It depends. That’s the answer to so much in photography. It depends on what you want to accomplish. So let’s rate the very best software packages by their usefulness. And let me say these are just my favourites and my list may not match yours or some other professional’s list. That’s okay. The idea is to have fun while creating the images you want to keep forever. These are my suggestions:
So if you’re a point and shoot family or vacation shooter and you just want to see your images after you’ve shot them I’ve got one suggestion for Apple computer users and one for PCs. For the Mac learn how to use IPhoto. It’s terrific and comes with your Mac. It will allow you to download and view all your images just about automatically. If you do want to make some changes like cropping or changing the brightness then IPhoto is perfect. It will also allow you to upload to email or your website effortlessly. The only caveat is to watch out that any changes you make to your originals aren’t reversible. What I do when I import my images to IPhoto is to burn a copy of all my images prior to any editing.
The simplest software for PCs is Picasa. This is a free program from Google and it’s great. It is also available on Mac.
Next up for the amateur photographer who wants to do more with their images my choice at under $100 is Adobe Photoshop Elements. Elements has been around forever and it is a very mature piece of software. Designed for the beginning photographer, Elements offers 80 or 85 per cent of the $900 Photoshop features photographers use for around a tenth the price. PS Elements is a bargain IMHO and if it was all I had to use I would not be unhappy. Best of all it is available for Macs or PCs.
Now let’s say you’ve been shooting for a year or so and you’re getting pretty good. Maybe your cousin asks is you could take some photos at a wedding. You’ve got your digital single lens reflex camera and the lens that came with the kit (usually something like an 18 to 55mm f/4 to f/5.6 lens) and since most weddings and receptions happen indoors you’ve bought an external flash and maybe a fast 50mm f/1.8 lens which Canon and Nikon sell for under $150. Maybe you’ve bought a second or third memory card. So you’ve got a pretty good kit for shooting weddings or other special events but what software should you use?
You could use Elements or IPhoto or Picasas but thanks to digital photography you’re likely to shoot several hundred images (I usually shoot well over a 1,000 at any special event I do.) and it’s going to be a very slow process looking at each individual image in these software packages and then you’re going to want to edit them. For wedding shots especially shots of the bride your images are going to need to show the wedding dress as absolute white (without losing any detail) and her skin tone exactly as she looks. You can do all this in the less expensive packages but about 99.9 per cent of all wedding and special event photographers are using a piece of software called Lightroom from Adobe.
I’ve got a copy of Lightroom 2 and it’s very good. Aside from being a better than average photo editor (and photo editing especially when it comes to digital noise has been vastly improved in the just releases Lightroom 3) it’s also a first-class data manager. Also the software is configured to run fast on any recent computer (four gigs of RAM is highly recommended) that is ideally equipped with two external harddrives (I’ve got two separate 2-terabyte drives plugged into my Mac and one 2-terabyte backup drive on one of my PCs). There is a bit of learning curve with any sophisticated software but LR2 or 3 is pretty easy to grasp. Lightroom works on both Macs and PCs.
For Mac fans, Apple’s Aperture is very similar to Lightroom and is highly regarded by many professional photographers.
Finally we come down to my last two picks. Photoshop CS5 is essential if you want to do any complex layout work such as magazine covers or posters. It is a huge, complex and expensive package but if you’re a professional shooter who has progressed past doing the odd wedding or other commercial shoot, it’s also essential. All kinds of plug-in software which can create all kinds of special effects and looks works in Photoshop. There is a ton of online training for Photoshop (as there is for much of the software above) and if you need it, it’s there. At just under $1,000 this is not a purchase one makes lightly. I have a copy of CS4 because after I bought Photoshop Elements, Abode offered me a deal to buy CS4 for $300 US. Could not get my credit card out fast enough. Would I do it again? Absolutely. Am I upgrading to CS5. Nope. New software upgrades don’t make my old software any less useful.
Finally and this is for Nikon shooters only but Capture NX2 is my favourite editor. This is mainly for processing Nikon NEF (RAW) files although it will work on JPGs and TIFFs taken with any manufacturer’s cameras.
It does a much better job of editing Nikon NEF files than any of the above packages including Photoshop. It uses what’s called U-technology to allow for the dragging of tools right off the menu onto the image. Colours, contrast and just about everything else can be changed quickly and accurately in seconds. In Photoshop for comparison you’re dealing with the need to create new layers. I took a day-long Photoshop course along with over 600 other Photoshop users and it reminded me why I like NX2 so very much.
Now remember what I said: This is just my list. There are hundreds of other software packages out there including the plug-in packages (I love the complete kit I’ve got of NIK Software which I use all the time. It works in conjunction with Photoshop and Lightroom and one filter package called Color Efex 3 also works with NX2. NIK developed the Capture NX2 software exclusively for Nikon.
So which package is best for you? See why I say it depends.
It depends on whether photography is just a fun thing or a serious hobby or a profession. It depends on what kind of images you shoot and how many. It also depends on how much money you want to spend and what results you are looking for from your files.