Buyer's Guide 2009: Image Processing Software
The latest generation is more photographer-friendly than ever, with powerful
Capture NX (Nikon)
Nikon Capture has long been a respected RAW conversion program for Nikon products. However, Nikon has partnered with Nik Software in creating Capture NX 2, giving photographers a program that offers features far beyond working on Nikon NEF (RAW) files. Any photographer shooting JPEG can benefit from the program because of the power of Control Points.
The program offers some organizational/browsing capabilities, but the real power is in its Control Points (which come from Nik Software and also are part of its Viveza plug-in). The Control Points are remarkable and make selective adjustment to a photo quick and easy. They give you the power of adjustment layers and layer masks without having to understand either. Click on a spot in the picture, and Capture NX 2 lets you make precise changes to colors, tonalities and more, smartly changing only certain aspects of the picture without affecting anything else. For example, you could easily correct and enhance the colors of red flowers without affecting the green foliage around them. In addition, NX 2 includes Selection Control Points that allow you to adjust a specific, limited area using something like Unsharp Mask without using layers or layer masks. It's available for both Mac and PC.
Paint Shop Pro Photo (Corel)
Paint Shop Pro is a program that has been around almost as long as Photoshop. It has had a strong following in this country and in Europe, featuring the power of Photoshop, but without its price. Ever since version X, Paint Shop Pro has even included a learning center to help users better work with the program.
Paint Shop Pro Photo X2 (the current version) has a new look. Many image-processing programs are going toward a darker interface. This has some benefits as it makes your photo look a little livelier on the screen, plus adjustments are easier to see against this background. Also new to X2 is the Express Lab. One concern that many photographers have is the amount of time it takes to work on a lot of images. Express Lab is made to speed up image processing, including applying the same adjustments to folders of photos without even opening the photos. Paint Shop Pro includes an HDR mode that allows you to combine two or more photographs taken at different exposures. It incorporates many features that are geared toward photo enthusiasts, such as a quick and easy way of blurring a background behind your subject (possible to do in many other programs, but not necessarily easy). Paint Shop Pro is available only for PC.
Photoshop CS3 (Adobe)
Photoshop continues to be the market leader, though perhaps more for its history than it being the best program for photographers today. It offers unsurpassed control over an image, but that control isn't necessarily photographer-friendly. Photoshop wasn't designed for photographers like many of the newer programs are (hence Photoshop Lightroom). Instead, it addresses the needs of the whole range of creative professionals who work with images, sometimes to the detriment of intuitive use.
CS3 includes some interface changes to make it more photographer-friendly, such as locking down palettes (like the Layer palette) into a palette well or panel on the right side in order to simplify the interface. It offers one of the best in-program black-and-white conversion adjustments of any image-processing program except for Lightroom (they have similar features). This control allows you to click and drag on the picture to adjust how a color translates to a shade of gray. One thing that I love about Photoshop is the ability to create your own keyboard shortcuts for all menu items—a tremendous help in making Photoshop workflow faster and easier. An important change in 2008 was the release of Camera Raw 4.5 for integration with Lightroom 2. If you're using Photoshop and Lightroom 2, you need this version of Camera Raw; there's no cost for the upgrade if you have CS3. [Editor's Note: At the time of this writing, it appears the release of Photoshop CS4 is imminent.] Photoshop is available for Mac and PC.