Testing the best free photo editing software

Graphics and photographs play a central role in the World Wide Web. Web service providers use visual elements to make their services more appealing, companies use high-quality photographs to improve their advertising and social networks would completely lack a central focus without images. Product images, holiday photos, and profile pictures have a key element in common: they are rarely published online without some kind of digital editing. Having the perfect photo has become a popular sport and is no longer just reserved for professional photographers and designers.

As a result of this, many social media platforms have integrated their own photo editing tools into their sites that are mostly geared towards being used on mobile devices. However, those who are unsatisfied with the simple effects and filter options usually opt for traditional photo editing software on their PCs, because there are lots more available functions. Adobe Photoshop is above and beyond the most popular photo editing software, with both amateur and professional photographers using it for decades. 

However, many people are not looking for the highest quality photo editing standards, preferring cheaper alternatives instead because of the considerable cost of buying Adobe Photoshop. There are a number of free programs available that can offer more than satisfactory photo editing results.

What should photo editing software be able to do?

The range of functions a program has is the most important feature that distinguishes between paid photo editing software and those that are free of charge. The fact that freeware products usually have fewer editing options is not necessarily a disadvantage: amateur photographers, in particular, often benefit more from the simplicity of a free tool, while still achieving a good result. Some features, however, should be included as a rule in the photo editing software so that it is versatile and user-friendly. The following features will be included in all the best photo editing software, even if it is free:

  • Correct sharpness, color, and exposure
  • Crop and rotate
  • Loss free scaling
  • Cropping and removing objects
  • Creating photo montages
  • Customization with filters and effects
  • Be able to work on several planes
  • Be able to import different image formats

Aside from having basic functions perhaps, the processing methods that photo editing software (whether free or paid) offers, plays the most important role. It is important that the functions are not only available but also easy and intuitive to use. A clear layout of the program (menu and toolbar, buttons etc.) contribute to this.

The best free photo editing programs

In the recent past, observers have noticed two things related to digital imaging: firstly, demand for programs has risen significantly. The previously mentioned social networks have played an important role in this. Secondly, today’s users have a much higher expectation of what their photo editing software should be able to do. At the same time, it must be user friendly and not require much time and effort to get to grips with. All tools need to be integrated and should be able to be used quickly and without much prior knowledge. Anyone checking out the market will be able to find free of charge photo editing programs that meet these high demands.

In addition to classic desktop programs, web apps are becoming more and more popular. These can be used on any internet browser and do not require installing. This means that it is irrelevant what operating system the user has, the only thing you need is a working internet connection. In some cases, you need to be registered to a site to use their photo editing program.

The following section provides information about desktop and web applications. A comparison table summarizes the similarities and differences of different programs:

Paint.NET (Windows)

Originally started as a small student project at Washington State University, Paint.NET is now among the best photo editing programs in the freeware sector. The photo editing software was released in 2004 under a free MIT license and is now distributed under a proprietary license. The basic framework of the application is the Microsoft .NET framework, which is automatically added during installation. Since the framework only runs on Windows, Paint.NET is not available for other platforms.

This alternative to the standard paint program Microsoft Paint has been developed continually over recent years, making it suitable for more demanding tasks. This means you can work on multiple planes with parallel processing of various projects that can be easily navigated between using tabs. Each tab shows a small thumbnail, making it easy to navigate to your chosen project. It includes basic optimization tools for brightness, saturation, contrast or hue, as well as a graduation curve for tonal value correction, and a tool for removing the red-eye effect. Paint.NET also provides the following tool options:

  • Softener and sharpener
  • 3D rotation and zoom effect
  • Black and white, and sepia filters
  • Gradient generator
  • Release tool, or wand.

Even the standard scope of features is quite impressive. There is also a lengthy plug-in directory, for anyone who is missing an effect or filter.

In addition to numerous tools for the tool palette, you can also find extensions that allow you to import and export additional file formats (such as the Photoshop format .psd). Paint.NET records every step of your progress, which means you can undo your changes at any time.

Pro Contra
✔ Expandable using plugins ✘ Only available for Windows
✔ Unlimited undo function for erasing individual work steps ✘ Works as standard with a small range of file formats (.pdn)

Pixlr Editor (Web-App, iOS, Android)

After a year in development, the Swedish Ola Sevandersson published his cloud-based image processing software Pixlr Editor in 2008. In the meantime, he has joined the team at Autodesk, where he has also released mobile versions of his image processing program for iOS and Android. The web application can be used free of charge with all current browsers, and no registration is necessary. There is one prerequisite, however: Adobe Flash player must be installed because the software has several Flash elements. There is also a stripped version available which is designed to edit smaller sized pictures, called Pixlr Express.

