This blog is a starting point for helping you to decide whether you should edit your photos, and if so, there is advice about software you might want to use. It’s not meant to be a comprehensive review about different programs, about which there are numerous online reviews and videos. I discuss the programs I use and why I find them useful. Check out my other blogs for more detail about Luminar AI and the Topaz Suite
There are referral links (some with a discount) for some of the programs at the end of the blog. Use them if you wish.
Why do you take photos?
This is the first thing to consider. If you take photos only to use on social media, you don’t need any specialist photo editing software. There are plenty of free apps such as Snapseed or the basic phone or tablet photo editing tools that brighten or straighten images if needed. You can do a lot more with these too, such as adding contrast and saturation to make them ‘pop’ a bit more. Go easy on these controls though or photos can look unnatural. These adjustments do a very good job for small low resolution images for social media and you need look no further.
If you want to improve your photographic techniques, enter competitions or print images then you’ll want your images to look as good as they can. And if this is the case, then you probably want to set your camera to take raw images which allows for much greater processing or editing than you can do with jpegs.
Raw versus jpeg
Industry standard jpegs can be read by all software. Jpegs are processed images using algorithms set by the camera manufacturer and are compressed files so that a significant amount of data is lost which can never be recovered. For the vast majority of uses, jpegs are fine, and can still be tweaked to some extent in editing software.
Raw files are so named because they are minimally processed and not ready to be printed or displayed without further editing. Unlike jpegs, there is no single raw file format. Different camera manufacturers (and even different cameras from the same manufacturer) produce different raw file types (eg .RAW .RAW2; Canon uses .crw .cr2 and .cr3; Nikon uses .nef .nrw; Olympus uses .orf and so on). Raw files preserve the information captured at the time of exposure, but not all cameras can generate a raw file.
Camera settings menu for raw and jpeg
Taking raw photos means that there is an extra processing step and therefore it’s only required when photographers intend to make their own edits. Raw files have numerous advantages over jpegs, including producing higher quality and higher resolution images, being able to adjust the colours much more (such as altering the white balance) and being able to make marked adjustments, such as increasing exposure without reducing quality. Additionally, edits are non-destructive: the original data is retained even after editing, so a raw file can be repeatedly edited in different ways to produce different final versions. Raw images are a starting point for your creative edits, and therefore generally look flat and dull until they are edited. Once edits are made, images are exported from a software program as jpegs.
Example of RAW image and processed jpeg
Some cameras can take RAW and jpegs at the same time. My opinion is that unless you have a specific need for jpegs (eg to immediately upload to social media) then it just confuses things to have two versions of the same image and it also takes up more storage space on your camera's media card. Needless to say, raw images take more space than jpegs (2-6 times more), so make sure you have a card with enough memory (or spares) for the likely number of photos you will take. So, if you plan to do creative edits on your images and want to be in total control of what your image looks like, always use raw. Otherwise take jpegs to save storage space on memory cards and avoid the editing process.
App photo editors cannot match what you can do with a Windows or Mac raw editor program; a lot will depend on how much editing you want to do and whether you are willing to pay for a software program. There is a wide range of raw editors which do similar things and have similar adjustment controls. I imagine that if you were to ask 10 different people what editing program they like best, you might get 10 different answers. You’ll need to decide what will suit you best (see Points to consider below).
Some of the raw editor program names you’ll come across include:
Luminar AI, Aurora HDR, Adobe Lightroom, ACDSee Photo Studio, PhotoDirector Ultra, Capture One, ON1, Gimp, DXO PhotoLab, Paintshop Pro, Aftershop Pro, Darktable, RAW Power, RawTherapee, Affinity Photos, Photopea, Polarr, InPixio, Pixlr, Photoscape X etc etc.
As you can see there are many options. Some of these programs are free, and many of the paid for programs offer free trials so it’s a good idea to try them out before buying.
