Software to take your pictures from “meh” to “ooh!”

Whether you shoot on a dSLR or a smartphone, editing to give your photographs a little extra oomph is a smart move. It takes your images from snapshot quality to “ooh!” (or sometimes “ew!”).

(Summary at bottom of this article)

Can’t decide if this is “ooh” or “ew!”

I don’t own a smartphone, so take this with a grain of salt. My photography buddies like Snapseed, which is produced by a subsidiary of DxO Labs, a photo editor company that’s giving Adobe a run for its money. The app is free – can’t beat that. Check it out for me and let me know what you think of it.

Anyway. I shoot in RAW, and then edit in RawTherapee, which is an excellent free RAW editor, and then save for jpeg/web and call it good. Most of the time. The software is very similar to Lightroom, though it doesn’t have mask functions yet. If you use Apple or Ubuntu platforms, give Darktable a shot — I’ve heard good things about it. In addition to Lightroom-lookalike editing features, it has a powerful catalogue system that’s comparable to Lightroom.

They just recently added Windows, for which some users are really excited. It’s on my to-do list to check it out. I have thousands of pictures that needs organizing, which is a task I’m not looking forward to.

Lately, I’ve had a hankering to play with editing a bit more. There are things you can’t do in RawTherapee, Lightroom, and Darktable, like clone hair out, dodge & burn, masks, and liquify, and all the fun, juicy stuff.


Rather than dig out my old license for my antique Photoshop, I decided to give Gimp a shot because, hey, it’s newer and it must be comparable to Photoshop CC, right?

Well. Keep in mind, Photoshop is an incredibly complex software, and I give the Gimp developers huge props for trying to make an editing software to compete with it. And for free, to boot.

If you were a graphic designer, or just needed to occasionally edit photographs, Gimp is great. But if you have several photographs to edit, not so much. The software currently lacks a feature that is critical for modern photographers: adjustment layers. Without it, you’re basically working blind. It’s harder to keep edits consistent across the board. For example, if you want to change your white balance and shift the overall picture to have blue tones and you forget to note what the settings were…good luck trying to duplicate that effect in a different picture.

By Photographer/Painter: Jean-Pol GRANDMONT, CC BY 3.0

Now I think about it, it’s a lot like working in an actual film darkroom — you had to keep copious notes about your enlarger settings, how long your exposures were, whether you dodged/burned, and what masks you used. If you didn’t, good luck trying to duplicate an edit you made a month ago.

Woman holding a lightbulb overhead, black and white image
Looking for an idea

Anyway, back to Gimp. I figured: I must be missing something. Maybe a special feature or tool that makes it deserving of the praise I keep hearing from other photographers. After all, they manage to make stunning images with it, right? So I kept at it for a few weeks, figuring a lightbulb would flick on eventually.

In the end, I just couldn’t get past the lack of adjustment layers feature, and went digging for my old Photoshop software. I wasn’t sure I could get it to work because Adobe doesn’t support the standalone versions anymore. But to my surprise, everything installed fine and the license key, which I had saved on one of my external HDs, was accepted. I even contacted Adobe to play it safe, and I appear to be good to go. Thank goodness I had the foresight to save that info. Huzzah.

I’m back in business, baby.

I have to re-learn all this stuff, though. It’s been a couple years since I messed with the heavy-duty stuff, and I’m a little out of loop now. More homework!

To recap:

  • Free RAW editors, which I recommend: RawTherapee. I’ve heard good things about Darktable and Snapseed.
  • Lightroom, CaptureOne and Luminar are good for both light editing and cataloging.
  • Gimp is good for both light and heavy-duty editing, but it’s hard to duplicate effects. Interface can be a little confusing.
  • Adobe Photoshop is Aces for heavy-duty edits

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Pat O'Connor

    I get the entire Adobe Creative Suite for free, through my company, so I’m a bit biased and can’t really comment on ROI issues. That being said, there’s NOTHING I can’t do in Photoshop/Lightroom. If I can imagine it…I can do it. I wouldn’t consider anything else.

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