Professional Photo Editing Software You Can Download And Use For FREE On Your Desktop Or Smartphone
When you’re first starting out as a photographer, buying everything you need can get really expensive.
If you are still looking for a great photo editor – or if you’ve tried other paid software but find it not worth the cost – there are many free editors out there to choose from. Many of them are just as good as their paid rivals.
Every few months we’re seeing an improvement in smartphone camera technology, and now affordable DSLRs are equipped with large sensors previously reserved for high-end cameras. But, even with these changes, most photos can still benefit from careful post-production.
Adobe Photoshop is no longer the only great editing suite available to photographers. Professionals and amateurs alike can find great photo editing tools to download for free if they know where to look.
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Tools like these are also getting better and cheaper than ever before, as new technology outpaces the older business models surrounding digital photography. Mobile apps are now able to apply sophisticated edits in a few seconds – edits that used to take professional photographers hours to apply in programs like Photoshop.
Does this mean that all new editors are incredibly easy to use or take little skill in mastering? Hardly.
Some programs, like Gimp, require a steep learning curve to learn but pay dividends later with a multitude of advanced features.
The best editors offer all the essential tools you would need to create a stunning photograph. Things like curves, exposure adjustment, and contrast help you refine colors and light; healing brushes and clone stamps help you erase unwanted areas, and layers help you control and combine these effects efficiently.
Some editors offer these core tools in more of an automated process, such as smart filters. If you value speed over more fine-tuned control, these editors might be what you need.
It’s pretty easy to find a free photo editor that suits your needs and is available for Windows, Mobile, or Mac. Depending on how sophisticated the program is, and how much control it gives you to manipulate photos, it can be easy or difficult to master.
We’ll go over several different options for photographers of varying experience so you can find a free photo editor that suits your needs.
Free Photo Editors For Desktop:
GIMP, which stands for GNU Image Manipulation Program, has been one of the most popular free image editing programs for several years.
Now with a cleaner, slightly less complicated interface, GIMP is still considered one of the most sophisticated open-source graphics editing programs out there.
GIMP mainly appeals to those looking for a very precise and controlled image editing process, with professional-level tools like CMYK editing and RAW image processing. The interface conforms to other standard image and graphics editing layouts, with dockable palettes on the right. But one drawback of GIMP is the underlying organization of many key elements isn’t very intuitive for most people. For instance, Brightness/Contrast editing is found under the Color menu.
Although GIMP may take some time to get used to, the program has just about every essential photo editing tool you could ever want. This includes special-effect filters, levels, curves, hue/saturation controls, erasers, selection tools, etc. Beyond the basics, GIMP also offers plenty of advanced features such as adjustment layer groups and channel manipulations.
The active developer-designer community around GIMP has developed a wide range of plugins for the program that you can use in addition to the editing tools.
The main downside of GIMP, as I mentioned earlier, is the steep learning curve compared to other, more intuitive photo editors. For example, converting a selection you’ve made into a layer mask first involves saving it as a channel, then applying that channel to a layer as a mask. Given that GIMP doesn’t come with an easy user manual, your best bet is to find tutorials made by other users on YouTube to learn how to do what you want.
A big plus for GIMP is that it can run on nearly any operating system you have on your Desktop or Laptop (not just Mac, Windows, and Linux, but also FreeBSD, OS/2, Digital UNIX and others).
Adaptable: works on nearly any operating system
Advanced features and control
RAW image editing
Many plugins available
Time-consuming to learn
GIMP will likely continue to be one of the most popular open-source editing programs out there. For tech-savvy photographers and graphic designers, GIMP offers professional tools that allow you to create stunning post-processing effects if you’re willing to put in a little time and effort towards learning how these tools work.
For a free program, Photoscape deserves a lot of attention with its impressive range of tools.
In addition to being a photo editor, Photoscape also serves as an image management tool that allows you to view, batch edit, and apply a multitude of filters and effects to your images.
Photoscape also has a panorama feature that lets you stitch together multiple photos. The program includes a screen capture function, tools to create animated GIFs, RAW image conversion tools, a slideshow creator …the list goes on!
But what makes Photoscape a great choice on our list is it’s capable toolkit for editing photos. Unlike GIMP, everything is well-labelled and easy to navigate through. Even absolute beginners can play around in the interface fairly comfortably. If you make a mistake, there’s the handy ‘Undo’ function or ‘Undo All’ if you want to start fresh.
The latest version of Photoscape offers a circular menu system that some users may find confusing, so if you’re not fond of this layout you can switch it back to a more familiar grid menu in the settings. Unlike other editing programs, Photoscape lists most settings at the bottom of the screen, and this along with a few nontraditional layout features makes it less intuitive than other programs when starting out.
