The post processing world has been undergoing some pretty big changes lately. There are so many apps out there that do so many different things, yet so many things that are similar. It gets really confusing. I hear it and read it from people every day. And if there’s one thing that gets me, it’s confusion.

But first… a warning. This is a long post. It’s probably a solid 10 minute read. Just sayin’ – give yourself some time 🙂

Now, let me explain…I teach workshops from time to time. And in every workshop I teach, I see the same things over and over again. We’ll all sit down for some classroom time, and someone calls me over to their computer – and they’re just stuck. They don’t know what to do, when to do it, or in what app to do it in. I look in their plug-in list and they literally have EVERYTHING! You name it… ON1, Nik/Google, Macphun, Athentech, Topaz, Alien Skin, and the list goes on.

DISCLAIMER: I have a disclaimer before you go on. If you’re a professional photographer, that pixel peeps at 400%, and talks about bayre patterns, demosaicing, and algorithms and all of that, this is not directed at you. Please stop reading now. You’ve got an eye that looks at something most of us don’t see. This is directed toward people that have other jobs, other lives, families, kids, various travel and just love to shoot and edit their photos. And they want them to look great, enjoy doing it, and feel good about sharing them with friends and family.

How Did This Plug-In Bloat happen?

How did all of these people get all of these plug-ins? Well, I think it happens in a few ways. Let’s take me for example, I won’t even shift the blame anywhere else. Years ago, I used to use Nik (before Google bought them). And in many tutorials, I’d say I used Nik Color Efex (the Tonal Contrast filter) as my stylizing plug-in and for finishing effects. So, some people that followed me probably went out and bought Nik.

But then, at some point, that same person was probably at a seminar or workshop somewhere else. And they really liked and trusted that instructor too. And that person said they use Topaz Detail to get contrast and detail in their photos. And maybe Topaz even had a booth or a representative there offering a discount. This person, not wanting to miss out on a great discount and wanting their photos to look like the instructor’s, went ahead and bought Topaz.

And then let’s say they found another tutorial by me a couple years later. Google bought Nik and I dropped them like a bad habit because I knew Nik was doomed. So I found ON1 and started using them, and talking about them in some of my tutorials. That same person may then have gone out and bought ON1 too.

And the cycle went on. Somewhere, somehow, and some way you will come across a tutorial that uses a plug-in that looks awesome. And you’re always going to find a special sale or deal on them to make them more affordable. And if you buy them all, you’re going to have a huge plug-in list like I see at so many workshops.

More Plug-In Bloat

The other way I think the plug-in list grows is that people follow other photographers who use plug-ins. And when they watch a video, they don’t realize that the specific plug-in that may have been mentioned, was just used for that photo because it made sense. But maybe it’s not on the photographer’s “I use 100% of the time” list. But they don’t know that, so they buy it thinking it’s part of the every day workflow.

Topaz Star Effects is a great example for me. You can probably find a tutorial where I mentioned that I use star effects on some of my sun-bursts in landscape photos. But what I probably didn’t mention then, is that I do that in maybe 1 out of every 100 photos. So is it worth it to go grab yet another plug-in for something we don’t use often? Probably not.


Taste and Styles Do Change

One thing to keep in mind when we talk about Plug-in bloat is that styles do change. I’ll be the first to admit I go through phases. For months I’ll find myself always using a certain filter or setting. And then I get tired of it, or my taste changes and I use something else. And I don’t think I’m alone. I think this happens to everyone. I don’t think we develop a style today, and continue to use it (and the same exact settings) forever from this day on.

So the next time you see anyone demo the newest, best, and coolest filter out there – remember that most likely that person won’t be using it a year from now 🙂

So What’s the Problem?

I really debated on writing this because I figure what’s the problem right? Nobody is really complaining to me that they’re spending too much on plug-ins. So why bother? I’m writing this because, while nobody is complaining about spending too much on plug-ins, I see too many people every day that are confused. And I think that’s what gets to me.

I want you to be successful at taking and editing your photos. And being successful means you develop a workflow that you understand. But it doesn’t stop there. In addition to you understanding your workflow, I think there’s one more piece to that puzzle… you have to be confident with it.

