The best free photo-editing software for 2021

Professional photo-editing applications aren’t cheap, nor are they easy to master without formal training. That’s why we’re taking a look at the best free photo-editing software on the market.

Our top pick is GIMP, an open-source photo editing software that is available for the big three operating systems. It offers a huge workspace and a wide variety of professional editing tools.

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We provide more than 7,000 how-to articles and best-of lists to help you build your photography skills, choose the best gear for your photography needs, and make the most out of your photo equipment. And if our top pick isn’t for you, be sure to check out the other options on this list. There are great choices for both conventional desktop software and web-based solutions that don’t require installing software.

The best free photo-editing software at a glance

The best

GIMP

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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. It’s available for MacOS, Windows, and Linux and provides a lot of professional-level editing and retouching tools — perfect for designers who can’t or won’t shell out hundreds of dollars for Adobe Photoshop.

Once you launch the program, you’ll find a dedicated window that displays the image. You’ll also see two floating docks: One with the toolbox and another for managing layers, paths, brushes, and more.

When using a large display, or two monitors, you have an expansive workspace to edit your images. Icons in the toolbox represent specific tools, like Scale, Pencil, Paintbrush, Bucket Fill, Airbrush, Smudge, and more. You can apply numerous filters too, such as dropping a shadow, adding a neon glow, adding a glass tile, removing devilish red eyes, and so on.

Overall, GIMP may feel like a free version of Photoshop, but it sports a unique look and experience. 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.

The rest

Paint.NET

Paint.NET is a case where the apprentice becomes the master. Created as a college undergraduate senior’s design project mentored by Microsoft, Paint.NET continues to be maintained by alumni of the program. Initially, the software was developed as a free replacement for Microsoft Paint, which comes as part of Windows. Paint.NET has surpassed Microsoft Paint in functionality and provides more advanced features as well.

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

Paint.NET is available as a free, traditional desktop program for Windows, and as a $7 app on the Windows Store.

Photoshop Express

Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

If the above options seem too derivative or you want more of the Adobe experience without the associated price, Photoshop Express is another option worth considering. Although pared down compared to the premium Photoshop model, the Express variant does have several excellent 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. Prepackaged Effects make rapid 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 gives you control over sharpening and noise.

Its file type support is limited to raw camera files, TIFF, JPG, and PNG files, but Photoshop Express is a freely available app that you can use on your Windows, iOS, or Android device without hassle.

Pixlr

Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

Pixlr provides two tools you can access for free: Pixlr X (express) and Pixlr E (advanced). Both provide essential editing tools, limited layers, and relatively few stickers. These tools are ad-supported, though you can upgrade to Advanced ($4/mo) or Professional ($15/mo) to remove ads and unlock additional features.

In a Pixlr vs. Pixlr X showdown, Pixlr X offers quicker editing and simpler, user-friendly design. This software is accompanied by 12 essential tools, from drawing on layers to applying filters and cropping pictures. You can even add the “stain” effect, which makes your image look like a coffee cup was sitting on it recently.

Then there’s Pixlr E, a barefaced photo editing software that gives you access to 23 useful tools. Users can easily remove red-eye, draw shapes, blur, soften, or clone a photo, and much more.

Overall, Pixlr is a mixture of desktop and web-based editing software. They terminated the macOS and Windows desktop programs and are now concentrating on marketing its HTML5-based web applications. That being said, you can still find and download the Pixlr app on your smartphone or tablet.

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