Not so long ago, you needed software installed on your computer to do any kind of photo editing. That’s still the case if you want to accomplish highly complex tasks such as stitching panoramas together, but a huge range of photo editing jobs can be done using online tools. Here, we’re going to look at the very competent Pixlr.

There are several advantages that online photo editors such as Pixlr offer over traditional software. One is obviously that you avoid the process of having to download and install it. Plus, because Pixlr is web based, new features are automatically added and become immediately available the next time you arrive at the website.

Yet another advantage is that you can use Pixlr from any computer - as long as it has an internet connection and Flash support. Pixlr is ideal if you have multiple PCs and laptops, or if you need to edit photos on another computer when at work, or on holiday.

There are other image editing applications on the web, but we like Pixlr because it's so flexible and has lots of features. Plus, it presents a clean, crisp and easy-to-navigate user interface which will be instantly familiar to anyone that's used Photoshop. Even the keyboard shortcuts are the same.

You can use Pixlr to edit photos uploaded from a computer or from the cloud (all you need is to paste in a URL), so no matter where your images are stored, you'll be able to edit them in Pixlr.

Pixlr offers a huge range of editing options, broad enough to cater for beginners and experts alike. It can enhance your photos as well as hand-drawn images, and there are all the tools you'll need from utilities such as resizing and cropping, to fun features such as the various filters you can apply to images. You can draw right onto a blank canvas too. And as if all that wasn’t enough, Pixlr is completely free.

There's a companion web app: Pixlr-o-matic, which applies vintage effects (similar to Instagram) to your photos. Simply click the Retro vintage effects link at Pixlr's homepage. It's also available as a free app for Android and iOS smartphones and tablets.

How to edit photos in Pixlr

Step 1. Browse to and choose Open photo editor. A window will appear asking you to decide whether you want to start with a new image or open one from your computer, a URL or a library. We’re going to upload a photo from our PC.

 Pixlr - Open photo

Step 2. Next locate the photo you want to edit and double click it. It’ll open in the Pixlr main window. On the left there’s a Tools bar which bears more than a passing resemblance to Photoshop's and a top menu is similar to the one you'd see in a desktop image editor.

Pixlr - interface

Step 3. Let’s start by cropping our image. Choose the crop tool at the top left of the Tools bar and click and drag to select the area to crop. Simply double-click to apply the crop. You can press Ctrl-Z to undo your last edit, including crops.

Pixlr - crop image

Step 4. You can also resize and rotate images. Choose the Image menu to see what’s on offer. When resizing images, the aspect ratio will be maintained unless you untick the ‘constrain proportions’ box.

Pixlr -resize image

Step 5. One of Pixlr's most powerful features is its support for layers and layer masks. Press Ctrl-J to duplicate the Background layer, then choose Hue & Saturation from the Adjustment menu and tweak the settings.

Pixlr - adjustments

Step 6. Add a layer mask by clicking the icon at the bottom of the Layers palette: it's a white square with a black circle in it. Use the paint brush tool to paint the areas of the layer where you want the Hue & Saturation adjustment to show.

Pixlr - layer masks

Step 7. There are some very easy ways to improve or alter the quality of an image without much effort. Selecting Adjustment then Curves and choosing Increase Contrast is one way to give your photo some extra visual punch.

Pixlr - curves

Step 8. There’s also a whole range of effects you probably used to seeing as presets on digital cameras. For example, in the Adjustment menu you’ll find sepia, solarise, old photo, posterise and other settings.

Pixlr - effects

Step 9. The range of distortion effects and filters is even more impressive. Take a look in the Filter menu and you’ll find blurs, swirls, embossing and plenty more each with a range of internal settings.

Pixlr - distortion