Put simply – I believe that if you’re not confident with your photography/editing process, it’s going to be really hard to enjoy it to its full extent. Just like if you’re out shooting and you’re frantically trying to figure out a setting while you shoot, it’s hard to really enjoy it. I think the same thing holds true for post-processing. If you’re constantly second-guessing yourself about which app to use, wondering if it’s the right one, I think you’re missing out on something.

And that’s where I see a problem. Because so many people I talk to have so many apps and plug-ins. And there’s no one place to figure it all out. You’ll NEVER find an instructor with the same app combination as you have, that can show you how to use them all. In a way, it’s forced people to be stagnant. To do nothing because they’re afraid of making the wrong decision, or using the wrong app. Or even worse. I’ve seen people use way too many apps, when just one would do.

I got a message from some one the other day. It went something like this:

“Matt, I love Lightroom and really enjoy using it, but I just bought X app, and I’m wondering if I should be using it instead”.

I guess I don’t get it. You just said you “love Lightroom”. So why would you switch? FOMO (Fear of missing out)? If it’s just because you like to tinker and fiddle around with different apps, then no problem. I know a lot of people are like that. But sometimes I think there’s more to it.

My Answer To It All… A Monster Q&A

I’ve spent hours trying to figure out how to write this. It’s a lot of information and it’s really tough to organize. Then I realized, I have all of the information already because I’ve answered hundreds of emails on all of this stuff. Ever since I’ve made an effort to keep my contact options out there more open/findable, I’ve been getting so many emails from people asking the same questions over and over again. That’s why I had to write it. It is by far, what people ask me the most about right now. So this giant Q&A below isn’t really me asking myself the questions, but it’s a list of questions that you guys have asked me. Okay, here goes:

Q. Matt, with all of the new developing apps out there, what is your personal workflow?

A. By far the most asked question. It’s actually easy to answer because my workflow hasn’t changed at all. I’m a Lightroom and Photoshop. Now… I used to use ON1 to finish my photos (for style) but the addition of profiles/LUTs in Lightroom has really given me all I need right there. And since LR added Luminance and Color masking tools, I find that I need to jump to Photoshop even less these days. So my workflow today is pretty much the same as it’s been for years.

  • Start, Organize and Develop in Lightroom (100% of my photos)
  • Jump to Photoshop for something specific that LR can’t do (60-70% of my photos)

You may see that I teach other software from time to time. We’ll get in to this a little more in a bit, but I feel that most editors are pretty much the same. Just like I shoot Sony cameras, I can still teach you photography no matter which camera I use. I may personally like mine the best, but the concepts are the same.

Q. But I refuse to rent my software! 

A. I’m not going to get into a subscription battle here so don’t even bother leaving a comment about it. But I understand. And while I may not agree, that doesn’t mean we can’t still be friends 🙂 In fact, if you keep reading you’re going to see that my feeling is that it doesn’t matter as much anymore if you’re using the same apps as me. So here’s what I’d say. First off, if you’re still hanging on to your older version of Photoshop CS5 or Lightroom 4, hoping that Adobe changes its subscription policy, I’d start thinking about moving on. New features are continually going to get introduced to versions you don’t have, and you’re continually going to get more aggravated.

As for my personal opinion on the whole subscription thing. I think the Adobe CC Photography Plan at $9.99 a month is excellent. I wasn’t a huge fan when they first started the CC plan at $50/month years ago. But they very quickly added a photographer’s plan at $10/month.

If you’re on a fixed income, then to me it’s the best deal since you can plan your spending. As someone who runs a business, and tries to plan and budget each month, knowing I can budget that money sure beats waiting for the next release of an app to come out 10, 12 or 16 months later – and never really knowing when I’m going to have to spend more money on software.

Q. So If I don’t use Lightroom, what should I use?

A.If you loved Lightroom and refuse to do the subscription I’d say consider moving to ON1 Photo Raw, Luminar 3, or Capture One. ON1 and Luminar are closest to the Adobe price point (and to Lightroom), where Capture One costs almost 3 times that price.

But at it’s core, you want something that’s a native raw editor. Apps like, ON1 Raw, Capture One, Macphun Luminar are some of the closest competitors. Alien Skin also has one out there, and your camera may have come with some raw software too. Plus you’ll find a bunch of smaller free apps out there as well. But I’m really keeping this discussion to the mainstream ones that are out there (that I personally get asked about the most): Lightroom, Capture One, and the two newcomers – ON1 Raw and Luminar.

