We’re taking and sharing more photos than ever, but even the most skilled photographer is likely to produce a dud or two, and even the best shot straight out of your phone camera could stand to be better.
Photo editing, then, shouldn’t be the sole reserve of those who can afford to stump up the cash for a subscription to Adobe’s Creative Cloud. And no, Microsoft Paint or Apple Preview won’t cut it: you deserve more than mere cropping or a few sliders to tweak.
We’ve given our list a total overhaul and selected the very best free photo editors, ranging from fully-featured Photoshop clones to simple, easy to use ways to add filters and effects to your favourite snaps. These are by no means the only free options, though; if we’ve missed your favourite photo editor, let us know in the comments below.
An exceptional free photo editor, GIMP is a worthy rival to premium software
The elder statesperson of free photo editing, GIMP is the most full-featured cross-platform Photoshop competitor going, and gets our vote as the best free photo editor.
It’s not without its crashes and glitches – that’s the too-many-cooks open source development philosophy in action – and it lacks the polish of its commercial rivals. Some of the filters, in particular, seem as if they haven’t been touched since it was first released 20 years ago.
That said, if you’re looking for a desktop free photo editor ready for just about any task, GIMP is it. Its interface will be immediately familiar to Photoshop users, particularly if you switch on the highly recommended single window mode, and it’s still in active development, so new features and filters are added regularly.
Its power and flexibility make GIMP the best free photo editor for Windows.
Download here: GIMP
With layers, filters and plug-ins, Paint.NET has all the essentials to make your photos shine
Sometimes it pays not to be overloaded with bells and whistles. Paint.NET’s simplicity is one of its key features; it leaves it a fast, easy to operate free photo editor that’s perfect for those little tasks that don’t need the sheer power of GIMP.
Don’t be fooled by the name, though. This isn’t just a clone of Microsoft’s ultra-basic Paint – though it was originally intended to replace it. It’s a proper photo editor, just one that lands on the basic side of the curve.
Interface-wise it’s reminiscent of its namesake, but as it’s grown Paint.NET has added essential editing tools like layers, an undo history, a raft of filters, numerous community-created plugins, and a 3D rotate/zoom function that’s useful for recomposing images.
Yes, it’s lacking in certain areas, but if your machine is lacking in power or RAM we can’t think of a better choice.
Download here: Paint.NET
3. Photo Pos Pro
Well designed and easy to use, Photo Pos Pro is a superb photo editor with just a few limitations
Photo Pos Pro isn’t as well known as Paint.net and GIMP, but it’s another top-quality free photo editor that’s packed with advanced image-enhancing tools.
Its interface is smarter and more accessible than GIMP’s array of menus and toolbars, with everything arranged in a logical and consistent way. If it’s still too intimidating, there’s also an optional ‘novice’ layout that resembles Fotor’s filter-based approach. The choice is yours.
The expert layout offers both layers and layer masks for sophisticated editing. as well as tools for adjusting curves and levels manually. You can still access the one-click filters via the main menu, but the focus is much more on fine editing.
Photo Pos Pro also includes a clone brush for erasing unwanted blemishes, and there’s extra support for batch-editing and scripts to help you save time when refining a whole folder of photos.
The free edition of Photo Pos Pro only has one drawback: files can only be saved at a maximum resolution of 1,024 x 2,014 pixels, which might be too small if you’re planning to have them printed professionally. If you want to remove this restriction, Photo Pos Pro Premium is available for a license free of £17.67, US$19.90, AU$29.78.
Download here: Photo Pos Pro
4. Pixlr Editor
The best free photo editor for your web browser, with layers, masks and much more
Most browser-based free photo editors are simple Instagram-style affairs that give you a set of filters and little else. Pixlr Editor is different. Provided you have a reliable internet connection and don’t mind the lack of plugins, this free web app is almost as powerful as the best free desktop photo editors.
Load up a photo and you’ll have access to layers, masks, clone stamps, selection tools, and everything else you’d expect from a top-notch image editor. There’s no batch-editing unfortunately, but you can open several images at once and edit them individually.
Because Pixlr Editor is a web app, there’s no software to install and you can use it in any browser that supports Flash. Unfortunately this rules out most mobile devices, and since its developer is currently working on HTML5 versions of other other software, it might give Editor the chop before too long.
For the time being, however, Pixlr Editor is easily the best free photo editor for your web browser.
Try it online: Pixlr Editor
Its interface is unusual, but persevere and you’ll find a brilliant, diverse set of photo-editing tools
PhotoScape might look like a rather simple free photo editor, but take a look at its main menu and you’ll find a wealth of features: raw conversion, photo splitting and merging, animated GIF creation, and even a rather odd (but useful) function with which you can print lined, graph or sheet music paper.
The meat, of course, is in the photo editing. PhotoScape’s interface is among the most esoteric of all the apps we’ve looked at here, with tools grouped into pages in odd configurations. It certainly doesn’t attempt to ape Photoshop, and includes fewer features.
