04.What we found
Downloading and installing each of the programs on test is quite straightforward. A couple (LightZone and Serif PhotoPlus) require email registration for the download. Most have an abundance of tutorial material available, including videos, while two (PhotoFiltre 7 and iPhoto) provide a short, simple tutorial.
As you might expect, the more capable the software the steeper the learning curve, with GIMP in particular requiring a lot of time to become familiar with its many features. It’s often compared to Photoshop for its professional-level capabilities, but you really need professional photography knowledge to get the most out of it. LightZone also has a very professional feel about it, but we found it much easier with which to become familiar.
Most programs on test provide a large range of special effect and filters, with GIMP, LightZone and PhotoFiltre 7 being outstanding. What separates the best from the rest, however, is the handling of layers. Again this is where GIMP and PhotoFiltre 7 shine, along with LightZone, though the latter takes a somewhat different approach.
LightZone’s way of layering is to build up a “stack” of tools that can be rearranged, turned on and off or removed from the stack. It provides non-destructive editing so you can come back and change things later. LightZone is particularly good at handling raw-format images, having first been developed as professional-editing software before being made free and open source.
The good thing with image editors is that you don’t have to be locked into one particular program. This is unlike using a photo manager, where considerable effort can be put into cataloguing your pictures over time – something that would largely have to be redone when moving to another cataloguing program. Image editors save files in standard formats that can be read by other programs, with JPEG, PNG and TIF being most common. So if you use one of these image editors for a while and find you want to change, you can quite easily do so (the exception being iPhoto, also which catalogues). Because they’re free you can even use several if you like, making use of the strengths of each one – perhaps one for quick and simple touch-ups and a more detailed program for more complex work.