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The best photo editing app for the Mac


Adobe $149

The upside of photography in the digital age is that it’s easy to make as many images as you want. The downside: Once you’ve made all those photos, you have to do something with them before they pile up faster than you can sort through and share the best.

Two applications — Apple’s Aperture and Adobe’s Lightroom — stand out from the pack to help you with this problem.

While Aperture and Lightroom are positioned as competitors, they have distinctly different strengths. Aperture’s strength is in its user interface and its organizational tools — it is the best tool for the long-term process of building out collections of finished photographs. However, when it comes to taking a pile of images, selecting the best of them, and then making those look awesome quickly, Lightroom is the better application.

To better explain the nuances of this, let’s take a look at a few essential points of the process.

Picking your best shots

When you import a card full of images, the first task at hand is to sort out the wheat from the chaff, the good from the bad. Then, it’s time to sort through what you just imported and find your best photos. All the photo editing applications that throw up a grid of photographs to work with give you two primary tools to use to do this: star ratings on a zero to five scale and flags that let you either mark interest in an image or reject it.

For years, I struggled with various strategies for sorting out how to give an image a precise star rating. The problem with any strategy is that you either like an image or you don’t, and for the ones you like, you either like it better than another image or you like it better sitting right next to another image as a grouping. It’s this relative comparison that matters, and in the end it comes down to looking at images side by side and making a gut call based on what your eyes see.

These days, I skip stars and rely on flags to do most of the heavy lifting of sorting out the photographs to focus on. I scan through a batch of images in Lightroom using the arrow keys on my keyboard and quickly flag the ones I like (keyboard shortcut: ‘P‘ or you can use the ‘`’ to toggle the flag) and reject (keyboard shortcut: ‘X’) the ones that are obvious duds. The process is the same in Aperture, with different keyboard shortcuts.

Lightroom 5 User Interface

Once I have a set of photos that I’m interested in, I filter my view to see only the photos I’ve flagged. There are two places you can do this. The first is just to the top of the filmstrip view at the bottom of the Lightroom window. The second is in the filter bar that pops up in the Library view when you hit Command-L. In either of these locations, you can click on the white flag to see just your selects. This lets you quickly and easily ignore everything else and just compare the photographs that caught your eye.

A Filtered View in Lightroom 5

In this filtered view, I’ll repeat the process of scanning through the photos, but this time I kick out the ones I don’t want to see anymore or that don’t make sense in a particular grouping. Kicking out an image just requires removing the flag — the easiest way is to use the ‘`’ key to toggle the flag. After arriving at the final image or set of images I want to do something with, it’s time to make them look their best.

A quick diversion about backups

Before we get to making your images look great, I want to talk about backups.

Everyone knows all the typical reasons why you should make backups of your precious data—you do use Time Machine or the like, don’t you? An entire article could be taken up with a discussion of backups. Beyond all the common reasons to backup, however, there’s a reason you might not have thought about to make a second copy of your images: It gives you the freedom to delete images at will from your main library.

Let me explain. For the first decade of my digital photography, I operated under the assumption that I thought I needed every image I ever made at my fingertips at all times. That worked for a while, but then I started running up against the size limits of hard drives, especially internal ones that fit in a laptop. I had a conundrum: I wanted to be able to always have my best photographs with me, but I certainly didn’t need the 80% of my work that I wasn’t interested in. Yet, I didn’t want to permanently delete the cruft because there might be a gem in there I would regret deleting later.

The solution I finally arrived at was to make a complete copy of all of my photographs to my NAS when I imported photographs onto my laptop. Then, I was free to delete images from my catalogs at will while secure in the knowledge that I could still get to some random image if I wanted. I quickly found that it was a great balance point.

Over time, I realized that having the freedom to toss images off of my laptop’s drive was akin to when I worked with slides on a light table a long time ago and would pull out the best into my collection while putting the rest back in boxes to sit on the back shelf. And the freedom felt good.