Impressive list of features
Easy to use
Raw image editing
Layout is non-standard and may be confusing
Overall, Photoscape is a great program for beginners and experienced pros alike. The photo editing capabilities are impressive and with added features like animated GIF creation, batch editing, RAW conversion, and panorama tools, there isn’t much this program leaves off the table.
Recently, Google has made its own photo editing suite, Nik, completely free. What does this mean for photographers? Previously priced at $500, this feature-rich program is now available to anyone who wants to download it.
The Nik collection is essentially a set of premium features that can be used as plugins or as complete stand-alone programs.
The Nik Collection includes the following 7 tools:
- HDR Efex (high dynamic range)
- Silver Efex (monochrome)
- Dfine (noise removal)
- Viveza (selective color editing)
- Sharpener (image sharpening)
- Analog Efex (retro filters and effects)
- Color Efex (hue and tone editing)
These tools may sound relatively simple, but contained within each feature is an entire digital darkroom dedicated to each technique. This means that you have control of each component in the process, for example with Silver Efex, you can carefully manipulate areas of brightness and contrast, or simulate the look of various different film cameras.
As of MAy 2017, Google announced it will no longer be updating Nik Collection or adding new features to the mix. Essentially, the company has abandoned the program to focus on projects it deems more important. This is one of the biggest downsides of Nik because the program will gradually become more outdated as time goes on.
For now, Nik Collection is still one of the best free editing programs out there that offer a great selection of features that will satisfy most professional photographers needs.
Versatile as stand-alone programs or an all-in-one suite
High-Quality professional filters
Highly customizable and controllable
No longer updated
No RAW image compatibility
Even if you already use an all-inclusive image editing program such as Photoshop, you’ll find Google Nik Collection a very capable addition to your basket of tools. The program produces amazing results and is currently one of the best free image editing suites out there.
Pixlr is another great free editing tool on our list for photographers. It’s fast Editor will have a very familiar look and feel if you’ve ever used Photoshop before. In fact, Pixlr includes most of the best features from Photoshop in its easy-to-use interface, such as:
Like Photoscape, Pixlr also works as a screen capture tool and enables users to edit images from the web with their handy ‘Grabber’ feature for Firefox. There aren’t a whole lot of Pixlr tutorials, but for the basics in image editing they offer a number of handy tutorials through their blog.
You get the basic tools for photo correction and manipulation, and everything is arranged according to a very logical workflow. You can pretty quickly fix any imperfections with tools that assist in straightening the horizon, red-eye reduction, or spot healing areas. Each of these tools comes with custom settings to give you maximum control over fine-tuning the image.
A possible downside to Pixlr is the program’s lack of more advanced features commonly found in other editing software such as Photoshop. Pixlr covers more than the basics, but specialty editing tools such as the ‘Clone’ tool have been left out here.
Pixlr currently works with Windows 7 (32-bit, 64-bit) and Windows 8 (32-bit, 64-bit) and Mac OS X 10.9.
Hewlett Packard, Pixlr’s parent company, also offers Pixlr Express, a similar program that offers one-click image edits for size and effects (much like presets). If you’re looking for a very simple and effective image editing tool, or something that will work quickly, then Pixlr Express is your best option.
Easy, intuitive image editor
Few tutorials or helpful guides
Stripped-down compared to full editing programs
No RAW image compatibility
While Pixlr may lack the full array of features found in other editing programs, the ease of use and capable photo editing this program provides still puts it on our list of the best free image editors available today.
Paint.net is next on the list of the best free photo editing programs and Photoshop alternatives for photographers.
Paint.net offers a complete list of features for users interested in photo editing with a lot of fine-tuned control. Among the features listed includes tools to adjust an image’s brightness, contrast, hue, curves, levels and saturation. Also included is an array of special functions that can selectively blur, sharpen, distort, emboss, or remove red eye from your subjects.
If you’re hungry for even more, Paint.net also comes with several different downloadable extensions from various sources. The program also supports user-created plugins, of which there are much more with special filters and functions.
As far as the interface goes, you’ll find it very similar to other editors like Adobe Photoshop or Elements. It’s intuitive enough for beginning users to grasp quickly, with common tools presented on the left side panel as icons and other filters and adjustments along the top menu. If you’re still quite new to image editing, Paint.net is a good choice with an easy-to-grasp interface that still gives you loads of creative options when post-processing.
Similar to Photoscape, Paint.net allows users to create animated GIFs, convert RAW images, and work with multiple photos with batch processing.
In the past, users have been frustrated with the slowness in which it took to apply certain edits using Paint.net, but recently bugs and crashes have been addressed by the creators and are continuing to improve. Which puts Paint.net on our list of best free photo editors for photographers of any level.
