If you’re a professional photographer or designer you need editing software that provides precision and control over your images, as well as support for editing RAW files and multi-layer editing tools.
The popularity of selfies and smartphone photography in recent years has given rise to dozens of affordable photo-editing programs aimed at amateur photographers. While these free (or low cost) apps are great for people who simply want to smarten up their selfies or holiday snaps, they may not offer the features pro photographers need to edit photos.
If you want to edit your photos like a pro – or you are a pro photographer, designer, web developer, graphic artist or other creative professional, then you may wish to consider one of these pro photo editors.
If you don’t quite consider yourself a pro, or you are just looking for a free or really cheap Photoshop alternative then check out our round up of free photo editing software for Mac.
That’s not to say we won’t be considering some excellent alternatives to Photoshop here.
Photoshop has always been the king of the photo-editing market – a position reinforced once more by Adobe’s release of a native version of Photoshop designed for the new generation of Macs with Apple’s own processor in March 2021 (see Apps that work on M1 Macs).
The sheer depth and range of Photoshop’s editing tools is still unrivalled, with the latest version boasting a new artificial intelligence features that can actually change the expression on a person’s face, or even make them look older (and balder).
However, Adobe’s decision to move its professional software products to a subscription payment system a few years ago antagonized many users, and opened the door to rival photo-editors that still just require a simple one-off payment, without committing you to a long-term subscription.
Rivals such as Pixelmator Pro and Affinity Photo can provide impressive editing tools for less than £50, and while they may not match the sheer scope of Photoshop they will be more than adequate for many professional users and more serious amateur photographers. And don’t forget that most of these professional-level editing programs also provide a free trial – ranging from one week to a whole 90 days in some cases – so you can take your time deciding which program best suits your needs and your budget.
If you are also considering buying a new Mac read our guide to the best Mac for photo editing.
Read on for our guide to the best pro photo editors for Mac, including some excellent Photoshop alternatives.
Best photo editors for professional photographers
Back in the mists of time, Adobe’s Photoshop was the killer app that gave the Mac credibility in a world of Windows PCs, and established the Mac as the favoured tool of creative users. So it’s apt that Adobe has just released a new native version of Photoshop designed for the new generation of M1 or ‘Apple Silicon’ Macs. And it gives the new Macs its seal of approval by stating that many filters and other effects run up to 50% faster on the new models.
And, of course, Photoshop’s selection of filters and creative tools is unrivalled, with the ability to quickly and easily select and replace objects within an image, versatile masks and layers for creating composite images, and – following the fashion for AI technology – a number of neural filters that can alter colour within scenes, repair blemishes and even alter someone’s expression or make them look older. You can even remove the sky from a scene if you don’t like it and drop a new sky into the background.
Admittedly, Adobe’s insistence on monthly subscription fees for using Photoshop and other Adobe software has opened the door to rivals that simply charge a one-time fee, but Photoshop still rules the roost when it comes to the sheer depth, precision and creative freedom that it provides, and with plans starting at £9.98 per month it’s still pretty competitive.
Paying that monthly fee also ensures that users get instant access to new features and updates as soon as they become available, with the most recent update including a new super-resolution feature for increasing the resolution of RAW image files while maintaining clarity and detail, according to Adobe.
There are various ways to get Photoshop on your Mac. You can subscribe to Photoshop on its own, or as part of a bundle. You can pay for one year, or pay monthly. And you may be able to take advantage of a Students & Teachers or Schools & Universities deal.
The Photography Plan is the best deal. It include Photoshop CC, Lightroom CC (for web and mobile), and Lightroom Classic CC (for desktop). All that costs £9.98/$9.99 a month but you have to sign up for a year. You get 20GB storage included (there’s a 1TB storage option that costs about £10/$10 more a month). Sign up on Adobe’s website.
Alternatively you can get the single app for £19.97/$20.99 a month if you sign up for a year, or £30.34/$31.49 a month if you just pay on a monthly basis (which will mean you can cancel later). Sign up on Adobe’s website.
There’s also a Business option where you can get a single licence for £25.28 (ex VAT)/$33.99 a month. All the Adobe CC apps, including Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, Premiere Pro, and Acrobat, cost £59 (ex VAT)/$79.99 a month. Sign up on Adobe’s website.