Another take on working through a set of images

While most of the Lightroom users I know approach sorting images with the same broad concepts, there are some differences — for example, some photographers use stars as markers. To give you a better idea, I reached out to Hudson Henry. This is what he said:

I have Lightroom set to only create minimal previews on import. That lets me blast through in the Library with a filter of flagged and unflagged using X to cull out rejects while marking keepers with 1 star and hopefuls with 2 stars. I’m liberal with 1 star ratings. Occasionally, I hit B — which adds the image to the quick collection — to mark something I want to find later. Finally, if I have images to merge into a panaroma, I color them blue and stack them together.

Then, I set my view filter to 1 star and above, select all, and build full size previews. This can take a while for a big shoot, but is nice for working through the hopefuls. I then run the the images again and zoom in to check focus and bounce over to the Develop module to dive into highlights and shadows. Along the way, I cull out the ones that don’t make it with the x key.

As I work up images, I award 3 stars to outstanding images. I also have a few 4 star images, but I’m holding back on 5 stars for my own personal growth. Once I’m happy with the results, I cull the rejects with Cmd + Delete.

Developing images

This is where Lightroom leaves the competition in the dust.

The mad genius image software engineers at Adobe have distilled an amazing amount of functionality into the Adobe Camera RAW library and made it fairly straightforward to use via the Develop module. Even those of you that aren’t adept with terms like exposure and saturation can get a lot out of Lightroom, thanks to the large number of one-click presets that you can quickly and easily apply.

Every tool you can use in the Develop module — from adjusting white balance to applying camera lens corrections — is in the right-hand sidebar. As a general rule, you can start at the top of this panel with the white balance, tone, and presence controls and work your way down until you’re happy with the image.

As an example of what you can do with the Develop module, here’s an image that I took through a multilayered aircraft window. The contrast is a bit low and it’s somewhat flat as a result.

A photograph before processing

Starting with the white balance slider, I cooled the image slightly then increased the contrast using the aptly named contrast slider. I then pulled down the highlights a bit to present more detail in the bright white tanks and clouds and made the blacks a bit darker as well, further improving contrast. Modern cameras capture so much information in the highlights that its almost always useful to try to see what you can pull from them. After that, I used the clarity tool to give the image a bit more pop. Here’s the result, achieved in a time much shorter than it takes to read this paragraph:

A photograph after processing

How do you know what to do for each image? Alas, it does take a little while to get up to speed on how you want to use each control. A quick tip to help you get the feel of what each slider does is to run it up and down its full range. You’ll see its effect go from subtle to overkill and can then dial it back to a level that feels good to you. Don’t be timid! You can always reverse your decision later.

If you’re just getting started, the most important sliders to get familiar with first are:

  • Color Temperature: Some digital cameras are better than others at getting this right in their auto white balance mode, but all won’t get it exactly right all of the time. If you shoot RAW, you’re not wed to whatever decision the camera makes for you. The white balance slider changes the interpretation of the red, green, and blue pixels for the different kinds of light you find yourself in. If that goes over your head, remember it this way: Indoor lights are typically yellower than outdoor sunlight, and light in the shade tends to be quite blue. The color temperature slider let’s you rebalance the yellow/blue tint of the photograph.
  • Exposure: This one is much easier. Slide to the left to make your photograph darker, to the right to make it lighter. It’s the fastest way to correct photographs that are a bit too dark or bright.
  • Clarity: This slider combines tone curve adjustments — especially in the mid-tones — while increasing local contrast. In simplier terms, you can really punch up an image by sliding it to the right or make it look softer and somewhat watercolorly by sliding it to the left. Easily abused, this slider is best used in small doses: +10 to +20 is what I usually like.
  • Vibrance: If you remember Velvia slide film — responsible for those really saturated photos from the ’80s and ’90s — you could call this the Velvia slider. It really brings up the amount of color in your photograph, but keeps colors from “blowing out” and looking as strange as they might if you crank up the saturation slider too much.