Pixlr Editor is the best proof that even free online photo editing software can keep up with the established, paid versions. The visual display and the standard editing controls allow the user to forget that it is only a web browser app – especially when full-screen mode is used. The clear, intuitive, visually appealing menu bars and boxes are easily recognizable from comparable programs, so experienced users and newcomers alike will quickly feel comfortable. Apart from its outstanding usability, the software also impresses with its many functions. For example, the photo processing program provides the following image customization features:

  • Softener and sharpener
  • Burn corrector
  • Red-eye remover
  • Gradation curves
  • Automatic tonal correction

In addition to the versatile selection of correction tools, Pixlr Editor also offers numerous filters for altering photos and graphics. You can make them blurred, pixelated, transform them into reliefs, or make the images sepia or warm. There are plenty of customization options available throughout the entire editing process.

There are a few aspects where Pixlr Editor reveals itself as free photo editing software, as opposed to a high-quality program that comes with a high price: foreign language versions are not all properly translated and the workflow history is limited to just 14 entries. Additionally, there is also advertising on the site, although this can be closed with a click.

Pro Contra
✔ Desktop feel thanks to the full-screen mode ✘ Only works if Adobe Flash Player is installed
✔ Versions for iOS and Android available ✘ Foreign translations incomplete

GIMP (Windows, macOS, Linux)

In 1998, the first official release of the GNU Image Manipulation Program appeared in version 1.0, better known under the short name GIMP. The software developed by Peter Mattis is one of the most important open-source image processing programs (GNU-GPL) worldwide. Using the basis of the graphics library Generic Graphics Library (GEGL), GIMP has grown into a competitive free solution for the optimization and processing of images and photos. Originally designed for GNU/Linux, the program now runs on all popular Windows and MacOS systems.

Like most open source applications, GIMP is modular, so it can be expanded at any time. In addition, control elements can be organized and turned on and off as desired. It lacks a standard configuration, which would include the most important features that are normally permanently located in the main dashboard. This, in turn, makes it unnecessarily difficult to get started. However, anyone who uses the software regularly and develops their own preferences and technique can configure, set and save their own array of preferred settings. In terms of functionality, GIMP’s other photo editing software cannot be beaten. For example, the following filters and effects are available freely:

  • Soft drawing (eg., Pixels, motion blur)
  • Enhancements (eg., red-eye removal, blurring edges)
  • Light and shadow effects (eg. glitter, lens reflex)
  • Artistic changes (eg., cartoon, oil painting effects)
  • Borders and effects (eg., coffee stains, rounded edges)
  • Animations (eg., shading, waves)

Touch-ups, such as color distribution, contrast, and brightness can be adjusted easily with GIMP in just a few clicks. There are also tools for trimming, scaling and rotating the images, as well as tools for editing individual elements. The fact that the photo editing software is free of charge means that it would be unfair to expect extensive export formatting options. GIMP offers typical image formats such as .jpg, .gif or .bmp to archive formats like .gz or .bz2, to web formats like .html or .xhtml in terms of exports.

Pro Contra
✔ Highly expandable and customizable ✘ Hard to get started
✔ Cross platform compatible ✘ No option available to edit multiple projects at the same time

Krita (Windows, macOS, Linux)

The open-source application Krita is the result of a long-standing development process that began in 1998 with the desire for a GIMP alternative based on the Qt library. The original project was abandoned for various reasons. Programming then began on independent new photo editing software until the first version of Krita was launched in 2004 as part of the office software suite, KOffice. In the recent past, KDE developers have focused on tools for drawing and turning the program into one of the best open source solutions for cartoonists, illustrators and concept artists - without neglecting classic image processing.

Krita does not just attach importance to useful tools like brush stabilizers and a large selection of brush types, but it does emphasize a modern design to offer artists the best platform for their work process. Unlike GIMP, the KDE project has pre-configured standard layouts for various projects (like “standard”, “animation” or “big picture”), which allow even inexperienced users to get started right away. If desired, the tool specifications can be adapted to the user’s own wishes using a drag-and-drop function in the settings menu. The fact that Krita is first-class, free photo editing software, is also demonstrated by the convincing selection of rework, filter and transformation tools. Among other things, the application contains the following editing features:

  • Brightness/contrast curve
  • Burn mode
  • Color balance
  • Blur
  • Sharpen
  • Edge detection
  • Oil painting

The mask function allows you to apply effects to the various image layers of the project. There are also options for cropping, mirroring or scaling images to a new size. You can document your work steps during the course of the project by activating the “dockable dialogue” in the preconfigured layout. Is it, therefore, possible to jump back a few steps at any time, in order to undo changes. International versions of Krita contain a few untranslated elements.

