The best free photo editor software is likely to be better than you think! Whether it's from an open source developer, it's a 'freemium' tool that does everything you need, or it's a giveaway from a camera manufacturer or software publisher, there's plenty of amazing photo editing software that you can use without paying a penny.
While no one could deny the editing power of high end software, many don't feel happy signing up for the Creative Cloud subscription fees or paying the fees associated with premium editing applications. However, there's so many fantastic free editing programs available, that you'll be spoilt for choice!
However, it's worth mentioning that not all of the best free photo editors are actually free. Some programs, such as GIMP, will never require you to spend any of your hard-earned cash. However, others are 'freemium' pieces of software, offering a free version with a reduced set of – and often bombarding you with ads to 'gently encourage' you to sign up for the paid version. If you have a high tolerance for clicking the 'Ignore' button, then this might be a great choice for you. If not, there are plenty of other options!
One of these is 'open source' software, which is genuinely free with no strings attached. These are developed, maintained and kept up to date by teams of programmers that are either working to gain experience, want to build a career, or simply want to make great software that's accessible for everyone.
We've put two of these open source programs at the top of our list, as they genuinely represent the best of free photo editing software. However, it's worth remembering that they may come with a bit of a learning curve, as they won't have the same intuitive features that other programs may feature.
Another option you may want to consider is editing your photos within a web browser (Google Chrome seems to be the most stable and reliable option for this). Alternatively, don't forget that most computers will have a native piece of photo editing software that can end up providing more features than you may initially think.
If you're a keen smartphone user, you've also got lots of free photo editing options too. Adobe's Photoshop Express is a great free app, but there are actually countless free smartphone apps that will give you most of the features you would be looking for in a desktop-based app.
We've organized our list of the best free photo editors into three sections: desktop software, web-based photo editing tools and smartphone apps. However, if you think you'd rather invest some cash in your photo editing, don't forget to check out our top three pieces of premium photo editing software below.
Recommended photo editors
Adobe Photoshop is the best photo editor!
You may want a free tool to do a quick edit, but if you're planning on editing a lot of photos, you should consider signing up for Photoshop. You pay a small monthly subscription which clearly is not the same as free, but does mean you get the world's best photo editing tools for the absolute best results for less than $10 per month! See the current best Adobe Photoshop deal here
Affinity Photo is best budget photo editor
A really powerful image editing program that works on PC or Mac, that is high up the list of the best photo editors. The price gets you the latest version, and you get to own the software outright - so there are no monthly fees. Affinity Photo is a great value buy... and the software is yours to keep, with no subscription costs.View Deal
Skylum Luminar is best photo editor for one-click editing
Luminar takes a different approach to photo editing - providing an interface that allows you to make powerful edits using artificial intelligence - without you having to worry about settings. You can take control, but if you like you can let it make powerful changes, like completely changing the sky, in just one click. The current version is Luminar 4, but you can opt to get upgraded to newer version due to go on sale in December.
The best free photo editor in 2021
Free desktop photo editors
GIMP stands for GNU Image Manipulation Program, which probably leaves you none the wiser, but now you know. It’s a highly technical Photoshop alternative which offers more power and features and long-term development effort than you would ever expect from a free application. It’s open-source, which means it’s been developed over a long period of time by many different programmers. It can do a lot of the stuff that Photoshop can do, though bear in mind you will have to spend some time with the documentation to make proper progress. If you're prepared to put in the time, it's an incredible free resource.
There are lots of free photo-editors that work like regular image-editors, but Darktable is different and takes on a much more ambitious role, replicating the layout and functions of Adobe Lightroom. It can import your images into a database and offers the same kind of non-destructive editing tools, working on JPEGs and RAW files alike and offering some quite powerful tools including lens and perspective corrections. It’s not as slick or as powerful as Lightroom, but it is completely free with no annoying upgrade nagging or locked ‘premium’ features.
Before you spend a whole lot of time downloading free Mac photo editors, are you sure that the one you have already won’t do the job? Apple Photos is limited in some respects – there’s only a small range of filters and it doesn’t offer local adjustments – but its regular adjustment tools for cropping, exposure, colour and retouching are as good as any free apps and better than many of them. Apple Photos also offers seamless image sharing across all your Apple devices and pretty good image cataloguing and searching tools too.
Apple has its own Photos app, so does Microsoft. It’s free with Windows 10 and as well as offering basic photo fixes it lets you add image effects and draw on your photos, if that’s your thing. If all you need is a simple tool for organising your photo collection and adding quick enhancements before sharing them it’s great. If you’re into photography in a more serious way, however, you’re going to have to look elsewhere.
If you own a Sony or a Fujifilm camera you’re in luck. High-end camera software maker Phase One makes free ‘Express’ versions of its high-end Capture One image editing software specifically for these two camera brands. Why use these rather than the software bundled with the camera? Because Capture One’s raw conversions are quite superb. The Express version offers a wide range of important and useful image enhancement tools and image cataloguing/organising features too. You need the regular (and expensive) Pro version for local adjustments and the full range of tools, but these Express versions may be all you need.
