Software is a critical component of the photographer’s toolbox. While most of us have our favorites, our needs and skill levels may change, so it’s important to keep up to date on the latest software capabilities. Developers are consistently adding or upgrading features, improving performance and, more recently, integrating AI (artificial intelligence or machine learning) features, so a program that didn’t meet your requirements last year may now be more ideal for the work you’re doing. And as more photographers include mobile devices in their workflow, software companies are creating mobile versions of their desktop photo applications—or creating entirely new solutions—to meet those needs.
Many of us depend on more than one software application for our organization, processing and output tasks, and there are a host of specialty applications that focus on specific aspects of photography. Here’s a look at a selection of software and apps for photographers.
Image Editing Software
Adobe Photoshop & Lightroom
This flagship duo of subscription-only, image-editing applications is regularly updated with new features and usability improvements. At the time of this writing, Adobe is about to introduce a new round of upgrades, and we had a couple of sneak peeks about what’s to come. Look for a quick and easy way to replace skies in the next Photoshop update (Adobe will provide a selection of prefab sky options for one-click changes). And Lightroom, Lightroom Classic and Adobe Camera Raw will all gain a new Advanced Color Grading tool.
One of Photoshop’s major recent updates will especially appeal to portrait photographers. Select Subject, which is powered by Adobe Sensei AI, has been optimized to work with people (and works well on hair). This one-click selection option identifies what it considers the main subject and goes from there. Adobe Camera Raw also saw a number of improvements, including a redesigned layout, new Hue slider and improved Curves panel, to name just a few. Lightroom Classic received performance and user interface improvements, new default presets and more.
On the mobile front, Photoshop for iPad has received a number of updates this year as well. If you haven’t already, be sure to check out Curves, Apple Pencil pressure sensitivity and the latest addition, the new Refine Edge Brush for more precise selections, on this mobile app. Subscription price: From $9.99 per month. Contact: adobe.com.
Available for Mac, Windows and Apple iPad, Affinity Photo is an affordable and full-featured image-editing program. It offers almost all the same features, tools and functions as Adobe Photoshop, including non-destructive editing, layers, blend modes, curves, levels and more. HDR, panorama stitching and other functions are also part of this application, which is divided into different “Personas” such as Photo, Develop, Liquify, Tone Mapping and Export.
There are no asset management (organization) tools here, but you will find smart object and Canon CR3 RAW support, PSD and PSB editing and manual override for lens corrections, to name just a few of the latest updates and improvements. And the company is prepping both desktop and iPad apps for the upcoming release of Apple’s Big Sur and iOS 14, which was released in September. List price: $50 (desktop); $20 (iPad). Contact: affinity.serif.com.
Capture One 20 Pro
This powerful software application offers both subscription and perpetual licenses. Better yet, Capture One also provides three camera-specific versions for Fuji, Nikon and Sony owners. These include the same exceptional features as the full software (which works with all cameras) yet costs about half the price—but they each only work with their designated brand of camera. (Visit the company’s website to see which cameras are supported for the brand you use.) You get up to three activations for Capture One 20 Pro or two activations for the brand-specific versions.
A favorite among pros for tethering and RAW processing, Capture One 20 Pro offers a wide range of retouching, color correction tools and lens profiles. Updated earlier this year, the revamped Healing and Cloning tools give users the option to place an unlimited number of corrections on a single layer, and multiple before/after views are available for RAW files and their variants. And thanks to an improved import function, it’s now much easier to import and sync Lightroom catalogs in Capture One. Pricing: $20 per month or $299 (full version); $9.99 per month or $129 (Fujifilm, Nikon, Sony versions). Contact: captureone.com.
DxO PhotoLab & Nik Collection
Now in version 3.2, DxO PhotoLab comes in “Essential” and “Elite” editions; the latter offers additional features, including the excellent DxO PRIME Denoise tool. One of PhotoLab’s strengths is in its optical corrections for a variety of camera-lens combinations. New for the latest version are an improved Local Adjustment Palette and the ability to reproduce masks quickly. Users can then adjust (and name) the mask for each new image. Keywording and the Repair Tool have also been updated.
DxO’s Nik Collection has passed through a couple of different hands since its first inception as a set of plug-ins by Nik Software. Today it’s more sophisticated, easier to use and remains a favorite among photographers who want to selectively correct or apply different looks to their images via Nik’s exceptional U-point technology, an innovative approach to masking. Version 3 further enhanced its usability and added a new plug-in, Perspective Efex, bringing the total to eight. The other seven include perhaps the best black-and-white conversion software I’ve ever used, Silver Efex Pro. Analog Efex Pro is another favorite and an excellent way to apply different film looks to images, providing control over a variety of attributes, including grain, blurring and more. List prices: From $129 (DxO Photo Lab 3); $149 (Nik Collection 3). Discounted upgrade pricing is also available. Contact: dxo.com.
Luminar is an easy-to-use photo-editing program at an affordable price. It works as both a standalone app or plug-in, with many of its features driven by AI for one-click edit options. In addition to the standard editing tools, Luminar offers some creative effects, such as sun rays, fog and film grain. Also based on AI is the application’s effortless Sky Replacement option.
