The best free photo editor
With phone cameras now ubiquitous, we're taking and sharing more photos than ever. But even the best phone camera is likely to produce a dud or two, and even the best shot could stand to be better.
Photo editing, then, shouldn't be the sole reserve of those who can afford to stump up the cash for a subscription to Adobe's Creative Cloud. And no, Microsoft Paint or Apple Preview won't cut it: you deserve more than mere cropping or a few sliders to tweak.
So we've overhauled our list for 2016, and selected the very best free photo editors you can download, ranging from fully-featured Photoshop clones to simple, easy to use ways to add filters and effects to your favourite snaps. These are by no means the only free options, though; if we've missed one of your favourites, let us know in the comments below.
Silly name, exceptional photo-editing software
The elder statesperson of free photo editing, GIMP is the most full-featured cross-platform Photoshop competitor going, and gets our vote as the best free photo editor.
It's not without its crashes and glitches – that's the too-many-cooks open source development philosophy in action – and it lacks the polish of its commercial rivals. Some of the filters, in particular, seem as if they haven't been touched since it was first released 20 years ago.
That said, if you're looking for a desktop free photo editor ready for just about any task, is it. Its interface will be immediately familiar to Photoshop users, particularly if you switch on the highly recommended single window mode, and it's still in active development, so new features and filters are added regularly.
There's also a plug-in repository to extend Gimp's range (although it's not been updated for a while). We'd recommend grabbing the stable version, but don't overlook the development build if you want to try some new features.
Basic photo editing with layers, filters and plug-ins
Sometimes it pays not to be overloaded with bells and whistles. Paint.NET's simplicity is one of its key features; it leaves it a fast, easy to operate free photo editor that's perfect for those little tasks that don't need the sheer power of GIMP.
Don't be fooled by the name, though. This isn't just a clone of Microsoft's ultra-basic Paint – though it was originally intended to replace it. It's a proper photo editor, just one that lands on the basic side of the curve.
Interface-wise it's reminiscent of its namesake, but as it's grown Paint.NET has added essential editing tools like layers, an undo history, a raft of filters, numerous community-created plugins, and a 3D rotate/zoom function that's useful for recomposing images.
Yes, it's lacking in certain areas, but if your machine is lacking in power or RAM we can't think of a better choice.
A simple, unusual editor that can handle more than just photos
PhotoScape is, ostensibly, a rather simple free photo editor. But one glance at its main menu reveals a wealth of features: RAW conversion, photo splitting and merging, animated GIF creation, and even a rather odd (but useful) function with which you can print lined, graph or sheet music paper.
The meat, of course, is in the photo editing. PhotoScape's interface is among the most esoteric of all the apps we've looked at here, with tools grouped into pages in odd configurations. It certainly doesn't attempt to ape Photoshop, and includes fewer features.
We'd definitely point this towards the beginner, but that doesn't mean you can't get some solid results. PhotoScape's filters are functional and not at all beginner-like, so it's if good choice if you need to quickly level, sharpen or add mild filtering to pictures in a snap.
Steer clear of the rest of the tools, though: you'll find better elsewhere.
4. Google Nik Collection
A professional-level filter selection, now made free
Google's unending determination to corner just about every market sometimes pays dividends for the pincher of pennies. Take its purchase of German developer Nik in 2012, for example - its Nik Collection photo editor plugin range retailed for US$500 at the time, and in early 2016 Google decided to do away with the price tag and release the powerful collection for free.
We suspect support and updates might be somewhat limited going forward, but this does enable you to bag seven quality photo-editing tools as-is: lens and film emulator Analog Efex; colour corrector Color Efex; monochrome converter Silver Efex; noise reducer Dfine; selective colour tweaker Viveza; and Sharpener and HDR Efex, which speak for themselves.
These are perfect free plugins if you're already using Photoshop, and you can add them to compatible host applications when you install them, but they can also be run as standalone photo editors if you hunt down their executable files. They won't appear in your list of Windows apps - you need to look in C:\\Program Files\Google\Nik Collection. To edit a photo, drag it onto the EXE file of your chosen editor. It's a strange system, but it works!
High-end photo editing – and quick filtering – in your browser
An ad-supported online photo editor, Pixlr comes in two flavours: Editor, the more equipped package; and Express, perfect for applying quick fixes without the bloat of the bigger package. It's actually the online editor we tend to gravitate towards, both because of its clean, modern dark interface and because of its efficiency even on systems without much processor muscle.
