Image Editing Software

For those of you who don’t know, a couple of weeks ago RMSP had an open house. We invited the general public into our facilities, gave them a look around and invited them to experience our educational style for a few hours.  I gave a lecture on how to choose image editing software. Everyone in attendance seemed to get a lot out of the lecture, so I thought I would share it here as well.

Every photographer has a unique set of requirements for what they need to get out of their image editing software. This can range from those people who are happy with simply brightening and darkening their photos to those of us who require the ability to composite multiple images together and use advanced filters for creative techniques. The good news is that the number of image editing programs has grown exponentially in the past few years. There is a piece of software to cover the needs of almost any photographer. For this article I will only be covering a few of the more popular programs for both MAC and PC.  These include:

Apple iPhoto
Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 3
Adobe Photoshop CS5

These four programs span the range from basic (and easier to use) to something much more complex that can handle more powerful edits. Let’s start simple and slowly work up to the more complex programs.


Picasa and iPhoto are around the same level in terms of complexity.  They both offer basic image manipulations, but beyond that they are quite limited. If you are using a Mac, I would recommend using iPhoto, as it runs very nicely and comes preloaded on your computer. For PC folks, Picasa works great and has many features that will make editing easier.

Both Picasa and iPhoto have similarities when it comes to image handling. Both programs use a catalog or library-based system. This means you never need to search through hundreds of folders on your computer to find the photo you’re looking for. Picasa references the folders and photos on your computer you want it to (much like Lightroom) and keeps the other folders out of the way to keep things much simpler. The whole topic of catalogs and libraries takes a lot of explanation to fully understand.  I even get confused occasionally. If this topic interests you, a great workshop to take a look at would be Lightroom for Photographers.

iPhoto goes a step further; it actually takes full control of your images by moving them into an iPhoto Library file that you cannot edit or change outside of iPhoto. This ensures that you don’t change anything outside of the program that might cause trouble.  Picasa groups its edits into three distinct categories or steps; Basic Fixes, Tuning and Effects. These same concepts are the foundation of iPhotos image editing as well.

Together these two programs make it possible for you to brighten, darken, saturate and apply basic effects to your images with little or no image editing knowledge. They are super easy to use and come at a great price; FREE. If you find yourself wanting something more, take a look at Adobe Photoshop Lightroom.

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 3.0

Since its launch around 2007, Lightroom has made its way into the hands of many professional photographers around the world. Before Lightroom, photographers had a quite limited selection of software designed just for them. Although Photoshop has the word “photo” in it, Photoshop is actually geared towards many areas of graphic design, with many extra tools that photographers will never use.

Lightroom was designed for the sole purpose of providing photographers with an easy to use, powerful and downright awesome editing program. Lightroom, like Picasa and iPhoto, is a catalog-based editor, meaning that it takes control of your images and references them wherever they live on your computer. This can make things very confusing for the beginner, however if you ensure you know what you’re doing before you begin you should end up fine. With that said, in Lightroom, proper setup is essential.

When it comes to organizing and editing, Lightroom gives you the ability to do almost anything you feel like doing. It has extensive sorting controls (similar to Adobe Bridge) and makes it an easy process to find the exact image you are hoping to work on. Once you have chosen the photo you wish to work on, Lightroom makes it easy to fine tune with many sliders to produce the look you want for your image.

Beyond the normal brightening, darkening and saturation, Lightroom gives you the ability to edit your images in creative ways, such as creating advanced black and white photos or choosing only the colors you wish to saturate (such as the greens, without effecting your reds). Lightroom also has some basic “local adjustments” (adjustments that only affect part of your photograph). These include: The adjustment brush which allows you to brighten, darken or saturate selective areas of your photograph (wherever you choose), the gradient tool allows you to closely mimic the effects of a split neutral density filter by letting you darken the sky in your images.

One of the biggest benefits of Lightroom is the absence of a “Save,” “Open,” or “Close” command when working with different photos. Because Lightroom is a catalog based image editing software, every click you make is recorded and written on your hard drive. For those of you with Photoshop experience, this is much like a History panel that remembers EVERYTHING. It doesn’t stop there.  If we were to choose another photo to work on (without the hassle of opening or saving) the history would stay with that photo.

This means that we could work on an image however we see fit, close Lightroom for 10 years, then come back to that image. If we want to undo a change we made 10 years ago it would be as simple as a click of the mouse because the history is STILL THERE, forever.

Lightroom does have its limitations. Although it’s great for doing really fast, effective edits to the whole image (global adjustments), it falls short in the local adjustments department. Additionally, Lightroom also has no ability to do compositing (putting more that one photo together) or creative filters.

Adobe Photoshop CS5

This is where Photoshop comes in. I would like to start by saying that Photoshop is a MONSTER program that contains many things we will never use as photographers. It does however allow us to make incredibly precise adjustments to our images with relative ease.

Photoshop allows the photographer to go beyond Lightroom’s capabilities and try things that may be new to you. It makes it possible to take the sky from one image and put it in another photograph, which lets us replace our boring white skies with beautiful skies from other images. Obviously this isn’t for everyone, but it can be useful for some images. This same concept can be used in other circumstances, such as moving people from photo to photo, which, if done right can have beautiful results.

Another tool in Photoshop that I find myself using frequently is the tool to blur backgrounds in images. It seems that in most of my photographs the f/2.8 lens simply had too much depth of field (amount of the photograph that’s sharp around your focal point). When this is the case, we can use Photoshop to simply blur out the background, mimicking the effect of less depth of field. I find this extremely useful, especially for portraits, sports and wildlife photography.

Photoshop can do many, many more things than what I have stated here, these are just the techniques that I use the most often. This program can handle anything you throw at it, from advanced compositing to using creative filters to giving your photos a new and edgy look.  If you are interested in learning what Photoshop can do for you as a photographer (without being overwhelmed by the features you will never use), consider Photoshop for Photographers.

I personally use Lightroom for 90% of the photos that I work on, but for the few that require something a little extra, they get the Photoshop treatment. Honestly, when I can, I stick to Lightroom –  it’s easier and much faster to use.

If you feel that you want to go father than the abilities of Lightroom, Photoshop is the program for you. If you want to keep things simple, Picasa or iPhoto might be the right image editing software for you.