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Best image editing software for photographers: 8 programs compared

Best image editing software
Which will help you nab that National Geographic prize?

Photoshop has become a by-word for image editing, the standard by which all other programs are judged. But it's also expensive, complicated and daunting for non-experts. And that's not all - the digital imaging world and user's expectations have moved on.

Once, all we wanted was an image editor. But now, several years into the digital imaging revolution, we realise we need software that can help manage and organise our ever-growing photo libraries too. We need to be able to search tens of thousands of images and apply enhancements to dozens at a time.

And the development of raw processing technology has shifted the balance in other ways, so that what was once a simple and routine raw conversion process has now become an important alternative editing process in its own right.

With the latest advances in raw converters, how much do we really need programs like Photoshop? That's exactly what we aim to find out...

Corel PaintShop Pro X5 - £60/US$60/AU$80

Best image editing software

At one time, Corel PaintShop Pro was almost a de facto standard among PC owners as a low-cost but high-powered image editing tool. But times have changed, and although Corel continues to develop and promote PaintShop Pro, it doesn't have the presence in the market it once did.

It is, however, a powerful and versatile tool, combining Photoshop-style image adjustments with integrated photo management tools. If you're used to Adobe's interface, Paint Shop Pro might require a little getting used to, but the basic principles are much the same. It's designed both for novices and more advanced users, and has some interesting tools.

Unlike Serif PhotoPlus and Photoshop Elements, its chief rivals, PaintShop Pro does not use a separate image cataloguing application. It's an all-in-one program with three tabs: Manage, Adjust and Edit. You use the Manage tab to organise your photos and display the contents of your folders or create 'virtual' Collections - including Smart Collections, which use search criteria to bring similar images together.

The Adjust panel is used for quick photo enhancements, including a wide range of nice-looking effects (the Retro Lab is especially good), but the serious work is done in the Edit tab, where you can use layers, selections and masks to edit your images in much the same way as Photoshop, although the controls and dialogs are different and will need re-learning.

But although PaintShop Pro can open and edit raw files, its Raw Lab tools are pretty basic, and once your images are open in the main editor, you're likely to find its adjustments sometimes painfully slow - especially if you opt for the live preview.

Adobe Photoshop Elements 11 - £75/US$65/AU$130

Best image editing software

Elements boasts a whole series of beginner-friendly tools, features and working modes that make it ideal for non-experts but reinforce the idea that it's not a 'serious' program.

Underpinning the Elements Editor is an Expert editing mode with almost all the tools you need for sophisticated and advanced image editing techniques. It's missing a few of Photoshop's high-end features, but it's so close in other respects that it's an effective substitute.

In version 11, Adobe has not made any great changes to the software's tools, but it has updated the interface to give it a cleaner, brighter and more accessible look.

The new interface does sometimes get in the way. You can still choose Expert mode to access the full range of tools, but the options have been moved from a thin strip along the top of the screen to a fat panel at the bottom. If you have a largish, high-resolution display it won't be a problem, but on a laptop Elements 11 could feel cramped.

Besides, most of the new features in this version are found in Elements' companion application, the Organizer, with its new people, places and events views. Elements 11 also has new templates for printed photo 'creations' and online albums, and there are fresh filters and 'Guided Edit' effects.