Nothing matches the power of Photoshop CS when it comes to image editing - but there are budget alternatives. Digit checked out the bargain options.

These days, with a laptop in your rucksack, you can carry a digital darkroom wherever you go. To get the best results from your photos, you need powerful image editing tools at your fingertips. The £515 (excluding VAT) Photoshop rules this market, but you don't have to spend a fortune to get a decent package – many photo editing packages cost less than £100. We put nine of these programs through their paces to see which have the power to improve on a photographer’s shortcomings.

The powerful and the pitiful

Though Photoshop Creative Suite is truly the most powerful image editor of the bunch, some programs, including Jasc Paint Shop Pro 8 and Microsoft Digital Image Pro 9, are more user-friendly for the novice photo editor. For basic tweaks, it’s possible to pass up Photoshop for a simpler program.

Paint Shop Pro 8 easily juggled multiple layers and offered the most flexible tool set, free from the restrictions of wizards. Many of its tools are easier to master than their Photoshop equivalents.

Microsoft Digital Image Pro 9 proved to be very strong, with a task pane particularly well suited for beginners. Unfortunately, that same task pane can begin to feel confining once you’ve gained some image-editing experience.

Ulead PhotoImpact 8 is a good editor, but its interface is sometimes confusing – its content creation and Web publishing features, while thorough, take up valuable space in the menus, where we'd rather see more photo editing options.

If you don't need those extras, you might prefer the less cluttered interface of Paint Shop Pro 8, Digital Image Pro 9, or Adobe Photoshop Elements 2. Of these three, Photoshop Elements is the hardest to learn. We found that its easy-to-follow tutorials, called recipes, helped us accomplish most of our tasks without checking the user guide or online help. Overall, however, Adobe doesn't provide enough of these recipes.

ArcSoft PhotoStudio 5.5 offers some capable tools, but it lacks key features. The online help is very poor. It has no context-sensitive assistance and only a 1995-era help menu. Farther from ideal, but excellent for beginners, is Roxio's deceptively simple PhotoSuite 5 Platinum Edition. It offers only a few task icons and edit categories, but it surprised us by completing a multitude of tasks. Nevertheless, advanced users will feel stifled by its wizard-based editing tools and its lack of manual adjustments.

Some budget photo-editors don’t come close to the pricier programs. CorelDraw Essentials 2, SmartDraw Photo 2, and Broderbund Software's Print Shop Pro Publisher Deluxe 20 simply lack necessary tools. Print Shop Pro 20 – descended from a venerable DOS program used to make dot matrix banners for high school cafeterias back in 1984 – is still intended primarily for making posters, greeting cards, and calendars, and lacks many common image-editing features.

CorelDraw Essentials fails to deliver too, with weak photo-editing features. SmartDraw Photo tries to be a jack-of-all-trades for novices, offering photo organization and Web publishing tools. However, virtually all of its photo-editing tools are underpowered or poorly implemented.

The top challenger to Adobe Photoshop CS comes down to Adobe Photoshop Elements 2, Ulead PhotoImpact 8, or Jasc Paint Shop Pro 8. The right one for you depends largely on your experience of image-editing conventions. You'll need lots of experience with tools like Photoshop to get the most from PhotoImpact or Photoshop Elements. PhotoImpact offers the most bang-for-buck if you want to dabble in Web design too. Paint Shop Pro presents a somewhat friendlier interface – and as you become more familiar with image editing, you can delve deeper into its tools.

Cosmetic touch-up

When you have a problem picture, the first task is to get rid of dust. Of the budget applications, only Adobe Photoshop Elements manages to replicate Photoshop CS's effective dust removal. Paint Shop Pro and Digital Image Pro do a passable job, but several others are ineffective or clumsy.

Red-eye removal is easy on Paint Shop Pro. Instead of simply stamping a black dot over the retina or desaturating the red like most other image editors do, Paint Shop Pro actually stamps a customizable replacement eye in its place. You can tweak the eye colour, size, glint, and even species (yes, you can remove the red from your dog's eyes). On the other hand, SmartDraw Photo distinguished itself as uniquely bad here, with only three preset sizes and no transparency adjustment.

