Ben Sullivan

Founder at Ayrne
Artist, Traveler, and Lover of the Beauty of Life

For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to break the software I’m reviewing into 3 categories – post editing software (software used to manipulate images like Photoshop), digital darkroom software (software used in place of the traditional dark room in analogue photography like Lightroom), and after effects software (software used for adding effects, color filters, and other adjustments that add atmosphere and a finishing sheen to your images – stuff like Google NIK, Topaz Labs Photography Collection, and ON1 Photo 10).As some of you may know, I’m a part time pro photographer and I take the image processing side of my work very seriously. In fact, regardless of how nice your camera is, I believe processing is every bit as important, if not more important, than capturing the right shot with the right camera.

In this article, I’ll be reviewing the highest rated, most commonly recommended free and opensource software for photo editing. One thing I’ve found disappointing, is how many people seem to be confused by what is and is not photo editing software. A number of programs I found that were highly recommended as great “photo editing software” are actually digital drawing apps. I can only assume these people went no further than seeing a color wheel and some brushes to make the association with Photoshop. I am including a few of most commonly mismarketed drawing apps.

As a side note, if you’re looking for more powerful professional solutions for your image editing needs, you can also check out my article on the best professional photo editors here.

1
GIMP: Free GNU Image Manipulation Program/Editor
Gimp Free Open-Source Photo Editor Review

While GIMP may not be quite as powerful as Photoshop, it does have some pretty amazingly similar features and I’d consider it a semi-pro-level software. Overall, it’s an incredibly powerful tool for Photoshop-like editing. You’ll find advanced cloning tools, an expandable array of brushes, built in HDR effects, layer capabilities for masking, custom script support, a plethora of artistic effects, and even an iWarp tool that does something similar to Liquify. Overall, I give this sexy piece of opensource software 4.5 out of 5 bad-asseries.

Editor Type: Image manipulation / photo editing software

Our Verdict on GIMP Free Photo Editor

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Pros

  • Is capable of doing the much of what professional level image manipulators like Affinity Photo and Photoshop do, but for free.
  • There are a boat-load of plugins to enhance GIMP’s capabilities to be found in the GIMP Plugin registry and elsewhere.
  • Considerably lighter than PhotoShop which equates to faster, more stable performance on some tasks.
  • This software is open-source, meaning it's community driven and constantly evolving to meet the needs of the community.
  • Supports editing photos with layers in a way that is similar to Photoshop and Affinity Photo.
  • Batch photo editing capable, although there's no management library for cataloging your work.
  • Tabbed photo editing for working on multiple photos in dedicated workspaces.

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Cons

  • Complex: GIMP presents a significant learning challenge to new users and workflow can often feel busy and less than intuitive.
  • Does not have native support many pro-level 3rd party plugins that work with PhotoShop and Lightroom (i.e. Topaz Labs, On1, Google NIK).
  • Cannot work with RAW files without installing a 3rd party plugin like UFRAW.
  • The lens correction tool pales in comparison to solutions like Affinity Photo or Photoshop.
  • Cannot fix chromatic aberration without installing a 3rd party script like Purple Fringe Fix or a plugin like Fix-CA (“CA” stands for chromatic aberration, not Canada by the way). Please note that Purple Fringe Fix is not a very robust plugin and won’t help you with aberration in the green blue color spectrum. I personally wouldn't bother with it. Just go straight to Fix-CA, it’s the closest thing you’re going to get to the tool in PS.
  • Finding good GIMP plugins can require a good bit of trial and error. Many of them are not terribly intuitive or effective at what they claim to do – but oh, they’re out there, so keep looking!

Bottom Line:

For free software, this is as close as your going to get to matching the image manipulation power of Affinity photo or PhotoShop. It’s good enough that I still have it installed despite owning both of these other applications.

Resources

2
Photodemon: Free Image editor/effects/filters software
Photodemon Free Open-Source Photo Editor Review

This opensource photo editor is relatively new to the software scene, but I’ve been so impressed with my initial testing, I’m giving it 3.5 out of 5 stars. While I’d call it semi-pro level software, it offers some great features to enthusiasts, and beginners as well. I’d rate it higher if they’d put out a proper installation package. For the time being, the only major thing not to like about Photodemon is the installation process. Since I’m well adapted to the Linux world, installing this software manually on Windows was no major issue for me. However, many users may struggle with the installation process. Which is why I’ve decided to be your hero today and write an article on how to install Photodemon on Windows.

