While Adobe Photoshop has long been the benchmark by which all other image editing applications are judged by, it's also one the most expensive pieces of software on the market. These days it's not even possible to buy it outright; instead you have to subscribe to Adobe's Photoshop Photography Program, with monthly fees currently at around £9.
Thankfully, there are plenty of alternatives on the market. From Adobe's own stripped-down version of its flagship image-editing application to impressively powerful applications from the likes of PhaseOne and DxO Optics, there's almost certainly something out there that can fill the Photoshop void.
Best of all, these days you needn't shell out a small fortune in order to secure a feature-laden application with plenty of processing power under its hood. In fact, we've rounded up six leading contenders all of which can be purchased outright for under £120. Many of these become cheaper still if you're upgrading from a previous edition. Not all of them can lay claim to being quite as advanced as Photoshop - though many come closer than you might think.
Before rushing out to buy, be sure to think about your needs carefully. All the applications we've listed on the next couple of pages have their own unique strengths - from the proprietary sensor and lens database utilised by DxO Optics Pro 9, to the immensely powerful Raw processing engine employed by Capture One Express 7.
Applications such as Portrait Professional even cater to the specific needs of certain types of photographers - in this case those of the demanding portrait photographer looking to speed up their workflow.
Meanwhile, if the Photoshop environment and ability to work with layers is something that tops your priority list, then Adobe's Elements 12 and Corel's PaintShop Pro X6 both have this covered. Last but not least, Cyberlink's PhotoDirector 5 offers plenty of processing power and an easy-to-use interface that's ideal for the more casual user.
Read on to see if there's an image editor among them that best suits your needs.
Photoshop Elements 12
Price: £80 or £63.49 for upgrade
Elements 12 is the latest instalment of Adobe's stripped-down, consumer version of its professional-grade Photoshop Creative Cloud application. Unlike Photoshop CC you can buy boxed copies of Elements 12 or download it from Adobe for a one-off fee - you don't need to subscribe to a monthly CC account.
The big new addition is Elements Mobile Albums, which backs up your Elements 12 library to the cloud and allows you to share selected content with nominated users of compatible smartphones or tablets. To access this library via a mobile you'll need to install the Adobe Revel application (currently only available to Apple iOS users). Android users can access some functions via the Revel Importer app, but it's not as complete as the iOS version.
Other new features include a Content-Aware Move tool so when you move objects within an image, the application fills in the void left behind. The Straighten tool now works alongside this technology to fill in missing corners or edges when you straighten an image. Elsewhere, the Image Editor gets a new Auto Smart Tone feature, alongside a set of Quick Frames and Textures that provide one-click framing and digital filter effects options. There's also 64-bit support for Mac users.
- Most of the main editing features from Photoshop
- You can still buy your own copy
- Adobe Revel application only available to Apple users is the only thing of note
DxO Optics Pro 9
Price: £119 or £39 for upgradewww.dxo.com
DxO Labs specialises in evaluating the performance of lenses and camera sensors through stringent lab tests. This information is made available via the DxOMark website and is often quoted by camera reviewers. Making further use of the data, DxO also manufactures a range of image processing software of which DxO Optics Pro 9 is the flagship application. It comes in Standard and Elite, with the Elite edition giving support for pro cameras not covered by the Standard edition.
DxO Optics Pro 9 is a powerful Raw conversion and image correction tool that uses the data DxO Labs has gathered on your camera sensor and lens combination to optimise the exposure and correct issues such as lens distortion and chromatic aberration. You can apply the effects on your own terms, for fine-tuning your images. The big addition is DxO's proprietary PRIME noise-reduction technology, which is designed to differentiate between noise and fine detail to give an overall image quality improvement of one full stop over rival software. And the Smart Lighting feature has been improved for more image contrast. Overall, while Optics Pro 9 is a bit pricier than rivals and there's no support for layers or local adjustments, it's a powerful piece of software for enthusiasts.
- Powerful image-optimising software
- Tailored processing for lens and camera
- No support for localised adjustments
- Not all cameras supported
Cyberlink PhotoDirector 5
Price: £79.99 or £37.99 for upgradewww.cyberlink.com
There's a lot to like about this easy-to-use yet richly featured image editor. The software is primarily designed with novice users in mind, however it does offer several more advanced features. Opening the application brings up a cleanly designed user interface with five main tabs running across the top: Library, Adjustment, Edit, Slideshow and Print.
