With the rising cost of living your photography doesn’t need to suffer, so check out our roundup of some of the best free photo editing software currently available…
Who doesn’t like a freebie? Believe it or not, the internet is full of free software options covering a range of functions and photo editing software is no exception. Some are better than others, and although the software on offer may not always be as fully-featured as paid options such as Adobe Photoshop and Affinity Photo, you might be surprised at just how capable free software can be.
There are many reasons why free software may be attractive, but if you’re on a tight budget or simply saving cash for your next camera, lens or accessory, some of the options could save you a considerable amount of money on subscription costs while allowing you to continue to edit your photos. This may be a short-term exercise, but you may just find that some of the software is perfectly suited to you and your photography over the long term.
In this roundup covering five of the best free photo editing software options, we’ll show you software for every situation including Raw processing, photo editing, HDR merging, online browser-based editing and shooting and editing on your smartphone. So, whether you’re looking for a free Lightroom alternative or something for your smartphone photography and image management, we’ve got you covered.
"...although the software on offer may not always be as fully-featured as paid options... you might be surprised at just how capable free software can be."
1 GIMP (Photo editing and manipulation)
It’s safe to say that GIMP is the number one free alternative to Adobe Photoshop and Affinity Photo. And over the years, this cross-platform image manipulation software has been updated with new features making it a highly capable and indeed popular alternative to paid software.
The customisable interface allows you to make the workspace fit your needs, while fullscreen mode allows you to work in a clutter-free environment. Users of other editing software will find that GIMP follows a traditional design with the main menu at the top of the interface, a tool panel on the left with Layers and other tabs on the right.
In terms of features, you can perform many of the same tasks as with paid editing software options including the use of Layers, retouching tools, distortion correction, lens corrections, image adjustments and much more. You may be surprised at how powerful GIMP is, and since it’s available for Linux, macOS and Windows, it’s available to everyone. Use both GIMP and RawTherapee, and you’ll have a powerful editing duo.
Get GIMP here: https://www.gimp.org/
2 RawTherapee (Raw editing)
Get RawTherapee here: https://www.rawtherapee.com/
RawTherapee is free and open source Raw editing software, available in 15 languages for Linux, macOS and Windows. The Raw processing capabilities of the software are impressive, and with support for a wide range of Raw file types, you’ll find that the majority of cameras are supported.
The features on offer make RawTherapee powerful enough for beginners and professional photographers alike. Plus, all the tools that you need to process Raw files are available, and as standard the software applies automatic editing that matches the Raw file which can be used as a processed image, a starting point for further editing or you can reset everything and start from scratch.
As you’d expect of Raw editing software, all adjustments are non-destructive so your original files are left untouched. Plus, you can view image thumbnails and star rate images so you know which ones to edit. The image cataloguing may not be up to the standard of Adobe Lightroom but overall, RawTherapee is an incredibly powerful alternative that may just surprise you.
3 Pixlr E (online editor)
Most image editing takes place on your computer using dedicated software, but browser-based editing is becoming popular and in many cases it’s free. The use of browser-based editing over dedicated software is most likely going to be for beginners or in situations where you can only access someone else’s computer without photo editing software installed, such as when on holiday.
Pixlr E is a beginner-friendly browser-based option with enough basic controls to perform a reasonable number of adjustments, apply filters and offers useful tools including cloning and healing tools. Plus, there are Layers for non-destructive editing and for achieving creative effects that require multiple Layers and Blending Modes.
Some features are locked and can only be accessed if you have a Pixlr subscription, but these tools are ones that you wouldn’t necessarily miss. Pixlr is available as a download option if you have a subscription, but you would be better off with GIMP because it offers more functionality and it’s free. The beauty of Pixlr E is that you can use it in emergencies in a browser environment to perform a range of useful basic image adjustments.
Get Pixlr E here: https://pixlr.com/
4 Luminance HDR (HDR merge software)
If you’re a fan of HDR (high dynamic range) photography, you’ll be pleased to hear that there are free HDR software options available, and Luminance HDR is one of the best. Available for macOS and Windows, this software allows you to merge multiple bracketed images into a single shot that shows detail throughout the scene.
Luminance HDR supports Raw, JPEG and TIFF files, although you may find it’s best to process your Raw files and export them as TIFFs or JPEGs for the HDR merge since you can’t process Raw files beyond the HDR merge. The HDR controls are limited but easy to use, and you can also adjust white balance, crop and rotate images.
More advanced users may find that Luminance HDR doesn’t provide the tools they’re used to, but as a free software option it does a good job of merging bracketed exposures. And the fact that it’s so easy to use when some HDR software can be complicated makes the software perfect for beginners.
Get Luminance HDR: http://qtpfsgui.sourceforge.net/
5 Lightroom Photo and Video Editor (smartphone editing)
Lightroom Photo and Video Editor is an app for smartphone editing of your Raw files and JPEGs. These can be taken with your phone’s camera app, or you can take advantage of the well-featured camera within Lightroom where images are automatically loaded into the app. And as the name suggests, video editing is also available.
The Lightroom app is available for both Android and iOS and offers the ability to capture Raw files with the built-in camera, as well as edit them using many of the controls on offer in the full versions of Lightroom CC and Lightroom Classic. It’s cut back in terms of features, but for smartphone editing you have everything you need at your fingertips.
If you use Lightroom on your computer, you’ll find that the Lightroom Photo and Video Editor app is familiar to navigate so it takes no time to become familiar with the interface. What’s more, if you have an Adobe Creative Cloud Photography Plan subscription, once you sign into the app you’ll be able to take advantage of localised adjustment tools. These are unavailable to those without a subscription, but the camera and editing controls available still make it a great option whether or not you have an Adobe subscription.
Get Lightroom for mobile: iOS App Store and Google Store.
James is a freelance photographer and journalist producing content for photography magazines and websites and is a former deputy editor of Practical Photography magazine. He’s also the author of The Digital Darkroom: The Definitive Guide to Photo Editing.View all articles