We all know that photo editing software can be a pretty pricey prospect. Whether you’re staring down the barrel of being on the hook for monthly payments to Adobe for the rest of your natural-born life, or you’re looking at a triple-digit price tag for a complete software package download, you can hardly be blamed for wondering if there’s a free alternative that might do the job. And here’s the good news – there is! There are plenty of free photo-editing programs out there, ranging from basic image viewers to fully fledged Photoshop-likes – and we’ve collated our favourites here.
It’s worth being aware of the currently costs in the photo-editing software world, so you can weigh up your options. Currently, using Lightroom or Photoshop requires a subscription, and the most cost-effective way to get them is to grab the Photography Plan, with both programs and 20GB of cloud storage for $9.99 / £9.98 (or 1TB of storage for $19.99/ £19.97). A lower-cost subscription software is the Windows only Zoner Photo Studio which is $5.99 a month or $59 a year.
For those who’d rather take a one-off hit, DxO PhotoLab 7 is $229 / £209. There are also some excellent cheaper subscription-free alternatives, like Affinity Photo 2 ($69.99 / £67.99), Skylum Luminar Neo (£6 a month or £79 yearly, $149 / £179 lifetime price), and Corel AfterShot Pro 3 ($79.99 / £63.99). Most of these offer 30-day free trials, to help find out whether they suit your needs.
Now, you may be wondering why you’d pay for any of these when free software is available? It’s worth bearing in mind that free software will often come with drawbacks of its own. In most cases, it isn’t as advanced or sophisticated as the paid-for options. There may also be adverts to put up with, or the free software may only be a ‘basic’ version, with top-end features locked behind a paywall. None of these have to be deal-breakers of course – it’s just important to be realistic about what you will and won’t get with free software.
Read on for our pick of some of the best free photo editing software programs available.
Manufacturers’ free raw photo editing software
The most obvious starting point is the free software provided by your camera manufacturer. In general, this will allow you to browse through your images and process raw files, usually with a fairly comprehensive set of options for adjusting colour, white balance, brightness and tonality. You can also expect tools for correcting lens aberrations and fixing perspective issue such as converging verticals. As a first step into working with raw files, these programs are well worth trying, although they’re rarely as slick or capable as specialist paid-for software. Naturally, though, some are better than others, so they’re often worth a try.
Long gone are the days when you’d get an installation disc in the box with a camera; instead you’ll have to download the software yourself. The easiest approach to installing the correct software for your camera is to search for it by name. With some brands, you’ll need to enter a valid camera serial before you can start the download. Here’s what the various camera makers’ programs are called:
- Canon: Digital Photo Professional
- Fujifilm: Fujifilm Raw File Converter EX powered by Silkypix
- Nikon: NX Studio
- Olympus / OM System: OM Workspace
- Panasonic: Silkypix Developer Studio SE
- Pentax / Ricoh: Digital Camera Utility 5
- Sony: Imaging Edge Desktop
If you have a new camera and want to start processing raw files without buying new software, then one of these will be the best free photo editing software program you can try as a start point.
Best free photo viewer for Windows: Irfanview
- For Windows
Irfanview is only available for Windows computers, and it’s not so much an editor as an image viewer. But it’s still an extremely useful tool for browsing through your photos, and then sending your favourites to your editor of choice for further work. Install the associated plug-ins and you’ll find it understands both JPEG and camera raw files, in the latter case displaying the embedded preview.
Among the tools on offer are batch resize and rename options, an RGB histogram display, and the ability to set up slideshows using selected images. There’s also a handy thumbnail viewer for visualising all the images in a folder. Learn the extensive keyboard shortcuts, and you’ll find it’s extremely quick to use. It’s not quite a substitute for a true Digital Asset Management program like Lightroom, as there’s no support for such things as keywords and star ratings. But even so, it’s a fine complement to the other free software covered in this article.
- For Windows, MacOS and Android
NCH Photopad is an extremely capable photo editor that’s absolutely packed full of features, yet organises them within a relatively easy-to-use interface. On Android, a basic version of the app is available free, with more advanced features unlocked via in-app purchases. On Windows or Mac, the software is touted as free to download for non-commercial home use, but you need to buy a license to gain full access to all the available features. The software will also repeatedly nudge you to pay for a license whenever you open it or save your work.
A series of tabs along the top of the screen calls up toolbars with large, clearly labelled buttons. There’s a good range of options for adjusting brightness and colour, cropping and rotating images, and even correcting perspective. An array of creative filters is also available. The software can import raw files, but only using fixed ‘as shot’ settings. All the edits you make stack up in a column on the right-hand side, and you can re-order them or tweak any of the individual adjustments at any time. Projects can be saved in a native file format, or output to common formats such as JPEG and TIFF.
