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22 Best Photo Editing Software for PC in 2021 (Free and Paid)

In this article we take a quick look at 22 top photo editing programs for the PC, free and paid.

Getting Started With Photo Editing on Windows

What You Need To Edit Photos

Most people need at least two or three photo programs to complete their workflow: a file organizer to get and sort photos, a raw image converter to interpret the data from cameras, and a raster image editor (one that works with pixels). For a long time Adobe's Lightroom and Photoshop were the standard combo for Windows users but new alternatives now present plenty of interesting options: There are lots of neat ways process your photos without an Adobe subscription and we look at some combinations below.

Review Notes

In the interests of running this part of the website I try out new photo suites from time to time to see what the alternatives are like, but I haven't performed any standard testing beyond my own idiosyncratic photographic processes. Nevertheless, I am happy to say that there are a few new, fun, intuitive, high-quality, and affordable photo editing programs worth your consideration.

I haven't covered every detail and this list is not exhaustive. I haven't mentioned all the programs available out there, just the ones I have used or tried. I have tried to capture in a few words what each program can do and who it's for, but, obviously, there is more to each of them.

This review was sponsored by AMS Software and features their software, PhotoWorks. However, beyond commissioning the article AMS has not told me what to write; these are my opinions.

22 Best Photo Editing Software for PC

Affinity Photo

If you are looking for a Photoshop alternative that feels familiar, Affinity Photo is an easy one; the keyboard shortcuts, tools and layout you learned in Photoshop are all here, along with powerful retouching, compositing, and workflow capabilities. Affinity Photo supports Photoshop actions, plugins, and the Nik collection by DxO. I own a copy of this software (for a Mac). $49.99 per license.

PhotoWorks

PhotoWorks by AMS Software is a fast and capable photography-focused image editor that works well with less-powerful computers, with all the basic tools you need plus advanced features like AI, 3D colour LUTs, tone curves, assisted retouching, and noise reduction. One to consider if you have a laptop or older PC and want an easy-to-use interface. $19.25

Capture One

Capture One is a powerful, professional alternative to Lightroom, offering high-quality RAW processing and file organization in one suite. This is a stable, long-running program; I first used a version of Capture One nearly a dozen years ago. Combine with Affinity Photo, Pixeluvo, PhotoWorks, or one of the other raster image editors on this list for a complete photo toolkit. $20/month subscription, $10 when used with a Fujifilm, Sony, or Nikon camera.

Topaz Labs

"Artificial intelligence" applications are all the buzz lately, and both PhotoWorks and Topaz Labs use the technology. The Topaz Studio collection can sharpen, de-noise, enlarge, and mask images. How does the AI work? Beats me, but the results are very impressive. Various prices, with the Creator bundle starting at $105.

Luminar AI

The Luminar suite has gained a following among amateur and pro photographers, including some Envato Tuts+ writers, for having a creative toolkit that is fun to use. If you like Luminar, also give DxO PhotoLab a try. $149.

DxO PhotoLab

If you must have perfection in your photos, DxO will let you squeeze the most out of every pixel. The image correction tools are easy to use and I like the customized layouts, too. If you like PhotoLab, also give Luminar a try. $99.

Pixeluvo

A lightweight Photosop alternative that feels like using Photoshop if they stopped adding new features a few versions ago and instead focused on a no-nonsense interface. Speedy, basic, and quick to pick up (especially if you already know how to use Photoshop). I own a copy of this program and use it on an older laptop. $34.

CyberLink Photo Director

A layers-based image editor with AI-powered special effects and masking, lots of blending and photo-maniputalion tools. As with their PowerDirector video editor, CyberLink balances advanced features with ease of use for casual users. Various rental licenses, purchase basic version from about $85.

Corel PaintShop Pro and AfterShot Pro

Originally released in 1990, PaintShop is still the image editor of choice for some digital artists. Aftershot is a complimentary RAW processor and organizer with a fast image browser, plus all the processing and metadata tools you expect. $60 each.

