Originally posted in the January 2016 issue of the Helderberg Photographic Society newsletter.
Nettie has asked me to contribute a regular column to our newsletter. I am a computer programmer by trade with thirty plus years of using and writing software, so I will be focussing on software and the computer side of photography. I welcome questions from members and will research and answer them in future columns.
For this first column, Nettie had the following suggestion; “How about explaining the differences between: Photoshop; Elements; Lightroom; Faststone; Gimp; Picasa …. Not too much technical stuff – just enough for someone to decide what would best suit them.”
Having used most of these applications I can address this question as follows;
- Adobe Photoshop – Long considered the flagship of image editing applications; despite the name, it was originally intended for graphic designers. Photoshop is hugely powerful, but also hugely complex, with a user interface (UI) that has grown organically as new features were added since the original release in 1990. While the original release was exclusively for the Apple Macintosh, Microsoft Windows support was added later and today, the application is functionally identical on Mac OS X and Windows. Photoshop can no longer be purchased as a standalone app and is available only as Photoshop CC, a component of Adobe’s Creative Cloud suite of applications. Photoshop operates directly on images on disk, using a component known as Bridge to allow users to browse and manage their image files. When a file is edited, changes are destructive, physically changing the file unless a copy containing the changes is made. There is wealth of information available on the Internet to help solve problems and answer the questions you might have about Photoshop. Be aware though that it is not always possible to blindly follow tutorials you find as they may be for a different version. In some cases menus may have changed requiring a different way to access functions or if the tutorial is based on a newer version, the one you have may not have a function mentioned at all.
- Adobe Photoshop Elements – A “lite” version of Photoshop, Elements is targeted more at the consumer or hobbyist, whereas Photoshop targets professionals with more advanced editing requirements. The UI of Elements is somewhat different to that of Photoshop with the same function that might be available in Photoshop being accessed from a different place in the menu tree and having a different appearance. Unlike Photoshop, Elements is available to purchase as standalone software for both Mac OS X and Windows. It can be purchased online for download from Adobe’s web site or as a physical, boxed product available from photographic or technology stores.
- Adobe Photoshop Lightroom – A newer addition to the Lightroom family, available for both Mac OS X and Windows, that is aimed directly at photographers. Unlike Photoshop and Elements, Lightroom does not work with images directly from your disk. Rather, images are imported by creating a record in a database that holds a reference to the physical location of the file, along with information about the file. Changes are known as non-destructive and are not made directly to the image file; they are stored in the database as processing instructions that are applied when an image is exported. A common question from those new to Lightroom is “How do I save my images?”; the answer is that you don’t. Processing instructions are saved to the database as you work and it is only when you want a final image that you export your image using various instructions to control what your desired result. So you process your image and can then export different versions; perhaps a high resolution version for print and a smaller low resolution version for emailing or uploading to a web site. Like many aspects of Lightroom these instructions can be saved as presets and then reapplied to other images with a single click. For example, I have presets for exporting images I wish to display at the club. I created these once and now can correctly size and name my images by simply invoking those presets. Lightroom, in its current LR6 version is available as a standalone application, but is also available in Lightroom CC form as a component of the Creative Cloud suite. Creative Cloud applications are subscription based, available only by download and frequently updated. For example, although Lightroom 6 and Lightroom CC were released at the same time, Lightroom CC has seen the addition of new features that will only be released in the standalone Lightroom 7.There is however doubt over how long Adobe will continue to release new standalone versions. Adobe makes available a Creative Cloud Photography plan that offers both Lightroom CC and Photoshop CC, along with some extras for $9.99 US per month. This ends up being cheaper or roughly equivalent to the cost of the standalone Lightroom 6 while providing the full Photoshop as well. Despite the fact that my subscription has been increasing each month due to the falling Rand, I think this is still a good option. I do the vast majority of my image editing in Lightroom.
- Gimp – Gimp is a free, open source application that stems from the Linux operating system. It is also available for Mac OS X and Windows. Gimp is similar in nature to Photoshop but has a very different interface that will seem unfamiliar to most Windows and Mac OS X users. While it supports most functions that Photoshop does, it may not do so in such a polished manner. Where a single Photoshop function might ask you to enter some settings then seem to perform magic, with Gimp you may need to perform several operations that Photoshop is transparently performing in the background. I would suggest not trying to use Gimp unless you are an experienced computer user able to use Google to find answers and to be able to understand and interpret what you find. There are far fewer simple step-by-step guides available for Gimp than there are for Photoshop. Still, if you are tightly constrained financially, the free price of Gimp is rather attractive and might be worth a look.
- Picasa – Picasa is free software from Google. I haven’t personally used it in many years but the welcome page says; “Picasa finds and displays photos from your computer. Your original photos are preserved. You’ll see photo edits only in Picasa until you save your changes.” This sounds similar to the way Lightroom operates, where you export versions of your images that have your processing applied. Reading about Picasa on Wikipedia I get the impression that editing features are fairly basic. But it is a free application so if you need some software, feel free to try it out.
- Polarr – Polarr is a new image editing application for several desktop and mobile operating systems. I have heard it mentioned but not yet tried it myself. Windows Central published this review that you can read to find out more.
- FastStone Image Viewer – FastStone, available for Windows only, is an image viewer with a good complement of basic editing tools. It is my image viewer of choice and I sometimes use it for quick edits on JPEG files I want to tweak in some way. I would however not suggest anyone try to use it as their main image processing application.
- IrfanView – IrfanView is an image viewing application roughly equivalent to FastStone. It is an older application and while FastStone has the more modern UI, IrfanView may have the edge on editing tools. Like FastStone though, it should not be used as your primary image editing tool.