A Beginner's Guide to Choosing the Right Post-Production Software

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A Beginner’s Guide to Choosing the Right Post-Production Software

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When it comes to choosing your first piece of post-production software you may find yourself spinning in circles. There’s so much to choose from, and the whole idea of learning to do something new can be intimidating. This article will cover a number of the most well known software options available, and hopefully lead you towards the right decision for you.

Adobe Photoshop CC

Over the years no one has truly been able to displace Adobe’s dominance of the photography software market. Both Lightroom and Photoshop are hugely popular pieces of software and regarded as the go to platforms for professionals. Let’s break down both Lightroom and Photoshop individually to see what makes them so popular.

Adobe Lightroom

LR

Lightroom is the most popular tool available for post-processing your images. It can be used as an all-in-one solution for post-processing, image storage, and printing. Due to this all-in-one nature, Lightroom becomes a convenient and powerful option for both new photographers and pros alike.

One of the biggest differentiating factors of Lightroom verses other post-production tools is that it is widely supported by third party developers. What this means is that you can find a number of plugins for Lightroom that will allow you to extend your workflow beyond the core program. You’ll also be able to find a number of Lightroom presets, which can help you speed up your workflow by saving time for tedious edits. On top of that, sites like Smugmug and Zenfolio allow you to hook right into Lightroom, enabling you to share your photographs directly from your Lightroom catalog to your website.

Finally, due to the popularity of Lightroom, there is no shortage of support for you on the web. If you have a question about something related to processing an image with Lightroom look no further than YouTube or the many eBooks written on a number of different aspects of Lightroom’s features (including Loving Landscapes, a dPS ebook about processing your landscape images in Lightroom).

This whole package of features, extendibility, and resources, is why I’d suggest Lightroom as the first program for any new photographer looking to get into post-production. Not only are you getting a very capable program for editing and organizing your images, but you have the ability to extend the core features as your skills develop. You also have an endless supply of help from the many tutorials written on the platform over the years.

Adobe Photoshop

PS

Lightroom may be the best place to start as a new photographer, but Photoshop is a close second. The only reason I place Photoshop second on this list is due to its complexity. You still get the same great community of professional photographers, which enables you to learn more quickly, and you’ll still find a wealth of Photoshop Actions to help you speed up your workflow, but the learning curve for Photoshop is quite a bit more challenging than that of Lightroom, making it harder to recommend to a total beginner.

Adobe’s Creative Cloud platform is a subscription based model, which gives you access to both Photoshop and Lightroom for $10/month. The reason to pay the premium for Adobe’s products, over the ones I’ll list below, is not because they will perform better edits, but rather because of the way they integrate with other pieces of software, and the availability of tutorials on the web.

Open Source Options

If you’re not ready to invest money into your post-production workflow just yet, then these open source platforms are where I’d direct your attention.

GIMP

wilber_painterGIMP is the most well known Photoshop alternative out there. It has been around for years, works on both PC and Mac, and will provide you with many of the same tools that Photoshop offers. Being open source it doesn’t have the polish that Photoshop does, and won’t offer nearly as many third party options or tutorials. However, as a budget friendly way of processing your images, this is by far the best way to go.

Darktable

darktableDarktable is what I’d recommend if you’re looking for a RAW developer to substitute for Lightroom. Like GIMP, this is an open source option, which offers a number of features that will give you complete control of your images, and truly does compete with Lightroom in that area. Again where it’ll fall flat is that you’ll have less extendibility, and not as many resources to help you along the way. Note: Darktable does not work on Windows.

Other Tools

When it comes to post-production there are a number of what I’d call, supplemental tools available. These tools are designed to work in conjunction with Photoshop and/or Lightroom, and help you further refine your style as a photographer.

TopazLabs

logo_smallThe TopazLabs line of products includes 17 different pieces of software, each one specifically designed for its own unique purpose. These tools are designed to help you enhance and speed up your post-production workflow, but not necessarily replace Photoshop or Lightroom, although some of Topaz’s programs, like Impression and Texture Effects, do offer some standalone functionality that will let you create very different types of images.

Nik Softwarenik-logo

Like TopazLabs, Google’s Nik collection is a set of tools that will help you enhance and speed up your workflow. There aren’t as many different tools, and Google has a recent track record of killing off products that weren’t working for them without warning. But, the Nik collection is powerful, and will give you some great functionality beyond just Lightroom’s basic toolset.