There are many online reviews comparing different programmes. Here are two articles as a good starting point:
Another free program not mentioned in either article is Faststone Image Viewer (www.faststone.org), a good basic free easy-to-use editor.
These programs allow you to make adjustment edits to exposure, contrast, saturation, highlights and shadows (the brighter and darker parts of the image), cropping and straightening and most will do much more such as altering the white balance (how warm or cool a photo looks), healing spots or marks, sharpening and so on.
Points to consider:
There are other types of editing software designed for particular editing functions, such as the Topaz suite which includes Topaz AI (for sharpening), Topaz DeNoise (to reduce noise) and Topaz Gigapixel (upsizes images). These can also be used as stand-alone editors or as plug-ins to other raw editing programs.
What I use
My main photo editor is Adobe Lightroom, which is one of the most common programs used by professional photographers. I use Adobe Photoshop when an image needs a particular editing function that cannot be done, or cannot be done as easily, in Lightroom. I use Luminar AI as a plug-in for Lightroom or Photoshop for some photos to further enhance them, to replace a sky or to create particular artistic effects. (Note: you can also do this in Photoshop but I find Luminar AI much easier to use). I use Topaz AI and Topaz DeNoise when a particular image needs to be sharpened or to reduce noise. Most of the time I only use Lightroom. Occasionally I might use Lightroom, Photoshop, Luminar AI as well as Topaz. Quite often, I use Lightroom and one of the other programs. It very much depends on the particular image and what kind of edits I want to make.
Exporting a photo from Adobe Lightroom to another editing program as a 'plugin'
Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop
A common question for photographers is whether they use Lightroom or Photoshop. I think most photographers use both, but there are some who only use one. Photoshop has been around for decades, so those who were brought up on it tend to prefer it as their basic editing software, whereas Lightroom was born relatively recently in 2006, designed specifically for photographers.
They serve different purposes, though they can also do many of the same things. They both require perseverance to learn how to use them, though I think it’s fair to say that Photoshop is much more difficult to learn because it can do more complex things. There are hundreds of online tutorials and most of what I have learned has been by watching online videos.
Adobe Lightroom: Viewing one image in a folder
When I first started using Lightroom, it was possible to buy the programme outright, with free updates until a major overhaul might require an upgrade. Like many software programs, Adobe has switched to a subscription only model, so you get both Lightroom and Photoshop for the monthly cost (usually) of £9.99. I resisted switching for a while but the extra features, increased speed and the lack of updates to the previous version made me decide to take out a subscription. However, the annual cost for two incredibly powerful programs for anyone who regularly takes photographs and wants to produce high quality images is, in my view justified. There are often Black Friday or Amazon Prime deals as well, for which you pay an annual upfront, often significantly reduced, price. Even if you think you may never use one of the programs, it’s still a relatively good deal.
Adobe Lightroom: the catalog is in the left panel with a hierarchy of folders; metadata is within the right panels
This screenshot shows thumbnails of images in one folder
The main difference between the two is that Lightroom is both a raw editor as well as a database, while Photoshop is only an editor. Lightroom creates a catalog (US spelling) that identifies the location of each photo on your computer. When you ‘import’ a photo to Lightroom, you are not moving the photo into Lightroom but simply telling the program where the photo is stored on your computer. Each photo has a .xmp file attached that stores the edits you’ve made. The catalog stores all of this information separately to your photos. Typically, photos are stored on an external hard drive (or it could be on your computer’s internal hard drive if you don’t have too many photos) but the catalog can be stored elsewhere. One of the most common mistakes made as a beginner user is to move photos around on your computer and then find that Lightroom doesn’t know where they are. Any moving around should always be done inside Lightroom. Once you get used to this, there are multiple ways to organise your photos in ‘Collections’ and ‘Smart Collections’ (defined by particular criteria) without having to create multiple copies of images in different folders that use up storage space.