Some of Pixlr Editor's tools, particularly the filters, can be a bit tricky to use because you're not given a proper preview, but the results – when you do eventually get the sliders right – are almost always satisfactory.
With support for layers, masks, and a fullscreen mode which means it might as well be a full-on desktop app, Editor (pictured) is a consistently pleasant tool to use. And don't discount Express; a bit of low-effort clicking can really make a huge difference to your photos.
Overall photo enhancement in an easy-to-use package
Fotor is a photo enhancer first and foremost, more than it is a photo editor; if there's specific area of retouching you need doing with, say, the clone brush or healing tool, you're out of luck. But it includes a stack of high-end filters that really do shine.
There's a foolproof tilt-shift tool, for example, and a raft of vintage and vibrant colour tweaks, all easily accessed through Fotor's clever menu system. You can manually alter your own curves and levels, too, but without the complexity of high-end tools.
Fotor's most brilliant function, and one that's sorely lacking in many photo editing packages, is its batch processing tool – feed it a pile of pics and it'll filter the lot of them in one go, perfect if you have a memory card full of holiday snaps and need to cover up the results of a dodgy camera or shaky hand.
Give your photos a quick, classic film look
Instagram, eh? Not only has it been an inexplicable social media hit, it's created a love of fancy photo filters the world over. For that classic vintage look on Windows you can't do much better than free photo editor Vintager, a haven of filters, borders, layers and lens-glint bokehs to make your hastily-fired shots seem like they were meant to look that way.
It looks simple on the surface, with a straightforward interface which gives you quick access to filters and overlays, but there's a bit more muscle in here.
You can adjust highlights and shadows, muck about with the colour balance of your shots, and even dive into curves and levels. There's also a very handy photo collage mode in which you can compile up to five individually tweaked shots into a single whole.
Vintager is probably not going to be your primary photo-processing tool – there are others which do all this and more besides – but for a dead simple way to add flair to photos before uploading them there's not much better.
8. Sumo Paint
Powerful in-browser editing, but fewer tools than we'd like
Sumo Paint is powerful, no doubt about it. It's a full-featured photo editor that sits in your browser, with various artistic tools and paintbrushes thrown in for good measure. Perhaps its range of polygonal shapes and symmetry tools won't suit being plastered over your photographs, but it's high on the list of options if you're looking more on the creative end of things.
There are sacrifices to be made, though. Notably the appropriately sumo wrestler-sized ads that eat up your screen space, and the slight performance hit you'll get from running it in-browser. If you want to get rid of the ads or run it on your desktop, you'll need to stump up for a US$4 (about £3, AU$5.) subscription.
We struggle to recommend it too highly on this basis – while Sumo Paint does have a few tricks up its sleeve, the real magic can be found in plenty of other free apps.
An image-viewer with added batch editing and conversion
Tiny, speedy and relatively unique, IrfanView does things that others don't. Utterly free in the classic, non-laden-with-adverts sense, it's predominantly an image viewer. Given its compact size it's perfect in that role, launching quickly and unfussily and making it easy to flick through a stack of snaps quickly. But it's not limited just to showing you your pictures. IrfanView does batch processing and format conversion very well – we keep it around for that reason alone.
It's also useful for screen capturing, and includes support for Adobe Photoshop filters. That means you can use it as a host for, for example, Google's Nik Collection, or any other free filters you might find.
Its direct editing tools are reasonably limited and the internal filters aren't particularly stellar or exciting, but give it a try and we're sure you'll find your own reason to keep IrfanView installed.
10. On1 Effects 10 Free
Selective filtering for advanced photo effects
The 'free' suffix offers some indication of what you're getting here: On1 Effects 10 Free is a cut-down version of On1 Effects 10 proper, pulling out just a limited selection of its filters. But we're still happy to recommend it, mainly because of its methodology.
Instead of being forced to apply an effect to a full image, you can use On1's Perfect Brush tool to smear that effect on the areas you're interested in enhancing, which is a great way to create a unique look. Its quick mask and refine brush tools also make masking off areas of your image particularly easy, so you can make elements pop.
Essentially this is an taster for the full version, but its diminished filter range – HDR, vignette, vintage, glow etc – is still useful and worth trying if you're after vibrant effects; you'll have to try another program for sharpening, blurring and noise reduction, so On1 Effects Free isn't great if you want to preserve the honesty of your photos.