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7 complex photo-editing effects you can easily achieve with free tools

Adobe’s Photoshop is the gold standard when it comes to photo-editing software – the preferred tool for many graphic designers and photographers. But many of the complex features that once only a Photoshop pro could do, can now be achieved using basic, free software that comes with your computer or downloaded from the Web. Think cropping, resizing, color adjustments, filters, red-eye removal, and automatic enhancements. In fact, a lot of useful photo-editing features are built into online photo-sharing sites like Google+ and Flickr.

However, what if you want to quickly apply one or two effects without having to become a Photoshop guru? We’ve found and tested a few online alternatives that won’t require you to fire up any photo-editing apps.

Have you used any effective photo-editing tools not listed here? Share them in the comments.



HDR, or high-dynamic-range imaging, is a technique used to create great-looking, color-popping photographs by combining multiple photos of the same image that are taken at different exposures, from light to dark – the dynamic range, also called contrast ratio.

Most new digital cameras and many smartphones offer an HDR feature, where the device automatically takes those multiple photos and processes them. But what if your device doesn’t have a HDR feature? You can manually create this effect via Photoshop or any photo-editing software, but it usually requires a multi-step workflow.

One easier way is to use Fotor, a free Flash-based online software for creating HDR imagery. Before you can use it, however, you’ll need to shoot at least three photos of a scene at different exposures. Upload the photos from your computer or a photo-sharing site, make some minor adjustments, and the software then creates a HDR image for you. Fotor can also realign objects and reduce any movement that may have occurred from shot to shot. (HDR doesn’t work with all types of images, but the best ones to try it with are landscapes and low-light scenes.)

Background removal

clipping-magicObject isolation or background removal can be a daunting task. Even many professional graphic designers find the process requires patience and finesse. For everybody else, there’s a quick, easy-to-use, and effective online tool called Clipping Magic. To use, upload a photo, mark the areas you want to keep in green and the background you want removed in red, and Clipping Magic handles the rest. The nice thing about the software is that you don’t have to be too precise, and, even though it’s in alpha, it works very well. Check out our full guide to removing a background image for more help using Clipping Magic.

Photo collage creator

ribbetSay you want to create a collection of images from a recent vacation you took. You could try to resize the photos onto a blank canvas, or have Ribbet do it for you on the fly. You can upload photos from your computer or have Ribbet access your online photos via the likes of Google+, Flickr, and Facebook. Your photos are displayed in a “photo basket” at the bottom, which you can then drag and drop onto the board in various configuration. You can adjust spacing, proportions, “kookiness” (photos placed haphazardly on the board), and roundness of photos. Most users will appreciate the simplicity of Ribbet, but if you want to place more than four photos on the board or access some of the premium option, you’ll have to pay; for more options than the barebones Ribbet, we suggest Pixlr Express or Fotor, the same folks who brought you the aforementioned HDR editor.

Filters and effects

Pixlr-O-MaticSmartphone apps like Instagram and Hipstamatic made photo filters popular. Some users layer a filter over a photo to help mask the inferior quality of many smartphone cameras, but many like the vintage, analog look that they give. Not surprising, these types of old-timey filters have made their way onto the desktop. To quickly apply a filter onto a photo, try the Pixlr-O-Matic from Pixlr. You can select an image from your computer or shoot a new one with a webcam, and then choose from a huge variety of filters and effects. You can also do a 1:1 crop to square off an image to post on Instagram. Overall, like a smartphone app, Pixlr-O-Matic is a no-brainer to use.

Photo reflection

PicreflectIf you have a cool-looking panorama, one neat effect is to create a mirror reflection. Picreflect isn’t the nicest-designed website out there, but it’s an easy-to-use tool that works. Concept is simple: Upload a photo, make some adjustments like orientation and size, hit the “create reflection” button, and, bam, instant photo reflection. The neat trick about using Picreflect is that it creates a soft reflection, not just a mirror image.

Image resizing

pic resizePossibly the most-used feature of any photo editing app is resizing your images. If that’s all you need to do, you don’t have to fire up Photoshop. Just upload it to Pic Resize (like Picreflect, Web design isn’t fancy, but it’s all about the function) and you can make your photo 25, 50, or 75 percent smaller, or set a custom size (remember, it’s never a good idea to go bigger than your image’s max size). You can also crop and rotate your image before resizing. Pic Resize lets you add effects too, but skip that and just use it for resizing purposes.

Crazy effects

photofuniaDepending on the user, you’ll either find PhotoFunia cheesy or genius. If you’re the type who likes to make funny pictures, this is for you. You can place a photo of your family on a city billboard, magazine cover, or art gallery exhibit. PhotoFunia takes your uploaded photo and automatically places within a predesigned image; all you have to do after is spam the image to your friends and family. If you’ve tried to do the same thing in Photoshop, you’ll learn quickly that manipulating a photo within another is a bit of a chore; PhotoFunia takes care of all the housekeeping.