Phone cameras are improving every few months, and enthusiast-level DSLRs are equipped with brilliant sensors, but even the best photos can benefit from a little adjustment in post-production. Adobe Photoshop is the pro photographer's tool of choice, but it's not the only option; there are incredibly powerful photo editors available completely free if you know where to look.
The best free photo editors offer all the key tools you need to make your pictures look amazing, including curves, contrast, and exposure enhancement to refine colors; clone stamps and healing brushes to erase flaws; masks for isolating and editing areas; and layers to help you blend elements and combine effects.
If you value speed over granular control, there are also great free photo editors that automate the process with smart filters. You can combine and tweak these effects to achieve the desired result, then save the custom settings and apply them to all the pictures in a folder with a couple of clicks.
Whatever your level of experience, these are the best free photo editors you can download today.
An exceptional free photo editor, GIMP is a worthy rival to premium software
The elder statesperson of free photo editing, GIMP (also known as the GNU Image Manipulation Program) is the most powerful photo editor around. It's packed with amazing tools that perfectly match those you'd find in premium software, and more are being added all the time.
If you've ever used Photoshop, GIMP's interface will be immediately familiar - particularly if you select the single-window mode, which arranges all its toolbars and canvases in an Adobe-style layout.
The photo editing toolkit is amazing, and includes layers, masks, curves, and levels. You can erase flaws with the excellent clone stamp and healing tools, create custom brushes, apply perspective changes, and apply changes to isolated areas with intelligent selection tools.
GIMP is an open source project, and its community of users and developers have created a huge collection of plugins to extend its capabilities even further. Many of these come pre-installed, and you can download more from the official glossary. If that's not enough, you can even use Photoshop plugins with GIMP.
Its power and flexibility make GIMP the best free photo editor for Windows.
Review and where to download: GIMP
With layers, filters and plugins, Paint.NET will make your photos shine
Sometimes it pays not to be overloaded with bells and whistles. Paint.NET's simplicity is one of its key selling points; it's 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 brilliant 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.
Review and where to download: Paint.NET
3. Photo Pos Pro
Well designed and easy to use – a superb photo editor with a few limitations
Photo Pos Pro isn't as well known as Paint.net and GIMP, but it's another top-quality free photo editor that's packed with advanced image-enhancing tools.
Its interface is smarter and more accessible than GIMP's array of menus and toolbars, with everything arranged in a logical and consistent way. If it's still too intimidating, there's also an optional 'novice' layout that resembles Fotor's filter-based approach. The choice is yours.
The expert layout offers both layers and layer masks for sophisticated editing, as well as tools for adjusting curves and levels manually. You can still access the one-click filters via the main menu, but the focus is much more on fine editing.
Photo Pos Pro also includes a clone brush for erasing unwanted blemishes, and there's extra support for batch-editing and scripts to help you save time when refining a whole folder of photos.
The free edition of Photo Pos Pro only has one drawback: files can only be saved at a maximum resolution of 1,024 x 2,014 pixels, which might be too small if you're planning to have them printed professionally. If you want to remove this restriction, Photo Pos Pro Premium is available for a license free of £17.67, US$19.90, AU$29.78.
Download here: Photo Pos Pro
Its interface is unusual, but PhotoScape boasts a great set of editing tools
PhotoScape might look like a rather simple free photo editor, but take a look at its main menu and you'll find 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.
Review and where to download: PhotoScape
5. Google Nik Collection
Professional-level filters that work as Photoshop plugins or standalone apps
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!
Review and where to download: Google Nik Collection
A terrific selection of filters for one-click enhancement, plus manual controls
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.
Review and where to download: Fotor
7. On1 Effects 10.5 Free
A free editor that can apply filters to selected areas to make elements pop
The 'free' suffix offers some indication of what you're getting here: On1 Effects 10.5 Free is a cut-down version of On1 Effects 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.
Review and where to download: On1 Effects 10.5 Free
Fully adjustable old-school filters, but the lack of custom profiles is a pity
As its name suggests, XnRetro is designed to make your snaps look fashionably old-fashioned. You can apply a filter with a single click and call it a day, or tweak the color balance, contrast, exposure and saturation using a neat array of sliders. Some filters also offer a vignette option for added vintage style.
You can crop your photo to a square to mimic the look of medium-format film, and rotate it in 90-degree increments if you took it with your phone at a strange angle.
If you change your mind, you can easily reset the sliders back to their default values. It's just a shame there's no way to store your custom settings as a new profile for future use, as you can in Google Nik Collection.
Review and where to download: XnRetro
9. Adobe Photoshop Express
A simple free photo editor, but with all the polish you'd expect from Adobe
Adobe Photoshop Express is a very different beast to the full version of Adobe’s mighty industry-standard image editor, but it’s useful for giving well-composed pictures the boost they need to become stunning.
There are no advanced editing tools here, so you won’t be able to paint out blemishes, adjust lighting, or even crop your images. Instead, you’re given a selection of good-looking Instagram-style filters and a quick link so you can send the results directly to Facebook, or save them to your PC.
Adobe Photoshop Express is very simple, but the filters are excellent, and more are available as in-app purchases if you want more choice.
Review and where to download: Adobe Photoshop Express
How to pick the best photo editor for you
All the photo editors we've reviewed here are excellent, but different tasks call for different tools. If you're already happy with the general look of your pictures and just want to enhance them a little before sharing them online, a basic editor that enables you to resize, crop and apply filters will be ideal. Many of these have social media sharing built in, saving you the hassle of saving, then uploading them afterwards.
If you're planning to print your work, you'll be better off looking at more advanced photo editors that will give you the fine control you need to make your pictures look perfect at high resolutions. You'll also need to make sure your free photo editor lets you work with large files; some online-only tools won't let you upload files over a certain size, and others won't allow you to export high-res photos unless you pay for a subscription.