Whenever anyone asks me what they should use for raw editing, I always say Lightroom (LR), but the price is too high for many people. Then I don’t know what to say. I’ve tried a few free alternatives, but none that I can recommend. (I wrote about two I don’t recommend a while ago.)
I’ve known about Photoshop Elements (PSE), but had never tried it on raw files until now. (Rainy day in a vacation condo with terrific internet.) I planned to run a trial version, but, since I had a Adobe Creative Cloud subscription, Adobe went ahead an licensed me for PSE.
The only form of raw editing I’d recommend is what’s called parameterized editing, which means that your edits are recorded in a list that’s saved. They’re applied to the preview you’re viewing, but no pixel format is saved (e.g., PSD, TIFF, JPEG)–just the original raw and the parameters. You get a pixel format only if you want to export one, such as when you need a TIFF to send to a lab or a JPEG to upload to a web site.
For example, if you crop the image, what’s saved looks something like this:
Now, if you want to go back and change the crop, the editor shows you the crop outline and handles, and you make the change and resave. If the editor weren’t parametrized, you could still recrop the pixel format (e.g., the TIFF), but only to make it smaller. Anything cropped off before the TIFF was saved is gone.
LR’s Develop module is completely parameterized, with the parameters saved in the LR database. All of the same edits that LR has are available in Photoshop’s Adobe Camera Raw (PS-ACR). When you save your work, the edit parameters are saved in a DNG file or in an XMP sidecar file, to be available if you open the raw again. If you go into PS proper to do more editing, you’re now in the pixel-based world, and your work has to be saved in a pixel format, typically PSD.
LR has no pixel-based world, but you can transfer your work to an external editor such as Topaz Adjust or PS. Then those results are saved in a pixel format, and you see the resulting PSD or TIFF or whatever in LR.
To summarize: Editing of raws in LR and PS starts out parameterized and, if you continue into pixel-based editing, you get the unchanged original raw, the parameters (in a database or a file), and the pixel-based results from the pixel-based editing.
As far as this workflow is concerned, PSE is the same as PS: original raw, DNG or XMP sidecar to hold the parameters, and, if there was any pixel-based editing, a pixel-based file such as a PSD.
However, the version of Adobe Camera Raw that PSE runs (call it PSE-ACR) is a small subset of what PS has (PS-ACR) and LR has. All you get are the Basic, Detail, and limited Camera Calibration controls, cropping, and a few other things:
If that’s enough, and it will be for many purposes, you never have to do any pixel-based editing in PSE, and you can think of it as a parameterized editor, just as LR is.
I like to run Topaz Adjust from LR and save the result as a TIFF, and PSE can do exactly that same thing. In this case, the TIFF comes from Topaz Adjust, not from pixel-based editing in PSE.
I haven’t used it a lot, but PSE also as a catalog stored in a database (SQLite), just as LR does, although the catalog organizations are completely different and LR does much more with its catalog. (PS doesn’t have a database catalog; Bridge just works off of the file system.)
In conclusion: PSE-ACR is a reasonable raw editor for a beginner. It doesn’t do nearly as much as PS-ACR or LR, but it does have a good pixel-based editor (way short of PS, of course), which can probably do whatever you need to do that PSE-ACR can’t do by itself.
PSE is only about $73 from Amazon, so it’s a good first step until you know that you’re serious enough to move to LR. Then for $10 a month you get LR, full-blown PS, and all updates.
(Adobe products are available only for MacOS and Windows, not Linux. I’m pretty sure they will never be available for Linux.)
UPDATE: I just tried Affinity Photo, which is only $50, and looks really good. It can edit raws, but won’t save the parameters. Once you click the Develop button, the raw edits are baked into a pixel rendering, and you use a PS-like interface to go the rest of the way, if there’s more you want to do. If you re-open the raw, none of your raw edits are preserved–you start from scratch. Affinity Photo might still be a good choice for someone on a budget.