Which Desktop Photo Editing Tool(s) Should You Use?

An overview of the different categories of tools you might consider for editing and optimizing your pictures on a laptop or desktop computer.

Which Desktop Photo Editing Tool(s) Should You Use?

1. Sophisticated Editing

  • Adobe Photoshop: If money is no object and you need to be able to exchange PSD files with people, then this is your only choice. Adobe's goal is to find ways to hook you on paying their subscription and one of the ways they do this is file compatibility and availability of plugin**s that can't be found elsewhere.
  • Gimp: One of the best-known FOSS (free and open source) projects, Gimp can do many of the same things that Photoshop can. The upcoming version 3.0 is expected to delivery many usability enhancements. Gimp is built by its community for its community, so it is quite a different beast.
  • Cons: The downside of either of these options is the steep learning curve. However, there are many free tutorials on YouTube and sites such as Udemy have paid courses that go into more detail (Photoshop courses, Gimp courses).

Thus far, I have either found more straightforward tools to do what I need or hired a freelance photo editor via Fiverr for more ambitious edits on an ad-hoc basis.

2. General Editing

  • Adobe Lightroom: A cloud-based service with tools for editing, organizing, storing, and sharing your photos across desktop, mobile, and web.
  • DarkTable: A FOSS alternative. People who transition from Lightroom might find it confusing. It is made for and by photographers who are technically oriented.
  • Proprietary Editors: Polarr and Luminar offer similar photo editing functionality via their own approaches. They also have some unique features and functions. However, they lack the organizing functionality of Lightroom. I've done a few minor things with Polarr and Luminar. Both are quite intuitive. Polarr is lacking in free tutorials on YouTube, but Luminar has a decent amount.
  • Web-Based Editors: There are various web-based editors. The downside is that you need a fast internet connection and the uploading and downloading of large images can take time. The upside is that you can use the same editor on any computer without needing to install software. They can also do more ambitious rendering on the cloud. BeFunky is what I've used for some years. It is easy to use and has some cool filters and effects

3. Organizing and Basic Editing

  • Apple Photos: This will be the obvious choice if you use Apple devices due to the seamless integration. It has surprisingly good editing tools - although they are only the basics. This is what I currently use with my MacBook Pro and iPhone XS Max.
  • Google Photos: Superior AI-powered organizational and search capabilities, but fewer editing tools. Expected to introduce smart colorization of black-and-white images soon.
  • Recall: A secure, free, end-to-end encrypted and open-source alternative. However, it is entirely new and so, and sharing functionalities are not yet released. Also, you have to pay for the cloud provider you choose. I'm intrigued, but worry that I would be sacrificing a lot if I were to move over soon. Perhaps later.

4. AI-Powered Tools

Since each only does one thing, they are easy to use.

  • Photolemur: It improves colors, lighting, sharpness, noise, and adds facial enhancements. Best suited to hi-res landscape photography, but worthwhile trying on any large image that is a bit dark.
  • TouchRetouch: Easy to use and effective tool for removing objects, damage, and blemishes. Found it very useful in repairing scans of old film photos, but also use it frequently for touching up most pictures I take.
  • Topaz Labs AI Bundle: Don't bother unless you have a powerful machine. Quite impressive for specific tasks including removing noise, recovering detail, sharpening, and smooth enlarging.
  • LetsEnhance: Cloud-based tool that started out specializing in smooth expanding, but is now adding other features for enhancing colors and adding textures. You won't need to worry about your local machine lacking in power. Critical if you need to upscale images for printing. I do for the prints I sell on RedBubble and Society 6.
  • Colorization: While we wait for Google Photos to add smart colorization of black-and-white images, there are a few tools out there including Colorize.cc and Colourise.sg that give surprisingly good results. However, the future of both services is unclear. Colorize.cc choked large images and Colourise.sg was intended to be just a temporary demo site.
  • Art: I'm looking for a cloud-based alternative to Prisma. Painnt had a desktop app which still seems to work but rendering takes a long time on my laptop, and I never found the results to be compelling. They also don't seem to have updated it for well over a year.


When it comes to the many options for photo editing on a desktop environment, the above categories should give you a rough framework through which to evaluate them and find the best fit for your needs. There is no single correct choice. It all depends on your circumstances and what you want to do.

Ideally, I want to transition to using only FOSS, but the commercial tools are quite compelling in terms of their capabilities and more polished UIs.

I'm toying with the idea of migrating from Apple devices to Purism's and, in the process, also switching to FOSS alternatives. Perhaps once I do that, I can reorient my mindset to focus on being creative within the boundaries of what FOSS tools can do and finding ways to add value to their communities.

Cover photo by NordWood Themes on Unsplash + edits with BeFunky.