Despite the tiny installation file, this software boasts a great suite of effects and tools. You’ll find basic layer capabilities, an excellent HDR tool, atmospheric effects, color filters, and an impressive array of lighting, color, and clarity adjustments built in.

Our Verdict on Photodemon Free Photo Editor

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Pros

  • Well though out, intuitive user interface and workflow that is easy to use and master
  • Remarkably light application and with quick responsive performance
  • Great selection of built-in tools and effects for what it is - an image editor, not a RAW editor
  • A powerful tool for basic editing of JPG files and similar
  • Supports layered photo editing - a big plus for those who like to stack images
  • Tabbed photo editing for working on multiple photos in dedicated workspaces.

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Cons

  • Lacks area specific editing tooling for things like masking, cloning, painting, and saturation adjustment.
  • Does not have native support many pro-level 3rd party plugins that work with Photoshop and Lightroom (i.e. Topaz Labs, On1, Google NIK).
  • Does not offer the enhanced predictive capabilities of Photoshop (i.e. you don’t see a preview layer of what you’re about to clone, you can’t zoom in with iWarp to catch fine details, etc.
  • Does not support RAW image file editing at all, making it a solution that only works for jpeg shooters or editing after development.
  • No chromatic aberration tools or other image correction tools necessary for pro-level photo development
  • Extremely limited plugin availability (we're taking sparce), but given that this is open-source, it's bound to change.

Bottom Line:

For free software, this is as close as your going to get to matching the image manipulation power of PhotoShop. It’s good enough that I have both PhotoShop and GIMP running on my desktop environment.

3
Krita: Free Photo Editor/Effects/Digital Drawing

While it started out as a GIMP hack, Krita isn't nearly as powerful as GIMP for editing photos. Krita’s focus is on graphic design and paint based applications. In fact, while it’s oddly listed on a number of sites as an “opensource photo editor”, Krita is intended for graphic design, not photography. So while Krita outshines GIMP and Photoshop as a tool for digital artists, it’s not that great for photographers. Over the years both Krita and GIMP have evolved. Krita has has become a brilliant digital sketching and painting application, and GIMP has been mostly developed towards post editing for photography.

Having said that, it does have some pretty unique and useful tools I haven’t seen elsewhere. The user interface will present quite a learning curve to many. I wouldn't call the layout counter-intuitive – it’s just busy and complex. While it does offer some nice photo effects and many tools that are similar to GIMP, at the end of the day, when working with photos, I’d personally opt to use other software. I can only give Krita a paltry 2.5 bad-asseries as a photo editor – sorry Krita. On the upside, I give it 4.5 as a digital painting software.

Our Verdict on Krita Free Photo Editor

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Pros

  • This is totally free open-source software that does a lot and does it very well.
  • Decent toolset and on-board effects for photo edits, although definitely geared more towards the digital art community.
  • Supports a wide range of image file types (although RAW isn’t one of them).
  • Excellent selection of tools and brushes for area specific photo editing and graphic design applications.
  • Good basic image adjustment tools and effects well suited for visual designers and adequate for photographers.

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Cons

  • Considerably less powerful for photo edits than Photoshop or GIMP.
  • Does not have native support many pro-level 3rd party plugins that work with Photoshop and Lightroom (i.e. Topaz Labs, On1, Google NIK).
  • Does not offer the enhanced predictive capabilities of Photoshop (i.e. you don’t see a preview layer of what you’re about to clone, you can’t zoom in with iWarp to catch fine details, etc.
  • Does not support RAW image files.
  • No chromatic aberration or lens correction tools.

Bottom Line:

I personally don’t feel that this is the best solution for my photo editing. I’d personally use Photoshop or GIMP for photo manipulation and use Lightroom or Rawtherapee for developing images. Keep in mind though that this software is free. Given the price tag, I’d recommend you download it, try it out, and see if it’s for you.

4
MyPaint: Free Digital Sketching/Painting App
MyPaint Free Open-Source Photo Editor Review

Much like Krita, MyPaint is another digital paint/sketch application that people bill as a “photo editor”, but in reality, it isn’t intended for photo editing. While it could theoretically be used for after editing and touch ups, programs like GIMP are simply more geared towards this sort of thing and do a better job overall. Having said that, is it a great digital drawing app? Yes, it definitely is. But I can only give it 1 out of 5 stars as photo editing software (which, again, it isn’t).

