The Mac and the video editor have long been up a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G for some time now. Professionals were cutting and chopping in Avid back in the late 1980s, and iMovie debuted in 1999 alongside the FireWire-enabled iMac DV.
Today’s Macs are much more powerful than their ancestors, and that means even free apps are capable of doing some amazing things with video. It’s surprising how much you can do without spending any money: in some cases the only difference between free apps and their extremely expensive siblings is a handful of features only pros will need. That’s a smart business strategy; the tinkerers of today could be the pros of tomorrow.
There’s one program we’re disappointed not to include: VideoLAN Movie Creator (VLMC). It's based on VLC – one of our must-have apps – but it’s still in alpha, which means it’s not reliable enough or finished enough for prime time just yet.
If you need something for your mobile device, we've also found the best video editor for iPhone, which will turn your phone into a mobile production studio.
- PC user? Check out the best free video editing software for Windows
Free programs don’t get better than this. Lightworks puts professional editing tools within the reach of all Mac owners, regardless of budget
Lightworks might look a bit frightening if you’re not used to high-end editors. And that’s about the only negative thing we can say about it, because Lightworks is one of the most powerful free apps you can download for your Mac. The same technology that’s been used in proper films like Pulp Fiction and 28 Days Later is completely free for home use.
Lightworks can be as light or as complex as you want: it’s as happy trimming a single clip to size as it is adding real-time effects, correcting colours or adding voiceovers. It’ll happily output in a format and resolution suitable for YouTube and Vimeo, but the highest quality options – 4K, 3D, Blu-Ray – and massive list of supported file formats are only for paying customers.
Apple’s own movie app is easy to master and ideal for simple editing
Apple's own video feature iMovie used to be free with new Macs and chargeable for everybody else, but these days it’s completely free for anyone who wants it (provided they have OS X 10.11.2 or later).
It’s fairly simple to learn and packs a lot of useful features including audio adjusting and colour correction, and since last year it’s supported 4K video too. Don’t expect blisteringly fast 4K performance on a low-end Mac though, as it’s very demanding.
iMovie isn't Final Cut Pro and it doesn’t pretend to be: it’s designed for home and small business users who want to make or perfect videos and who don’t need complex, expensive apps, and it’s great for beginners.
Another professional editor that's free to install on your Mac
Here’s another app you’ll find in professional toolkits. DaVinci Resolve Studio is a US$299 (£299, AU$499) app designed for post-production and packed with tools for adjusting, editing and correcting both audio and video.
The free version, DaVinci Resolve, is almost identical, with some limits you probably won’t notice. Its 4K tops out at UHD 3,840 x 2,160, whereas the paid product goes up to 4,096 x 2,160. Filters for film grain, lens flare and lens blur aren’t available to free users without watermarking; you don’t get the extensive collaboration and workflow tools of the Studio version, and the really complex audio and video filtering is greyed out. That sounds like a lot of omissions, but it really isn’t. DaVinci Resolve delivers a serious set of pro tools for free.
Perform quick edits and take total control over video and audio encoding
Avidemux is a handy app for simple tasks, so if you’re looking for something you can use to make quick cuts this may well be the free program for you.
Unlike most programs for Macs, there’s no timeline with multiple tracks to cut between and you don’t get any flashy wipes or transitions. What you do get is an exceptionally quick way to trim footage and rearrange sections. Avidemux also includes practical filters for removing noise and other irritants.
Its most useful feature is its superb exporter, which gives you total control over the video and audio encoding rather than just asking you to pick a file format. The audio options are particularly good.
Surprisingly powerful without being a pain to learn
OpenShot is an interesting alternative to better known apps, and while it takes a bit of setting up (for example, to use animated titles you’ll need to install the free Blender app too) it’s surprisingly powerful.
OpenShot offers transitions with real-time previews, timeline-based editing, 3D titles and special effects, audio mixing, and a range of visual effects including color correction and chroma key compositing.
As is often the case with open source computing, the interface isn't as slick as commercial alternatives, but don’t let that put you off. OpenShot is an excellent free program for macOS, and it’s really easy to get to grips with.
Brilliant for beginners, but also powerful enough for more advanced users
Some video apps put every single feature on screen at once, which is enough to make even experienced users feel a bit lost. Not Shotcut – its interface stays out of the way, bringing up what you need when you need it without filling the screen with things you don’t want.
Shotcut covers all the essentials, but our favourite feature is its filtering. There are stacks of audio and video filters that you can layer to create interesting effects. There’s no preview before you apply your filter, but it’s non-destructive editing so you can easily roll back if it doesn’t do what you hoped.
There are lots of export options, and while there aren’t presets for specific devices (something that’s handy if you’re making movies for mobile) it’s easy to fine tune settings and codecs.
Much more than just rendering – Blender is also a capable free tool
We know what you’re thinking: Blender? Isn’t that a 3D rendering app?
Yes, it is, but it’s also a really good free tool, too. It cuts, splices and masks, mixes audio and has up to 32 slots for adding items, masks and effects.
There’s a good selection of file formats, with AVI, MPEG and QuickTime as well as the various 3D file formats. The interface can be as simple or as complex as you like, and because the app is in constant development it’s constantly getting better and better.
Blender might be overkill for basic home movies, but if you’re keen to learn new things it’s a fantastic tool for doing so.