Many additional features and professional filters
RAW image editing
Compared to some editors that are more difficult to use, Paint.nets full list of features, combined with all the available plugins it supports, make this program a great choice for creating better images.
Free Photo Editors For Mobile:
Snapseed is in a class all its own for free photo editing software for mobile. In terms of professional quality and user control, it ranks up there as the closest thing to a Photoshop CC for mobile devices.
Even though Snapseed is relatively intuitive for a beginner to grasp, it contains a full array of professional-quality editing tools, such as brushes, filters (Double Exposure, Lens Blur, Retrolux, etc.).
Snapseed even supports RAW file format types, as well as DNG and JPEG images. Just browsing through the app, you’ll find a range of tools including exposure adjustments, color tools, masking features, and filters that can be adjusted and fine-tuned. All edits are completely non-destructive, which means you can go through the Stack (layers of edits) and adjust or eliminate any edit you choose.
You can also save the edits you’ve made to the Stack as a ‘Look.’ This can later be applied to other photos, much like a Lightroom Preset would be, to give them a similar look and feel with the same settings. This is especially helpful for avid users of social media platforms, such as Instagram, that want their feed to look cohesive.
Snapseed also continues to add more advanced features to their app, some more useful than others. For instance, the new Expand feature enlarges a picture by intelligently filling in data around it’s edges. If you’re working with a photograph that contains a lot of complexity around it’s edges, this feature leaves a lot to be desired.
However, another new feature from Snapseed, called the Face Pose tool, creates more subtle and interesting effects. It currently works with only images of a single face, which the program then maps onto a #D model, which you can subtly adjust to create different facial expressions. The results are weirdly appealing and precise.
Currently, Snapseed is owned by Google, but the iOS version of the app still stands slightly above the Android version. For instance, the iOS version of Snapseed allows you to take a new image directly in the app, while the Android version doesn’t allow this. Both versions can import RAW files, but the iOS version supports over 140 different RAW formats (Android’s is limited to DNG).
Superb photo editing features
RAW image compatibility
Fewer features for Android users
For beginners as well as professionals, Snapseed is hard to beat as one of the best free photo editors out there. With a superb list of tools and editing options, Snapseed is easily the number one pick for mobile photo editors.
PicsArt is another great free photo editing tool for mobile users. It’s quite fun and easy to use for a photo app that covers all the key bases in photo editing quite well.
PicsArt is versatile in its selection of features for consumers and photographers. In addition to its large variety of attractive filters, PicsArt allows users to create custom collages, add text and graphics to photos, and share your results directly to social media channels.
For new users, the homepage may seem a little busy and difficult to wade through and find out what you want to do first. If you need help getting the hang of the layout, they have some very handy guides you can find on their website, as well as editing guides on YouTube.
Once you start working with the app, creating, editing, and exporting images becomes a very quick and easy process. The app generally doesn’t have issues with bugs, slowness, or crashing, compared to older versions that sometimes had these issues.
Savvy photographers will find that PicsArt gives users a lot of creative control over the photo editing process. While not as advanced or feature-laden as Snapseed, PicsArt offers an easy introduction into the world of photo editing and makes sharing through social media a snap.
The Magic Effects filters are particularly fun to play around with, which allow you to apply various artistic styles to your images. You can adjust the intensity of the effect as well as erase specific areas of the effect to create a mixture of the original image and filter (a very handy tool!).
For collages and creative images with text, PicsArt is by far the most versatile program to use. You can swap images around easily in a collage, change their relative sizes, and experiment with different layouts, borders, text, filters, colors, and stickers.
PicsArt also comes with a very active social community that you can choose to interact with and share images with. One of the newest features from PicsArt, called Remix, allows users to share an image with friends and allows them to add text, stickers, or even other parts of images to it.
Nice array of photo editing tools
Social media sharing within the app
Wide range of creative features
Busy homepage can be confusing
Needs more options for fine-tuning image edits
With over 6.1 million users and an average rating of 4.4 stars, PicsArt has become a huge player in the world of mobile photo editing and sharing. It’s a great all-in-one photo app for beginners and consumers – while still offering a decent feature list for professionals to use as well.
#3 Pixlr Express:
With over 600 effects and an easy-to-use interface, Pixlr Express stands as a great mobile alternative to the original desktop image editing program mentioned earlier.
This editor, which currently works exclusively for Android, may sound like a relatively slimmed-down version of the original desktop version. But surprisingly, Pixlr Express is one of the most powerful mobile editing apps out there.
Pixlr Express’ home screen allows you to start from a new or existing photo. From there, you’re transported to the editing screen, where the multitude of available effects are nicely organized into 4 main categories: Adjustments, Effects, Overlays, and Borders.