Best browser photo editing software: Canva
- Works in-browser: Chrome, Firefox, Safari, Edge, Opera
- iOS and Android apps also available
If you’ve ever needed to put together a quick design for social media or some similar use, you might have already encountered Canva. A popular designing program that works entirely in your internet browser – no downloading required – Canva is a quick-and-dirty option for making graphics in a hurry. And, as it turns out, Canva also offers a basic but decent photo editor in its suite of tools.
This isn’t a program for processing raw files or granular, high-level editing. However, Canva’s photo-editing panel offers basic options like cropping, lightening, tint and white balance adjustment, as well as a number of quick-apply filters for giving images a specific look. Behind the paywall of the premium version (subscription-based), you get access to smarter AI-powered features like one-click background removal. If you’re looking to edit photos to use in social media graphics or other promotional materials, Canva is a resource-light and cost-effective option.
One of the secrets to Canva’s success has been its incredibly intuitive and beginner-friendly interface – it’s a much easier program to feel your way around than objectively more powerful but abstruse editing programs like GIMP (featured below). It’s a good option to consider if you’re working on a Chromebook or similar type of computer with limited memory.
Photo Pos Pro
- For Windows
Photo Pos Pro describes itself as a free photo and image editor, but in what’s something of a theme for this article, it’s not quite that simple. Windows users can indeed download, install and run the program for free, although Mac users are out of luck. (The company also offers a much more basic free image editor, Photo Pos Snap, as either a browser-based tool or an Android app.)
The software boasts a choice of Novice and Expert interfaces, with the latter offering a sizeable range of tools and adjustments in a somewhat Photoshop-esque layout. There’s a choice of auto or manual corrections for such things as brightness, contrast and white balance, and you can add test, shapes, or stickers onto your photos. It even supports layers, complete with masks and the ability to arrange them as groups, allowing you to make composite images.
There’s a lot to get to grips with here when it comes to editing and adjusting your images, The main catch with the free version comes when you want to save your work. You need to request a free ‘Save key’ on a daily basis to save files larger than 1024px square, or pay for a full license key to make this inconvenience go away.
Best free photo editing software for Windows: Paint.net
- For Windows
Probably the most elegant of the free Windows software covered here, Paint.net is available from the official Windows store for a very reasonable $9.99/£8.39, while the Classic release can be downloaded directly from the developer’s website for free (with a polite request for a courtesy payment). While it originated as a more sophisticated alternative to Microsoft Paint, it’s developed into something that’s now much more like a simpler, easier-to-use alternative to Photoshop. It has a relatively straightforward, intuitive interface that includes all the most important tools for tweaking the colour and tonality of your image files and creating layered composites. There’s even a clone stamp for removing unwanted blemishes from your images.
A wide range of creative effects is also available, and a simple History Palette allows you to easily undo any changes if you decide you don’t like them. Layered projects can be saved using the program’s native file format, and finished images output in all the most widely-supported file types, including JPEG, TIFF and PNG. About the only minor drawback is that it can’t handle camera raw files directly.
Best free raw processor: Raw Therapee
- For Windows, MacOS and Linux
Fancy a fully-featured raw conversion program absolutely free? This is what you get with Raw Therapee. In fact, it’s an incredibly sophisticated piece of software that doesn’t just match the options you get with programs such as Lightroom, but goes a long way beyond.
Indeed, its main weakness arguably lies with the overwhelming complexity of its interface, and the mind-boggling array of features included. There are entire tool panels here with options you won’t find anywhere else, for example covering the process of demosaicing. Imaging geeks will love that there’s so much to tinker with, but mere mortals might just find it all a bit too overwhelming.
You’ll find this an impressive raw converter that’s capable of producing fine results. It was updated to version 5.9 in November 2022 with additional features and compatibility with cameras that were new(ish) at the time, such as the Canon EOS R7 and Fujifilm X-T4, though not the Nikon Z9. It hasn’t been updated since then, however – which may be an issue if you’re using a newer camera.
- For Windows and MacOS
Like Raw Therapee, Darktable is a free raw developer that aims to provide more options than the software provided by your camera manufacturer. While its layout and user interface are clearly inspired by Adobe Lightroom, it brings its own unique way of working. On the left side of the window, there’s a set of file-handling and management options. Meanwhile, raw image adjustments are handled by an array of ‘modules’ that are stacked up on the right-hand side. However, these are arranged and work in a distinctly unusual way, for example the tonality controls for shadows and highlights are entirely separated from exposure. So it takes a fair bit of practice to get used to how the program works. However, once you’ve deciphered where all the important settings are to be found, it works well enough.