Our Verdict on MyPaint Free Photo Editor

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Pros

  • Well though out, intuitive user interface and workflow that is easy to use and master
  • Very light application with quick, responsive performance and little demand on system resources
  • Supports layered photo editing and area specific masking
  • Tabbed photo editing for working on multiple photos in dedicated workspaces

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Cons

  • Considerably less powerful for photo edits than Photoshop or GIMP.
  • Does not have native support many pro-level 3rd party plugins that work with Photoshop and Lightroom (i.e. Topaz Labs, On1, Google NIK).
  • Does not offer the enhanced predictive capabilities of pro level software like Photoshop (i.e. you don’t see a preview layer of what you’re about to clone, you can’t zoom in with iWarp to catch fine details, etc.
  • Does not support developing or editing RAW image files.
  • No chromatic aberration or lens correction tools, necessary for professional level photo development

Bottom Line:

MyPaint isn’t a photo editor and anyone who tells you it is needs to stop smoking crack and throw out their tin foil hat. If graphic design is your thing, you may want to download it. While it’s not as powerful as Krita, it’s easier to master and lighter on system resources.

5
Paint.net: Free Image Editor/Image Manipulator/Effects
Paint.net Free Open-Source Photo Editor Review

You can think of Paint.net as the simpler, skinnier sibling of GIMP and Photoshop. It’s incredibly light and has some great basic features. It’s also easy to learn for beginners, but still maintains a tool-set that satisfies the most common editing needs of photographers. If you’ve never used programs like GIMP or Photoshop before, Paint.net may be a great app to help you get started. Also, if your goal is to find a clean, straight forward editor without an overly complex UI, this is a strong contender. I give it a rating of 3 out of 5 stars.

Our Verdict on Paint.net Free Photo Editor

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Pros

  • Well though out, intuitive user interface and workflow that is easy to use and master
  • Offers a good array of brushes and area specific editing tools
  • Good variety of essential built-in effects and image adjustment tools
  • Very light application with quick, responsive performance and little demand on system resources
  • Supports layered photo editing and area specific masking.
  • Tabbed photo editing for working on multiple photos in dedicated workspaces
  • Provides the essential features you’ll find in GIMP and Photoshop.
  • Good plugin availability for expanded capability.

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Cons

  • Doesn’t offer native support for RAW file viewing or editing.
  • Doesn’t offer any native, intuitive way to brighten/darken specific areas of a photo.
  • Does not offer the enhanced predictive capabilities of Photoshop (i.e. you don’t see a preview layer of what you’re about to clone, you can’t zoom in with iWarp to catch fine details, etc.
  • Unlike GIMP, Paint.net does not support opening/saving .PSD (adobe Photoshop/Lightroom) files.

Bottom Line:

Paint.net is a solid, lightweight app with many useful tools and features. If you’re looking for a photo editor without all the bells and whistles for basic photo editing, this may be your best choice.

Useful Resources:

6
Pinta: Image Manipulator/Editor/Effects
Pinta Free Open-Source Photo Editor Review

Of all programs being compared, Pinta is the most similar to Paint.net. The chief difference is that Pinta is cross-platform and has installation packages for Windows, OS X, and Linux, whereas Paint.net is a Windows only program. So if you were just cursing me because you’re on a Mac or Linux machine and wanted to install Paint.net, here’s your clone.

Our Verdict on Pinta Free Photo Editor

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Pros

  • Well though out, intuitive user interface and workflow that is easy to use and master
  • Offers a good array of brushes and area specific editing tools.
  • Good variety of essential built-in effects and image adjustment tools.
  • Super light application with quick, responsive performance and little demand on system resources
  • Supports layered photo editing and area specific masking.
  • Tabbed photo editing for working on multiple photos in dedicated workspaces
  • Provides the essential features you’ll find in GIMP, Affinity Photo, and Photoshop.
  • Decent add-in availability for expanded capability.

