There’s no argument — Adobe Photoshop remains the best photo-editing application on the planet. But it’s a difficult program to master without formal training, and it’s not the cheapest option. 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.
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
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.
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.
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 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.
Of the two, Pixlr X is a more straightforward tool designed for beginners and quick edits. It provides 12 essential tools from cropping the image to adding filters to doodling on a layer. For instance, you can “stain” a picture to make it look like you rested a coffee mug on the photo.
Meanwhile, Pixlr E is a straightforward photo editor offering 23 separate tools. You can eliminate those red devil eyes that appear when the flash goes off, create shapes, blur or soften, clone areas of the image, and so on.
Pixlr straddles the line between web-based and desktop image editors. The company discontinued the desktop program for Windows and MacOS, and now entirely pushes its HTML5-based web apps. However, the company still provides apps you can install on your mobile devices.