Choosing the best photo and image editing software: Buyer’s Guide review

Our guide to the best vector- and raster-based image manipulation programs
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Computers are great for creating content, but there’s on area in which most commonly available productivity suites lack: graphics software to edit your photos and create drawings. Whether you’re creating complex diagrams, technical schematics, or editing photographs, you’ll want a comprehensive image editor. IT Reviews will help arm you with all teh info you need to choose the right one for you.

Graphics packages are split into two groups: vector editors and programs designed to handle ‘raster’ images – in other words, any graphiss file that’s made up of a ‘bitmap’ or matrix of pixels. Each type of image editor excels in a different area: rasters editors are great for tweaking photos and creating high-quality images, but they can make files larger without a loss of quality; a vector editor is designed for creating diagrams rather than photographs, and while vector images aren’t generally as complex as raster files, they can be resized indefinitely without becoming ‘blocky.’

If you’re a photographer, you’ll want a raster editor. If you work with diagrams or schematics, a vector editor. If you do a mix of the two, you’ll need both – and although some packages profess to be able to edit both kinds of images, they are rarely as efficient as using a dedicated package that properly meets you requirements.

The first thing to do is to consider your budget and your requirements. If you’re not going to be doing much editing, there are free options available that mean you don’t need to spend a penny – and which can still offer some excellent results. For someone who spends a lot of time in an editor, however, commercial software provides good support and a bit more polish – while professionals will want to ensure that they get the best bang for their buck.

If you’re looking to edit photographs, you needn’t spend a fortune. The rise in digital camera use has led to more and more people needing to tweak their images – whether it’s to correct for over- or under-exposure, crop a badly-framed shot, or simply to resize their images for posting to the web. Even in its latest incarnation, Paint, the image editor that Microsoft throws in with its Windows operating system, is very basic – but there are other, admirable free options out there.

Free alternatives
Before you shell out any money on an image-editing package, try out some of the free versions available for download on the internet.

Software like Paint.NET offers a surprisingly powerful photo editing package without costing a single penny, while The Gimp is a popular – though complex and somewhat less-than-user-friendly – alternative to the powerful Photoshop package from Adobe.

Paint.NET offers all the basic tools beginners need – and it’s free!

Photoscape is another alternative to consider, with a focus on improving the quality of digital photographs – and if you use Google’s Picasa photo-sharing website, you’ll find some free software that can be downloaded from there to edit images before uploading.

If you’d prefer something from a trusted brand, there are still ways to get what you need for free. To capture more users into its brand, content creation expert Adobe recently launched Adobe Photoshop Express – a severely cut-down version of its Photoshop package that allows basic image editing to be carried out in your web browser, completely free of charge.

Paid-for software
If you’ve tried the free offerings and found them lacking, it’s time to start looking at software packages that are suitable for the home user. While for most people, Adobe’s Photoshop is overkill – not to mention extremely expensive – the cut-down Photoshop Elements will suffice for most needs. While not as powerful as the full Photoshop package, it’s also nowhere as expensive – and still features an impressive array of tools and utilities for getting the most out of digital photographs.

Photoshop Elements 9
Adobe’s Photoshop Elements includes many of the features of its big brother at a budget price.

Adobe certainly isn’t the only game in town, though – even if it is the most well known. Alternatives to Photoshop Elements include Corel’s PaintShop Photo Pro series and Serif’s PhotoPlus series – although neither is as popular as Adobe’s offering. Prices range from around £10 to around £70, depending on the version and features.

Professional users
For the professional user, there is really only one option: Adobe Photoshop. While other packages can offer a similar experience, Photoshop has become the de facto standard for raster image manipulation – and if you’re doing image editing for a living, you’ll certainly need a copy under your belt.

The bad news is that Photoshop can be extremely expensive – although Adobe now offers a range of purchasing options that bring the price down, including a ‘lease’ arrangement available on its most recent release, which allows occasional users to pay to use the software as and when they need it. While this makes it available to a wider range of wallets, it’s still not exactly cheap.

Unlike raster images can be rescaled to any size without a loss of quality, and printed at the highest resolution of the output device available. There’s none of that ‘pixellation’ effect you get when you try to enlarge and print out a small image from a website as an A4 photo.

Sadly, vector images are poor at recording photo-like images – owing to the technology behind the format, which records co-ordinates and instructions for recreating the position, thickness and colours of lines, rather than a map of pixels.

That said, if you spend your time creating schematics, diagrams, or artistic images, a vector image editor is for you – and, as with raster image editors, there’s plenty of choice for all levels of budget.

Free alternatives
For the occasional user or learner, there are free options that offer a surprisingly powerful vector editing experience. The most popular of these is Inkscape, an open-source project that aims to offer all the functionality needed from a vector editing suite in a surprisingly easy to use interface – and which comes complete with a digital manual packed with guides and tutorials.

Creative Docs.NET
Creative Docs.NET provides some perfactly passable vector drawing tools for free.

Alternatives include Creative Docs .NET, which is specifically built for Microsoft’s Windows platform, and Serif Software’s DrawPlus Starter Edition – a free version of its DrawPlus package, designed to tempt users into learning the interface in the hope they’ll upgrade as they need more power.

Paid-for software
If you’d rather pay for the hand-holding and reassurance of commercial software, you could look at Serif’s DrawPlus as a cheap option. Better still is our current Best Buy, the slightly more expensive Xara Photo & Graphic Designer, which is considered to have one of the most user-friendly interfaces of all the vector image editors on the market today.

Xara Photo & Graphic Designer 7
Xara Photo & Graphic Designer is our Best Buy choice for combined vector and raster image editing.

Professional users
Professional users are generally limited to one of two options: CorelDRAW or Adobe Illustrator. Both are expensive, but both offer an impressive array of features. The choice of which to go for is simple, and depends on the people you’ll be working with: if you expect to be sharing files with CorelDRAW users, opt for that – if you work with Adobe users, opt for Illustrator.

CorelDRAW Graphics Suite X5
CorelDRAW is available individually or as part of the CorelDRAW Graphics Suite.

You’ll find our review of the latest version of CorelDRAW as part of the CorelDRAW Graphics Suite X5 here.

There is one other option that may tempt professional users across to the Adobe side of the fence: the Creative Suite. So called because it combines all Adobe’s creative packages into a single product, Adobe Creative Suite allows users to buy Photoshop and Illustrator, along with Adobe’s other packages, in a single box – offering a significant saving over buying each one individually. A similar package is also available for graphics users working on more technical material such as reports, technical diagrams, graphs and so on. You’ll find our full review of Adobe Technical Communications Suite here.