Free image editors review

Can free photo editing software match up to paid programs?
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01 .Free photo shop

Free image editors
  • Free image editors are available for most operating systems 
  • Some programs offer professional-level features 
  • Ease of use varies considerably 
Even the best photographers sometimes need to touch up their pictures to get a better-looking image. But for the rest of us digital happy snappers, it’s pretty much a necessity. So how much should you spend on a program that can easily improve your images with just a few clicks? The answer could be nothing at all.

We compared 10 of the most popular free image editors for their capabilities and ease of use to see which might be your best choice for a virtual photo lab. These programs are:

Most people don’t use image-editing software for completely reworking their pictures to create works of art. The common tasks are touching up blemishes, red-eye removal, cropping to a different size and/or shape, straightening and simple adjustments to brightness, contrast and colour. Many also use them for giving old printed photos a new life via scanning and retouching. 

While some photo management and cataloguing packages also have limited image-editing capabilities, for Windows we’ve included only stand-alone programs here. These editors can be used in combination with any other software, including digital photo organisers. Four programs on test have Mac versions, and one, iPhoto, also catalogues and organises digital photos. But we’ve included it here because it’s the default digital image-editing program for OS X, included with the operating system.

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The following six programs scored highest in our test.

6 CHOICE buys


Product Scored 77/100 | $Free77%

Good points:

  • Highest overall score
  • Layer handling
  • Cloning tool
  • Thumbnails view
  • Cross platform (Windows, MAC, Linux)
  • Handle raw images

Bad points:

  • None to mention



Product Scored 75/100 | $Free75%

Good points:

  • Second highest overall score
  • Professional editor
  • Layer handling
  • Cross platform (Windows, MAC, Linux)
  • Cloning tool

Bad points:

  • Steep learning curve due to complexity


Serif PhotoPlus Starter Edition

Product Scored 74/100 | $Free74%

Good points:

  • Layer handling
  • Cloning tool
  • Handle raw images

Bad points:

  • Steep learning curve
  • Many functions are deactivated in the free version



Product Scored 72/100 | $Free72%

Good points:

  • Cloning tool
  • Thumbnails view
  • Handle raw images

Bad points:

  • None to mention


PhotoFiltre 7

Product Scored 71/100 | $Free71%

Good points:

  • Portable version for USB drive (works without install)
  • Layer handling
  • Cloning tool
  • Thumbnails view

Bad points:

  • No red eye removal function



Product Scored 70/100 | $Free70%

Good points:

  • Layer handling
  • Cloning tool

Bad points:

  • None to mention


Comparison table list

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CHOICE applies the following interpretation to the scores achieved in our tests. When we describe a result as "excellent", "poor" etc, it usually relates directly to a numerical score in that range.
  • 0 - 24 Very poor
  • 25 - 45 Poor 
  • 46 - 54 Borderline
  • 55 - 69 OK
  • 70 - 79 Good
  • 80 - 89 Very good
  • 90 - 100 Excellent

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PriceOverall scoreBasic editing scoreAdvanced editing scoreUsability scoreEase of learning scoreHelp information scoreInput scoreHandle RAW format imagesCroppingResizingRed-eye reductionConvert to Greyscale/BWImage straightening toolRetouch/Effect brush ToolCloning ToolLayer HandlingBatch editingThumbnails viewCatalogWindows*MacGood pointsBad pointsBrand
Serif PhotoPlus Starter Edition074738368Serif
PhotoFiltre 7071518275PhotoFiltre
iPhoto [A]064645170Apple

Using the table

All programs are free as tested. All have cropping functionality. 

Scores The overall score includes an assessment of advanced editing (35%), basic editing (25%), usability (15%), ease of learning (10%), help information (5%), initial setup (5%) and input (5%). TABLE NOTES 

(A) Included with OS X at no cost, but can also be purchased for $15.99 at the Mac App Store.

(B) Via included raw-to-JPG converter. 

(C) Via command-line or plug-in

* Compatible with Microsoft Windows XP/Vista/7/8.

How we test

  • Advanced editing covers retouch/effect brush tool, special effects/filters, cloning tool, layer handling and border designs (picture frames). 
  • Basic editing covers the most common editing functions – cropping, resizing, red-eye reduction, auto-adjust image settings (colour correction, balance, contrast), image rotation, batch editing, image straightening and conversion to grayscale/B&W.
  • Usability includes before and after previews, size of the preview, editing history functions and editing processing speed.
  • Initial setup includes downloading, installing and configuring the software. 
  • Help information includes any tutorials, video (including official YouTube instruction) and other assistance such as wizards and documentation. 
  • Ease of learning takes into account the ease of becoming familiar with the program. Input covers file formats, plus navigating to and selecting pictures for editing. 
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.

Having a capable image editor doesn’t mean you should just take all the crappy pictures you like, figuring you’ll fix them up later. That requires time, effort and some skill with your chosen software. The better the image is in the first place, the less work you’ll have to do to it and the more time you’ll have for other worthwhile pursuits – such as taking more pictures. Even if you’re an experienced photographer, knowing how to adapt your skills to a smartphone camera can make a difference.

  • Get to know your camera Even if you commonly use the camera in your smartphone, find out what it can and can’t do. Learn about its advanced features and software settings, what sort of lighting it can cope with and so on. Many smartphone cameras will have several camera modes including panorama and HDR (High Dynamic Range), along with video.
  • Tap to focus You know better than your smartphone what area of your shot you want to show clearly. Focus manually on an area by tapping the screen with your finger.
  • Get the light right Are you shooting under indoor lighting or outdoors? There are many kinds of lighting, and even digital SLRs can struggle with getting correct exposure. That’s why professionals shoot in raw mode, to capture the most image data to allow for later exposure adjustment. Using HDR on a smartphone is the closest equivalent, but no replacement. Avoid backlit scenes, look for even lighting across your shot and use HDR for still scenes only to avoid blurring. Experiment with flash settings rather than just keeping it on auto.
  • Compose your shot Frame your subject carefully and don’t crop too tightly while shooting. Allow a little room – you can crop later in software if needed. Fixed-lens smartphone cameras don’t offer depth of field adjustment. Don’t always put your subject in centre screen – being slightly off-centre can often be more interesting or dramatic.
  • Move around Don’t take every shot from the same standing position. Vary your height, distance and angle to make things interesting. Keep moving and shooting to increase your chances of getting the best shot.
  • Add effects later Whether on your smartphone camera or on your computer, there are plenty of programs that can add special effects to your shots to give them a special look, from mild to wild.
  • Keep it clean Regardless of your camera, features or skills, you need to keep the lens clean. It’s easy for any camera to develop a dirty lens, but smartphones in particular are subject to lens smearing, dust and lint due to handling and pocket/purse storage. Keep a lens cloth handy to give it a good wipe before use.

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