Of course, there are so many more tools in the Develop module, but using just these four can make a big difference in your photographs. For another take on these essential sliders, I asked phtographer and retinal neuroscientist Bryan Jones for an opinion. He said:

The magic of RAW is that you can essentially remap any color temperature using the white balance controls. I’ve accidentally left the WB on specific settings and then walked outside and not changed it back. But in RAW, no problem. It’s just a quick fix when I process the images.

After discovering clarity, I almost never sharpen an image anymore as the clarity also does a nice job, gently sharpening things that are not tack sharp. Also, with the latest generation of lenses and sensors without the aliasing filter, I find that I almost need to back off on the sharpness some. In short, clarity has largely obviated any need for the kinds of global sharpening that were needed before.

Using the vibrance and saturation sliders can bring up a whole discussion on what is modified vs unmodified. Color, sharpness, saturation, and vignetting are all variations on what might be considered adjustments that the combination of human eye and visual cortex see anyway depending upon attention and other measures. Its interesting that the human eye tends to see things with more clarity than are represented in camera image sensors and perhaps why some folks respond to strongly towards highly saturated and contrasty images. You also shouldn’t ignore the negative values of saturation and vibrance and how that can affect the mood of your images or even correct them back to what you saw and felt when you made the photograph.

Saving time

If you are working up several photographs that are all similar — shot in the same lighting conditions and of the same subject — here’s a handy tip: You can move onto the next image and hit the “Previous” button (or use Cmd+Option+V) to apply all the same corrections you just made to the last image. Or, you can select a bunch of images in the filmstrip and hit the ”Sync” button to choose which corrections to apply to everything at once. And, if you find yourself doing the same corrections often, you can save a preset to quickly apply any time you’d like.

Lightroom has several ways to really help you save time. To speed up the editing process, you can:

  • Use the Previous button to copy the adjustments of the last photograph you were viewing to the current one. This lets you repeatedly right-arrow and then apply settings as you work your way through a set of images.
  • If you want to “pick up” the corrections from one photo and apply it to another somewhere else on the filmstrip, you can use the Settings > Copy Settings menu (Shift-Command-C), go to any other image, and then apply them with the Settings > Paste Settings menu (Shift-Command-V).
  • You can go even faster by selecting a bunch of images in the filmstrip and hitting the Sync button. This will open a dialog box that lets you select which corrections to apply to the group.
  • If you find a set of adjustments you apply all the time—such as always adding a bit of clarity and vibrance—you can make your own preset. This is like being able to build your own advanced, modifiable filter, such as the ones in your favorite iOS photo editing application.

Presets in lightroom

Last, even if you’re totally comfortable with all the sliders, don’t overlook the amount of time you can save by using one of the presets that Lightroom ships to quickly get a certain color treatment or look, ranging from wildly colored cross-processed to old-school black and white. You can also buy third party presets — such as those from Nicolesy, VSCO or Cole Rise.

How Hudson develops his photos

Again, I asked Hudson to chime in on the Develop module and he said:

I love shooting high contrast scenes, so with the amazing new dynamic range possible in sensors like the D800, I need highlights, shadows, and contrast to balance all that tonality usually hidden in the RAW to start. I also love vibrance both to reduce and enhance colors. I just prefer the way it works to saturation.

The fine details

One of the ways in which tools like Lightroom has a big impact on the image processed out of a RAW file is how it handles noise — the little dots and speckles that show up in your images when you shoot at higher ISO speeds. There’s a fine line between suppressing noise so much that fine detail gets smudged away and not going far enough. The latest version of Lightroom goes far beyond what most other programs can do in terms of reducing noise without making an image look plastic.

If you want a surprise, open up an old high-ISO RAW image from 6 or 8 years ago and see how Lightroom treats it compared to how you saw it then. Of course, Lightroom can’t turn your old Canon D30 into a new 5D Mark III, but it does have a significant effect. By default, Lightroom usually does a pretty good job with its default settings, but you should experiment with them for noisier photographs.

