Starter tips for selecting the right image editor.

While you can carry out some basic editing tasks with the software that comes bundled with your computer’s operating system, it provides a limited range of editing tools. If you’re serious about photography you need a dedicated image editor.

What to look for

Editing applications range from simple apps to software with sophisticated tools that require a steep learning curve. The best applications provide a clear, intuitive user interface with the following features:

1. Layers support
Layers are discrete overlays on the image that are independently editable. They are created each time you duplicate the main image, copy a selected part or add text to an image. They can also be totally blank. Clicking on one of the eye icons (outlined in red) causes that layer to ‘hide’ while a second click restores its visibility and lets you work on it.

An image that would benefit from Layers-based editing. The foreground has been selected with the Quick Select tool.

Used for non-destructive editing, layers can make edits easy to reverse and are easy to delete if they haven’t been successful. Users can create layers to try out edits and show or hide selected layers to see which edit looks best. You can perform tasks like compositing multiple images, adding text to an image or copying part of an image and pasting it onto another image or onto a new place on the original image. You can also apply a layer style to introduce a special effect.

2. Support for popular image formats, particularly JPEG and TIFF files plus the ability to convert between file formats and save copies of images at different sizes in different formats. Serious photographers will also require conversion software for converting the raw files (see Chapter 5) captured by their camera(s) into editable JPEG or TIFF format.

This screen grab shows the wide range of file formats supported in Affinity Photo, a powerful image editor for photo enthusiasts.

3. Basic editing tools for cropping and resizing images, adjustable selection tools, brushes for eliminating blemishes and similar artefacts and support for sharpening and blurring adjustments. You also need global Levels and Curves adjustments for correcting tonal and colour balances, saturation and colour balance adjustments and tools for dodging and burning-in, plus an eraser for selective removal of pixels.

The cropping tool in ACDSee Photo Studio Ultimate, another popular enthusiast-level editing application.

Histograms are graphs that show the balance of tones in images. For JPEGs, the vertical axis represents the number of pixels at each tonal level plotted against a horizontal axis of tones in 256 steps from pure black (0) to the brightest white (255).

Each graph will show peaks in areas where there are a lot of pixels and troughs where the pixel ‘density’ is relatively low. In a correctly-exposed image, the peak of the graph should be near the centre, with the graph tapering down at each end.

This screen grab of the workspace of the popular – and long-lived – Irfanview freeware application shows some of the functions it provides – including both brightness and RGB histograms (shown in the lower right corner of the screen.)

RGB histograms also provide a quick way to check the colour balance before finalising an edit. If the red, green and blue channels all peak in the same place, the colour balance is neutral. If any channel peaks too far to the right or left, it indicates a colour cast in the highlights or shadows respectively. Sunset shots, in particular, may benefit from pushing the colour balance towards magenta and yellow to increase the richness of their colours.

Finding the right application

Choosing which software to use will depend on how far you want to become involved in photo editing and also your budget. For those on tight budgets, one of the best freeware editors is GIMP, which provides most of the tools you would find in a highly-sophisticated application like Photoshop.

The acronym stands for GNU Image Manipulation Program and over the years it has developed into a very sophisticated application. GIMP is available in many languages as a ‘cross-platform’ image editor that can be used with Windows, MacOS and GNU/Linux operating systems, giving it wide appeal.

The GIMP user interface is highly user-customisable. You can select which features are displayed and where the various subordinate screens are ‘parked’ on the workspace.

GIMP provides colour management capabilities and, as an open source application, it is frequently updated to fix problems and add new features.

GIMP has the best support since its long development has provided time for a community of users to provide a support base. But if GIMP doesn’t suit you, other freeware applications like Darktable,, Faststone,and Photo Pos Pro are worth checking for low cost software.

Professional photographers and advanced amateurs usually prefer Photoshop or Photoshop Lightroom, which are included in Adobe’s Creative Cloud suite. Both are subscription-based, which means you’re up for a monthly fee. The advantage of a subscription is you’re always working with the latest version of the software.

Adobe’s Photoshop is a more capable and complex application than this screen grab of the user interface suggests. The dropdown menus in the toolbar provide access to a wide range of adjustments.

Lightroom is simpler then Photoshop and includes an image management function that lets users organise and store image files. However, even it could be uneconomical for occasional and non-professional users. Photoshop is extremely complex with a steep learning curve and many of its functions are irrelevant to hobbyists and difficult to use successfully.

The user interface of Serif’s Affinity Photo provides all the tools a photo enthusiast would require and its user interface is straightforward and easy to understand.

Some of the better amateur applications include ACDSee Photo Studio, Adobe Photoshop Elements, Affinity Photo, Corel PaintShop Pro, Luminar, and Pixelmator. They normally provide Trial downloads with 30 days of use before you buy the software.

The size of the downloadable file can indicate how complex the software – allowing for probable compression that will install it with at least 50% more megabytes. Watch out for ‘bloatware’ that takes up a lot of space without providing a decent range of fully-adjustable tools.

Always try before you buy. Start with applications that offer a free 30-day trial download so you can judge how well the application will suit you. Be wary of applications that require your credit card details before they let you download a so-called ‘free’ trial. Don’t provide credit card details unless you really want the software.

Useful links

The editing toolbox

How to choose an image editor

Photo editing software

Excerpt from Digital Darkroom pocket guideby Photo Review tech editor Margaret Brown.

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