Photomatix

photomatixPhotomatix has been the leader of the HDR post-production world for quite some time. Their product continues to produce some of the best controlled tone mapped images, and would be a great addition to your set of tools if you wanted to get deep into HDR photography.

Aurora HDR

aurorahdrAs an alternative to Photomatix, Aurora HDR is a newly released product from Macphun, in partnership with Trey Ratcliff. At the moment Aurora HDR is only for Mac and is an early stage product, so there’s bound to be some growing pains. That said, with backing from Trey Ratcliff, who’s made his name on HDR photography, this product could eventually get to where it wants to be – which is an all-in-one HDR tool, that doesn’t require Lightroom or Photoshop to produce images.

Not a beginner? What else would you recommend?

If your favorite piece of software didn’t make this list let us know why you like it, and why you’d recommend it over the others in the comments below.

Read more from our Post Production category

John Davenport is what you might call an enthusiastic amateur photographer. He is the creator of PhoGro - A community where photographers can grow their photography skill. Join today for free and get started on a road to improving your photography!

  • Steve Weick

    Other useful topics to add would be best browser extensions for editing, best online editors, best ipad and android based editors. These would help those of us not tied to PCs, Macs, and desktop environments.

  • Rich Nicely

    I don’t disagree with anything on here…..However, I do think there are a couple of other software packages out there, that deserve an honorable mention as well.

    And one in particular that is a better option for beginners than any of the others mentioned.

    DXO Optics Pro 10, doesn’t have the cataloging and sorting features of Lightroom or Adobe Bridge. However, in terms of RAW processing of your images you can get very very high quality results with very little work.

    Also, the PRIME (Probabilistic Raw Image Enhancement) noise reductio algorithms in DXO Optics Pro 10 give far cleaner images with much less loss in sharpness than anything you can get in Lightroom.

    You can get very similar results in Photoshop, if you are willing to manually tweak the individual RGB channels and re-apply sharp masks, etc..(A lot of work to get the same results)…but for a fully automated process…DXO’s noise reduction is the best there is.

    It also uses specific profiles based on their extensive testing of the exact camera and lens model used in the shot to automatically correct things such as lens softness and distortion and the results with no user input whatsoever are far better than what you can get with Lightroom even with considerable experience.

    There are 4 pieces of software that I use in post processing.

    I import every photo into Lightroom CC, where the raw NEF files are cataloged and keywords are added, and photos are added to specific collections…making it much easier to find later based on what’s in the photo, or what gear I shot it with.

    I then send them over to DXO Optics Pro, and let it do it’s thing (using my own tweaked presets that match my particular preferences.) and then export them back to Lightroom CC.

    I sometimes make a few minor tweaks in Lightroom to the changes that DXO Optics Pro already made, but more often than not…they are good to go and I simply need to export them as JPEGs from there for posting online or printing.

    I also use a program when I’m shooting with my fisheye lenses called Fisheye-Hemi. It removes the distortion and “defaces” the images far better than the lens profiles in Lightroom or Photoshop can do. Those lens profiles are based on removing distortion from a rectilinear lens…whereas Fisheye-Hemi uses a unique mapping that exactly matches the actual distortion in a fisheye lens to straighten all vertical lines. You can even take group pictures with a fisheye lens, and after running it through fisheye-hemi the people on the edges don’t look distorted at all like they do with a standard rectilinear wide angle lens and standard distortion correction.

    Lastly, for anything requiring layers, or heavy pixel manipulation (such as removing and replacing backgrounds, fixing skin blemishes, etc…) I use Photoshop CC

  • Could be a great idea for a followup article!

  • Yes DXO is another fantastic addition and certainly deserves the honorable mention. Sounds like you’ve got a well oiled machine when it comes to your workflow. It’s so hard to compile lists like this because inevitably something’s going to be left off.

  • Benjamin Billon

    No mention of ACDSee’s products? I can’t say if ACDSee Ultimate can compete with Lightroom (Wikipedia however says so), but it exists and does very good things. I was amazed when I discovered a few months ago that 1) they still exist and 2) they now provide great tools for photographers. To me ACDSee was only a software to browse pictures on the computer, diapositive-style, 15 years ago … That they still do, but it has been slightly enhanced since!

  • Rich Nicely

    Agreed.

    Very difficult, I think you did a good job of hitting the major ones that most people will end up considering.

    Also, for the record, I’m a very experienced power user of Lightroom, going back to version 2. For years, I was very happy with the results I got with it…and I gladly upgraded from version 5 to CC.

