Which editing program to buy

This page last updated: October 2021

For most

I’m going to keep this pretty simple. Whenever somebody asks “What software should I get?”, my answer is almost always the same:

Elements is the perfect program for people starting out in imaging. It is really affordable, but incredibly powerful. You might have heard disparaging things about Elements, but don’t believe a word of it. It is capable of amazing feats.

I’ve often said that I could do more than 90% of my retouching work in Elements if it was all that I had, and (if I may be permitted some momentary immodesty) I do some very complex retouching.

Let me put it bluntly – if you can’t achieve something in Elements, it’s most likely because you don’t have the skills yet, not because Elements isn’t capable of it. If an apprentice carpenter can’t build a house yet, is it because his tools aren’t expensive enough? Of course not. Will buying new expensive tools suddenly give him the ability to build a house? Of course not. Only time, training and practice can do that.

So, resist the urge to buy more expensive software for now. Get Elements, and master it.

Oh, in case you’re wondering, Elements comes with ACR (Adobe Camera Raw) for all your raw processing needs. Sometimes I encounter a strange misunderstanding that Elements can’t process raw files, or that ACR is something that needs to be purchased separately. Not so.

For some

Maybe you’ve been using Elements for a few years, and have outgrown it. Maybe you have specific needs that Elements doesn’t provide. Or maybe you just really want to own the most powerful editing software on the planet …

There’s no doubt Photoshop is the king. It can do more than any of us (individually) will ever discover. It is awesome.

What does Photoshop have that Elements doesn’t?

If one attempted to make an exact list, it would be a long confusing mess of obscure guff like 3D mapping, Illustrator exporting, gamut warnings, etc, etc, etc. All useful things to somebody, somewhere in the world, but not of broad appeal to most people.

Here are the important ones, to my mind:

  • Creating actions. Elements can run actions, but you can’t create your own unless you have Photoshop.
  • Advanced batch processing. Elements has sturdy basic batching ability (particularly good in ACR) but lacks the finesse of tools like Image Processor in Photoshop.
  • Channels. Channels are handy when making complex selections, and for some powerful (but obscure) forms of colour manipulation.
  • Paths. If you intend to do a lot of vector work (eg logos) you’ll need Photoshop’s Pen Tool and other advanced path and shape features.


Whether you have Elements or Photoshop, it’s vital to pair them with Bridge. Bridge is the browsing program which binds your whole workflow together. It’s an amazingly powerful program, and even more amazingly, it’s FREE!

For pretty much nobody

If you take a lot of photos, and don’t need to edit them in any great depth, this one might be for you:

I get so angry when I encounter poor unfortunate people who are just starting out, and have been ill-advised to spend their limited software budget on Lightroom instead of Elements. In groups and forums there are so many conversations like this:

"Help! I need to know how to fix [insert problem here]!"
"What software do you have?"
"Anything else?"
"Um, no, just Lightroom."
"Sorry, you can’t fix it then :("

If you want to buy Lightroom for its file management, go ahead. But don’t buy it on its own. It must exist in conjunction with an actual editing program like Photoshop or Elements. Not every one of your photos will need to go from Lightroom to Photoshop, of course, but the important ones will.

Trial versions

All of Adobe’s software is available to download and try for free for seven days. I encourage you to do this – it’s a great way to get a taste of the programs.

Computer maintenance

If you’re on a PC, I’ve always found this to be very useful:

It’s free (there’s a paid version too, but the free one is great) and stable and reliable. Run it once a month to keep your PC free of clutter, to help it run smoothly. I’ve written thorough instructions for using it here.

Also, check out this program for cleaning up your PC.

If you’re on a Mac, this comes highly recommended by experts:


If you have a question about this article, please feel free to post it in Ask Damien.