The best photo editing software for landscape photography is a subject that I think I am reasonably well placed to comment on, having suffered and benefited from multiple solutions over the course of my career. As ever, I only feature software I have good hands on experience of. The section entitled Best of the Rest mentions a few vendors that I certainly would try if I had an infinite amount of time and energy!
The first photo editor I used seriously was Apple’s late lamented Aperture, as an Apple user it seemed like a natural step to take and I only moved on because Apple announced its retirement.
I’ve used DXO PhotoLab through several iterations, Luminar, GIMP and Capture One. I have never used ON1 Photo RAW or Affinity Photo which may seem like an omission but I have my reasons which I’ll explain as we go along.
Photo Editor Capabilities
In choosing the best photo editing software, it helps to have some clarity around what you expect it to do for you. I would say there are two principle reasons to use software to edit photographs.
The invention of digital photography brought urgency to the business of cataloguing images in double quick time. Where film costs an appreciable amount of money to buy and print, digital cameras can record hundreds of frames in a few seconds. I seldom do a shoot which generates less than 100 images these days and I’m pretty selective about my subjects. You don’t need to be a mathematician to appreciate how quickly storage becomes unmanageable.
Cataloguing is absolutely necessary as is the flexibility to organise images in a way that works for you.
If the intention was merely to catalogue images, then there would only be one choice, Adobe Lightroom. In this respect alone it is so far ahead of the competition it’s practically uncatchable. The only serious competition is probably Photo Mechanic and that is very much geared to the workflow of photojournalism rather than long term catalogue management.
Probably the quickest and best ingester of raw files in the industry. Photo Mechanic is dedicated to organising large volumes of images straight out of the camera. Sophisticated meta data tooling enables photos to be browsed, culled, tagged and searched. There is no RAW editor, you need another solution for that, but if you simply need to organise large batches of photos from the camera, there is no better solution. Which explains why it is so popular with press photographers.
Adobe Lightroom Classic
Adobe Lightroom Classic has very effective cataloguing and metadata capability, ingest is not as fast as Photo Mechanic but most people wouldn’t need it to be, it adds a RAW processor, mapping and image conversion capability to the mix.
Capture One is oner of the best RAW processors I’ve used and its tethering capability makes it perfect for the studio photographer. Cataloguing is built around the idea of Catalogues and Sessions. Perfect for commercial photographers with multiple clients.
A RAW processor to rival Capture One, with a recently improved library capability supporting metadata and search. Where Capture One is focused on commercial photographers and Lightroom on pretty much everyone else, PhotoLab is in danger of falling between the two stools. The catalogue is improving, but nowhere close to the level of Adobe.
The Best Photo Editing Software for Image Organisation
Adobe Lightroom Classic is hands down the winner here. It’s intuitive and integration with other tools (including ones mentioned here) is excellent.
I’m really talking about RAW development here. If you don’t already know, RAW files from camera manufacturers conform to a standard which is supported by all the manufacturers (nearly). Most cameras will output RAW or Jpeg or RAW + jpeg. RAW is the source from which creative editing springs. Jpegs, png and so on don’t hold nearly as much data and so your options for developing the image are much more limited than they are if you use RAW files.
The addition of RAW Processing to Library functionality is a completely logical step for vendors and very convenient for photographers. Debate about the best RAW processor will probably never end, but I’d say it’s a toss up between Capture One and DxO PhotoLab. Adobe Camera RAW is built into both Lightroom and Photoshop and comes in a very close second.
Adobe Lightroom Classic
Adobe Camera RAW is seamlessly integrated with Lightroom and appears in the Develop Module. All RAW processors offer pretty much the same capabilities which amount to retrieving data from the RAW file, setting user preferences around exposure, colour, contrast etc and exporting or saving these preferences as a collection of settings to be applied to the original RAW file.
Adobe Lightroom Classic does this exceptionally well, adding the capability to make multiple virtual versions of a single photograph by saving multiple sets of settings. Where Adobe goes, others follow so the same capabilities, engineered slightly different show up in Capture One and PhotoLab.
Adobe Lightroom Classic has a few other tricks up its sleeve though. Limited support for masks and layers for example. This begins to encroach on the territory carved out for Photoshop so Adobe are maintaining a different interface in Lightroom which enables a basic use of masks.