    However, a friend told me about DXO Optics pro, and I tried their 30 day free trial….and I was shocked that the results with no input at all from me were better than the results I had been able to get with quite a bit of work in Lightroom…..and I was impressed.

    I still keep Lightroom in my work-flow, but mostly for the cataloging features…as most of the changes to exposure, shadows, highlights, contrast, etc…that I used to do in Lightroom are now performed by DXO Optics Pro….and it works as a plug-in that works in conjunction with Lightroom so importing and exporting back and forth is painless.

  • Albin

    I’d note that GIMP has a very good RAW plugin called UFRAW, which installs quite easily but has an unconventional interface. There is also a very healthy ecosystem of other photo-oriented plugins for it though not to the scale of Adobe’s. There is also a very good free cross-platform Linux/Windows RAW editor/organizer in RAWTherapee, which is more like Lightroom in look and feel than either UFRaw or the non-Windows Darktable recommended here. “Beginners” should not underestimate how sophisticated and capable some of the free software really is, not requiring a subscription or purchase.

    (Beginners might also be open to buying an older version of Adobe products on the cheap as a learning tool – there’s a lot of good tutorial information and many good plugins work on them and add-ons and the learning curve are importable to the current version when the user is not a “beginner” any more.)

    Finally, I’d caution against proprietary software file organization. Software, and a user’s liking for it, can change radically or disappear entirely and it’s a heck of a lot of work to undo the file organization created over years by one software brand for another. I was fortunate to develop general approach to file management in professional life that easily converted to file naming images with basic bulk file naming tools. “My way” has seen me through half a dozen “software solutions” in the past decade, and I don’t like to think of my years of image files if I’d tried to keep reorganizing to adopt each file management system in turn.

  • Chris Sutton

    Let’s not forget Photoshop Elements which does ~85% of what Photoshop does for a fraction of the price. Comes with a brilliant Organiser, Adobe Camera Raw (simple version), is compatible with loads of third party plug-ins (Topaz suite and Photomatix to name just two) and runs third party actions. Often sniffed at by photographers but the results speak for themselves. Additionally I would venture that this is an ideal first post processing package for the beginner beacuse you can start off in full auto, before moving on to the brilliant guided edits and then ‘graduate’ to using it in expert mode where you are knocking on the Photoshop door.

  • Bernie Gellman

    After shot & paint shop pro x8

  • Jeremy W

    I guess it speaks to its somewhat niche status that Capture One isn’t mentioned here, though I personally find it intuitive and powerful in processing RAW images.

  • Dan Merkel

    I’ve used Paint Shop Pro almost exclusively for… better than twenty years now. Some would say that it’s not the same product as when it was produced by Jasc but to be quite honest, I’ve not felt the need to move into the more recent versions. While it has a couple of very small quirks, I probably use Version 7 about 90% of the time. Better yet, it’s available free online from some sites that feature older versions of software.

  • Zoner 🙂

  • Roberto

    I really think that Corel PaintShop Pro X8 is a very good alternative to LightRoom / Paintshop. It’s not as powerful, but it does 90% of what the other apps do at 50% of the price.

  • Valerie

    If you don’t have an extensive catalog to manage, Paintshop Pro is extremely user friendly. Even though I use both Lightroom and Photoshop, I often open PSP for quick edits.

  • Valerie

    My husband refuses to move past version 7, too. He loves the simplicity and excellent job it does.

  • Bob

    How about OnOne? Great program!

  • Carlos Henrique Pereira

    I guess Adobe software should be the safest option mainly due to the huge amount of knowledge spread out and users to share information. However, I ended up opting for DxO Optics Pro for developing RAW images – it`s not as complete as Lightroom but it is far superior in recovering information from RAW files. To complement it the option was OnOne Photo in order to keep it simple. As I don’t like to spend much time on screen nor need all the power Photoshop offers, I found that combination very practical.

  • Richard

    Yay! Finally a mention of Darktable in a DPS article! I do think you sell it a bit short, though. Likewise for the GIMP.

  • Richard

    The last paragraph, so true. I use Digikam for managing my images. A folder is an album. Rename your images, or don’t, whichever you prefer (I don’t). What could be simpler?

  • Richard Müller

    What about Affinity Photo for Mac.

  • Rob H.

    I have to agree. Capture One’s handling of RAW is exceptional and it’s tethered shooting is unmatched in the other software packages. With the inclusion of the ability to “Edit an image in Photoshop”, rather than the old way of exporting/re-importing the image for Photoshop processing, Capture One is a very powerful and effective system.

