Photoshop is the big daddy of image creation and editing, but it isn’t cheap: even the relatively wallet-friendly Photoshop Elements 2018 is US$99.99/£86.56/AU$145.19, while a student subscription to Creative Cloud Photography is US$9.99/£9.98/AU$14.29 a month.
The excellent Photoshop alternative Affinity Photo is a bit cheaper at US$49.99/£48.99/AU$79.99, but what if your budget doesn’t even stretch to that and the filters built into the Photos just don’t cut it? The good news is that it’s possible to get very powerful image apps for free.
The bad news? There isn’t much really. You’re not going to get a direct analog of everything you'd find in Photoshop, but you might be surprised by how powerful the best free alternatives are. Inevitably some apps will have issues – for example one of our picks, a web-based editor, doesn’t work properly in Safari; others can be a little difficult to learn – but the benefits massively outweigh any downside.
The closest thing to Photoshop you'll find – and it's completely free
It’s probably overkill for basic photo editing but if you like to create or edit complex images, work with a lot of unusual file formats or automate as much as possible it’s a very solid app indeed.
It’s cross platform too, so you can use it on any Windows or Linux machines as well as on your Mac. That’s handy if you need to collaborate with others.
The interface isn’t the prettiest, and the app takes a little time to learn – and the help guide leaves something to be desired – but it’s very powerful and well worth the effort. It enables you to work across multiple layers, includes a good selection of brushes, filters and image enhancement tools and supports a lot of plugins too. It’s also extremely customizable, so you can arrange everything just-so to suit your own way of working.
If you've used GIMP In the past but thought it was too difficult or crashy, it’s worth taking another look. It’s become a much better program in recent years: the interface has been tidied up a bit, it runs much better and it’s considerably more stable.
2. Pixlr Editor
A browser-based Photoshop alternative that includes layers and masks
Pixlr Editor is an excellent Photoshop alternative for Mac, though it loses points for two things: firstly it requires Adobe Flash Player, which Apple is doing its best to eliminate from Macs; and secondly, it doesn’t work properly in Safari so you’ll need to run it in Chrome. An HTML5 version is in development and it should solve those issues; we hope it can do so without removing any key features.
When you do run it in Chrome it’s very good. It’s ad-funded but not invasively so, and it’s more advanced than many desktop apps: it supports layers and masks, has a good selection of photo adjustments, can open photos from URLs as well as desktop files and doesn’t look too dissimilar to Photoshop. You get a decent selection of filters and customizable brushers, an undo history and a reasonably flexible interface too.
It’s very good but if you feel it’s a little bit too much there’s also a stripped down version, Pixlr Express, on the same website.
Another browser-based Photoshop alternative – this time with cloud storage
Like Pixlr, Fotor runs in your web browser – but unlike Pixlr it’s in HTML5, so you don’t need Flash. The ads are a little more prominent than Pixlr, with banners to the right and below the main editing window, but they’re not flashing away so you get used to them. Just watch the ads on the main home page when you go to run it: at the time of writing there’s a big green 'Continue' button that links to a completely different app.
Fotor is very good, and has a particularly user-friendly approach: it’s much more like Photos’ filtering than Photoshop. The toolbar down the left hand side of the screen provides fast access to basic tools, effects, shapes, beautifying filters and text overlays, and you can save your work to the cloud so it’s accessible from anywhere. It may look simple but the available tools and filters are very good: if your main interest is in improving or adjusting photographs it’s a big toy box of useful tools.
Fotor also offers a paid-for Pro version that removes adds, provides more effects and editing features and more beautifying tools.
If you're working with vector graphics, you won't find a better free tool
As the name suggests, Vectr is dedicated to vector graphics, making it more like Adobe Illustrator than Photoshop. Unlike raster graphics (such as photos), vectors don’t lose any clarity when you scale them from tiny to gargantuan.
While we wouldn’t use it in place of a dedicated desktop publishing app, Vectr is a decent solution for one-offs such as posters or leaflets. You can share online for real time collaboration (you need to register first, but doing so is free) and there’s a web-based version for anybody who doesn’t have the desktop app.
For now Vectr is best suited to beginners, but development is happening very quickly and the roadmap promises more pro-friendly features such as image versioning. If it’s not quite right for you now it’s worth keeping an eye on its updates.
Vector graphic designed by Freepik
A simple alternative to Photoshop Express, with masses of storage
If all you want is some simple image fixing, cropping and photo storage then the web-based Google Photos is very good. You can crop and rotate your images, add filters, and adjust basic colour settings (including 'light', 'color' and 'pop'), and it supports Live Photos so you don’t lose the bits around your Live Photo’s key frame.
The main draw here isn’t the app, though – it’s the storage. Provided images have fewer than 16 megapixels and your videos don’t exceed 1080p resolution, Google Photos offers unlimited storage for free. You can still store photos with higher resolutions but they’ll use your Google Drive space.