Many people are confused about the differences between Photoshop and its younger sibling, Lightroom, so let’s start by briefly outlining the key differences between the two.
Photoshop is the 900lb photo-editing gorilla, a behemoth that provides a dazzling range of precise and creative editing tools that really allow you to delve into the pixels of individual images. In contrast, Lightroom is lighter on its feet, providing a more streamlined workflow for photographers who shoot lots of photos on a daily basis and need quick tools for organizing and fine-tuning their work.
Lightroom starts by providing image management tools for storing and organizing large collections of photos. You can add ratings and flags to your photos in order to highlight the best shots, edit metadata, and use keywords to quickly search through your photo library.
Once you’ve located the photos that you want to work with, you can ‘develop’ your photos by enhancing lighting and colour, and using Lightroom’s presets and filters to quickly make changes to groups of images all at once.
Lightroom does provide some more traditional editing tools – such as the ability to remove the dreaded red-eye, and a spot removal brush to remove blemishes from portrait shots – but it doesn’t attempt to match Photoshop’s full armoury of precision editing tools and creative effects.
Like Photoshop, Lightroom now requires a monthly subscription fee, but this is where things get a bit complicated. If you tend to work on the move with both Macs and mobile devices, then you’ll probably prefer the main Lightroom Plan. This simply includes Lightroom on its own and provides 1TB of online storage so that you can share your work across all your devices, for £9.98 per month. Sign up on Adobe’s website.
But, if you mainly work on a Mac and store most of your work on the Mac’s own internal hard drive, then you might want to choose one of Adobe’s Photography Plans instead. As we detailed in the section about Photoshop, these plans include Photoshop and Lightroom – as well as the more desktop-oriented Lightroom Classic.
The Photography Plan starts at £9.98/$9.99 a month if you sign up for a year. However, you only get 20GB of online storage with this plan, although there are more expensive subscriptions available that provide additional storage too. You get 20GB storage included with this plan (there’s a 1TB storage option that costs about £10/$10 more a month). Sign up on Adobe’s website.
Affinity Photo provides impressive editing power for less than £50 – and, at the time of this review was on special offer for just £23.99.
The app’s list of features is long and – for less experienced users – might seem somewhat intimidating, but a key feature of Affinity Photo is its use of personas that help to streamline your workflow.
There are five personas available within Affinity, selected using a simple set of icons up in the top-left corner of the main toolbar. These include Photo, Liquify, Develop, Tone Mapping and Export, and each persona provides a custom workspace that focuses on a specific set of tools.
When you import a RAW image file, the program automatically switches to the Develop persona, which displays controls for quickly adjusting exposure, lighting levels, saturation, and also metadata for each file.
Once you’ve developed your photos as required, you can switch into the Photo persona, which includes the program’s main editing tools. These include powerful layer controls, retouching tools, and an inpainting brush that allows you to select and remove entire objects from an image.
There’s an extensive selection of filters and effects, including a handy haze-removal filter, and if you really want to get creative with special effects you can delve into the Liquify persona. This superimposes a mesh grid over your images and provides a variety of tools for selecting and distorting specific parts of the image.
When you’re finished you can use the Export persona to convert your work into a variety of formats, including SVG for the web or PDF for print and press.
Admittedly, Affinity Photo’s sheer variety of tools can be a little daunting, but Serif offers a free trial that lasts for a full 90-days, so you can take your time getting to know the program before making up your mind.
The Pixelmator range is a little confusing. There are two mobile versions – Pixelmator for iPhone, and Pixelmator Photo for the iPad – and two Mac versions. The original Mac version of Pixelmator that we reviewed a couple of years ago has now been renamed Pixelmator Classic and costs £28.99, while Pixelmator Pro sits at the top of the range, and was recently updated to v2.0.
Many of the new features in v2.0 were what you might call housekeeping updates, providing full compatibility with macOS 11 Big Sur, and improving performance with native support for the new generation of Apple Silicon Macs. However, there’s no doubt that the program provides impressive editing power at a very competitive price.
