They can also embed other features, for publishing or archiving, but they main objectives are to let you improve the image itself.
Photoshop Creative Suite (CS): king of the kings, but certainly not the best tool just to improve the image. I like it to modify the image, not to improve it. Between modifying and improving an image, the gap the immense and that’s why Photoshop has been designed. Photoshop looks great to remove some parts of the picture, make the legs of your model nicer, but it’s basic purpose is not to reduce noise or improve contrast, even there are some features to do so.
Photoshop elements: the small brother of Photoshop, developed by Adobe like Photoshop. A kind of one-stop-shop which does nothing very well but is cheap and can potentially do a lot for casual photographers. I still find it too complex to use for such people, and too limited for the others. And it is still a tool, like CS, to manipulate the image, not to improve it.
Actually, most of the software now embeds two kind of features:
- The real improving features (contrasts, white balance, …),
- Digital filters.
The latest can be very sophisticated of course, masquerading analog films, or creating miscellaneous effects.
Nik software (acquired by Google in 2012): that’s a real suite of software, extremely useful for photographers and specifically designed to improve your pictures. You need to understand how works the whole suite of software, and to use them in your workflow accordingly. Their control points really rock. Their drawbacks: expensive and have the suite of software is making the process slow and complex.
DXO Suite made of Optics Pro, Film pack, View point: a competitor of Nik software, cheaper, excellent but don’t do exactly the same things! Yes, post processing is a complex thing… Their distortion correction features really rock, and their View point is also offering a great tool for portraits. Actually I like both Nik software and DXO and can’t really make a choice between both…
Picasa: whereas mostly an archiving and publishing tool, it is really easy to use compare with Elements, and I recommend it for casual photographers. Further more it is well integrated with Drive (storing) and Google+ (publishing).
Lightroom: like Picasa actually but very different too… and still way easier to use than Elements. Mostly for sorting, publishing and archiving but embeds great features to improve the image quality. At the end of the day, it looks to be a one stop shop. Extremely popular but I am still not convinced. Its catalog system is complex to use with several device, its improving features excellent but not as good as the specialized software, and it browsing features way below Google Picasa.
Phase One: for the medium format fans, a self-proclaimed professional software suite to improve your pictures.
Nikon NX2: a powerful tool for editing .NEF files (Nikon RAW files), but also JPG. Still buggy though late 2012, and not without default (CPU consuming…). The control points rock of course. A great tool for improving your pictures, but not optimized yet.
Actually, after a first glance, it appears there are not so many real software able to improve your images. Try them, make your mind, and chose the one or those you really need.