The best photo editors that are either free or won’t cost you a fortune
Like most software, you can get a perfectly good photo editor for free. Many will fix up your pictures with just a couple of clicks or taps, but if you want Photoshop-style control so you’re not adjusting the entire image, there are still options from old-school classics such as GIMP and Paint.NET to online apps and even Adobe’s own Photoshop Elements, which doesn’t require a subscription and is fairly reasonably priced.
We’re talking about Windows apps here, but there are lots of great photo editing apps for iPhone and Android. In fact, the built-in Photos app on iPhone is a very good option, while Camera+ is even better if you don’t mind paying for an app. Google Photos includes decent editing capabilites on both iPhone and Android, but the Google-owned Snapseed is even better and is, again, available on both platforms.
Getting back to Windows, you’ll find our recommendations for free photo editors as well as a couple paid options just in case you’re looking for a Photoshop alternative with more advanced features.
If you prefer moving images, then we also have a round up of the best free video editing software.
Best Free & Cheap Photo Editors
- Photoshop alternative for free
- Not the most user-friendly option
GIMP (aka GNU Image Manipulation Program, and nothing remotely dodgy) has basically been around forever, at least in internet terms. You can trace its origins way back to 1995 when it was created as an open source equivalent to Photoshop.
These days you can get it for Windows, OS X, or Linux, and it’s entirely free. While it lacks some polish compared to some of the others here, you can’t fault GIMP for its selection of features, which is about as comprehensive as you can get without laying down some money.
It helps that the layout is pretty close to Photoshop’s, making it immediately familiar to anyone who’s dabbled with the Adobe program.
It doesn’t replicate every last feature in Photoshop, and some tools don’t perform to quite the same high standard, but you can’t complain when it’s free.
- Supports layers, filters, levels and curves
- Not as many tools as Photoshop
The name might bring to mind MS Paint (which this began as a replacement for), but Paint.NET does an awful lot that Microsoft’s simplistic editor can’t, with support for layers, effects, and a variety of other tools.
Still, it hasn’t entirely lost Paint’s simplicity, which is one of Paint.NET’s greatest strengths. It’s fast and lightweight, making it ideal for quick, simple edits. It’s also great for users who want something with more oomph than Paint, but don’t need all the daunting bells and whistles of Photoshop.
It’s worth noting that if you have Windows 10 and it’s up to date, you have a brand new version of Paint which lets you create and play with 3D objects, but it’s not for editing photos.
- Runs in a web browser
- Good range of tools
- Some features only available in paid-for Premium version
Pixlr has one giant benefit over most of the other apps on this list: it runs entirely in your browser, meaning you can access it on any PC or Mac, with no need to install anything.
There are two versions, Editor, a full-featured photo editor aimed at ‘Pros’ and Pixlr X which is the newer and faster HTML5 version of Express (which was shelved due to its reliance on the now-defunt Flash).
Of course you can’t quite get the full power of a photo editor in a browser, but Pixlr packs plenty of features in, and the full Editor version is surprisingly comprehensive – especially considering how smoothly it runs.
There’s a Premium version that offers more tools, including AI Cutout, and supports larger images up to 8196×8196 pixels.
- Can convert RAW files
- Selection of filters
- Divisive tools menu
PhotoScape is a solid free photo editor that also offers a little more besides – you can also use it to create animated GIFs, convert RAW images to JPG, create slideshows, and more.
When it comes to the actual editing tools, PhotoScape can’t beat the most fully featured entries on this list, but it does have all the core functionality you’re likely to need.
The default circular tool menu is a bit divisive, but you can opt for a more traditional grid if you prefer, and you have access to the usual array of editing and re-touching tools, including a variety of effects and filters.
- Ideal for quick fixes
- Lots of filters
- No support for plugins
Fotor isn’t trying to be a fully-fledged photo editor, so if you’re looking for a full suite of functionality then you might be better off elsewhere.
What it does offer is a great selection of photo enhancement tools – directly through your browser like Pixlr – letting you quickly apply filters and do some basic re-touching. It also has an HDR option that lets you merge multiple photos with different exposures to create a single image that captures the ideal amount of colour and detail.
You can install Fotor for Windows (or Mac) separately, again for free, if you prefer. The desktop application offers a batch processing tool too, so you can apply the same changes to a huge number of images at once, a feature sadly missing in a lot of equivalent applications.
There’s a paid version too that enables more advanced features on the online version. Subscription costs are $8.99 per month (around £7), or $39.99 per year (around £30).
- Open source
- Good range of brushes and filters
- Lack of tutorials and community support
Krita is as notable for its creators as it is for its functionality. Developed by artists for artists, the free cross-platform app is designed to give artists all of the tools they need, with a focus on concept artists, illustrators, matte and texture artists, and the VFX industry.
It’s not strictly a photo editor (though you can certainly use it for basic retouching), and the focus is more on digital painting and creating artwork from scratch.
It has a variety of brush engines (along with a handy brush stabilizer feature), and you can also import brush and texture packs. The recently added support for HDR monitors in Windows is a welcome addition, and it even supports PSDs, so it’s fully compatible with anything you’ve worked on in Photoshop.
Adobe Photoshop Elements
- Powerful set of tools
- Guided Edits mode
As powerful as many of these free photo editors are, sometimes you just need something with a little more oomph.
Photoshop Elements is the more beginner-friendly version of full Photoshop, offering most of the same features for less than the price of a year’s subscription to the full app. And, to be clear, you don’t subscribe to Elements: you buy it outright. It’s available for both macOS and Windows.
As well as all the photo editing options you’d expect, Elements provides some powerful tools including content-aware removing of objects. That means you can erase unwanted people or other things from photos extremely easily.
Better still, a lot of the core tools are ‘smart’ which means, for example, that the crop tool will offer you a selection of crops based its analysis of your image. And unlike others here, you can resize (or indeed crop) images to a specific pixel size, which makes it much more suited to power users that just don’t want to pay for Photoshop CC.
(But do see our Adobe Creative Cloud buying guide for all details on trials, prices, plans, student discounts and more.)
CyberLink PhotoDirector 12 Ultra
- Lots of powerful tools and effects
- Lacks support for RAW images from certain cameras
PhotoDirector used to be an Adobe Lightroom clone, but these days it also has tools from Photoshop as well as ‘Guided Edit’ features from Elements.
It offers AI-powered tools for replacing skies, and you can remove people from photos as well. It’ll now make animated GIFs as well.
There are plenty of easy-to-use retouching tools too, plus handy extras including content-aware object removal which lets you erase that unwanted wooden post or whatever else is ruining your otherwise perfect shot.
There’s also support for layer masks, layer grouping and adjustment layers, non-destructive editing and – new to version 12 Ultra – content-aware clone and move tools. You can see all the new features here.
If you’re willing to spend money on a photo editor, PhotoDirector 12 Ultra is good value – especially as it’s almost always discounted from its full price.
- Supports both raster and vector images
- Interface can be confusing
- No photo manager
Built to offer professional features at a budget price, Affinity Photo is a definite step up from the free editing software listed here, without getting anywhere near the price of the most expensive professional apps around.
The layout will be mostly familiar to anyone who’s used other comprehensive photo editors, though naturally Affinity has a few of its own idiosyncrasies and quirks, most obviously the ‘Personas’, a selection of operating modes you switch between depending on what you want to do, giving you access to different tools and options.
There’s a lot of functionality here, and it’s not the most beginner-friendly app around, but it’s a great way to get professional quality at an amateur-friendly price.