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Cons

  • Doesn't offer native support for RAW file viewing or editing.
  • Doesn't offer any native, intuitive way to brighten/darken specific areas of a photo.
  • Does not offer the enhanced predictive capabilities of Photoshop (i.e. you don’t see a preview layer of what you’re about to clone, you can’t zoom in with iWarp to catch fine details, etc.
  • Like Paint.net, Pinta does not support opening/saving .PSD (adobe Photoshop/Lightroom) files.

Bottom Line:

Pinta is a solid, lightweight app with many useful tools and features. If you’re looking for a photo editor without all the bells and whistles for basic photo editing, this may be your best choice.

Pinta Resources

7
Pixia: Digital art/drawing/sketching
Pixia Free Open-Source Photo Editor Review

Yet another digital drawing app that’s mislabeled as a “photo editor.” Pixia has a large following of anime artists and hails from Japan. The site overview describes it as “quite unique and different from other tools” and I’d completely agree with that assessment. In fact, I couldn’t help but wonder if I was setting some kind of floating-tool-window record every time I loaded it on my desktop. Seriously – every time this app starts you’ll have a sensory overload. The interface is breathtakingly busy and the workflow and UI are organized in a way that is totally different than any other image software I’ve tested. I found it unintuitive, but obviously there are people out there who love the ba-jesus out of it – so…

As an enthusiast level software, I have no doubt that Pixia is great for digital art. As a photo editor, I give it 3 stars (mostly because it does have some useful photo editing tools and supports a wide variety of image file formats).

Our Verdict on Pixia Free Photo Editor

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Pros

  • Powerful and feature rich (for digital art).
  • All software you encounter after Pixia for the rest of your life will likely seem comparatively easy to learn and master.
  • Geared towards artistic anime geniuses (definitely not a good descriptor for me)
  • Huge wow factor every time you start this app - you won't believe what you see - seriously
  • Has more floating tool-windows than I’ve ever seen before in my life
  • Supports a large range of image file types, including .PSD
  • Supports layered photo editing and area specific editing
  • Comes from Japan – the same place my Nikon D810 and Toyota came from (so therefore it is good)

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Cons

  • Insanely complex - words fail here. It's not for the meek of heart
  • Floating tool-windows – everywhere (potentially a positive if you're into that kind of thing)
  • UI feels like you've completely lost your mind/awakened to find yourself in a strange parallel universe

Bottom Line:

If you’re an anime-artist-genius, this software is for you! If you’re looking for an opensource photo editor, GIMP will likely do more of what you need it to and be easier to learn.

8
CinePaint: Image editor/frame-by-frame movie editor
Cinepaint Free Open-Source Photo Editor Review

Often called “like GIMP,” CinePaint is actually another application that borrowed its source code from the GIMP project. While it does make a reasonably good photo editor, CinePaint was designed for film industry use, which is why it supports image formats like Kodak Cineon, SMPTE DPX, and ILM-NVIDIA OpenEXR.

The project hasn’t seen any updates since 2013 and the Windows version of the program has an incredibly outdated UI. Because GIMP has continued to progress and is far more capable as a photo editor now than the badly outdated CinePaint project, I’d just go with GIMP. The additional image files supported aren’t something you’re ever going to need as a photographer.

Our Verdict on CinePaint Free Photo Editor

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Pros

  • Feels like going back in time to 2003 and using GIMP.
  • Geared towards frame-by-frame film edits (i.e. not really a tool for photographers)
  • Supports a large number of image file formats, including some that are obscure to photographers.
  • Supports layered photo editing and area specific editing/masking

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Cons

  • Badly outdated/likely abandoned and might just contain ghosts
  • Considerably less powerful than the current version of GIMP.
  • No support appears to be available and no future updates appear to be planned.

Bottom Line:

While some film editors may find this program useful because of its file support, there’s really no reason for a photographer to use it over GIMP at this point. However, for anyone who wants to try it, I’m including the download link below.

9
RawTherapee: Digital darkroom software/RAW editor
Rawtherapee Free Open-Source Photo Editor Review

Of the opensource programs available on Windows, RawTherapee is the closest thing you’ll get to an opensource Lightroom clone. It’s an incredibly powerful, pro-level digital darkroom software that offers extensive support for viewing and editing RAW files. You’ll find everything from shadow and highlight tools, to tone mapping, chromatic aberration and lens correction.

