Read our full Adobe Photoshop CC review.
Affinity Photo offers powerful tools, resolution-independent editing, RAW processing within the interface and most of the other features that professional photographers want and need — all for less than $50. In fact, the company is currently selling the software for $25, making it even more of a bargain. While its learning curve is steeper than most, you’ll be rewarded with a robust set of features, including Photoshop-like exposure controls, paintbrushes, layers and more. It can even open, read and edit Photoshop PSD files, making for a more seamless transition between the two programs.
An update this year also added support for Smart Objects, as well as additional third-party plugins, and Canon CR3 RAW files. And, like Photoshop Elements, Affinity Photo works on both Macs and PCs. There's even a version for iPads, too.
Read our full Affinity Photo review.
Google Photos is better than any other tool for organizing and consolidating all your photo libraries, no matter where they are — which is why it's on our list of the best photo storage services, too. It's cross-platform, syncs across all your devices, and can also be downloaded to Android and iOS devices, too, so it's available wherever you are. Unfortunately in June 2021, Google will no longer allow you to store an unlimited number of photos in the cloud; rather, they'll count against your 15GB Google Drive limit.
However, in terms of editing tools, Google Photos offers only the barest minimum, helping you quickly prepare pictures for easy sharing. It does have facial recognition built in, so you can quickly search for all photos of a particular person. It also automatically tags photos by keyword, such as Sunset, Forests, Cars, and more, though you can't tag photos yourself, or add custom keywords. It’s best used in tandem with another app that offers greater editing features, such as Adobe Photoshop Elements.
Read our full Google Photos review.
iPhone, iPad, and Mac users looking for a simple, free video editor would do well to check out Apple Photos. While not as robust as paid programs, Apple Photos offers plenty of tools for quickly touching up, tweaking, and sharing your pictures to family and friends.
Apple Photos also makes collages of your photos based on subject, theme, or location, such as "Four-Legged Friends" and "Best of Last 2 Months." It can also identify faces, and let you search through photos based on themes such as Concerts, Weddings, but it's not as comprehensive as Google Photos. Because Apple Photos syncs in the cloud, you can also connect your photo and video library across multiple devices, and if you run out of room, iCloud storage isn't too expensive.
Read our full Apple Photos review.
GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) is a free, open-source photo editor that's beloved by many for its ability to help you get under the hood and change the source code of the program to best fit your needs. GIMP also has a powerful set of editing tools, many of which are on a par with paid software. Some of these features include the ability to create and edit layers, special-effect filters; exposure controls; and more.
Because GIMP is open-source, there's a very active community of users who have created plugins to add even more functionality to the program. However, despite a more user-friendly interface than past versions, Gimp offers almost nothing in the way of guidance, which makes it much more difficult to learn than other photo-editing software.
Read our full Gimp Photo Editor review.
How to choose the best photo editing software for you
When deciding on the best photo editing software, you'll first want to decide if you want to pay for it or not. Unless you're a professional photographer, your needs will be met with any number of programs that cost less than $100. And, if all you want to do is make your selfies, food pics, and photos of your pets look nicer, you can probably get away with a free photo editing program, or even the photo editing app on your smartphone.
If you decide to go the paid route, you'll first want to make sure the program works on your laptop or desktop computer. Virtually all software is compatible with Windows machines, but far fewer will work on Macs.
Last, you'll want to think about how experienced you are with photo editing. Adding filters is one thing, but adjusting contrast, paintbrushing and cloning objects, and making composite images is quite another. If you're a novice, consider photo editing software with guided edits, which will not only help you learn how to use the program, but teach you the fundamentals of editing, too.
How we test photo editing software
We considered the following criteria when evaluating the best photo editing software:
- Organizing, syncing and accessing your photo library
- Photo editing versatility and depth
- Ease of use
- Sharing options
- Device and file format support
- Creative freedom
Each of the programs we tested didn't try to be the end-all, be-all for everyone. Therefore, we gave the various criteria different weights in our final ratings, depending on what the program's objective was and the kind of photographer to whom it would appeal.
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