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.

The CC version and the CS6 version are very similar, but CC (Creative Cloud) is the subscription version. Adobe are moving this way – quite soon, the only way we’ll be able to buy Photoshop is by monthly subscription. If you like the “old-fashioned” software that comes on a disk, in a box, that you can store on your shelf, go for CS6 … and don’t wait too long.

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:

  • Bridge. Bridge is the file browsing program that installs with Photoshop. It is an immensely powerful tool for previewing, organising, rating and batch-processing your files. Elements has Organizer, which is horrid, and should be ignored.
  • 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 color 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.

For very few

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 powerful file management, you should definitely do so. 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 30 days. I encourage you to do this – it’s a great way to get a taste of the programs.

Academic versions

Both Photoshop and Lightroom are available at significantly reduced prices to students and teachers. I know that many people take advantage of this. If you have a child in school, or if you are enrolled in university, or whatever, you can jump on the cheap prices.

This is very appealing, but I urge you to consider all the aspects before taking this route. Read the information on Adobe’s website carefully, to be sure you understand what you can and can’t do with academic software.

A great freebie

If you’re an Elements user, and you have a PC (not for Mac peeps, sorry), this program is a fabulous alternative to Bridge:

Sure, it’s not as slick or powerful as Bridge, but for the price (free!) it’s really really good. A wonderful way to browse, organize and rate/cull your photos before beginning editing them. Highly recommended. If you want to see it in action, watch my video here.

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.

When you install it, just be careful not to let it install any of the other guff it tries to give you. None of it is malicious, just annoying.

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