There’s no argument — Adobe Photoshop remains the best photo-editing application on the market. But it’s a difficult program to master without formal training, and it’s not the cheapest option out there. That’s why we’re taking a look at the best free photo-editing software on the market, each of which provides much of the same functionality as Photoshop but without the associated fees and complexity.
The programs below can perform basic functions, such as letting you resize, crop, and correct exposure with ease, along with offering some semi-advanced tools as well. There are great options for both conventional desktop software and web-based solutions that don’t require installing any software.
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 MacOS, Windows, and Linux, 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. Making the jump from one to the other will take a little time, but you’ll save yourself a monthly subscription fee if you do.
Three good alternatives
This is a case where the apprentice becomes the master. Paint.NET was created as a 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 more advanced features as well.
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 to be limited to Photoshop and other paid programs.
If the above options seem too derivative or you want more of that Adobe-experience without the associated price tag, Photoshop Express is another option worth considering. Although pared down compared to the standard Photoshop, the Express variant does have a number of great options for editing photos with a much more gradual learning curve.
With an interface that betrays its mobile roots, Photoshop Express offers quick and easy access to slide bar adjustments and one-touch fixes for photos of all types. Pre-packaged “Effects” make quick and dramatic changes to images to improve coloring and contrast; crop and transform tools let you tweak a photo’s orientation and focus, and “Details” give you control over sharpening and noise.
Its file type support is limited to raw camera files and JPG and PNG files, but Photoshop Express is a freely available app that you can use on your Windows PC, iOS, or Android device without hassle.
Pixlr.com has a tiered offering that is entirely free. The site separates its photo editing into Pixlr Editor (advanced) and Pixlr Express (efficient). The site also offers a mobile suite so you can edit photos on a smartphone or tablet — both iOS and Android versions are available.
The Pixlr Editor is more like Photoshop. It’s a straightforward photo-editing tool that lets you crop, size, and tweak the image. It has a red eye tool that eliminates those devil eyes that appear when the flash goes off. Express, on the other hand, lets you put creative overlays on your images — this is really for playing with your photos. You can put a stain on a picture to make it look like you rested a coffee mug on the photo, for example.
Pixlr straddles the line between web-based and desktop image editors: There are both mobile and desktop versions of the software that you can download. However, it’s usually easier to just pop open your favorite browser and load up the online version. Note: The download site does require Adobe Flash to run, so you will need to enable that before moving forward.