You can create keywords for images and there are sophisticated ways to search for both keywords and metadata (eg camera specific information). Once you have several thousand images, this becomes extremely useful.
Adobe Lightroom: editable columns at the top allow you to search using multiple metadata
Lightroom has features to automate and speed up the workflow for processing images. You can create presets to import from SD cards of different cameras, to rename images, to apply metadata (eg copyright) and to apply quick developing edits. You can easily synchronise edits to a selection of similar photos.
Lightroom displays every editing step in a panel list. If you click on the first one, you go back to the original raw image, and you can scroll back up and click to see the effect of any later step. After exporting an image in jpeg form, to print, upload to a website or send in an email, there is no need to keep the jpegs because you can always go back to the edits at any stage that you’ve made. Unlike Lightroom, if you make edits in Photoshop, you need to save a .psd file so that all of the adjustments are saved, otherwise you cannot go back to your edits.
(Note: In Lightroom be careful, because if you go back to a previous edit and then continue with further new edits, of course you’ll lose later steps in the first set of edits.)
Adobe Lightroom: Editing a photo in the Develop Module; the left panel lists all edits; you can go back to a previous step by clicking on it. The right panel contains editing function sections and easy-to-use sliders
A photographer can manage almost all edits that might be needed just using Lightroom. What Lightroom cannot do at all, which Photoshop can, is to create a composite from more than one photo (ie taking bits from different photos and blend to create a single combined image). Lightroom can create a composite of several photos displayed within a grid, however (example below). Both Lightroom and Photoshop can create panoramas from images stitched together and can also combine images with different exposures (exposure bracketing) into a HDR (high dynamic range) image. However, unlike Photoshop, Lightroom cannot stack images together which have different focal points (focus stacking). Lightroom can remove objects from an image as long as they are not too complex (I have spent many happy minutes cloning out electric wires and poles), but Photoshop can select, remove and alter complex objects with relative ease using its AI tools. So, there are some very good reasons why a photographer might wish to use both.
A composite photo created in Adobe Lightroom
This is an example of a photo for which I used four programmes, each for a specific reason:
Programme: Lightroom -------- Photoshop ----------------- Luminar AI ----------------------- Topaz AI
Reason: for basic edits to increase edges for further processing to sharpen
(At each stage, the image was saved back in Lightroom)
Pic 1: Initial edits in Adobe Lightroom; wings too close to edge Pic 2: Increased top and right edges of photo in Photoshop
When I import raw files from my camera to Lightroom, my import preset renames each image, applies copyright metadata and some basic editing including removing chromatic aberration and enabling a lens profile correction . Once I had cropped any distracting things out of the photo, the flying pigeon was very close to the top right edges of the image (Pic 1). I used Photoshop to add more space at the top and right edges (Pic 2)*.
* Very easy to do but it doesn’t work for all backgrounds; best for those that are fuzzy or blurry, or skies. Crop tool (C)>click content aware>drag the edges as needed and wait to see the magic happen.
Pic 3: Further enhancement using Luminar AI
Pic 4: Sharpening of main pigeon in Topaz AI
I used a template in Luminar AI to add some pop and edited it a little (Pic 3). I then used Topaz AI with a mask on the central pigeon to sharpen it** (Pic 4).
** Click on mask and then Find Objects. It does a pretty good job of selecting people or, in this case, birds. However, it selected all of the birds so I erased the mask on all but the one central bird before choosing the best sharpening option (see my separate blog about Topaz AI).
Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop
You can get both Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop via a 'Creative Cloud Photography Plan' with my referral link:
For a more in-depth look at Luminar AI read my blog here: Luminar AI
Try a 7 day free trial of Luminar AI using this link, and there is a 40% discount on the price until July 22nd 2021 with this referral link:
For a more in-depth blog about Topaz programs read my blog here: Topaz Suite
You can buy each program in the Topaz suite individually or as a bundle. You can get a free trial, but you will not be able to save an image without their watermark using the free trial. Referral link: