Last Updated on May 9, 2023 by Photography PX
Over recent years, Adobe changed its pricing strategy, focusing on cloud-based subscription plans, a move that frustrated many longtime users and photographers worldwide. Today, the prices for comparable services seem to be ever-increasing, and purchasing dedicated editing software remains relatively expensive.
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Not to mention, an eye-catching portfolio and high-quality photographs require the right camera equipment, which quickly adds up. So, it makes sense that a subscription program is often outside of many photographers’ budget. And if you’re not a professional, you’ll likely have a hard time seeing the value and worth in shelling out the cash to get a flagship Adobe product.
Thankfully, there are plenty of great free photo editors and software applications out there that still deliver results. And just because they’re “free” doesn’t necessarily mean they’re poorly designed, limited, or challenging to master—the exact opposite. A good majority also offer similar capabilities and features without the hefty price.
And they can efficiently take your images to a professional level with minimal effort. So, if you don’t want to purchase an editing software, then really, there’s no need to. Quality matters. And you don’t need to break the bank to achieve highly polished images.
In this post, we’ve rounded up the best free photo editors to transform your images, so they’re ready for delivery and match your creative vision. And options that give both Photoshop and Lightroom a run for its money.
Why should you edit your photos?
Our pictures preserve that moment in time indefinitely. But, sadly, not every photo showcases our memories in their best glory. And regardless of your skill level, there’s almost always something to be improved. Sure, taking the right shot in the moment is important. But, the flexibility we have afterward is what brings it home. Plus, with post-processing and editing, we have the opportunity to go back in time and correct any mistakes and perfect our creations.
And these days, post-processing is an essential part of daily life. From removing unwanted objects, adjusting color, tone, vibrance, or adding a unique filter to separate our work. And, truthfully, performing some of this in-camera alone isn’t always possible. So, whether you’re an amateur or aspiring pro, you’ll want to edit your photos eventually. But, of course, you don’t have to edit any photos before sharing them online. It’s totally optional. Dedicated editors just afford some room to fix mistakes, make improvements, and add visual flair.
Types of free photo editors
Today’s free photo editors come in one of three varieties, web-based, desktop-based, or mobile-based.
Web-based and online editors
Are best, typically, for those who want to make simple adjustments, such as removing blemishes, enhancing color, cropping, and straightening. And they’re excellent for beginners looking for a straightforward tool that does the job without getting overwhelmed with options.
Dedicated desktop editors
Offer more advanced functionality for enthusiasts or advanced users who already have some working experience. These desktop-based applications provide more advanced functionality, such as layers, masks, catalogs, RAW conversion, and more. And they also give you more control over the creative process.
Mobile or app-based editors
Offer moderate functionality, and they’re well suited for anyone who wants to edit on-the-go. They usually provide essentials like enhancing color, crop, resize, and spot healing. But, there are many options with advanced tools such as cut-outs, collage makers, and more. So they can serve quite a wide range of skill levels.
What to look for in free photo editors?
With so many options around, it may become difficult to find the right editing software for you that matches the complexity you need. But, below is a rundown of the main things to take into account.
Supported File Formats
Most web-based and mobile editors only support web-friendly file formats, such as JPEG, JPG, and PNG. It’s rare that they’ll have more advanced support for RAW conversion or various formats like TIFF, CR2, and NEF fo;es. And they typically only export photos in the JPG format with relatively low resolutions. So it’s worth considering how you plan on using the images.
If you only plan on sharing images online on social media, then they’re great. However, if you plan to print your work, then using a dedicated desktop application is best. They support a much larger selection of file types, which you can export to just about any imaginable format in high resolution.
Ease of Use
If you’re a beginner, you’ll want to look for options that offer clean and simple interfaces that are well-organized and clutter-free. The last thing you want is to download and install software, only to find out it’s confusing, difficult to use, and way above your current skill level.
Social Media Integration & File Sharing
If you like sharing edits directly to social media, then know that many editors are social media-friendly. And they offer full integration with all of the popular platforms making the process easy and pain-free.
If you plan on uploading a lot of images into the editor, organizing them in a way that makes sense to you is key. Not all editors offer organizing tools or catalogs. So, it’s essential that you find a tool that can show thumbnail previews or has flags for rating and a search feature. These will make it easier whenever you want to revisit images, saving you time shifting through the entire catalog.
If you plan on editing several photos at once, look for editors that offer batch editing. This allows you to apply the same global effects, enchantments, or changes to multiple images, which will save you enormous time.
