Downloading and installing each of the programs on test is quite straightforward. A couple (LightZone and Serif PhotoPlus) require email registration for the download. Most have an abundance of tutorial material available, including videos, while two (PhotoFiltre 7 and iPhoto) provide a short, simple tutorial.
As you might expect, the more capable the software the steeper the learning curve, with GIMP in particular requiring a lot of time to become familiar with its many features. It’s often compared to Photoshop for its professional-level capabilities, but you really need professional photography knowledge to get the most out of it. LightZone also has a very professional feel about it, but we found it much easier with which to become familiar.
Most programs on test provide a large range of special effect and filters, with GIMP, LightZone and PhotoFiltre 7 being outstanding. What separates the best from the rest, however, is the handling of layers. Again this is where GIMP and PhotoFiltre 7 shine, along with LightZone, though the latter takes a somewhat different approach.
LightZone’s way of layering is to build up a “stack” of tools that can be rearranged, turned on and off or removed from the stack. It provides non-destructive editing so you can come back and change things later. LightZone is particularly good at handling raw-format images, having first been developed as professional-editing software before being made free and open source.
The good thing with image editors is that you don’t have to be locked into one particular program. This is unlike using a photo manager, where considerable effort can be put into cataloguing your pictures over time – something that would largely have to be redone when moving to another cataloguing program. Image editors save files in standard formats that can be read by other programs, with JPEG, PNG and TIF being most common. So if you use one of these image editors for a while and find you want to change, you can quite easily do so (the exception being iPhoto, also which catalogues). Because they’re free you can even use several if you like, making use of the strengths of each one – perhaps one for quick and simple touch-ups and a more detailed program for more complex work.
What about Photoshop?
No discussion of photo editing software can avoid mentioning Adobe’s flagship image editor, Photoshop. But while Photoshop may be the professional benchmark for photo-editing software, for most people it is overkill. You don’t need the power of Photoshop to do most of the common image editing tasks, nor do you need its premier price. Although at the time of writing you can still get the superseded CS6 version of Photoshop for US$699 on the Adobe website, the company has moved to cloud subscription services for its flagship programs, with Photoshop Creative Cloud edition starting at $19.99 per month (ongoing).
Somewhat better news is that Adobe’s consumer-level digital editing package, Photoshop Elements 12, is still available to purchase outright at $130. We wanted to see how it compares to the free image editors on test so we assessed it too, but did not list it in our table. It did better than the free programs, but surprisingly not by much, with an overall score of 79%, just ahead of the top-rated LightZone. It ticks all the boxes for features listed in our table, but unlike the programs on test here it’s not free.
Image editing on tablets
Desktop and laptop computers are being supplemented (or even replaced) at a great rate by tablet computers, which have some limitations in the type, amount and quality of the software available for them. Many tablet programs that have desktop equivalents are not as full-featured or as capable, but they do come at a much lower price.
Adobe Photoshop Touch, for example, is available for iOS and Android for just $10.49, but it’s far from being a full replacement or alternative to the desktop version. Like many tablet programs, its strength is in being a low-cost entry point to convenient, on-the-go editing. It has some sophisticated tools for selection, layers, filters and adjustments, plus built-in tutorials and social network sharing via Twitter and Facebook. However, it only handles images up to 12 megapixels. There are also versions for smartphone.
Apple also offers a phone/tablet version of iPhoto, its default desktop photo organiser and editor ($5.49), which recently received a major overhaul for iOS 7 and in particular the 64-bit iPad Air, iPad mini Retina and iPhone 5s. It even lets you order photo prints and create printed photo books directly from the app.
Online image editors
While downloading a decent photo editor for free is a good deal, there are also free online photo editors worth considering. These cloud-based apps can be surprisingly full-featured and can be particularly good for quick editing jobs. Of course, they require you to upload your photos to the cloud first, so they aren’t a good option for large collections.
Among the best are BeFunky, Fotor, Photoshop Express Editor, Pic Monkey, Pixlr and Ribbet. Most of these online image editors also have apps for iOS and Android, with Fotor also having an app for Windows 8.