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Which Image editing software is best for you?

The market for image editing software is so diverse it makes it hard for anyone to choose which software is right for them. Here Michael Bates takes a look at the software market and compares a variety of it's products.

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corel paint shop pro photo x2When it comes to editing photographs there is a massive quantity of software packages available, which makes anybody's first foray into the world of image manipulation a daunting experience at best. What you really need to do before committing to a piece of software is try it, free trials of all the propriety software kits are available on their respective websites; consider carefully what you want to do with it and what features you value most. You also need to consider a budget since you can pay anything from £0-800 for one of these programs and the price is not always indicative of the software's capabilities. So to help you establish exactly what each piece of software is good for, as well as the pros and cons of each package, we will look at some of the more popular packages, starting with the free programs and working up towards the most expensive pieces. A quick point that needs making is that any comments about performance and compatibility are entirely subjective to my individual system and will not affect everyone, although it does exceed the recommended hardware setup for each of these pieces of software.

Brush StrokeBrush Strokes 1.01- Free Download
This is the smallest piece of software in this article; at a mere 620kb download it really is a tiny download, and even when it is unpacked and installed it remains a measly 2mb application. As you can probably guess the small size of the program means it isn't the most expansive program; what you get is essentially a hybrid between MS Paint and an extremely simplified GIMP-type program. The quality of the program is generally lacking, though I wasn't expecting much; the tools lag behind the mouse if you move around too quickly over a large image and they don't always follow your exact movements. If you look in the screen shot you'll see some pointed corners which should be sweeping curves; the program cut corners in order to keep up with me. The variety of tools available is fairly limited but you do get the basics, however it lacks some of the tools that we have come to expect. When it's free and uses so little in the way of system resources you can't really complain too much. Not much scope for practical applications, so it's probably best if you skip this one.

Download it here.

GimpGIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Project)- Free Download
Compatible with Macs, Linux and Windows this is by far the most popular and powerful of the freeware image manipulation programs, and since it is distributed under a GNU license not only is the software free, but anyone who wants can add to the code and create their own plug-ins from its open source code. Of course not many of us are going to want to do that, but it does mean that there is no shortage of accessories and improved functionality that can be added, and that isn't all; GIMP can also open and write Photoshop files if you want, and even reads (although it cannot write) RAW data from digital cameras. Gimp has almost everything you could possibly want in terms of your usual image editing requirements in an easy to use package; like Photoshop (which I'll deal with later) it takes a while to get used to, but when you do it's easy to get what you want out of it. Featuring Layering images, Customisable tools, Filters and Exposure correction tools not to mention the wealth of free plug-ins that are available this program covers all bases. If you want to see if digitally manipulating photographs is for you it's best to start out having a go with GIMP due to its versatility and it's free. Highly recommended; the only downsides are its initial loading time, though this depends on the number of fonts, brushes etc you have saved on your system. Put quite simply, GIMP can and does replace expensive graphics applications once you learn to use it properly.

Download it here

Paint Shop Pro Photo X2 Corel Paint Shop Pro Photo X2- around £40.
The cheapest of our propriety solutions is Corel's Paint Shop Pro Photo X2. It loads up quickly, is easy to use and works on Windows XP and Vista. PSPX2 contains all the tools we've come to expect and some that even perform several functions in one click. Although these are easy to use you can quite often get much better results using a bit of thought and a slightly more hands-on approach. Despite this the software is good; it can do both the simple quick fixes and more extensive jobs and it includes everything GIMP has and more. It even includes some Wet Media tools (used to simulate oil paints etc.), however these tools did cause the program to occasionally crash, though this could just be because of my computer's hardware/software configuration. Wet Media, and occasionally normal raster painting can lag slightly behind the mouse at times but on the whole this software can do everything you should want as a photographer. Catering for both beginners and more advanced users PSPX2 will last some time before you'll want to upgrade, if you do at all.

You can buy Paint Shop Pro Photo X2 here

Adobe Photoshop Elements 6 screen shot Photoshop Elements 6.0- £50
Our next step up the financial ladder is to Photoshop Elements 6, a simplified and cheaper version of Photoshop CS3. So what do we lose as a result of all that money that we're saving? Well on paper it doesn't look so bad; you lose some colour format support and a few specialised functions but it retains most of the original functions. However, when you open up the application you can tell it's aimed at beginners due to the colourful splash asking you if you want to organise, edit, create or share your images. In my experience, most people don't need Photoshop to email or organise images, and the create option seems more suited to children with its leopard-print frames and heart-shaped cut-out tools. Despite this the editing mode remains very similar to Photoshop CS3, although one loss I do regret is the lack of Layer Masking which is present in both GIMP and PSPX2. It seems to be the best choice for beginners due to its overly dumbed-down interface, but this is a double-edged sword as it also means you may want to upgrade to a piece of software with more customisation options. Also both GIMP and PSPX2 give the user more control over everything they do for less money than Photoshop Elements 6 is.

Buy Photoshop Elements 6.0 here

Adobe photoshop light room Adobe Lightroom- £200.
This piece of kit, which is compatible with Windows XP, Vista and Mac OSX is actually nothing like the rest of the software packages in this list as Adobe Lightroom is actually aimed at recreating the Darkroom process for digital images but it's still deserves to get a mention. This application reads pretty much any image format you can dream of as well as over a hundred different encryptions of RAW files straight from your digital camera. Offering either a quick and easy method of selecting the exposure as well as a full range of individually controllable variables to create an entirely customisable exposure of your own. This software is both extremely easy and intuitive, reaching that zen-like peak of software perfection where even a beginner can use all the software's main functions without their effectiveness being compromised at all. Not necessarily an essential piece of kit for hobbyists, but if you take Photographs professionally or are just intrigued then it really is worth your while giving this a try, and with its seamless integration with the rest of Adobe's Creative Suite you can rest assured that whatever you do in here will be easily integrated into any further editing and creative projects.

You can purchase Adobe Lightroom here

Adobe Photoshop CS3 Photoshop CS3- £500 or £800 for the extended edition.
This is the top-end, industry-standard, granddaddy of the Raster Graphics editing world. Featuring everything Elements is missing and a whole basketful of things you didn't know existed thrown in for good measure you really can do anything with Photoshop CS3. It is compatible with Windows Xp, Vista and Mac OSX and runs seamlessly, integrates into the rest of Adobe's Creative Suite software and suffers from only one flaw; the possibilities are too great. Of course the Extended edition is even bigger, but Adobe suggests this is only suited for Medical Professionals, Architects and Scientific Researchers. The standard version contains everything you need as a photographer, although as with all of these software packages it takes a while to get used to. However due to the software's popularity it has a very strong user-base that provide a wealth of hints, tips and tutorials so you'll soon be working efficiently if you put in a few hours of practise. The consolation is that most of the features present in this piece of software are available in the cheaper packages and the closest thing to it is actually GIMP. If you plan to make a lot of money out of your images by all means take the plunge and you won't look back, but for a casual user it isn't worth buying as you simply won't get your money's worth out of it.

You can buy Photoshop CS3 here

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