Mr. Ansel Adams would probably salivate at the quality of digital photography software available in the market today. Though he was a purist at heart, every photographer has to make a living, and that means pleasing their target audience, who undeniably and always fall for glitter and glamor over realism.
Some cameras are more “real” than others. Some lenses are more “real” than others. Is “real” boring? And, if I may ask, what is “real”? And how many kinds of digital darkroom software do you need? Currently there are 2 key categories of software, as described below, with some examples. With more people junking their DSLR and desktop / laptop software workflows to a pure mobile (phone, tablet) experience, we talk about both kinds of platforms.
Let’s start with the Amateurs first, as that software set is getting better by the day and mostly comes with an incredible price point – FREE.
For the Amateur
Most of these photography software apps are free or are bundled with the hardware you buy – smartphone, tablet, desktop, laptop or even a camera. The main aim of these apps is to catalog the user’s image, and they perform a few commonly used digital manipulations such as red-eye removal, auto levels, contrast, brightness, and saturation. Special effects, presets and filters are thrown in for good measure, plus the ability to integrate with a social web site or blog.
iOS & Android: We love Pixlr Express. In our mind, it has the best set of filters and presets, along with various ways you can add borders, text, and visual artifacts to your photographs and, without saying, share it to any social medium. Available on iPhone, iPad and all Android phones and tablets.
Your phone or tablet might also come with a default photo edit and share mode within your camera app, which is getting better day by day – you may not need anything else.
Desktop & Laptop: If you have Mac OS X (Yosemite or later), you get the very capable Apple Photos application for free. This replaces the iPhoto app available on Mavericks and prior to that. Apple Photos is extremely intuitive, has a plethora of editing options and presets. If you are a Windows users, the only free option you have is Google Picasa which is also quite capable.
If you are willing to pay, Adobe Lightroom is by far the only app a photographer with a time crunch ever needs. Yes, the serious media artist or photographer can do with more sophisticated software, but you may not have the time or the patience to painfully work on each photograph.
We both work on Mac OS X, have Apple Photos, but we shell out money for Lightroom every release. We swear by Lightroom, and don’t need anything else.
For the Media Artist
This is the Cadillac category, and also has the steepest learning curves. These software do one thing and they do it well – manipulate images. They trade function over form, and are not very (layman) user friendly. In our mind, these apps are targeted towards the Media Artist – a person who doesn’t just take photographs, but rather creates art.
Desktop and Laptop: Adobe Photoshop is the yardstick against which every other media editing software is compared. You can create images in Photoshop, not just fix them. There is nothing else that comes close, and this software doesn’t come cheap. Available on both Mac OS X and Windows.
GIMP is an Open Source and free photo editing software that comes very close in function to Adobe Photoshop. Its probably 90% of the functionality at a free price point – and may satisfy the needs of most people. GIMP is also available on Windows, Mac and also on Linux.
To add to the arsenal, the one thing Photoshop and Lightroom don’t do very well (yet) is HDR – High Dynamic Range – photography. The software to use for HDR is Photomatix. Just like Photoshop, this app is available for both Windows and Mac OS, and is unparalleled in function.
Luminance HDR (formerly the unpronounceable qtpfsgui) is an Open Source and free alternative to Photomatix that also comes very close in function. Luninance is available for Windows, Mac and Linux as well.
Personally, we have settled down with a combination of Adobe Lightroom, GIMP, and Photomatix. Lightroom is used 95% of the time, Photomatix is used for all HDRs and accounts for 4% of our editing time and volume, while GIMP maybe takes the remaining 1% of the volume.