Beyond the ultra-lightweight likes of Microsoft Paint, photo editing software has traditionally tended to be pretty expensive, but there’s no need to spend a fortune for picture-perfect photos. There are plenty of free photo editors around, from old-school classics like GIMP to a few more recent upstarts.
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With that in mind, we’ve rounded up the best free photo editing software to help get you started, and towards the end we’ve even thrown in one or two paid options just in case you’re looking for a Photoshop alternative with a few more advanced features.
Best free photo editing software: GIMP
GIMP (aka GNU Image Manipulation Program) has basically been around forever (at least in internet terms), tracing its origins way back to 1995 when it was created as an open source equivalent to Photoshop.
These days you can get it for Windows, OS X, or Linux, and it’s entirely free. While it lacks some polish compared to some of our other selections, you can’t fault GIMP for its selection of features, which is about as comprehensive as you can get without laying down some money. It helps that the layout is pretty close to Photoshop’s, making it immediately familiar to anyone who’s dabbled with the Adobe program.
Best free photo editing software: Paint.NET
The name might bring to mind MS Paint (which this began life as a replacement for). But Paint.NET does an awful lot that Microsoft’s simplistic editor can’t, with support for layers, effects, and a variety of other tools.
Still, it hasn’t entirely lost Paint’s simplicity, which is one of Paint.NET’s greatest strengths. It’s fast and lightweight, making it ideal for quick, simple edits. It’s also great for users who want something with more oomph than Paint, but don’t need all the daunting bells and whistles of Photoshop.
Best free photo editing software: Pixlr
Pixlr has one giant benefit over most of the other apps on this list: it runs entirely in your browser, meaning you can access it on any PC or Mac, with no need to install anything. Even better, it comes in two main varieties: Editor, a full-featured tool; and Express, a stripped back version designed to run quickly for smaller projects.
Of course you can’t quite get the full power of a photo editor in a browser, but Pixlr packs plenty of features in, and the full version is surprisingly comprehensive - especially considering how smoothly it runs.
If you find yourself a convert, there’s also a full desktop version for PC and Mac, though you’ll have to pay a small subscription fee for that.
Best free photo editing software: PhotoScape
PhotoScape is a solid free photo editor that also offers a little more besides - you can also use it to create animated GIFs, convert RAW images to JPG, create slideshows, and more.
When it comes to the actual editing tools, PhotoScape can’t beat the most fully featured entries on this list, but it does have all the core functionality you’re likely to need. The default circular tool menu is a bit divisive, but you can opt for a more traditional grid if you prefer, and you have access to the usual array of editing and re-touching tools, including a variety of effects and filters.
Best free photo editing software: Krita
Krita is as notable for its creators as it is for its functionality. Developed by artists, for artists, the free cross-platform app is designed to give artists all of the tools they need, with a focus on concept artists, illustrators, matte and texture artists, and the VFX industry.
It’s not strictly a photo editor (though you can certainly use it for basic re-touching), and the focus is more on digital painting and creating artwork from scratch. It has a variety of brush engines (along with a handy brush stabilizer feature), and you can also import brush and texture packs. Oh, and it even supports PSDs, so it’s fully compatible with anything you’ve worked on in Photoshop.
Best free photo editing software: Google Nik Collection
Google’s Nik Collection isn’t actually a photo editor (and it isn’t by Google), but it is free. It’s a selection of professional-grade filters created by German developer Nik, and originally sold for around $500.
Google purchased Nik in 2012, and in early 2016 decided to re-release the Nik Collection entirely for free. You can use all seven editing tools as stand-alones or as plugins for Photoshop (or your free photo editor of choice), giving you access to a lens and film emulator, a colour corrector, a noise reducer, and more.
Best free photo editing software: Fotor
Fotor isn’t trying to be a fully-fledged photo editor, so if you’re looking for a full suite of functionality then you might be better off elsewhere. What it does offer is a great selection of photo enhancement tools, letting you quickly apply filters and do some basic re-touching - and thanks to the batch processing tool, you can apply the same changes to a huge number of images at once, a feature sadly missing in a lot of equivalent applications.
There’s a pretty powerful in-browser editor too (though it’s slightly slow), mobile apps, and a paid pro upgrade for the main desktop app for some additional functionality.
Adobe Photoshop Elements 15
As powerful as many of these free photo editors are, sometimes you just need something with a little more oomph. With that in mind, we’ve also picked out a couple of cheap photo editors that can give you a bit more power without breaking the bank.
Photoshop Elements 15 is the slightly more beginner-friendly kid sibling to full Photoshop, offering most of the same features for less than the price of a year’s subscription to the full app.
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Built to offer professional features at a budget price, Affinity Photo is a definite step up from the free editing software listed here, without getting anywhere near the price of the most expensive professional apps around.
The layout will be mostly familiar to anyone who’s used other comprehensive photo editors, though naturally Affinity has a few of its own idiosyncrasies and quirks, most obviously the ‘Personas’, a selection of operating modes you switch between depending on what you want to do, giving you access to different tools and options.
There’s a lot of functionality here, and it’s not the most beginner-friendly app around, but it’s a great way to get professional quality at an amateur-friendly price.
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