Q. What is a “native raw editor”

A. A native raw editor is a program that reads a raw file and lets you edit it non-destructively. Apps like Nik/Google products, Topaz, ON1 Photo 10.5, all render your raw file into a non-raw photo (JPEG, TIFF, PSD) before it starts editing. They’re not non-destructive. Yes, many of them can open a raw file, but they’re not working on the raw data – they’re converting it to something else first.

Q. What’s the Difference Between All of the Raw Editors?

A. I consider Lightroom, Capture One, ON1 and Luminar to all be similar. Alien Skin Exposure is actually pretty close too. They’re all workflow applications. They do more than just give you sliders to edit your photos. They give you ways to organize your photos, and do other things with metadata, printing, and other various things. The free app that came with your camera may be great too – but again, most of them aren’t full workflow apps.

Q. What About Affinity Photo, Photoshop Elements, Pixelmator?

I hear people say all the time, “I’m going to drop Lightroom, and use Elements or Affinity Photo”. Unfortunately that’s not a fair comparison either. You’re not getting a similar workflow. If you said you were going to drop Photoshop and switch to Affinity Photo, that would make more sense. They’re similar programs. These are layered photo, and image manipulating apps. While there’s a lot of overlap with some settings of a raw editor, and can edit raw photos, they’re really very different from the mainstream Raw photo workflow apps out there.

Q. Does it matter which app I use? Is one better than another?

A. And there’s the magic question. Here’s why it gets interesting. I’d like you to consider this. I believe that learning post-processing isn’t about specific sliders in a specific app anymore. Here’s what I’ve come to realize.

Photo processing has become about the art and vision of editing a photo. It no longer matters where you move an Exposure slider. It no longer matters where you sharpen or do your noise reduction. Just about every good editor out there (at least the ones I mentioned above) have the exact same gradient feature to gradually darken the sky. Or a brush to add detail or brightness to certain areas of the photo.

In fact, I’ll go as far to say… wait for it… post-processing has almost become commoditized.

You can disagree. Some people have their ways of doing things and I’m cool with that. But I really feel that post-processing is becoming a lot like the process of photography, and taking photos.

Think of it this way. While we all love our photography gear, aperture is aperture no matter what camera you use. Shutter speed is shutter speed. You pick your camera and gear setup because it’s what works for you and feels right for you. Those settings, for the most part, work the same on all cameras, and it’s just a matter of where they’re located on the camera body, and how the rest of the camera responds to your shooting style.

I believe post-processing has gotten pretty close to this. As I said before, it doesn’t really matter where you move the Exposure slider, or where you adjust your white balance, sharpening, or noise reduction. Most of the mainstream apps are all good at this. And for most of our human mortal eyes, we’ll never notice the small differences between each of them. Yes, there are those with (I guess) more refined eyes than I’ll ever have, that will swear the demosaicing algorithm and color rendition in Capture One Pro is superior to that of whatever other program you can compare it to (by the way, I have no idea what a demosaicing algorithm is, but techie pixel-peeper people seem to say it a lot) ? Personally I think it’s total BS and it’s just some one who “sees” it a different way. But saying it’s superior is kind of silly. MANY MANY amazing photographers use other programs and their colors look amazing too.

If you forced most of us to use the editing panel from another app, most of us would all do fine and be able to edit our photo like normal. Again, I’l compare this to photography. There are lots of cameras I’ve never touched before. But if you put one in my hands, I’m pretty sure I could make just as good of a photo with most of them given the right subject. I may not have as great of an experience while doing it, but I think we could all do it.

Q. Does that mean that nobody’s sharpening, noise reduction, shadows, highlights, etc… is better than anyone else’s?

A. Okay I know some of you are probably screaming at your computers and coming out of your seats right now. So here’s what I mean. I’m not saying that Lightroom’s shadow slider works exactly like (or better, or worse) than, say ON1’s. Or that Capture One’s Highlight slider is better or worse than Macphun Luminar.

What I’m saying is that they’re all so close that it’s not worth it for most of us to worry about the differences. It’s just like a camera. One camera auto-focusses in a way that may work for a certain shooter. Another one may have a dynamic range that suits landscapes photographers different than portrait photographers.

I think the same holds true for the raw editors. They almost all have the same settings. Not just close… but nearly identical. Here’s an example of 4 raw editors side-by-side. The names are almost the same, except maybe one app calls it Detail, and the other calls it Sharpening.