The Library function is self-explanatory, and as well as grouping your pictures by date taken or subject matter, you can create your own Smart Collections using keywords or metadata. The Adjustment tab enables you to process your Raw or JPEG images via a range of tools including a useful Auto-Tone button that can give you a handy starting point with a single click. Individual edits are non-destructive, so you can easily undo your corrections.
While there's no support for layers, PhotoDirector does allow you to use brushes for localised alterations. There's also a pretty neat content-aware removal tool to remove unwanted elements from a photo, with the software doing a pretty good job of replacing the missing pixels even when the background is relatively complicated. A solid bit of software, it's especially well suited to more casual users seeking extra processing power.
- Easy to use
- Many versatile editing features
- Good entry-level choice
- No support for layers
Corel PaintShop Pro X6 Ultimate
Price: £59.99 or £44.99 for upgradewww.corel.com
PaintShop Pro X5 is primarily aimed at enthusiasts. There are two versions: the Ultimate and the slightly cheaper Pro. The main difference is that the Ultimate version comes with two powerful third-party plug-in tools: Perfectly Clear by Athentech Imaging and Facefilter3 by Realusion. Purchased separately these would cost you more than a boxed copy of PaintShop Pro X6 Ultimate, which underlines the value for money of the complete X6 package. The other big addition for the X6 is 64-bit architecture, which should help speed up performance - something that has been a bit of a weak point with past editions of PaintShop Pro. Two new tools - Smart Selection and Auto Selection - have also been added to help speed up workflow alongside enhanced Raw support.
The workspace interface offers three main tabs - Manage, Adjust and Edit. The first allows you to import your photos and organise them into folders. The second is used to make image-wide adjustments such as exposure, while the third is more akin to a classic Photoshop workspace and allows you to make local adjustments or work with layers. Overall, PaintShop Pro X6 delivers plenty of power at a reasonable price making it a tempting purchase for the enthusiast on a budget.
- Great value for money
- 64-bit architecture speeds up performance
- Excellent plug-ins
- No support for localised adjustments
- Raw processing limited
Portrait Pro 11 Standard Edition
Price: £39.95 or £26.54 for upgrade
If your main interest is portraiture, Portrait Professional could be your ideal application. It is presented in a choice of three editions: Standard, Studio or Studio 64. The Standard edition is JPEG/TIFF only and must be used as a standalone application, while the Studio and 64-bit Studio 64 editions can read Raw files and can also be used as a plug-in within Photoshop, Aperture and Lightroom.
The interface is neatly laid out and easy to master. There are no layers to deal with or histograms to keep your eye on as everything is controlled with sliders. These give you control over just about every aspect of a subject's face you could think of, from skin tone to hair colour and more. Thankfully the sliders offer enough fine control to make subtle enhancements that don't leave your model looking unnatural or overly airbrushed.
Easy to use
You can also alter the overall shape of a face, or of individual parts of it such as the eyes, nose or mouth. Once you've achieved a look that you're happy with, you can even choose to save the settings as a preset for easy one-click recall when processing other images. Overall, Portrait Professional is an easy-to-use and timesaving software that will come in useful if you regularly shoot portraits.
- Easy-to-use interface
- Slider controls
- Powerful adjustments are possible
- Standard edition can't be used as a plug-in
- Images can look unnatural if pushed too hard
Capture One Express 7
Price: £59.40 or £42 for upgradewww.phaseone.com
Capture One Express 7 is essentially a stripped-down version of Phase One's highly regarded Capture One Pro image management and editing application. Like its more expensive sibling, Express 7 is a complete workflow solution that allows you to manage your images from the initial import and cataloguing of them, to image-wide and localised adjustments.
Speedy raw engine
While it may lack the tethered shooting abilities of the Pro edition, it uses the same powerful and speedy Raw processing engine found in the more expensive edition. This is widely considered one of the best on the market providing excellent noise reduction, recovery of shadow detail and enhancement of fine detail. Express 7 also provides individual camera profiles to ensure accurate colour management across a range of models. There's also a new automatic lens correction tool for correcting any optical faults.
The user interface has been simplified to make operation easier, and unlike the Pro version there's no way to customise the layout. That being said, it's a fairly straightforward interface to master, with the various modes able to be changed by using the icons in the top left-hand toolbar. Including drop-down menus and sliders, it gives you total control over the software.
- Powerful Raw converter with plenty of control
- 64-bit architecture speeds up performance
- Doesn't have tethered shooting abilities like the Pro version