If your photo has more serious blemishes than just specks of dust, you'll need a program with cloning and healing tools, so you can copy adjacent, clean parts of the image over the imperfections.

Microsoft Digital Image Pro handles blemishes particularly well. Most programs require you to carefully dab over the problem area with clone brushes, but Digital Image Pro's Smart Erase tool automatically erases an outlined object – with believable results. The program includes a traditional cloning tool to clean up any leftover artifacts.

CorelDraw's clone brush is virtually unusable, and SmartDraw doesn't have a dedicated clone brush at all.

The triple bypass

Performing more major photographic surgery, such as separating the foreground of an image from the background, requires a more advanced package.

Knocking out the background of an image was easiest in programs like Photoshop Elements and Paint Shop Pro, both of which have Photoshop-style background-erasers. As with a traditional eraser tool, you drag a background eraser around your image, but you don't have to be exact – a background eraser can discern colour changes and the edges of your subject in order to remove the background intelligently.

Paint Shop Pro comes out on top for having a smoother, less "twitchy" background eraser than the one in Photoshop Elements. PhotoImpact is a great runner-up – it lacks a background eraser, but its magnetic lasso tool tracks edges superbly, and it includes a Bezier curve-style keypoint system that lets you adjust a selection after you've made it.

In most apps, once you select a boundary, it's set in stone. CorelDraw's image editor, Corel Photobook, doesn't have a magnetic lasso tool. We resorted to using its freehand lasso tool and automask function, but the tool didn't accurately select our dimly lit subject.

Before pasting the foreground image onto the new background, you might want to feather the edge of the cutout. Most of the programs support edge feathering, though Print Shop Pro 20 allows no feathering of any kind.

Quick fixes

Adjusting brightness, contrast, and colour saturation is simple with almost all the programs. We particularly appreciated the Quick Fix option in Photoshop Elements and the One Step Photo Fix in Paint Shop Pro. Elements's Quick Fix requires a separate step for each adjustment (such as focus and colour), while One Step Photo Fix runs an entire script of fixes.

Photoshop Elements, Paint Shop Pro, Digital Image Pro, and PhotoImpact all include levels controls, but PhotoImpact had other handy manual controls as well, such as a tone map (which helps redistribute colors to fix imbalances or remove unwanted shadows) and separate histograms for highlights, shadows, and midtones (for very precise contrast control).

Laying it on

Support for layers is essential for an advanced image editor, because they let you edit different parts of a picture independently.

SmartDraw Photo has no layer support at all, and Roxio PhotoSuite 5's selection tools are limited. Working with layers in Corel Photobook feels counterintuitive, and features are hard to find. Like PhotoSuite, it has limited selection tools. Using layers in Print Shop Pro 20 required a lot of back-and-forth because its image-editor doesn't support layers.

To vary a layer's opacity in Jasc Paint Shop Pro, you have to open a dialog box, while Photoshop Elements and PhotoImpact provide a layers palette with a slide bar in the header. You see the opacity changing on your image, not in a dialog box.

Adjusting the colour of parts of an image is also a helpful feature. This can be time-consuming – you often need to move the sliders for red, green, and blue in small increments, staring at the results. A good, one-click automatic colour correction tool as in Paint Shop Pro, PhotoImpact, Photoshop Elements, and Digital Image Pro is far preferable.

Similarly, a variations tool is handy. Photoshop Elements, PhotoImpact, and CorelDraw show your image in various iterations, each with a slightly different colour cast. PhotoImpact and Photoshop Elements show proposed colour adjustment in the actual image window, while CorelDraw shows them only in a tiny preview window.

Bargain best buy

If you can’t afford Photoshop CS, or you want something that’s easy to use and quick to pick up, Jasc Paint Shop Pro 8 puts a lot of photo-editing brawn at your fingertips for just £85 plus VAT. It performs easy tasks like red-eye removal, handles layers, and removes backgrounds. Timesavers like the One Step Photo Fix, which makes multiple adjustments simultaneously, make the program a great tool for budget photo editing.