Users of Apple's Mac computers have many choices of photo apps. Here are the best performers in our testing.
Creative types tend to favor Apple’s Mac computers, and photographers are no exception. The top-notch screens on iMacs and MacBooks make for fine palettes when working with digital photos. Users of macOS also have plenty of excellent choices when it comes to photo editing software—so many it can be hard to pick the right app for your particular needs. That’s where this guide comes in.
Strangely, Apple no longer produces its own pro-level photo software, having perplexingly abandoned the outstanding Aperture program years ago, despite maintaining its pro video editing software, Final Cut Pro, in state-of-the-art condition. That said, the Apple Photos app that comes with Mac is both easy to use and powerful. You don’t have to stick with software exclusively from Apple, though. A plentiful crop of Mac photo software is available from imaging powerhouses like Adobe, Capture One, CyberLink, and more.
A note for people who have or are considering buying an Apple Silicon-based Mac: Most of the software is not yet updated to run natively on this new hardware, but a few heavy hitters have, including Adobe’s Photoshop and Lightroom, and, of course, Apple Photos. Software that hasn’t been rebuilt for the new platform can still run via Apple’s Rosetta 2 translation engine, sometimes with a moderate performance hit.
Photo software can be categorized either by its target audience level—beginner, enthusiast, or advanced—or by function. As you might expect, Apple Photos is the prime example of beginner photo software, despite its impressive power. After all, it comes free with your computer and ties in snugly with photos shot on iPhones. The online-only Google Photos is another entry-level option. At the enthusiast level, we have ACDSee Ultimate, Adobe Photoshop Elements, Adobe Lightroom, CyberLink PhotoDirector, Corel PaintShop Pro, Serif Affinity Photo, and Skylum Luminar. If you’re looking for an open-source, free but powerful option, check out RawTherapee.
Now let’s take a look at some of the functionality Mac photo apps provide: For starters, you need software that can import and organize your digital photos. After that, you need tools to crop the pictures and adjust their lighting, color, and detail (adding sharpness or removing noise, for example). Then, comes the fancy stuff: bokeh, artistic effects, overlays, black-and-white, colorization, and pixel manipulation—things like removing unwanted objects or creating selection masks. Finally, you have to output the image to the destination and in the format of your choice.
Some tools perform nearly all these functions, such as Adobe Lightroom, Adobe Photoshop Elements, CyberLink PhotoDirector, and ON1 Photo RAW. Other products specialize in one or another of them. For example, DxO PureRAW is just about reducing noise and camera and lens distortions. Topaz Studio is mainly about adding special effects and looks.
The most famous photo application of all, Adobe Photoshop, is all about image adjustment and manipulation—corrections, selections, layers, effects, compositing, adding text, and so on. It’s not for importing and organizing your photo collection the way you can in Lightroom. Serif Affinity Photo is similar in that regard, though as you’d expect, it lacks Photoshop’s state-of-the-art tools and polished interface. Some tools (not included in this roundup) are just about organizing and importing: Adobe Bridge, Photo Mechanic, MyLio, WidsMob, Phototheca, and the open-source digiKam.
When choosing a Mac photo editing app, look for a clean, well-designed interface with lots of help and tutorials. Some applications, such as Lightroom, use modes, which simply means you select a layout for the stage of work you’re doing—one mode for importing and organizing, one for adjusting or corrections, and another for exporting. Some programs divide adjusting and editing, with the former being basic lighting, color, and sharpness corrections and the latter the more creative aspects, like filters and overlays.
You need software that lets you organize your photo collection after you import the images. Some helpful features around this include pick, reject, color tags, keyword tags, and star ratings. This lets you quickly find an image you’re looking for. You should also be able to search for an image based on the equipment (camera and lens), shot settings (aperture, exposure, and ISO), date, and whether you’ve edited it. Some software lets you organize images by faces and places, too. The apps use AI to identify and group shots of the same face, and they show geotagged photos in thumbnails on a map.
If you use a DSLR or mirroless camera, you’re best off shooting in raw camera files rather than JPGs; that way you can get a lot more out of the image at the editing stage, in terms of lighting and color adjustment. This is particularly important when you’re trying to retrieve detail from a very dark or light part of an image. In particular, a Shadows slider is used to bring out detail in a dark area, while the Highlights adjustment can show the blue and clouds in a bleached out white sky.
Adjusting raw files also lets you change the white balance you chose at the time of shooting. For example, if a photo looks overly warm—towards the red, orange, and yellow side of the spectrum—changing the white balance can make the colors more true-to-life.
Most of the higher-end software now includes some automatic corrections based on your camera model and lens. This includes corrections for lens geometry distortion (think warped edges on a wide-angle shot), vignetting (dark edges), and chromatic aberration (color fringes). Make sure the software you choose has profiles for your equipment.
Other tools you want in your photo software involve detail—this includes sharpness and noise reduction. Useful related tools include dehaze, clarity, texture, and microcontrast (called Texture in Lightroom).
For more creative editing, look for selection tools, blemish repair, masks, filters, and text overlay capabilities. Photoshop now has tools that let you reshape a face, and CyberLink PhotoDirector has body-reshaping tools. Some software supports LUTs (aka CLUTs—color lookup tables); these are filters that create moods by shifting color. The motion picture industry has long used LUT to give a shot a sunny dreamy effect or to simulate nighttime even if the shooting took place during the day.
Finally, you want output options. All the software in this roundup lets you output from raw format to JPG, which is universally accepted, especially for online use. Some let you create images optimized for social networks and directly upload them to online services. Many support online galleries for your work, to which you can upload from inside the app. If you need to print, look for a program with soft proofing, which shows whether all the colors in your image can be printed. Applications like Apple Photos, Google Photos, and Lightroom include excellent book layout options and let you order custom photo books directly.
If you’re a beginner in digital photography, your first step is to make sure you have some good photography hardware. For help, read our roundups of the best digital cameras and the best camera phones for equipment that can fit any budget. Once you’ve got your hardware, make sure to educate yourself with our quick photography tips for beginners and beyond-basic photography tips. After that, you’ll be ready to shoot great pictures that you can make even better with the software included here.
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Michael Muchmore is PCMag’s lead analyst for software and web applications. A native New Yorker, he has at various times headed up coverage of web development, enterprise software, and display technologies. Michael cowrote one of the first overviews of web services for a general audience. Before that he worked on PC Magazine‘s Solutions section, which covered programming techniques as well as tips on using popular office software. He previously covered services and software for ExtremeTech.com.
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