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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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
The 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.
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 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.
As 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.
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.