Most editors have the basics to improve photos, such as brightness, contrast, saturation, crop and straighten. Not all have advanced tools like spot healing, clone stamping, lens corrections, or background removal. So for this, find the best photo editor that offers the tools that suit your skills and workflow.
How to choose the best free photo editor?
The biggest consideration when looking at these platforms is your current skill level and experience with post-processing. Then, how much flexibility do you want from the software? If you only want to make basic adjustments, like enhancing colors, saturation, crop, or straightening, then an online tool is perfect. And you don’t need an editor that will overwhelm you with unnecessary features.
But, as mentioned previously, most online tools limit files to web-friendly formats and offer relatively low resolutions. So, if you plan on displaying your images as prints, then it’s best to avoid these.
However, if you have some working knowledge of post-processing and you want more advanced features such as layers, cloning, and blemish removal, then dedicated desktop software is the better option. Plus they can also output files to a wider selection of formats and in higher resolutions, making them more suitable for printing.
Now both web-based and dedicated desktop applications have their associated strengths and weaknesses. And some of these platforms are more advanced than others. So the best one for you will come down to which offers the features that suit your needs with the design and workflow you like most.
7 – Photoscape X
PhotoScape X is a desktop application that’s available for Windows and macOS. And it’s an all-in-one editing platform that works as both a viewer and one-click editor.
The app offers all of the essentials for editing, such as crop, rotate, resize, blemish removal, spot healing, and liquify, to name a few. But it also has advanced features such as batch editing, RAW conversion, cut out, a GIF creator, HDR, focus stacking, a color picker, and more. Plus, the viewer also offers both flags and star ratings to help sort through images.
And the features continue, now with a wealth of other creative options. Some of these include a collage maker, thousands of stickers, hundreds of frames, figures, text, and over 400 one-click filters and effects. The list of features here seem nearly infinite, and it’s quite impressive to see this amount of creative flexibility in a free app.
As a package, PhotoScape X is the right choice for the enthusiast looking for a capable solution. And it’s also equally capable for socialites looking to create original content. It may look rather innocent, but under the hood is a powerful feature set. Thankfully, beginners will find a long list of video tutorials on their website to help get started.
Overall, now on version 4 of the software, PhotoScape X is even more refined than the initial iterations first debuted in 2013. And it’s quite the complete package with a long list of accolades to brag.
6 – Darktable
Darktable is an open-source desktop application that’s a direct alternative to Adobe’s Lightroom. And it’s available on Ubuntu, Fedora, Linux, Windows, and macOS.
This open-source workflow application and developer offers both simple adjustments ranging from crop, rotate, exposure, curves, spot removal, and more. But you can also use it professionally. And it offers advanced features such as human night vision simulation, liquify, split toning, masks, perspective correction, and full non-destructive editing. In total, it provides 61 image operation modules, many of which are typically only found in Lightroom.
It also offers a complete catalog database and library feature to organize and rate files easily. The app even boasts RAW file support, 3D Luts, built-in ICC profiles for Adobe RGB, and 16-bit exporting. And it’s one of very few projects in this space that offers tethering. Every change made in the program is even immediately stored on the disk, so there’s no need to save manually, perfect to avoid losing unsaved work.
Darktable is an excellent choice for the enthusiast and advanced photographers wanting a more technical and fully-featured app. It’s equally as capable as Lightroom and delivers quite a robust feature set. And one that fills the gap between other RAW converters, developers, and image management tools.
Overall, while not as powerful as the paid-for version, the free suite remains excellent. It’s entirely ad-free, clean, elegant, and quite ambitious. If you’re looking for a more comprehensive tool created by photographers, this is surely one to consider. And as the complete workflow tool, it’ll make your life easier when handling thousands of images.
5 – BeFunky
BeFunky is a web-based application and smartphone app combo, available on desktop computers, Android, and iOS devices. And it’s the most popular choice for its extensive selection of special effects.
Both the website and companion app offer a wide array of basic adjustments. These include exposure, sharpening, smoothing, blur, red-eye removal, and more. And it also provides a powerful setup of advanced photo effects, like batch processing and various touch-up functionality. But where this platform shines is the collection of filter effects available, which is extremely comprehensive, to say the least.
And it easily provides hundreds of one of a kind options you can’t find elsewhere. Plus, you can even add text, frames, textures, custom graphics, overlays, and create collages—all of which you can directly share on social media or the cloud. And together, it offers excellent flexibility.
BeFunky is a strong choice for beginners. But, it’s also equally capable for bloggers and socialites looking to add more flair to their images, create graphics, or do quick touch-ups on-the-go. And it’s efficient, simple to use, and very engaging.