Pro Contra
✔ Extensive toolbox which permits far more than simple image processing ✘ Limited international language options
✔ Available on multiple platforms ✘ User-interface can be extremely confusing

Adobe Photoshop Express Editor (Web-App, iOS, Android, Windows Phone)

Photoshop immediately brings to mind high-quality photo editing software, whose performance level can only be matched by competing products in exceptional cases. It is perfect for professionals, but for amateur photographers the price can be too expensive, which is why they often opt for cheaper alternatives. However, Adobe now also offers the free image processing program Express Editor as a web application. Similar to the previous program, Flash Player must be installed for the application to work. The tool is also available as an app for iOS, Android and Windows Phones, and is available to download in the respective app stores.

Editor Express tools are based on the proven Photoshop algorithms that allow the use of filters and effects to achieve first-class results. Compared to the original photo editing software, however, the functional scope of this free alternative is significantly lower. Anyone who wants to edit down to the smallest detail when working on photos and graphics reaches the limits of this web tool quite quickly. When it comes to simple optimization and transformation processes, there are hardly any applications that can compete with Express Editor. Among other things, the following functions are available once you upload an image:

  • Scaling (fixed sizes or individual)
  • Auto-correct mode
  • Retouch
  • Red-eye corrector
  • Post-exposure
  • Pixelate
  • Cartoon drawing
  • Focus and blur

The tool is very intuitive to operate, with a particularly well-organized dashboard. The tools are divided into two categories “Edit” and “Decorate”, the former being subdivided into three sub-categories “Basic”, “Adjustments” and “Effects”. The strength of the effect is already pre-configured, but you can adjust manually with a controller. The biggest limitation of this photo editing software is, however, the fact that you can only import and export images in JPG format.

Pro Contra
✔ User-friendly ✘ Importing and exporting is only available in JPG format
✔ Uses powerful Photoshop algorithms ✘ Does not have a layer function

RawTherapee (Windows, macOS, Linux)

Since 2010, Raw Therapee developed by Gábor Horvàth has been licensed under the GNU GPL license (version 3). The photo editing software is not only free of charge but is also open source so it can be used and modified without restriction. The application has integrated a version of the conversion software dcraw, which makes it possible to import raw data images (RAW data) from digital cameras and edit them. The tool is primarily aimed at professional and hobby photographers who want to get the most out of their photographs. RawTherapee is also compatible with JPEG, PGN or TIFF.

It is clear from the start that RawTherapee has a lot of development options. The various menus and quick-start bars allow you to edit imported images down to the smallest detail. Since RAW files can be very large, the queue provides an ongoing conversion process that does not interfere with the project you’re working on. Multiple images can be edited at the same time with the program thanks to the comparatively high system utilization. It is not recommendable, however, with older computers. Each work step is processed non-destructively by RawTherapee so that the images retain their best quality. In addition, all steps are stored in order to be able to jump back at any time during processing. Available features include:

  • White balance
  • Saturation, contrast and brightness corrector
  • Exposure compensation
  • Sharpener
  • Color filtering
  • RGB tone curves for maximum control of colors and exposure

RawTherapee is, undoubtedly, one of the best photo processing programs for RAW files that the open source and freeware markets have to offer. Users are provided with everything necessary to improve and edit their photos. Since you can personalize and save your dashboard settings, it is easy to optimize numerous images with the same settings. However, the open source tool is less suitable for larger, creative adjustments due to the small number of effects and the lack of a tool for fine work (such as brushes).

Pro Contra
✔ Supports numerous RAW formats ✘ Unclear user interface
✔ Compatible with multiple platforms ✘ Images cannot be imported using drag and drop functions

Die besten Fotobearbeitungsprogramme (kostenlos) im Überblick

  Developer Release year Operating system Special feature
Express Editor Adobe 2008 Windows, macOS, Linux, iOS, Android, Windows Phone Photoshop algorithms
GIMP The GIMP Team 1998 Windows, macOS, Linux Modular construction
Krita KDE 2004 Windows, macOS, Linux Various drawing tools
Paint.NET Microsoft 2004 Windows Extensive plug-in directory
Pixlr Editor Autodesk 2008 Windows, macOS, Linux, iOS, Android Apps for iOS and Android
Raw Therapee Gábor Horvàth 2008 Windows, macOS, Linux Editing RAW files