By default, the program gives rather muted colour, but there’s a unique ‘Velvia’ module that does a decent job of pepping things up. Files can also be output in 16-bit TIFF format for further editing, as well as in JPEG format for sharing. Overall, it’s an interesting option that’s well worth a try if you’ve outgrown your camera makers’ raw software.
Best free photo editing software for advanced users
- For Windows, MacOS and Linux
The GNU Image Manipulation Program is one of the longest-running freeware programs around. Available for Mac and Windows computers, it’s a Photoshop-like image editor which provides a huge range of features. This includes a full set of adjustments for colour and tonality, layered editing, and a wide range of painting tools. It won’t open camera raw files directly, but can import them via either RawTherapee or Darktable. It even provides full colour management. On paper, it can do almost anything most users might need.
It is, however, impossible to gloss over the fact that GIMP employs a decidedly quirky and inelegant interface that’s not particularly easy to use. It employs unconventionally designed dialogue boxes which bring a pretty steep learning curve. This is exacerbated on Windows by a lack of proper support for high-resolution displays. However, if you’re prepared to persist with learning how to use it, there’s no denying that that GIMP has a lot to offer.
Best free photo editing software for mobile users
- For iOS and Android
If you’re looking to edit your files on a smartphone or tablet before sharing them on social media, there’s nothing better than Snapseed. It provides an excellent set of tools in a simple, uncluttered interface that’s perfectly optimised for touchscreen use. Its continued pre-eminence is pretty remarkable given that it hasn’t been updated for two years; indeed its owner, Google, gives every impression of having forgotten all about it.
Snapseed works with both JPEG and DNG raw files, with a neatly designed development module for importing the latter. Alongside an array of preset styles, it offers a comprehensive set of adjustments for colour and tonality. In addition, there’s a fine set of film emulation looks, both black & white and colour, along with an almost infinitely variable array of filters for giving your photos a vintage feel. Other highlights include a particularly intuitive perspective correction tool, and a tonal contrast control that helps make images look sharper and more detailed on small screens. Once you’ve finished tinkering with your photos, you can either save a copy to your camera roll, or share directly to social media. In short, if you don’t have Snapseed on your phone already, install it now.
Adobe Lightroom Mobile
- For iOS and Android
If there’s another mobile editor serious photographers should consider beyond Snapseed, it’s Lightroom. This is true even if you’re not prepared to pay for a Creative Cloud Photography or Lightroom subscription ($9.99/£9.98 a month), as you can still create an Adobe ID for free and use the extensive colour and tonal adjustment controls on offer. Some of the more specialist options still require a subscription, including perspective correction, the healing brush, AI masks and file syncing across all your devices
Even if you stick with just the free features, Lightroom is an extremely powerful image editor. The interface is well optimised for both phones and tablets, with decently large, responsive sliders. It’s perhaps the closest you’ll get on a mobile device to the look and feel of a ‘proper’ desktop raw processing app. Of course, it practically goes without saying that it gives excellent results. It’s a fine alternative option for tweaking files copied across from your camera for sharing on social media.
Best free photo editing software for creative mobile photographers
- For iOS and Android
Pixlr is a name that covers a wide range of image manipulation software. One of its offerings is a free online image editor of a somewhat Photoshop-esque ilk, which can be accessed through any web browser. What we’re looking at here, though, is the mobile app, which is available for both Android and iOS. The free version is supported by adverts, but you can pay to make them go away.
Pixlr has a slick, easy to use interface and offers a conventional set of controls for adjusting colour, tonality and so on. But perhaps its biggest attraction for some photographers will lie with the vast array of creative filters and effects that it allows you to apply to your images. There’s any variety of colour effects and frames to play with, it’s that the sort of thing you like to do. While this won’t necessarily be to everybody’s taste, it makes Pixlr an interesting choice for those who like to take their images well beyond a literal interpretation of the original scene.
Best free photo editing software for the film look
- For iOS and Android
1998 Cam is a tool designed to give the look of cameras from 1998, hence the name. This means that you get retro styled images with a nostalgic feel, and a range of colour options. You can select specific film styles and looks with colours that are designed to look like the traditional Kodak, Fujifilm, and Agfa film stocks. Beyond this you’ll find a range of further editing options including the ability to add grain to your images, and even light leaks.
Whilst it’s free, some of the options are only available when you upgrade, and as usual, there are a number of adverts on display. Luckily upgrading doesn’t cost much money, and for fans, it looks to be well worth the small asking price of less than £1.
Wondering whether you should be shooting raw or JPEG? Have a look at our guide to raw vs JPEG. For more options have a look at our guide to the best subscription free photo editing software, as well as our latest reviews.