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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 the creator of PhoGro - Gro' Your Photography a community that aims to help you grow your photography through engagement with other photographers. John also offers a free email course Jumpstart Your Photography that covers some of the most important elements of photography.

  • Marian Trizuliak

    Capture One and Photoshop. No other tools needed, including tethered shooting in studio and very detailed manipulations later on in Photoshop.

  • Michael Wacht

    I use PhotoPlus X8 by Serif. It’s a great editing software at a very affordable price.

  • Wyldcrafter

    Free software–Irfanview — http://www.irfanview. com/

  • Bob Jeske

    I use Photoshop Elements 14……. As a NON professional, it more than meets my needs. And is so easy to use…….. I have found that a lot of these web sites are developed just to promote the sail of their product, Photoshop CC and Lightroom, just to mention a couple.

  • RH6194

    I completely agree! Most recent articles about this topic are extremely inadequate as they rarely get beyond Adobe Lightroom/Photoshop, possibly Elements and maybe one or two of the large plugin companies. There is SO MUCH more available that this type of reporting can only be called “sponsored” by Adobe or “lazy” on the part of the author.

    While I do use the Adobe Creative Cloud, including Lightroom and Photoshop, I personally use two other primary systems as well…Corel’s Paintshop Pro X8/AfterShot Pro 3 workflow system and ACDSee Ultimate 9. All three of these systems are excellent and I still haven’t been able to decide which I like the best.

    I am probably most impressed with ACDSee Ultimate 9. In this release, the publisher has added full support for layers and Photoshop plugins as well as having a built in RAW editor and very nice organizer all within this single application. My only hesitation is that this application is only available for Windows users. While I currently have a Windows machine, I do plan on moving to the Mac platform in the near future. While ACDSee does make a version (3 Pro) for Mac users, it is missing many of the features available in the Windows version.

    Unfortunately, the same goes for Corel’s Paintshop Pro X8. It is also a Windows only application, albeit an extremely good one that has been constantly improved over the past 25 years or so. AfterShot Pro 3 is a newer addition to Corel’s product offerings since Corel acquired Bibble who was the original developer of this application. This is a strong contender for a Lightroom alternative with the added advantages of being MUCH faster and being able to browse images from your computer’s directory rather than needing to have images imported into Lightroom’s database before you can begin browsing your work. Unlike Paintshop Pro however, this application does have identical version support for Windows, Mac or Linux! The major disadvantage here is that it does not support the vast number of plugins and preset collections that are available for Lightroom.

    As with most Lightroom users, we continue to hope Adobe will address this performance issue involving the import of images to the database, however until they do, an excellent workaround is a program called PhotoMechanic by CameraBits. It interfaces with Lightroom to both accelerate the import process as well as provides a directory browser that allows you to immediately see the images you shot and begin culling through them while the import is still running. This has eliminated the major Lightroom shortcoming for me, although it does require purchasing one additional application.

    There are so many other great apps out there depending on your needs as a photographer. Capture One is great for more of a professional workflow, while there are many great alternatives for the hobbyist or enthusiast. Most of the larger plugin developers are moving toward a complete stand alone workflow that will no longer require using a host application such as Photoshop or Lightroom. Topaz Labs probably was the first to do this a few years ago when they released PhotoFXlab, which allows all of their other plugins to work in a stand alone, layered workflow. Recently, AlienSkin has upgraded their Exposure plugin to version X and it is also now a complete RAW editor, organizer and layered workflow solution. On1 has already announced the Fall release of their latest upgrade to their current On1 Photo 10.5 which will be called On1 Photo RAW and will add features that will make this another complete solution.

    I could write a book about all of this stuff but unfortunately I don’t know that most of you want to hear me ramble on. Bottom line though – there are MANY options out there and I have only scratched the surface.

    At the end of the day, I will probably be staying in the Adobe camp personally. As I currently use an iPhone and iPad and will soon be moving to a Mac, the Adobe Creative Cloud provides probably the best overall solution for me as it allows me to integrate all of my devices, as well as my wi-fi enabled DSLR into a complete system that will work regardless of the device I am using. None of the other solutions I have evaluated can offer me that kind of complete workflow from any device.

    Adobe is certainly the giant in the industry – and like most giants, they can move slowly at times. However I will say that if you like to have readily available training in every medium available, no other developer is even close to Adobe. Because of their sheer size and the number of people who use their software, both commercially and personally, training is readily available – be it in tutorials, books, articles, forums (including serval groups on Facebook), webinars or any other medium you can name. It is also the software that is used in most post secondary education to prepare for a career in the creative arts as well as many professional creative enterprises. This is not a sales pitch, but rather some of my thoughts as I am sifting through all of the many options.

    The one piece of advice I would like to leva you with however is to try to make an informed choice of which system you prefer as quickly as possible. Evaluating three systems in actual day to day worth is both expensive and time consuming. Since I am retired and this is my hobby and passion I have more available time and disposable income than many people either have or would care to invest. It is very time consuming trying to learn how to perform similar tasks in different software environments.

    While I love working both with computers and photography, this is beginning to wear even me down! In fact, as I have sat here writing this post, I think this exercise has helped me sort out some of my own thoughts about each system. Perhaps, if you are someone like me who may be considering different options, some sort of writing exercise may help you sort through what will work best for you as well. Anyway, best of luck to each of you on finding the best solution for your specific needs. Above all, keep shooting and making great photographs!

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