The best desktop photo-editing apps

These are the tools you need to make your photography truly shine.

Last month we covered the best mobile photo-editing apps, but if you're serious about photography you'll need more than the tools a phone or tablet can provide. Professionals rely on software from Adobe and others because of the power these programs afford them. Combined with shooting in the uncompressed RAW format, dedicated image editing suites allow you to adjust white balance, exposure, sharpness and color at a granular level.

That might be a little intimidating for folks used to point-and-shoot cameras or a smartphone, but for professionals and hobbyists, this means they can reproduce the image they saw in their minds when they hit the shutters on their DSLR or mirrorless cameras. Beyond editing tools, some of these software suites also offer ways to organize and share your photos without leaving the app.

A word on built-in image editing programs

Windows and macOS both have built-in photo editing apps, each aptly named Photos. And while they're fine for quick edits, doing anything remotely complex — adjusting perspective or smoothing out skin, for example — isn't possible. If all you want to do is make minor changes to your last batch of vacation photos before tossing them on Facebook though, they should suit you just fine.

For beginners and intermediate users: Adobe Lightroom

Adobe rebranded Lightroom last fall, splitting the app into Classic and CC. If you're intimidated by Photoshop, Lightroom's menus and workflow are easy to master. Classic (below) is desktop oriented, focusing on local storage and mouse-and-keyboard interface, while CC is better suited for mobile editing. As you might expect, Classic is more powerful given its heritage as a desktop program.

Once you've reached the limits of what its built-in editing tools offer, the internet is full of photographers who've made downloadable presets (free and otherwise) that you can easily add to the program for photos that have a look that you can truly call your own. If you favor stylized edits over minor adjustments — or tend to automate a bulk of your workflow — Classic is for you.

If your editing style is less intensive, however, it's hard to pass up Lightroom CC. The UI is similar to the Lightroom mobile app and, even better, any photos you import into the app on your phone sync with the Creative Cloud. Meaning, you can take a photo on your phone, start edits on your iPad Pro and then finish them on your home computer. One subscription grants access to both flavors of Lightroom.

For advanced users: Adobe Photoshop

While Lightroom is a great tool for making minor tweaks, sometimes you need to get your hands dirty with an edit. That's where Photoshop comes in. When you need to go beyond what's possible in Lightroom — like removing a tree from an otherwise flat horizon or moving two people closer together — or add some extra drama to studio portraiture, Adobe's other toolset is indispensable.

The biggest advantage Photoshop has over Lightroom is its roots as a graphics creation program, as opposed to just a digital darkroom. If you're willing to invest the time, you can use your photos as the base for truly mind-blowing digital images. Want to stack 50 photos from your night in the woods taking pictures of the Milky Way and merge the star trails together into one surreal photo? This is how you do it.

If you hate subscriptions: Affinity Photo

It's easy to forget that there are image editing suites not made by Adobe. While a Creative Cloud photography subscription will only set you back $10 a month, it's a fee that never goes away. If you'd rather pay once, check out Affinity Photo from Serif. The software itself only costs $50 and updates are free. Even better, if you're used to Photoshop's UI, it shouldn't take long to get up to speed. The layer tools, RAW editing, digital painting and batch processing tools you're used to are available as well. You can even edit 360-degree photos.

There are number of different easy-to-apply filter effects available too if you'd rather treat the app a little more like Lightroom. The Photoshop-like interface can be jarring if you're coming over from Lightroom, but with some patience and YouTube tutorials, you can get up to speed pretty quickly.

The rest

We picked the three best photo-editing apps, but there are plenty of others options as well. The problem is, they don't quite stack up to what Adobe and Affinity offer. For better and worse, Adobe is the standard when it comes to creative work.

If you'd rather not spend money at all, there's GIMP, the open-source photo editor, but its interface is a bit cluttered and you'll have to download a RAW converter before you can start editing photos in that format. There's also, but it's extremely limited and can't fully replace Photoshop. Pixelmator Pro ($60), on the other hand, offers a mobile app and Photoshop-like experience, but it lacks soft proofing and is Mac-only for now.

Assuming you're just getting started, though, it's hard not to recommend Adobe's photography subscription plan. It includes Lightroom, Photoshop and their mobile counterparts, and might prove more economical than spending a lump sum on software up front. Sure, Affinity is only $50, but there's the chance that what you're looking to do could be handled by Photos on macOS or Windows.