  • dude II

    Capture One Pro.
    I have Lightroom 6 perpetual license which means that while I get “upgrades” or bumps in the version, I do not get features such as the de-haze function. I have no need for Photoshop and now that Capture One is at version 9 with its feature set, I doubt that I will go to Lightroom 7.
    The ecosystem for Adobe products is getting more hostile to end users.

  • Tony

    Yes, it’s great and intuitive. Great for beginners

  • Rick Hyde

    I agree Bob, OnOne is a good program and I use it with Lightroom almost exclusively. I also have Photoshop but I find I’m using it less now that I’m making my own pre-sets for Lightroom and OnOne… less time processing, more time taking photo’s.

  • LOL, a lot of software missing… ACDSee, OnOne, Capture One, DxO Optics…

  • rob Lamont

    Have used GIMP for years, fantastic program. Only issue i have had ( computer, not software) is when editing very large files computer runs out of memory and crashes.

  • Great advice for a true beginner – eventually you’ll need more, but as a place to start you’re right PSP will get you started.

  • Yeah it’s hard to list a lot of the smaller software on a list designed to give beginners a place to start. It’s not that they can’t start with this program or that program, it’s just that listing too many options could end up causing more problems than the article attempts to solve.

  • Jeremy W

    I don’t know if I’d characterize Capture One as “smaller”, especially when Darktable and Photomantix are mentioned. Capture One is a popular tool used by many professionals and is probably the single best competitor to Lightroom in this list. Further, people are more likely to stick with what they start with. I feel this article, though a good reference otherwise, is incomplete without it.

  • Valerie

    Thanks 🙂

  • When writing this article my top concern was to not overload it with a ton of options, but rather provide a few quality options in each of the three categories this article focuses on (paid, open-sourced, and add on software to expand your workflow). This explains why Darktable and Photomatix made the list and CaptureOne didn’t. That said, if I were a CaptureOne user and not an Adobe user is suppose it could have been swapped or might have been higher on my radar to include it as an alternative.

  • phil200

    GIMP also works on Linux.

    I use Darktable and it’s just brilliant. This also works on Linux.

  • Marian Trizuliak

    Capture One is my choice – much faster than LR, more stable, producing better outcomes.

  • Clarke Warren

    Agree with Chris Sutton (below) You guys left out Elements – my #1 choice for beginners…

  • Jerry G-Pa Owens

    What about Mac’s Aperture??

  • As Apple has discontinued this product I didn’t feel like it was worthy of the list – it was a good program though.

  • Neville Wright

    What about the freebie that comes with the camera? In Canon’s case that would be DPP.

  • Jerry G-Pa Owens

    Interesting….I’ve use it, and I’m still getting up-dates for this program.
    Thanks

  • Frank Goss

    For RAW processing, I have been using Raw Therapee. I have been told it looks like Lightroom. Its open-source, runs on multiple operating systems (Linux, Windows and IOS) and is actively being supported and developed. I just works for me and has more capabilities than I currently know how to use.

  • Jim the Photographer

    I agree with Chris Sutton, Photoshop Elements! Does everything I want it to do and am still learning after five years of using it!

  • Peter Niepel

    I totally agree with you. Everybody is so Adobe focussed. It is annoying. The article doesn’t really show an alternative to Adobe software. This is typical for those sort of reviews. I wonder if they are sponsored by Adobe? 😉

  • ShanghaiManta

    Absolutely cracking piece of software from a top British software designer. As I try to gravitate away from Adobe Affinity has replaced PS, far friendlier – and includes dehaze with the latest update. Nothing yet to replace LR5, which I love, though. I really like MacPhun’s suite of programs too – especially Intensify, Noiseless and Tonality (for B&W). I don’t even use SilverEfexPro as much as I used to now.

  • sathish

    I love Photoshop which gives lot of tools…Check this video for more…
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tWGBXjrnlbg

  • Favian Leon

    I have been using Cyberlink Photodirector. Every online how-to article I have found has been for Lightroom. Does anyone have any comments on Cyberlink, I have never seen it included in any review of Post Processing photography software? Because I have never seen Cyberlink mentioned, and because of the continued annual upgrade costs, I am hesitant to leave it. Is there a compelling reason to change to Lightroom?

  • Peter Rex

    Darktable is now available for Windows and works like charm!

  • Dre Mosley

    Lightroom + Photoshop Elements works for me.

  • fghendrix01

    This sounds more like advertisement for Adobe. Where is the how to choose? Lol

  • Murph

    Really? Where?

  • Peter Rex
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