We’d definitely point this towards the beginner, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get some solid results. PhotoScape’s filters are functional and not at all beginner-like, so it’s if good choice if you need to quickly level, sharpen or add mild filtering to pictures in a snap.
Steer clear of the rest of the tools, though: you’ll find better elsewhere.
Download here: PhotoScape
6. Google Nik Collection
A professional-level selection of filters that work as Photoshop plugins or standalone apps
Google’s unending determination to corner just about every market sometimes pays dividends for the pincher of pennies. Take its purchase of German developer Nik in 2012, for example – its Nik Collection photo editor plugin range retailed for US$500 at the time, and in early 2016 Google decided to do away with the price tag and release the powerful collection for free.
We suspect support and updates might be somewhat limited going forward, but this does enable you to bag seven quality photo-editing tools as-is: lens and film emulator Analog Efex; colour corrector Color Efex; monochrome converter Silver Efex; noise reducer Dfine; selective colour tweaker Viveza; and Sharpener and HDR Efex, which speak for themselves.
These are perfect free plugins if you’re already using Photoshop, and you can add them to compatible host applications when you install them, but they can also be run as standalone photo editors if you hunt down their executable files. They won’t appear in your list of Windows apps – you need to look in C:\Program FilesGoogleNik Collection. To edit a photo, drag it onto the EXE file of your chosen editor. It’s a strange system, but it works!
Download here: Google Nik Collection
A terrific selection of filters for one-click enhancement, plus manual curve and level controls
Fotor is a photo enhancer first and foremost, more than it is a photo editor; if there’s specific area of retouching you need doing with, say, the clone brush or healing tool, you’re out of luck. But it includes a stack of high-end filters that really do shine.
There’s a foolproof tilt-shift tool, for example, and a raft of vintage and vibrant colour tweaks, all easily accessed through Fotor’s clever menu system. You can manually alter your own curves and levels, too, but without the complexity of high-end tools.
Fotor’s most brilliant function, and one that’s sorely lacking in many photo editing packages, is its batch processing tool – feed it a pile of pics and it’ll filter the lot of them in one go, perfect if you have a memory card full of holiday snaps and need to cover up the results of a dodgy camera or shaky hand.
Download here: Fotor
8. On1 Effects 10.5 Free
A free photo editor that lets you apply filters to selected areas to make elements pop
The ‘free’ suffix offers some indication of what you’re getting here: On1 Effects 10.5 Free is a cut-down version of On1 Effects 10 proper, pulling out just a limited selection of its filters. But we’re still happy to recommend it, mainly because of its methodology.
Instead of being forced to apply an effect to a full image, you can use On1’s Perfect Brush tool to smear that effect on the areas you’re interested in enhancing, which is a great way to create a unique look. Its quick mask and refine brush tools also make masking off areas of your image particularly easy, so you can make elements pop.
Essentially this is an taster for the full version, but its diminished filter range – HDR, vignette, vintage, glow etc – is still useful and worth trying if you’re after vibrant effects; you’ll have to try another program for sharpening, blurring and noise reduction, so On1 Effects Free isn’t great if you want to preserve the honesty of your photos.
Download here: On1 Effects 10.5 Free
Fully adjustable old-school filters, though the lack of custom profiles is disappointing
As its name suggests, XnRetro is designed to make your snaps look fashionably old-fashioned. You can apply a filter with a single click and call it a day, or tweak the color balance, contrast, exposure and saturation using a neat array of sliders. Some filters also offer a vignette option for added vintage style.
You can crop your photo to a square to mimic the look of medium-format film, and rotate it in 90-degree increments if you took it with your phone at a strange angle.
If you change your mind, you can easily reset the sliders back to their default values. It’s just a shame there’s no way to store your custom settings as a new profile for future use, as you can in Google Nik Collection.
Download here: XnRetro
10. Adobe Photoshop Express
The simplest free photo editor in our roundup, but with the quality you’d expect from Adobe
Photoshop Express is a very different beast to the full version of Adobe’s mighty industry-standard image editor, but it’s useful for giving well-composed pictures the boost they need to become stunning.
There are no advanced editing tools here, so you won’t be able to paint out blemishes, adjust lighting, or even crop your images. Instead, you’re given a selection of good-looking Instagram-style filters and a quick link so you can send the results directly to Facebook, or save them to your PC.
Adobe Photoshop Express is very simple, but the filters are excellent, and more are available as in-app purchases if you want more choice.
Download here: Adobe Photoshop Express
What makes a great photo editor
All the photo editors we’ve reviewed here are excellent, but different tasks call for different tools. If you’re already happy with the general look of your pictures and just want to enhance them a little before sharing them online, a basic editor that enables you to resize, crop and apply filters will be ideal. Many of these have social media sharing built in, saving you the hassle of saving, then uploading them afterwards.
If you’re planning to print your work, you’ll be better off looking at more advanced photo editors that will give you the fine control you need to make your pictures look perfect at high resolutions. You’ll also need to make sure your free photo editor lets you work with large files; some online-only tools won’t let you upload files over a certain size, and others won’t allow you to export high-res photos unless you pay for a subscription.