How to Use Photo Editing Software: Part 1

Sifting through your image editing and organizing options

As a photographer, it is absolutely necessary to have image editing software for your professional career, but it may surprise some people that even amateurs and non-professionals will benefit from having the right kind of software. Ever used the nightmare called iPhoto? Well, it’s free for a reason. There are many of limitations of using free photo editing software, so I’ll walk you through the basics of what to look for in image editing programs that are not free, but in most cases are worth it. As a freelancer who has dealt with the horror of free image editing and organizing software like iPhoto and GIMP, I encourage anyone who owns a camera to consider your options.


Investing in the right software

First off, assess how you see yourself using this software in the next 5 years. Software usually updates every 2-5 years, so you won’t need to plan further ahead than that. If you see yourself as an amateur-professional but want to make the next step into professional photography, then plan to purchase software that will accommodate your growing needs. If you are a non-professional but see yourself wanting to print a few shots you took from a recent vacation, that will require a much less complex and more affordable software. In other words, you may not have to spend hundreds of dollars. Evaluate your current and near-future needs. This will save you time and money when shopping for software.

Sometimes the biggest problem in deciding on the best program is not knowing exactly what you’re in need of. Choose programs that provide a free trial period so that you have a month to use it and see for yourself. I highly recommend that you test the product first before purchasing because you may find that the program actually doesn’t suit your needs, is either too complex or too limited. Shop around and read reviews on how specific programs rank against others. This website broke down a few affordable software programs, providing an excellent analysis of certain photo editing programs. Having the background that I do in photojournalism, it was pretty much expected that I purchase Adobe Creative Suite, but I would not recommend this for everyone. If any Adobe program is best suited for amateur and professional photographers, it’s Adobe Photoshop Lightroom. This software not only has extensive editing tools, but also the ability to edit multiple photos at a time and organize photos. Lightroom 5 runs you at $140, which may seem high, so this may not be the best choice. Surprisingly, Photoshop Elements isn’t far behind at $125, but again, utilize those trial periods to see if it will be worth it.


What to look for in a good software program

Sometimes we need a guide when wading through the myriad options in purchasing or even trialing software. If you trial a few programs at once, make sure you watch for a few things and this will assist you in narrowing them down.


Most photo editing software has a built-in organizer, but not all. It may surprise you that both Photoshop and Photoshop Elements do not include a built-in organizer. Instead, they both come with separate organizing software called Bridge. It tends to be a pain, so I can’t say that I completely recommend this, although this is how I worked for many years. I find it much easier and more intuitive to see all of your photos laid out and be able to edit them immediately, comparing them against other photos. It feels more like an actual darkroom where you can physically arrange your photos and see how they compare. Being able to rank, color-code, and keyword photos is an excellent feature for filtering out the bad photos and narrowing down selects from a shoot, so look for programs with these features.


Workflow and organization go hand in hand, for the most part, so I find that software with built-in organizers has a better workflow. In addition to organization, workflow tends to be smoother when the toolboxes are customizable, when similar tools tend to be grouped together, and when the overall design layout is intuitively arranged. I prefer a program that feels natural to navigate and has easily customizable panels so that editing is smoother, quicker, and is simple to apply edits to multiple images at once. This will always be dependent on the needs and preferences of the photographer, but make sure you are comfortable with the workflow. In many cases, ease of workflow is counterbalanced by a complexity of tools, so find a program with the right balance for you.

Editing Tools

This is perhaps the most important aspect of any image editing software that you will want to pay attention to. You want a program with not just the most tools, but the right tools, to suit your specific style and photographic needs. Photoshop takes the cake on the advanced toolset that it carries, but again you may not need all of these tools. Look for the basics: white balance/color balance, exposure, brightness, contrast, saturation, black and white, levels, layers, sharpening, cropping, and shadow and highlight recovery (HDR). Other tool options such as text layering, adjustment layering, brushes, lens distortion correction/keystone, cloning/spot removing, gradients, selective color editing, curves, filters and masks are a bonus for many, but unnecessary for others. Get a good sense of how far you want to go with your edits, such as whether you like the look of filters and watermark text, but more importantly how you will ultimately be using these images. If you just need to convert images from your family vacation into a file worthy of printing, you won’t need all the extra fluff.

Import and Export Formats

Here’s where iPhoto fails miserably. You definitely need a program that will import and export images in a variety of formats. If you’re even slightly considering shooting professionally, you will want to always shoot in RAW format on your DSLR. This is an unprocessed file that contains much more information to work with in post processing, especially if the image wasn’t exposed perfectly. Only professional software will be able to process these file types, so pay attention to which programs support what RAW file types. If you shoot with a compact camera in traditional processed file types, such as .JPG, .TIFF, .PNG, or .GIF you won’t usually have to worry about compatibility with software. Output capabilities should also be versatile, such as being able to export as a PDF or convert your .TIFF images to .JPG . The biggest issue with free software is not having control over the export file types. Consider how the image will ultimately be used, whether for web or print and consider the dimensions of the file.

Make sure you purchase a program that allows you to export images at your own specified ppi, or pixels per inch. Often mistaken for “dpi”, or “dots per inch” in print terms, this will allow you to create a document that any printer will be able to register at full resolution. 300ppi is the standard “print quality” whereas web quality images can get away with 72ppi.


Along with organization, you want a way to easily retrieve old imports on your computer or external hard drive. I would recommend using a program with simple and flexible archiving capabilities, for non-professionals and professionals alike. Even if you aren’t a pro, archiving images now will help you keep your digital scrapbook ordered. Now that it’s more accessible than ever to capture images of friends, family, and clients, it’s becoming more essential to have software that can assist you in organizing and storing this immense influx of images. To give you an idea, I have a hard time finding images from just a couple of years ago sometimes. As you further your career in photography, it will only become more and more crucial that you have a standard way of naming, categorizing, filing, and storing all of these photos so that you can quickly find them 3 years from now, and using a program that helps you do this will be a better investment.


Even if you decide against purchasing software, there’s no reason you shouldn’t trial at least one program to see for yourself. If you’re on a budget and don’t want to be tempted by expensive programs like Capture One Pro or Photoshop, trial an inexpensive program like Paintshop Pro. When I finally caved in and bought better editing software, I found my editing time cut to a fraction of the hours I used to spend on Photoshop. You may also find yourself saving loads of time and stress in the long run, and that is invaluable.

Stay tuned for part 2! I’ll extrapolate on best practices for workflow and organization, as well as editing tools basics.

Back to post list