You’ll also notice that 2 big-named raw editors have hit the market in the last couple of months (ON1 Raw and Macphun Luminar). Read any review out there and they all get compared to the same 2 apps – Lightroom and Capture One. ON1 has been very transparent about their feature list and opening it up to let people suggest and vote up the most popular ones (the Photo Raw project). Also, read any forum or article where people give feedback on it and you’ll find the same thing – it’s all feedback about adding features to it that are similar to Lightroom’s. Nobody is asking for anything new. Just the usual lens corrections, better Fuji support, improved clone/heal, chromatic abberation, noise reduction, faster, etc… It’s the same with Luminar, and really any new raw editor that hits the market. Nobody is asking for a revolutionary feature – they just want the same app but in a different pricing model.

In fact, I just read a comment the other day that had me wondering:

“Please (company name), devote all your manpower to making (product) a better option to Lightroom – stuff like Virtual copies, Photo stacking (groups), compare mode, etc.”.

Huh? That’s not making it better. That’s recreating the same thing we already have. It sort of helps my point if you think about it. The conversation has shifted from the functionality of the sliders and how well they work / don’t work. People are just talking about pricing models now.

Affinity Photo is another good example. They had the chance to develop a Photoshop-like app from the ground up and revolutionize photo editing right? But did they? Their raw editor has the same basic settings as Camera Raw. Their editing interface looks really similar to Photoshop and has just about the same-named tools. Layers are the same. Blend modes are the same. Adjustments are the same. What they really did is develop an app with a different pricing model than Adobe. Sure there are some differences, but the more I look at every new app that comes out, the more I believe my statement about this stuff being commoditized.

But at the end of the day, they all work great. And we can all edit our photos with them just like we can all make great photos with any camera. At it’s root, that’s really the point I’m trying to make.

DISCLAIMER AGAIN: I’m repeating my disclaimer from before. If you’re a professional photographer, that pixel peeps, and talks about bayre patterns and demosaicing algorithms and all of that, this is not directed at you. You’ve got an eye that looks at something most of us don’t see. This is directed toward people that have other jobs, other lives, and just love to shoot and edit their photos and wants them to look great. I say this because I know there’s someone reading this that’ll swear on their first born that something like Capture One has a superior shadow-recovery-algorithm-demosaic-thingee, and anyone that can’t see it is a fool.

Q. If Photo Editing Isn’t About Sliders, What’s It About?
A. Photo editing has matured over the years. 10 years ago things were different. We had to teach what each slider was because most people with a camera had never even seen these sliders/settings before. Exposure? Shadows/highlights? Clarity? Anyone that was getting into photography wasn’t used to these settings. Today, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who hasn’t seen an Exposure, Shadows, or Detail slider before. With phones, apps, etc… you’ve almost certainly come across these sliders several times anywhere you open a photo to edit.

So like I said before, it’s not about sliders anymore. I think it’s more about the vision for the photo. The creative process of bringing a beautiful image out of a photo. Like it or not, your experience while at some place taking a photo makes an impact on how you see the scene. Things that aren’t naturally bright, may still draw more attention to you because of what’s going on in that area. The wind blowing, a person walking by, whatever. So many things affect how we see a scene that’s right in front of us.

But when you take that photo, and show it to someone else on a computer screen or print on the wall, they’re going to have a different feeling than you. To me, it’s our job as photo editors to make them see what we saw, and make them feel what we felt about the photo – and that’s where post-processing comes in.

I think editing has become more about how bright we make things. How dark we leave the shadows? How much do we boost the colors and how detailed should something really look? What should I brush to make brighter, and more of a focal point in the photo? What should I brush darker, to hide? That’s the beauty of crafting a photo on our computer and bringing the scene that we experienced to others.

I’m using an example below from the Affinity Photo website because I often hear people say they’ve switched from Photoshop to Affinity. Looking at this before/after, I’m hoping you realize that it’s not one revolutionary tool that instantly changed that photo. It’s knowing what to do with the skin, how bright to make it, how smooth to make it, how to retouch the eyes to make them stand out, and how dark to make the background. This before and after could have been done in any one of a dozen programs that all use the same sliders, brushes, and settings.


That’s actually what I try to teach. I’ll show you from time to time how much sharpening is too much. Or talk a little about the “why” behind what one of the sliders did. From there, I don’t care where you add detail to the photo. As long as you know what to add detail to, and how much to add. It doesn’t matter what app you use to do it.