The Adjustments option offers a wide array of familiar tools to choose from, such as Crop, Rotate, Fix, Color, Brightness + Contrast Adjustment, Sharpen, Remove Noise, Red-Eye Reduction, and more. Each of these individual tools comes with its own settings, so you can fine-tune each adjustment to your liking (a necessary feature for most photographers).
The Effects menu contains over a hundred different photo filters, ranging from greyscale vintage to vibrant hues. Each filter comes with an opacity adjustment as well.
Overlays provide more image-based visual effects, such as smoke or vignettes. You can also apply various Bokeh effects selectively to your image, or rotate and reposition elements within the photo to get your desired effect.
Lastly, you’ll find a huge selection of borders in various shapes and sizes that you can use around your image. You get the same opacity and repositioning settings in the Borders menu as in the Overlays menu, so you can make subtle adjustments to any borders you choose.
After you’re finished editing, Pixlr Express enables you to share directly to other apps, such as social media, or save directly to your phone gallery.
Over 600 photo effects
Easy to use and manipulate effects
No RAW image compatibility
With over 600 features and easy photo editing, Pixlr Express deserves a place in our list of mobile editors. The app’s creators also continue to add more features to the mix, making it an up-and-coming contender for the best free photo editor out there.
This app is packed with features that you can use completely for free that will satisfy most photographers editing needs. You can even shoot in RAW directly from your phone and edit your images in this app, a very useful feature!
APL app (as we’ll call it) comes with a great range of presets and filters, though unfortunately, you can’t save your own preset settings to use later on. Most of these presets seemed to be designed with professional photographers in mind, and they subtly alter effects rather than destructively changing the photo.
You also get plenty of cropping options and more advanced features such as tone curves, vignette tools, and color-changing sliders. This app also works surprisingly fast, even with larger images in RAW format.
One major caveat of this program is the fact that Adobe ties it in with a Creative Cloud subscription (around $10 / £8 per month), this ‘free’ app isn’t quite free if you don’t already have their photography subscription.
Even still, compared to the original price of Lightroom and containing nearly all of its available features plus new mobile tools, the APL mobile app is still worth a mention on our photo editor list.
Great presets and filter options
Fast with RAW image capabilities
Camera features are basic
Unable to save custom presets
Creative Cloud subscription required for more features
The basic tools from Adobe Photoshop Lightroom are worth it to download for free, however, if you want more features and capabilities this app unfortunately comes with a price. All in all, it’s worth a try and comes out comparable to its well-known predecessor program.
The final free photo editing app on our list is VCSO, a well-known superb tool in the world of mobile editing. Visual Supply Company (VSCO) is a very feature-rich all-in-one editing and camera app.
The app is divided into distinct sections for shooting, editing, and sharing your photos. The interface is arguably the most attractive and minimal of all the editors we’ve currently listed. The main menu is easily accessible by swiping right across the main screen.
The Explore button in the main menu lets you view and discover the work of other photographers who have used VCSO. The Library button is where you’ll find any photos you have imported or edited within the app.
One of the best features VCSO has to offer is its array of high-quality presets, which you can select and change the intensity of quite easily in the bottom menu. It’s not quite at the level of most DSLR cameras (i.e. no HDR, time-lapse, burst mode, etc.), but VCSO camera also lets you take photos with precision by allowing you to change the shutter speed, manual focus, and white balance of your shot.
VCSO is mainly used by photographers to edit their photos, with two main areas in the editing window: one for making manual adjustments, and the other for applying filters. The basic set of filters are quite good, but the app also offers really good sets of paid filters from their online shop.
Quality editor and filter options
Easy to use, pleasing design
In-app camera settings to take better photos
RAW image editing
Fewer advanced features than other programs
Overall, the VSCO app is minimalist and uncluttered in design but packed with features and photo editing tools that more than cover all your bases. More stunning filters can be purchased through their online store, but generally, this free photo editor app has just about all you’d need for stylish shots.
Picking the best photo editor comes down to choosing a program that does what you need. It doesn’t need to have all the latest bells and whistles to create a great final product, it just needs the tools that you desire to have.
If you’re mostly happy with the final look of your photos and just want to enhance them a little bit, then a simple editor with a great set of basic tools is all you need. If you plan on sharing your images, choosing an editor that allows for easy access to social media or easy file sharing is your best bet.
If you’re editing your work for print or larger formats, then a more advanced editing platform is probably what you need. Some of the free photo editors only allow up to a certain file size, so you’ll want to pay attention to this or opt for a program that allows you to work in RAW. Fortunately, the free editing tools out there today rival the best and most expensive photo editors of a few years ago.