Your photos will look their very best if you optimize them with high quality image editing software.
The short list:
Adobe Photoshop Elements 15, 14,13, 12, or 11*
Adobe Photoshop CC (Creative Cloud) or CS6*
Adobe Photoshop Lightroom CC, 6, 5 or 4*
*The software versions listed above include all the versions that use Adobe’s newest “process version”. See the section below on Adobe’s new process version for more information.
For editing your photos, it is hard to beat Elements, Photoshop, and Lightroom, all from Adobe.
Adobe Photoshop is THE image editing software among professionals. It is arguably the best software available. It can do amazing things. You will find Photoshop in the art department for almost every major publisher that deals with images, and it is far and away the most popular with professional photographers. While Elements has many of the features I need, Photoshop gives me the more advanced features I need that Elements doesn’t have. The latest version is Photoshop CC (Creative Cloud) which is only available on a monthly subscription basis directly from Adobe. The good news it also includes Lightroom CC so you are getting two apps (software packages) in one deal. The subscription price is $9.99 per month for both Photoshop CC and Lightroom CC at this link and also in the Links section below. More about the new monthly plan later in this article.
The last version of Photoshop that you could buy once and use forever (not to mention buying regular upgrades) was Photoshop CS6. It is no longer sold by Adobe. It was selling for over $1700 from reliable third party sellers the last time I checked (it was $650 when it first came out) which strikes me as an outrageous price compared to $9.99 a month for the Photoshop plus Lightroom plan. Warning: There are pirated versions of CS6 available as a “free” download, but don’t go that route if you value your computer, your identity, and your sanity. Don’t blame me if you install the “free” CS6 software and someone in a foreign country cleans out your financial accounts.
Adobe Photoshop Elements (Elements for short) is one of the best (if not THE best) of the image editing software programs in the under $100 price range (it usually sells for $60-$80). It is the “lite” version of Photoshop. Version 15 is the latest version although versions 14 and 13 are still very good if you can find a copy at a significant discount from a reputable dealer. Elements will give the you many of the basic features and tools of Photoshop and will provide all of the image editing features that most amateur photographers need.
The latest versions of Elements are color space aware. This is a big plus since working in the Adobe RGB (1998) color space is better for many purposes than the sRGB color space. The latest versions of Elements come with Adobe Bridge so you can batch handle files, including downloading files, batch renaming files, batch adding your copyright notice to the exif/meta data, and exporting the cache for files when burning them to a CD or DVD. If you ever decide to move up to the full version of Photoshop, the learning curve will be a little easier.
Adobe Photoshop Lightroom CC (on a subscription basis) and Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 6 (on a purchase basis) is a relatively new and different kind of software. It is really several programs (called modules) seamlessly combined into one terrific program. Lightroom allows you to import, edit, manage, and share your photos. The image editing features aren’t as extensive as those in Photoshop, but the features grow with every new version and they are adequate for many photographer’s needs.
One of the huge strengths of Lightroom is the image management tool capability (the Library Module) which keeps track of all of your photos. Some photographers buy Lightroom for this reason alone and use Elements or Photoshop to edit their images.
Lightroom is like having a digital card catalog for your photo library, you just have to create the cards.
It works like this. When you add photos to your library you add keywords to each photo (usually in groups). For example a group of photos taken at the same time could have all of these keywords: “elk”, “Rocky Mountain National Park”, “winter”, and “Colorado”. Later on when you are looking for photos in your library, you can search for images by one or more keywords. You can look for all of your elk photos (no matter the season or where they were taken), or just your elk photos taken in Colorado (including elk photos taken at the Denver zoo), or all of your elk photos taken in winter (no matter where they were taken), or just your elk photos taken in winter in Rocky Mountain National Park. Or you could look for winter photos in Rocky Mountain National Park (whether or not they have elk in them). As long as you have added keywords to your photos, you can find any and all photos that match one or more keywords in a matter of seconds.
Many photographers use Lightroom to keep track of their photo library and to do basic and image editing. They switch to Photoshop or Elements if they need to do some advanced image editing or need to use layers. The one big disadvantage to Lightroom is it does not allow you to use layers.
If you want to use non-destructive image adjustment layers, you will need Elements or Photoshop. There are a lot of photographers that find adjustment layers essential to their retouching work so they use Elements or Photoshop, even if they have Lightroom. Layers are also important if you want to composite two or more images together. If you don’t need layers and you want a powerful tool to keep track of your library of images, Lightroom 6 might be all you will need.
There are a lot of pros and advanced photographers who use both Photoshop and Lightroom, and there are a lot of amateur and advanced photographers who use both Lightroom and Elements.