But you need to develop the “eye” for knowing how much sharpening is too much or not enough.

After that, the process and results are pretty much the same. The only thing that differs is what app you choose to make the adjustments in.

Q. What About Plug-Ins? Should I use them for sharpening, noise reduction, lens corrections or other similar things that raw editors already do?

A. Short answer… no. We’re past that. All of the mainstream raw editors have great sharpening and noise reduction. Years ago, that may not have been the case. But don’t complicate your workflow with apps that all do the same thing. Keep it simple.

And lens corrections are great for the most part too. Sure, there’s circumstances that I’ve seen architectural photographers need DxO because it’s lens corrections may work better for their photos. But I’ve also seen landscape photographers with a very slightly leaning tree jump in there too, and I think that’s totally unnecessary.

Longer answer… I read a forum post where someone said they dropped Lightroom and are now using Macphun Luminar, DXO Optics for lens correction, Nik Sharpener for sharpening and ON1 Effects for styling. Wow!

Hey, I’m all for different. It’s what makes the world go around. But that’s flat-out complicated. I get confused just reading it, not to mention the cost of getting all those apps. Macphun Luminar is a good raw editor and will do all of the things this person mentioned in one place. If you have a very specific and tested reason to use another app, then go for it.

But I think if you’re really trying to get better at post-processing, keep it simple is the best advice I can offer.

My Personal Teaching Philosophy

Knowing my feelings on what I just mentioned about post-processing being commoditized, here’s where I’m at in my teaching. I personally use Lightroom, Photoshop, and ON1. I can teach my Lightroom workflow, and very easily point out very small differences with ON1, but teach almost the same exact workflow and hit two groups at the same time.

Once you understand the basics of using the tools, if I teach my photo workflow in Lightroom, an ON1 user (or Capture One, or Luminar for that matter) should be able to duplicate it in their app of choice.

It goes back to the camera example. You wouldn’t skip my landscape workshop because I shoot Sony and you shoot with a different brand of camera would you? I feel I have something to help offer you with my photography training, and I want to help teach that to you – no matter what camera you use. Same thing with software.

I think photo editing is more about the art of the edit, and the vision for the photo – not the sliders. And honestly, I feel that’s where my strengths are when it comes to editing. Seeing that vision and using the right tools to get it there.

Parting Thoughts

I know this was a lot to take in and I know there are varying degrees of agreement out there. But hopefully you’re a little on board for this, and hopefully you see it as a good thing. We’re getting closer to tearing down the walls of confusion in editing photos.

Remember how the article started. It began with me saying one of the things I really want people to have is confidence. Confidence in the tools you use. So rather than be confused by them all and the fact that you can’t seem to find one place that will teach you all of them, I’m hoping you simplify a little, and realize it’s not about the specific app that you use, but rather art and vision for the edit.

You always hear people say photography isn’t about the gear right? You can watch anyone with a camera, and learn from them. Well, in a way, I’m suggesting that post-processing isn’t about the app you use anymore. It’s about how you see the photo, and how you want others to see it. The app you use is becoming irrelevant.

Try Before You Buy

I’m going to finish with some advice. And my friends at software companies are really gonna hate me for this one. But… Try before you buy. I know… I get it. Pre-order sales offers are very compelling. Of course they are, or they wouldn’t work. You don’t want to miss out on special goodies or have to spend more money. But software prices have really come down. Years ago, some of these apps used to cost $399 and $499 or more. So when you could save 10-20% when pre-ordering an app, that was BIG. But now everything is right around $100. Some are a little more, some are less. So consider saving your money until you actually get to try the software. We all know there’s always going to be a sale or a deal all the time. Maybe you spend $10 or $15 more by waiting, but at least you’re confident with your purchase by that point.

Secret Hint: Many companies will honor sales even after they’ve expired. The makers of all of these apps are really good people from really good companies. Most of them aren’t from huge massive corporations with 47 layers of management and corporate jets that fly them around everywhere to big meetings and parties. They’re mostly smaller companies with people that wear multiple hats. People that genuinely want to make great products, and feel the pain of maybe having missed an email or a sale, because it’s happened to them too. So most of them are very accommodating if you give ‘em the chance.

Thanks so much for stopping by today. Have a good one! 🙂


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