Why is it that no-one seems to take camera makers’ own software seriously? It’s true that it can often look a bit dated and clunky, and it doesn’t have all the features of a ‘proper’ photo editor like Photoshop, but this is free software after all, and it’s right under your nose. If you have a Nikon camera you should definitely take a look at Capture NX-D, Nikon’s own raw conversion and enhancement software. It duplicates Nikon cameras’ own Picture Controls and white balance settings exactly (unlike most third party apps), it produces very decent raw conversions from Nikon NEF files and it even offers local adjustments via Color Control Points.
See also Master Curves in Nikon Capture NX-D
Free software covers the same range of user levels as paid-for products, s while some of the free apps above are aimed more at the novice market, Digital Photo Professional 4 is aimed squarely at serious Canon users who shoot raw files and want to extract the maximum possible quality from them. It doesn’t have fancy features like local adjustments or image effects, but it does offer perhaps the best combination of sharpness and noise control of any raw processing tool – including Lightroom/Adobe Camera Raw. Like Nikon Capture NX-D, it’s tuned precisely for Canon cameras and lenses and their specific attributes – and it shows in the results.
• See How to use Canon Digital Photo Professional
Picktorial 3.5 has just had a major update to include a digital asset management system (DAM) that can manage your photo collection from inside the software. It is a Mac-only program, though, and it’s a ‘freemium’ product, which means that although the basic version is free you need to pay to get the full range of features. In this case, that means an annual subscription of $60, or a little more than half the cost of the Adobe Photography plan. The free version offers photo organisation, RAW/DNG display (but not editing) and only two local adjustments per image.
Photoscape X is another freemium photo editor with a basic free version that has an upgrade option to a Pro version where all the features are unlocked, and that currently costs £39.99/£38.99. You can do a lot with the free version, including simple photo editing and enhancement and there’s a wide range of attractive image effects. Many tools are available in the Pro version only, though, so you’ll need to put up with some fairly persistent reminders of things you can do. It’s not really a tool for serious photographers, but Photoscape X is handy for spicing up snaps for social media or family sharing.
Great for getting a lot of simple batch-edits done in a hurry, the Ashampoo Photo Optimizer is a single-click editor with a nice, clean interface. It's easy to import multiple photos at once and quickly speed through them with the auto-optimize tool, or make your own fine-tuning adjustments if you prefer (if you have a lot of different subjects you'll likely want to do this; the auto-optimizer has a reputation for being strong on landscapes and less so on other subjects). Despite a few handling niggles, this is a fantastic tool for any photographer, at a price that's very, very hard to argue with!
Free online photo editors
Fotor saves you the trouble of downloading any software at all as it’s entirely web-based – though it did warn us some features might not work when we started it in Safari and we were advised to use Chrome. There’s certainly plenty of adjustments and effects to play around with, though image resolution appears to be limited to 4000px wide with a free account, and Frame effects came with an obtrusive watermark, so there’s only so much you can do without upgrading to a subscription, which is $39.99 per year (about £31.44). Fotor is great for fun projects, but not really a high-end photo editor for enthusiasts.
Pixlr X is a new version of Pixlr’s free photo-editor that doesn’t rely on Flash for its web-based editing tools. Flash does add a lot of functionality to web browsers but has a pretty poor reputation for security so it’s good to see publishers phasing it out. The Pixlr X editor is basic but fast. You just upload an image, adjust it and save it back to your computer – though our 12-megapixel test shot was downsized to a width of 4,000 pixels. That fine for a medium-sized print and social sharing, of course. If there’s a premium version we couldn’t find it, and there is a mobile version too that’s also free, though you will get ads unless you pay for an in-app upgrade.
Some ‘free’ programs disguise their freemium status until the last minute, but BeFunky is right out there and upfront with its free vs Pro status. There are lots of adjustments you can apply to your images for nothing and some nice-looking effects, but everywhere you go there are even better-looking options that you need to upgrade to get, and that comes with an annual $59.88 subscription (about £47). If you don’t mind constantly navigating through the free vs Pro options, this is a great free online photo editor for fun projects and some reasonably detailed photo editing – though again, our 24MP image got resized to about 4000px wide.
Free mobile photo editing apps
Nobody likes being told what to do, but we’re going to do it anyway. Get Snapseed. If you do any kind of mobile photography, editing and sharing, this app has the most power, the most engagement and biggest creative potential of all. You can apply a range of quick-fire effects and filters for your social posts if you’re in a hurry, but you can also drill down into a wide array of filters, each with its own set of control, and each of which can be combined with others using layers – you can even combine images. The most important thing of all is not to tell Google how good this is in case it cans it (like it did the desktop version and the Nik Collection).
Adobe gets a bit of stick for insisting that Photographers pay a subscription for using its desktop software, but you can’t complain at the company’s support for mobile devices with free apps that are just the ticket for speedy, on-the-go mobile editing. Photoshop Express offers lots of customisable image effects, Photoshop Mix lets you combine images in layers and Photoshop Fix offers handy mobile retouching tools. You’ll get the most out of this trio with an Adobe ID, but you can also sign in with a Google or Facebook account.
Google Photos has had a bit of a muddled history (Picasa, Google Drive Photos) but seems to have settled down into a fast and efficient web-based image storage system with some basic but effective editing tools. You can use it in any web browser and, last time we checked, as long as you’re prepared to accept 16MP JPEGs as an upper limit on file type and resolution, you get unlimited storage. You get a small but effective choice of filters, some similarly basic and effective editing tools and that’s about it – its real strength is its fast and effective cloud-based image organisation and AI-led search tools.