The Photoshop and Lightroom Creative Cloud Monthly Subscription Plan
If you think about it, the $9.99 a month plan is a great deal. You get the latest versions of Photoshop and the latest version of Lightroom with all upgrades for both for only $9.99 a month. (More about Lightroom below.) Now lets look at the old buy once and pay for upgrades plan. The full version of Photoshop used to sell for about $650. Upgrades which came out once a year cost about $150 each. Even if you only bought every second or third upgrade, it adds up over time. Lightroom 6 costs about $150 (or more) and all upgrades are about $80 (or more) for each upgrade.
So lets add it up under the old buy and upgrade plan and then compare.
Photoshop – $650.
One Photoshop upgrade in three years – $150.
Lightroom – $150.
One Lightroom upgrade in three years – $80.
Total cost in three years under the old buy and upgrade plan: $1030.
Total cost in three years with the new monthly subscription plan – $360.
That is a huge difference.
So the new Adobe plan costs less per month than two meals at McDonalds or three lattes at Starbucks. When you think about it that is pretty cheap to have the best of the best image editing software, plus a great program to manage your photo library.
WHICH SHOULD YOU CHOOSE?
Ask yourself these questions. How often do you edit images? How big is your photo library and can you easily find whatever photo you happen to be looking for?
If you only edit a few images per month and only have a small image library and you can readily find whatever image you are looking for, Elements is probably the best, basic software choice for you. Buy it and be happy!
If you have thousands or tens of thousands of digital images to keep track of and you can’t quickly find any image you want whenever you want it, then you need Lightroom, if for no other reason than to use the Library Module to keep track of your growing image library. Lightroom will also take care of basic image editing tasks, but it won’t have layers like Elements or Photoshop. You have a choice between buying Lightroom 6 outright and then buying upgrades every year or two or three, or getting the Lightroom CC plus Photoshop CC subscription plan for $9.99 per month
If editing images several times per week is a regular part of your life, you really do need to get Photoshop on the $9.99 monthly subscription plan. It will cost a lot less than in the good old days when you bought Photoshop and followed up by buying upgrades on a regular basis. As a bonus, you will get Lightroom to manage your photo library and do basic image edits.
ADOBE CAMERA RAW
Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) is a very powerful tool for processing RAW camera files. It has become essential to my photography work flow along with tens of thousands of other photographers. If you don’t shoot RAW files and process them with ACR, you have no idea what you are missing in terms of better images. When first developed it was a $100 add on program. Now it is included free with Photoshop, Elements, and Lightroom (it is the processing engine in the Develop Module). ACR is another reason to choose one of these three apps for your image processing needs.
*ADOBE’S NEW PROCESS VERSION
Adobe came out with a new “Process Version” in 2012 which means better image processing for your RAW camera files. To understand what this is all about, read the whole story here. The new process version came out with Adobe Elements 11, Lightroom 4, and Photoshop CS6. For that reason I do not recommend buying a software version that is older than the ones listed in the previous sentence. If you have Adobe software with an older process version I highly recommend you upgrade to a version with the new process version.
PHOTOMATIX FOR HDR PHOTOGRAPHY
It is impossible for a digital camera to capture the whole range of tonalities (light to dark) that the eye can see, so HDR (high dynamic range) photography has become all the rage. You take several different exposures of the same scene (preferably on a tripod) that capture all of the tones in a scene from the lightest to the darkest. Then you combine them with software into one seamless image. You can go for a natural look, or for something very different and artistic (some would say over the top). The choice is yours.
I highly recommend Photomatix Pro software to combine your images. It is stand alone software that will do its own thing (you don’t have to have elements, Lightroom, or Photoshop), but you do have the option of using it as a plug in for Lightroom and/or Photoshop.
To learn more about Photomatix, read Getting Started with High Dynamic Range (HDR) Photography.
If you get Photomatix, get Fine Art Photography: High Dynamic Range: Realism, Superrealism, & Image Optimization for Serious Novices to Advanced Digital Photographers by Tony Sweet. (Yes, I think the title is too long, but it is highly descriptive.) Most of the book is devoted to taking you through a bunch of examples using Photomatix, and showing you which settings he used to get the various effects in the combined images. This book is a great introduction to Photomatix.
You can buy this software at the links below and in the software section of my photography store (which is powered by Amazon.com’s terrific prices, ordering convenience, and guarantee).
As I write this (Nov. 22, 2016), Adobe Elements 15 is $39.99 which is much less than the usual price. If you want Elements, now is the time to buy. I don’t know how long this price will last. Just follow this link.
Adobe Lightroom 6 is currently $142.99 and comes with a disc for both PC and Mac.
A subscription to Photoshop CC and Lightroom CC is $9.99 per month.
This is one in a series of articles that will guide you to the best of all things photographic. The rest are here: Buyer’s Guide: Recommendations For The Best Photography Equipment, Software, Books, Magazines, DVDs, Online Photo Labs and More.
(This article was originally written Nov. 16, 2014. Updated, expanded, and re-posted November 22, 2016.)