The RAW processing power of PhotoLab is peerless. The program carries out lens (and body) corrections automatically and can apply noise reduction at source through the Deep Prime software. So with PhotoLab the technical quality of your starting point is superior to that of Lightroom.
In addition, PhotoLab has better (more capable) control of contrast and light and for many photographs there is enough capability there to create a print ready version of the photo with clear creative input.
DxO continue to push the envelope with the forthcoming PhotoLab, version 6. This new version is rumoured to contain significant enhancements to the already excellent noise reduction capability and improved image correction (cloning and healing). Add to this the integration with the Nik Collection and seamless access to and from Lightroom and Photoshop and it looks as though PhotoLab is nibbling hard at Lightroom’s heels. See my DxO PhotoLab 6 Review.
Recently added HDR and Stitching capability to its already excellent RAW processor in an attempt to get beyond their professional photographer user base. Both are very capable.
Adobe Photoshop is by some distance the most powerful photo editing software on the market today. The downside is that it is very complex with a steep and forbidding learning curve. Mitigating against the steep learning curve is YouTube where there are thousands of very helpful “how to” videos. The problem is that most of these videos are entirely solution focused so most of the skills are hard to transfer between tasks.
I’ve been using Photoshop in earnest for more than ten years and I don’t see myself as an expert. The Adobe approved book “Photoshop for Photographers by Martin Evening runs to over 700 pages, and it is dense with information.
Licensing or price has a real impact on this discussion. Adobe have a monthly subscription model that I think is cheap considering the number of upgrades they release every year. The downside is it goes on forever and stopping the payment stops the license.
DxO is a one off payment of €219 (elite edition) that entitles you to use the software for ever. What it does not do is entitle you to upgrade to a major version release although they do offer an upgrade price to existing users. The frequency of the major releases makes it pretty much as expensive as Adobe if you are inclined to upgrade every year.
Capture One is and always has been expensive. €349 for a full license, restricted to a single version. €219 for an annual subscription entitling you to upgrades. €29 a month for a monthly sub entitling you to upgrades. Ouch!
By comparison, the Adobe Photography Bundle including both Photoshop and Lightroom costs $19.99 per month or $239.88 per year.
The Best of the Rest
Both ON1 Photo RAW and Affinity Photo have significantly large user bases and between them provide much of the capability of the Adobe pair. Let’s take a closer look.
Affinity Photo is positioned as a direct competitor to Photoshop, works in a similar way and costs €54.99 as a one off payment. It is capable of importing and exporting psd files which means that it can be used pretty much interchangeably with Photoshop in a professional setting.
The program included full RAW development with support for the amp sidecar files generated by other applications. Additionally it supports layers and has its own focus merging capability for macro or landscape photography and its own HDR engine.
In terms of comprehensive capability it appears to be a viable competitor for Photoshop and has picked up a lot of users who are alienated by Adobe’s licensing model.
ON1 Photo RAW
ON1 have changed their licensing model recently causing howls of outrage from the user community.
The cost is high – €229.06 one off payment, upgrades in future years will come in over €100. Alternative there are flavours of a monthly payment which is set at €10.16 a month with 200 Gb cloud storage or €20.35 a month with a Terabyte of storage.
So what is so special about Photo RAW? In two words, Artificial Intelligence. Selections, Masks, Keywords, Noise Reduction, Sharpening are all powered by AI and on the face of it the toolset is formidable. I’d file under worthy of further investigation.
My own workflow is based around Lightroom/PhotoLab and Photoshop.
I use DxO Pure Raw for ‘cleaning up’ my images on import and I use the Lumenzia panel to enhance my experience of Photoshop.
My recommendation is to try before you buy. Just because I like Lightroom and Photoshop doesn’t mean it’s the best solution for you. I’ve tried to include what I feel are the leading candidates in a field that is competitive and difficult to break into.
If I was beginning again, I would be drawn to AI because it enables the user to achieve good results fast. That being said, AI works by learning, deducing patterns from large sample sets and my fear is that it will tend to produce the same style of photograph in the hands of unskilled users. Can it be pushed? I don’t honestly know but if anyone at ON1 is reading I’d be happy to do some testing!
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