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Before you resort to MS Paint or piracy, give these free image-editing tools a shot

There’s no argument about it — Adobe Photoshop remains, hands down, the best photo-editing software on the market. But unless you’ve undergone formal training, Photoshop proves a difficult program to master, and is expensive to use.

Related: Adobe brings new Lightroom features to Android in version 2.0

For the home user, Photoshop isn’t necessary for basic and semi-advanced tasks, such as resizing, cropping, and exposure correction. Downloadable photo editing tools have advanced way past MS Paint, and you really can do almost anything you could do in Photoshop–and sometimes more. The best part? Many of them are completely free.

Desktop options

GIMP

editingsoftware_gimp-640x640

Often heralded as the best free alternative to Photoshop, GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) is an open-source application that relies on a community of volunteer developers who maintain and improve the product. Available for Mac and PC, you get a lot of professional-level editing and retouching tools – perfect for designers who can’t or won’t shell out hundreds of dollars to Adobe.

Once you launch the program, you’ll find a dedicated window that displays the image, and separate windows to organize the toolbox and layers.When using a large display, or two displays, you have a nice, big workspace to play with your images. Icons in the toolbox represent actions such as the crop, lasso, paint and brush tools, and you can apply various effects to your photos. It may seem like Photoshop, but GIMP has its own look and feel.

Download it now for:

Windows Mac OS X Linux

PhotoScape

Photoscape

Besides image editing, PhotoScape also lets you create slideshows and animated GIFs, capture screenshots, and combine and split images. You can customize your toolbar, so you can organize the features you use most, and then revert to the default toolbar when you want to dig deeper into the software’s offerings.

Free comes with a price, however. PhotoScape software is free to download. But it’s part of the Open Candy network, and runs ads for other “recommended” software. This is isolated to PhotoScape, and won’t infiltrate the rest of your computer with adware, but worth noting.

Download it now for:

Windows Mac OS X

The Nik Collection

Nik Collection

The Nik Collection is a full image-editing suite offered by Google… and it’s now totally free. This is one of the most powerful and complete online photo tools at the moment, and Google providing it all for free was pretty big news. The Collection includes seven total plugins, each with a different focus. Analog Efex Pro focuses on effects that produce vintage looks or make digital photos appear more natural, while Color Efex Pro provides a ton of filters. Silver Efex Pro, on the other hand, is tailored for black-and-white images, while Viveza allows you to alter specific colors in the photo without using filters. Sharpener Pro allows you to improve clarity and Dfine gives you noise reduction capabilities, and so on.

This allows you to either download whatever tool you need at the time, or download them all and use them interchangeably. The tools may take a little time to learn, but by separating out the different functions, the software makes it easier for people to pick and choose what they need in any given moment.

Related: Google’s advanced desktop photo editing software are now free downloads

The only downside here is that the Nik Collection is basically one-and-done. It doesn’t look like Google will be offering patches or updates to these tools, so they may not have much longevity. Get them while they still work!

Download it now for:

Windows Mac OS X

Paint.NET

Paint.net

This is a case where the apprentice becomes the master. Paint.NET was originally developed as an college undergraduate senior design project mentored by Microsoft and it continues to be maintained by alumni of the program. It was originally developed as a free replacement for Microsoft Paint, which comes as part of Windows. Paint.NET has surpassed Microsoft Paint in functionality and has some advanced features.

Paint.NET features an intuitive user interface that supports layers, an “unlimited undo” to back out of any mistake no matter how disastrous, various special effects, and other tools. Where Microsoft Paint was able to do little more than resize images, Paint.NET is able to handle more advanced photo editing that you’d expect from Photoshop and other paid programs. 

Download it now for:

Windows

Serif PhotoPlus Starter Edition

PhotoPlus Starter Edition

Serif created Photo Plus Starter Edition as a free version of its paid software suite to give users elementary tools for editing photos. The software has the basics covered, with tools that let you re-size, apply filters and effects, and reduce red eye, among other functions. Because it lacks certain features of the paid version — the goal is to entice enough that you’ll upgrade — it will only get you so far in your photo editing. It does however, provide tools in an easy-to-use format that allows you to polish photos for your albums. Take note of Cutout Studio, in particular, which is a toolset designed to help create collages and similar scrapbook-style products.

Download it now for:

Windows

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