Photoline

Photoline is a professional raster image editing program with a few features not offered elsewhere, like support for specialized colour-spaces. I own a copy of this software and use the 32-bit per channel option to make high-quality film scans. Like Affinity Photo, Photoline accepts Photoshop plug-ins. €59.
Curves editor in PhotoLine

Darktable and GIMP (Free)

I want to recommend Darktable and GIMP, but I do so with reservations. While both programs are clearly very capable in the right hands, and I want to use a free, open-source photo editor, after trying a few times over the years to get into each of them I just can't get past the intimidating interfaces. I'll try again when they eventually release GIMP version 3.0. (And please, change the insulting name already!)

ACDSee Photo Studio

ACDSee is trusted name in photo software, especially with their file organizer tools. This new post-processing suite has all the bells and whistles you would expect from an app going feature-for-feature against Adobe's flagship programs. Various feature packages and rental options, starting at $79 to buy.

Zoner Photo Studio

Zoner Photo Studio is a photo organizer and image processor that uses a catalogue-based system, similar to Lightroom. Rent for $49/year.

PhotoScape X (Free Basic Version)

A lightweight photo viewer and surprisingly powerful free editor, which includes batch functions, RAW support, other goodies. An unusual interface. Paid version unlocks more features, but the free version just might be enough for you. $0 or $40.

Paint.net (Free)

Similar to GIMP in features, but easier to navigate (in my view, anyway). Includes layers and controls like hue, contrast, curves, saturation and levels. Supports plugins for extended features. Free.

Lightroom and Photoshop

Adobe's Lightroom has many functions but is mainly an image organizer and raw processor. It overtook competition from Apple and others to become the de-facto standard image organizer for many photo professionals. As this list shows, though, it's not for everyone. Depending on your style of work, it's possible you could do all or almost all of your workflow in Lightroom and only use Photoshop for the final touches before printing. Both programs have various options for cloud storage, mobile versions, presets, and plug-ins. One solid reason to look at keeping your personal photo archive elsewhere is to avoid the perpetual subscription to the proprietary, catalogue-based storage system Lightroom uses. Rental, $10 month for Lightroom and Photoshop.

Bridge, Adobe Camera Raw, and Elements

The Develop panel in Lightroom is, more or less, a wrapper for Adobe Camera Raw. Bridge plays nicely with all of the image-editor options above on this list, and it can do all of the critical parts of organizing that Lightroom can do, but without locking you in. These two programs are now free for anyone with a copy of Photoshop or Photoshop Elements. Photoshop Elements is $69.99, Bridge and Adobe Camera Raw are unlocked with an existing license.

Suggestions

I've included notes on Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom, but, figuring that if you are reading this you are considering other options, left them for last. For me, the reasons to look elsewhere come down to two things. Lightroom does not actually need many new features; it's already a mature program. Adobe does add some pretty amazing new features from time to time but, for me, who doesn't actually use half of them, it's hard to justify the continuing expense. And, because of the way the Lightroom catalogue system works, the photo files themselves are not inter-operable with other programs to the degree I'd like (though work-arounds exist).

A Low-Cost Alternative

I've also covered Bridge and Camera Raw: one easy, affordable, old-school setup is to use Adobe Bridge to organize your files and Adobe Camera Raw for processing your raws — both are a free download if you have older Adobe software — plus whatever image editing program meets your budget and needs. This is what I am doing now. I am also currently experimenting with a combination of digikam and RawTherapee, the open-source organizer and raw developer, respectively (both free).

For Professionals

In my view, Capture One is the most direct Lightroom alternative, and Affinity Photo the closest Photoshop analogue. If you're switching, that's probably the most comfortable combination. It's not the most affordable, though, with C1 at $10-$20 per month. If you do complex retouching and image manipulation or have plug-ins, check out Affinity Photo.

For Everybody Else

Otherwise, and if you have an older computer (like me), check out Pixeluvo and PhotoWorks, both are affordable and suitable for low-spec machines.

If you're just getting into it, play around and combine the software below in your own way. PhotoWorks, Topaz Labs, Luminar, PhotoDirector, and DxO Photolab all have power enhancement features and AI-boosted workflows.

Try Them All

OK! There's an overview of options for photo editing on the PC. All of these programs offer a trial version; if it sounds interesting, give it a go. They all go on sale, too.

Did I miss your favourite? Let us know in the comments below.

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