Detail view of a photograph

The other fine detail control you’ll want to investigate if you haven’t already are the Sharpening tools. Far from being something that’s only applied some of the time, sharpening is an essential process of working with digital images. It’s really easy to go overboard, but there are times when adding a bit more than the Lightroom default is called for, especIally with a photograph like the one above with lots of super-fine detail.

Correcting lenses

Where Lightroom really pulls ahead of Aperture is with its lens correction tools. Adobe has done the hard work of profiling lots of lenses with different cameras and built up corrections for vignetting, chromatic aberration, and spherical distortion. They’ve also pulled in a feature from Photoshop that can analyze and straighten many images to correct for a slight tilt in the way you aimed your camera.

For example, I made this image out of my hotel window in Berlin:

Before lens corrections

And was able to quickly correct it to look like this using both the lens profile and upright tools:

After lens corrections

Every single photograph you make — especially ones you shoot in RAW — has a much better version of it hiding just beneath the surface that can be coaxed out in a matter of seconds with a bit of practice.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Aperture is pretty great at processing images, but Lightroom’s Develop module is absolutely sublime. Even though it’s the same functionality as what you get by opening up a RAW file in Photoshop, it’s so much better organized in Lightroom that using the Photoshop interface is a headache in comparison.

Step 3: Export, catalog, and share

After you’ve dressed up your photographs, it’s time to share them and store them away. Lightroom has three primary ways to do this. First is a set of tools that integrate with services like Flickr, Facebook, and Behance. Second is a web page generator, but I have to be honest with you, I’m not really keen on it. Third is a straight up export tool that lets you control any kind of variable you want.

Lightroom’s Export dialog

The export dialog box is the path I take to either push my photos out to Flickr, export full size 16 bit TIFFs for safe keeping in Aperture of best images, or to generate files to post on the web — such as the example you’ve been looking at of the refinery complex just south of Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey:

Finished photograph

Now, as I’ve said, I think the best tool for organizing a finished set of images isn’t Lightroom, it’s Aperture. Over time, I’ve found it to be impossible to create a good archive of images in Lightroom while it’s quite straightforward to do in Aperture. There’s no single thing that’s behind this. Instead, I think it’s the culmination of lots of small design decisions in the interface. In any case, after trying to organize some portfolios in Lightroom for the past few years and not making headway, I suddenly made a lot of headway when I went back to Aperture to do it.

Aperture’s interface

Aperture also excels at doing the sorts of things you really want to do with your photos once you have a set of them, like making books and ensuring that your images are synchronized to your iPhone and iPad so that you can show them off to whoever you happen to meet for coffee.

Setting photos to sync in iPhoto

No matter how much I like Aperture’s organization tools, Lightroom keeps me coming back for the Develop module. To illustrate this point one last time, here’s a comparison of two versions of a recent photo I made. The top version is out of the camera.

Compare and contrast

The bottom version is after adjusting just the sliders shown over the course of a few minutes. I warmed up the scene a bit to bring out the yellow of the dawn sun. Then, I bumped up the contrast and pulled in shadows and highlights to tame the huge dynamic range in the photo. And last, I dialed in a lot of clarity. Normally, I wouldn’t ever use this much clarity, but this particular photo responded well to it, so I went with it.

Wrap Up

As much as we’ve all been looking for the “One Best Application” for all our photo needs, the best organization tool isn’t the best editor for making your photographs look their best. If you do decide that two tools is one too many and really want to focus your attention in one place, here’s a quick guide to make a decision:

  • If organizing images and sharing them is your top priority and you can live within the bounds of its processing abilities, Aperture is the best tool for the job. It’s an excellent step up from iPhoto, a real bonus for anyone that’s been using Apple’s entry level photo application.
  • On the other hand, if being able to make your images look their best with a minimum amount of fuss is your top priority, and you can live with a poorer interface for organization, then Lightroom is what you really want.
  • If both things are a top priority — as they are for me — then you might consider using each tool for what it’s best at. And now that the price of each has dropped so much, there’s almost no downside to having both.


The best app for making your images look their best with a minimum amount of fuss.
Adobe $149