The Adobe software list is a long one. But one thing's for sure – whether you're a graphic designer, web designer, photographer, illustrator, marketing professional or working in the TV and movie industry, it contains most of the tools your profession considers industry standard.
Unfortunately, few of them come for free. Most Adobe software requires a subscription, and you have the choice of subscribing to just a single app or the whole Creative Cloud suite. It's a big decision to make and so it's important to be well informed, and know what you're buying. To help you out, in this post we round up the 10 main apps on the Adobe software list (we'll mention the well-known apps such as Photoshop CC at first, and then get into the more niche tools) and explain, in simple terms, what they do and why you might need them.
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01. Adobe Photoshop
- Used for: Image editing and manipulation, photo retouching, graphic design, web and app prototyping, 3D modelling
- Pros: Feature-rich, powerful
- Cons: Complex, big learning curve
- Available for: Mac, Windows, iPad
If you want to edit images, this is the industry standard; so much so, that the word ‘Photoshop’ has become synonymous with image editing in common parlance. But tweaking photos isn’t all that Photoshop does: it’s also a fully fledged graphics editor.
Photoshop can be used, for example, to edit and compose raster images, graphics and text in multiple layers; edit and render text and vector graphics; and create and edit 3D graphics and video. This wide range of capabilities means that Photoshop is not just used by photographers and photo retouchers, but also by digital artists, graphic designers and art directors, and even, increasingly, by 3D designers and VFX artists.
It’s important to note that Photoshop works with raster graphics, in contrast to Illustrator (below), which works with vector graphics. To understand the difference between these, read our guide to common file formats. Also check out our best alternatives to Photoshop and our review of Photoshop for iPad.
02. Adobe Illustrator
- Used for: Illustration, designing vector graphics
- Pros: Feature-rich, industry standard
- Cons: Expensive compared to Sketch or Affinity Designer
- Available for: Mac, Windows
While Photoshop has wide and ever-expanding capabilities, Illustrator is much more focused on a specific tasks. It’s essentially a drawing programme based on vector graphics (which contain less detail than raster graphics and are infinitely scalable). As the name might suggest, Illustrator is most commonly used by artists, illustrators and graphic designers, to create everything from simple graphics, such as logos, icons and infographics, to complex illustrations, and everything in-between. Illustrator for the iPad is also coming soon. You can read our review of Illustrator CC here.
03. Adobe After Effects
- Used for: VFX, motion graphics, compositing
- Pros: Feature-rich, integration with Cinema 4D
- Cons: Not sophisticated enough for full movie production
- Available for: Mac, Windows
After Effects is a popular tool for visual effects, motion graphics, and compositing. Although you wouldn’t use it to create an entire movie, it might be used by a creative studio to create the kind of simple animations you’d feature on a website, in an explainer video, or on a credit sequence, for example.
After Effects is also used in the post-production process of film making and television, for tasks such as keying, tracking and compositing, and creating visual effects such as explosions and lightning strikes. As well as being smoothly integrated with other Adobe apps, it also plays nicely with Maxon’s 3D application Cinema 4D. See our After Effects tutorials for help on getting to grips with After Effects.
04. Adobe XD
- Used for: Web and app prototyping
- Pros: Starter Plan free, available for Windows (unlike Sketch)
- Cons: Sketch remains the industry standard
- Available for: Mac, Windows, with iOS and Android app for testing
Launched a few years back as Adobe's rival to Sketch, Adobe XD is a vector-based UX tool for prototyping web and mobile apps. In other words, you don’t create the whole app in XD, but use it for visualising the interface and defining how all the different parts function and relate to each other. This makes it easier to get everything working correctly, before you embark on the final coding. Note that XD's starter plan is free, and you don’t need a Creative Cloud subscription to use it.
05. Adobe InDesign CC
- Used for: Desktop publishing
- Pros: Industry standard
- Cons: Learning curve
- Available for: Mac, Windows
InDesign is a page layout tool that’s used primarily for print, but also has digital publishing capabilities. The industry standard tool for the publishing industry, it’s typically used by graphic designers and production artists to create posters, flyers, brochures, magazines, newspapers, presentations, books and ebooks.
06. Adobe Lightroom
- Used for: Image organisation and editing
- Pros: Superior organisation features
- Cons: Not as powerful as Photoshop for image editing
- Available for: Windows, Mac, iOS, Android
Lightroom is a family of tools for image organisation and image manipulation. Its strength lies primarily in the former, and is a good tool for a photo studio or photographer that needs handle large numbers of images. It doesn’t have all the image editing features offered by Photoshop, but that does make for a simpler interface that’s easier to use for standard tasks.
Also note that Lightroom's edits are always non-destructive. This means both the original image and the edits you’ve applied to it are saved separately, so it’s easy to undo changes if things don’t turn out how you wanted.
07. Adobe Premiere Pro
- Used for: Video editing
- Pros: Powerful, integration with other Adobe apps
- Cons: Steep learning curve
- Available for: Windows, Mac
Premiere Pro is a comprehensive video editing tool, based on a visual timeline, that’s used widely in the film and TV industry, as well as by YouTubers and marketing and design studios, to edit everything from commercials and music videos to TV series and feature-length movies. Recent new features include Auto Reframe, which applies intelligent reframing to your footage (keeping the action inside the frame for different aspect ratios) and the ability to snap graphic elements to guides, to each other, or to tracked items.
Premiere Pro is often used in conjunction with other Creative Cloud apps including After Effects, Audition and Photoshop. It’s quite a complex tool to learn, and for this reason Adobe has recently released a more lightweight video editing app, Premier Rush, for beginners and more casual users.
08. Adobe Spark
- Used for: Creating graphics, web pages and short videos
- Pros: Simple to use
- Cons: Basic tool
- Available for: Mac, Windows, iOS, Android
Adobe Spark is a suite of apps for creating graphics, web pages, and short videos for social media, easily and quickly. It’s aimed at marketing and social media professionals, as well as amateurs and beginners who want to create cool content for Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, but don’t have the time to learn more complicated software such as Photoshop and Illustrator.
09. Adobe Dimension
- Used for: Mocking up, compositing and rendering photorealistic 3D images
- Pros: Unique, easy to use
- Cons: Photorealism can look fake if not done with care
- Available for: Mac and Windows
Adobe Dimension is a tool for mocking up, compositing and rendering photorealistic 3D images based on 2D and 3D models, photos and textures you have imported from elsewhere, including Adobe Stock. It’s used by graphic designers to, for example, create product mockups, brand visualisations and packaging designs. The main advantage is being able to create scenes that look like photographs, without having to organise a photoshoot. Learn how to use it by following our article, Get started with Adobe Dimension CC.
10. Adobe Dreamweaver
- Used for: Creating websites
- Pros: No need to learn code
- Cons: More complex to use than other, more recently released web builders
- Available for: Mac, Windows
First created in 1997, Dreamweaver is Adobe’s tool for people who want to build websites without learning how to code. It was cutting edge at the time, but nowadays there are many alternative tools that offer similar capabilities, not least Adobe’s own Muse CC. The main reason to use Dreamweaver in 2019, then, is that you’ve used it before, but for those who are unfamiliar with it, there’s not really a compelling reason. Certainly check out our list of the best website builders first to see if there’s a platform that suits you better.