There are precise tools for selecting objects and colours, and both preset and customizable brush styles, all of which are neatly arranged in a palette that runs down the right-hand side of the main editing window.
Over on the left you’ll find the Layers palette, which is key to using many of the app’s more powerful features. You can create both raster (bitmap) and vector layers, and use masks to isolate specific parts of a layer or image, and there are powerful and precise histograms for adjusting colour and lighting.
The program also provides a useful selection of text and vector graphics tools, so that you can design documents that go beyond pure photography.
It’s not, admittedly, the most intuitive program for newcomers to get to grips with, and tends fill the screen with controls and palettes and just assume that you know what you’re doing. However, the recent 2.0.6 update added some new video tooltips that can help to explain how many of the main tools work, and point you towards some online tutorials if you need a little more help.
Pixelmator Pro is a real bargain at just £38.99/$39.99, and there’s a 15-day free trial available too. You can download Pixelmator Pro from the Mac App Store.
DxO PhotoLab 4
DxO makes a number of apps that focus on specific tasks, such as processing RAW images or adjusting perspective, but PhotoLab 4 is its main general-purpose editing tool.
There are two versions available, starting at £115/$129 for PhotoLab 4 Essential, which can be activated on two separate devices – handy if you want to use it on both a laptop and desktop Mac (or maybe switch between a Mac and PC).
PhotoLab 4 Essential starts with its PhotoLibrary mode, which provides some quick tools for sorting through large collections of photos and organizing them into projects.
Once you’ve selected a photo you can click the Customize tab to switch into the main editing workspace. This shows metada in a palette on the left-hand side of the workspace, while the main editing tools sit over on the right-hand side.
For quick edits you can simply select one of the program’s presets, such as black-and-white, HDR, or atmosphere. However, there’s also a series of tabs that provide access to more precise manual controls for colour and lighting, as well as geometry controls for adjusting focal length, distance and distortion. There’s also a handy option for adding text or graphics watermarks.
More experienced photographers who work with RAW files most of the time can also opt for PhotoLab Elite, which costs £179/$199 and allows you to activate the app on three different devices.
This version adds DxO’s DeepPrime aritifical intelligence technology, which is used to reduce noise and mosaic effects on RAW photos, and claims to work especially well on photos taken in low light conditions.
The company also has a database of thousands of different camera and lens combinations so that DeepPrime knows how to produce the best results for your own particular camera set-up.
The app’s interface is rather dense, and assumes a fair amount of photo-editing experience, but there’s a 30-day trial version of PhotoLab Elite available so that you have plenty of time to try it out before buying.
Cyberlink PhotoDirector 365
Cyberlink isn’t a well-known name among Mac users, but it has just launched a Mac version of its PhotoDirector 365 for the first time.
PhotoDirector’s interface does feel rather Windows-oriented, and rather than providing the familiar sets of tools found in most Mac editing programs, it takes a more task-based approach that divides editing work into a series of modules that are displayed as a row of tabs running across the top of the screen.
The Library module allows you to import and organize your photos, while the Create module can combine images to create slideshows or animated GIFs. The Edit module will be the most straightforward for most Mac users, as it provides a more familiar palette that contains selection and crop tools, paintbrush, fill bucket, and text.
The program does have a habit of filling the screen with a rather dense selection of tools and controls, but there’s also a Guided module that provides a bit more help. Options here include a sky replacement feature, a variety of colour effects and photo filters, and some handy options for working with 360-degree panoramic photos.
When you launch the program, it also gives you the option of starting up in a completely separate Express Mode that allows you to quickly apply a variety of preset colour and style effects.
There’s no doubt that PhotoDirector 365 is a powerful and versatile photo-editor, but Mac users should definitely check out the free trial to see how they get on with the program’s unfamiliar way of doing things.
You’ve got a choice of buying options, as you can buy different versions of the program with either a subscription of one-off payment.
PhotoDirector 365 charges a monthly subscription fee of £17.99/$19.99 – which, to be honest, seems a bit overpriced – but the annual option is a more affordable £59.99/$69.99 (on special offer until 14 April at £44.99/$51.99), and there’s a 7-day free trial available too.
You’ll need macOS 10.14 or later installed.
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