Overall, it offers the largest selection of effects around. And while a good majority of its capabilities and features hide behind their Plus paid-for subscription, it’s a powerful tool if you don’t mind navigating through the options.
4 – Adobe Photoshop Express
Adobe’s Photoshop Express is the trimmed-down free alternative to their professional, albeit, expensive Photoshop suite. This application is available on iOS, Android, and Windows devices, making it the perfect tool for on-the-go creators. But they do also offer a web-based version for desktop users.
The browser editor only supports JPG and PNG files and doesn’t boast some rivals’ advanced features. Even so, it offers the essentials, such as spot healing, crop, straighten, resize, and more. So it’s helpful when editing on the desktop at home. However, the accompanying smartphone app is the real star. The app delivers a fair share of what you’d expect from Photoshop but in a more streamlined and simplified fashion. It offers functions such as crop, rotate, blemish removal, resize, to name a few. Plus, it also has decorative options to add text or create custom collages.
And all adjustments are made with a simple tap of the finger, making it easier than ever to apply effects. Plus, it syncs seamlessly with other Adobe products and supports direct sharing to social media or the cloud.
Photoshop Express is an excellent choice for beginners and intermediate photographers who prefer editing on their devices. And as an Adobe product, it’s brilliantly designed, polished, and extraordinarily easy to use.
Overall, if you like editing on smartphones or tablets, Photoshop Express is easily the best option around. And it offers enormous flexibility and power that other apps lack, especially in such an easy to use package.
3 – Fotor
Fotor is a web-based application that’s available on Mac, Windows, and mobile devices. And it allows you to not only edit photos but also make collages and create designs.
The web editor offers a healthy selection of basic image editing tools, including 1-tap enhance, crop, rotate, curves, HDR, and resizing. And it uses a clean and simple interface that’s intuitive and easily mastered. Additionally, it also provides a collage and design maker and plenty of effects, text, and stickers, making it well suited for bloggers and social media use. Fotor also offers a desktop-based application with more advanced editing tools like batch processing, RAW support, split toning, and more. And together, this added functionality is a standout among other free applications.
Fotor is an excellent option for beginners and enthusiasts wanting to master the fundamentals. And its excellent interface, 1-tap enhance, and built-in filters keep things simple.
Overall, it’s a strong choice for those wanting the imaging enhancing options and simplicity it provides.
2 – Pixlr Photo Editor
Pixlr’s X and E are cloud-based web applications that are direct alternatives to Photoshop Express. And they’re both surprisingly capable, considering their browser editors.
Pixlr E is the advanced version of their suite. And it provides quite a comprehensive set of advanced functionality, including cutouts, masks, healing, clone stamp, liquify, layers, and more. Like most online tools, it doesn’t offer RAW support, but, instead, JPEG, PNG, and PSD. Even so, given its clean and sleek design and comprehensive features, it’s more than adequate. You can also import photos directly from social media, and the editor is fully capable on mobile devices. Plus, it supports layers, a rare feature on online editors.
Both Pixlr suites are a good choice for beginners and aspiring pro’s looking to learn the fundamentals. Each offers advanced features to hone your skills. But their user interfaces are intuitive and straightforward with only a modest learning curve.
Overall, it’s hard to beat the convenience of this powerful photo editor. And it delivers a robust browser experience, accessible at a moment’s notice with the right balance of form and function.
1 – GIMP
GIMP is an open-source desktop application available on Windows, Mac, and Linux operating systems. And without question, it’s the most powerful and popular free editor around. And one that offers a substantial list of professional features that match Adobe Photoshop in many cases.
It packs a full suite of image-enhancing tools you’d typically only expect in premium software, from simple basic actions like cropping or color adjustments to advanced tools like content-aware resizing, layer masks, and more. It also offers full RAW support, in addition to Adobe PSDs, TIFFs, PNGs, JPEGs, and GIFs. So there’s no worrying about compatibility here, regardless of what you shoot. Their user base has also created an enormous collection of optional add-ons and plugins, which extend its functionality. And these provide unmatched flexibility over traditional free editors.
GIMP is primarily aimed at experienced users with some working knowledge. And it’s quite a technical alternative with a robust feature set. However, beginners can benefit from its auto image enhancement tools, and it offers long-term development that’s typically not seen in a free product. So, while the learning curve is steep, it’s extraordinarily capable.
Overall, GIMP is the closest any free editor on today’s market gets to Photoshop. And really, if you can do it in Photoshop, you can likely do it in GIMP. And as the most popular free editor, it makes sense.