Currently in version 4, Skylum plans to release the next generation Luminar AI this “holiday season.” The company will continue to support Luminar 4 with compatibility and performance updates for a year following the new release, but Skylum says Luminar AI is a totally new product powered by AI. At the time of this writing, we don’t have specific details, but Skylum promises faster performance and the ability to use customized templates for quick image improvements. List prices: $67 (Luminar 4); $79 (Luminar AI preorder). Contact: skylum.com.
ON1 Photo RAW 2021
ON1 has made some major updates and improvements to its image editing and RAW processing program, including the integration of its new Portrait AI, which is also available separately. Portrait AI is designed to provide a fast and easy portrait retouching workflow, using AI technology to recognize facial elements and frequency separation to retouch skin. The edits are non-destructive, and sliders can be used to tweak the automatically applied adjustments.
Other new features and upgrades run the gamut from faster and more efficient digital asset management to new color range selection and color replacement processes. The application also offers new camera-based presets and a Quick Slideshow mode in addition to its solid RAW processing features. Check the website for the full list of updates and features as well as various bundles. List price: From $80. Contact: on1.com.
Specialty Software & Mobile Apps
Elixxier set.a.light 3D
Elixxier set.a.light 3D lighting simulator is an essential piece of software for studio photographers regardless of skill level. With set.a.light 3D, you can test out lighting scenarios before a shoot and experiment with new setups without having to move lights into place. This application provides all the tools you need to create a set, add props, style and place models and, most importantly, design as many lighting setups as you need.
Numerous equipment options include flash, monolights and continuous lighting with an assortment of modifiers and gels. Camera settings can be adjusted, and, with versions 2.0 and 2.5, Elixxier has added more options across the board. In addition to various models and poses, you can now adjust the poses—right down to moving individual limbs and other body parts.
Lighting setups can be saved, shared and printed out for future use. And with the new set.a.light community, users can further share their work and check out other photographers’ lighting setups for inspiration. Available for Mac and Windows, the Studio version allows users to create their own studio space while the Basic version offers specific spaces to choose from. List prices: $230 (Studio); $94 (Basic). Contact: elixxier.com.
Portrait Pro 19
Now in version 19, this AI-powered software is designed—as its name makes clear—for retouching portraits. The application automatically finds the critical facial features but allows users to easily fine-tune those selections. With built-in directions, the program leads you through the different steps in logical progression, but it’s up to you to choose the types and intensity of retouching you want to apply.
In addition to the standard retouching options (smoothing skin, removing wrinkles and blemishes, whitening teeth), Portrait Pro provides tools to sculpt facial features, change expressions, apply or modify eye and lip color, edit hair, adjust lighting and a whole lot more. The interface is mostly intuitive, and the program helps make short work of portrait retouching.
Three versions are available. Choose Studio or Studio Max for RAW, Photoshop and Lightroom support and other features. For full batch processing, you’ll need to spring for Studio Max. List prices: $45 (Standard); $70 (Studio); $140 (Studio Max). Contact: anthropics.com.
Astrophotography has been growing in popularity, but not all of us know the ins and outs of astronomy, and some of us cannot go beyond naming a few constellations. Although designed for astronomers, SkySafari for iOS and Android is an incredibly helpful app for photographers who want to identify various stars, nebulae, comets, asteroids and other celestial objects. Enter a date, time and location to see what the night sky will put in front of your lens. Or search for a specific celestial object to find out its position on a certain date, time and place.
From there, you can enter the sensor size of your camera and choose one or more focal lengths. The two higher-end versions of the app (SkySafari Plus and Pro) allow users to place one or more overlays on the subject of your choice, representing the field of view for your focal length so you can decide which lens will give you the framing you want. Re-position the field-of-view box as desired to figure out where you need to point your camera.
SkySafari 6 AR, the most basic version of the app, shows far fewer stars and other night sky objects and does not provide field-of-view overlays, so it’s best to go with SkySafari 6 Plus or Pro. List prices: $3 (basic); $15 (Plus) $40 (Pro). Contact: skysafariastronomy.com.
The Photographer’s Ephemeris
Commonly referred to as simply “TPE,” this is the perfect companion for scenic and landscape photographers but can be very useful no matter what you’re shooting outdoors. Whether you’re in the wilderness or a crowded city, TPE provides all the natural lighting information you need to prepare for a successful shoot. In addition to sun and moon cycles and the effect the night sky (moonlight, the Milky Way, etc.) will have on a location, TPE provides a visual of where—and when—the light will fall. Additionally, you can even find out when the sun will rise high enough above a mountain or a building to illuminate a chosen location. These key pieces of information are critical to any outdoor shoot in natural light.
Earlier this year, TPE incorporated what3words.com into the app. Since what3words has given 3-word names to every three-meter square on the earth, photographers can better pinpoint a location—and not have to enter longitude and latitude to locate it.
There is a slight learning curve to this app, and if you’re not comfortable reading topography maps, you might be better off with the 3D version of TPE to see a more visually realistic preview of a location. If you want to check out TPE before purchasing the iOS or Android app, a free browser version is available. List prices: $10; $12 (3D). Contact: photoephemeris.com.