The chief disadvantage of RawTherapee over programs like Lightroom is its inability to selectively edit image regions. To accomplish this, you could configure the program to open GIMP or Photoshop for further editing, but you won’t be able to do it within the program itself. The program also presents a significant learning curve that many new users may not be comfortable with.

Our Verdict on RawTherapee Free RAW Photo Editor

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Pros

  • Boasts one of the most comprehensive sets of RAW editing tools of any software
  • Supports a wide variety RAW format image files – including Nikon NEF
  • Supports lens corrections by lens profile as well as via manual adjustment. Includes an update-able database with lens profiles for most manufacturers
  • Has a good built in tools for chromatic aberration correction
  • While not as light as other options, this software is light, responsive, and stable relative to it's features and capabilities

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Cons

  • Poses a significant learning curve to new users.
  • Area specific editing isn’t supported within the application.
  • No native support to load images in pro-level 3rd party applications like Topaz Labs Collection, On1 Photo, and Google NIK Collection. However, RawTherapee does support loading images in Photoshop, which in turn supports loading images in all of these 3rd party applications.

Bottom Line:

In the opensource world, this is as good as RAW editors get. While it’s not quite as sophisticated as Lightroom in some areas and the workflow is considerably more complex, RawTherapee is better than many expensive pro-level RAW editors and it’s totally free.

10
digiKam: darkroom software/RAW editor/Photo Editor
digikam Free Open-Source Photo Editor Review

DigiKam is simple, but effective. It’s a great light-weight, enthusiast-level RAW editor geared towards people who want to make quick image edits. While digiKam is a lighter application, it includes a surprising number of essential tools and features more frequently seen in pro-level software like Lightroom and RawTherapee.

DigiKam also supports editing meta information in image files – a cool function I haven’t seen elsewhere outside of Lightroom. I rate it at 3.5 out of 5 starts.

Our Verdict on digiKam Free Photo Editor

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Pros

  • Good set of basic tools for editing most RAW format images
  • Integrated photo management supports editing photo metadata
  • Supports lens corrections by lens profile as well as via manual adjustment. Includes an update-able database with lens profiles for a number of manufacturers
  • Has good built in chromatic aberration correction
  • Super light application with quick, responsive performance and little demand on system resources
  • Supports batch editing (a cardinal sin to any pro-photographer), but yeah, it's there

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Cons

  • The features are more geared towards enthusiasts than pros.
  • Area specific editing isn’t supported within the application.
  • No native support to load images in pro-level 3rd party applications like the Topaz Labs Collection, On1 Photo, and Google NIK Collection.
  • Lens profiles are more limited than RawTherapee or Lightroom.

Bottom Line:

If you’re looking for a straight forward program that will let you make high quality edits without having to get a PHD to use it, this program may be for you. It’s simple, straight forward, and it gets the job done nicely. You can download it via the link below.

11
PhotoScape: Photo Editor/Effects/Filters
photoscape Free Open-Source Photo Editor Review

PhotoScape is an almost cuddly photo editor that’s best suited for after effects projects. For its size, it’s absolutely crammed full of features and while it might not be the most powerful editor out there, it’s definitely the most fun. The program even opens with random images from the PhotoScape website every time you start it.

For what it is (entry-level software offering a simplified take on pro-level tools), PhotoScape is amazing. I give it 4 out of 5 stars.

Our Verdict on PhotoScape Free Photo Editor

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Pros

  • Super easy to learn, use, and master
  • Great selection of photo effects and filters
  • Supports selective color removal
  • Great basic photo editing tools for every day editing
  • Supports limited, but area specific photo editing. Effects include brighten, darken, blur, paint, clone, and more
  • Supports text overlays, graphical overlays, and a variety of shape and symbol overlays
  • Supports batch editing (I repeat – a cardinal sin to any pro-photographer)
  • Supports creating animated GIF images, printing, and collage creation
  • Light, responsive, and stable – unless you’re loading really big images over 36MP

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Cons

  • The features are more geared towards enthusiasts than pros. Does that stop me from using it? Hell no!
  • No native support to load images in pro-level 3rd party applications like the Topaz Labs Collection, On1 Photo, and Google NIK Collection.
  • No support for RAW images.
  • Area specific image editing is more limited than Photoshop, GIMP, Krita, and Cinepaint.

Bottom Line:

If you’re looking for a straight forward program that will let you make high quality edits without having to get a PHD to use it, this program may be for you. It’s simple, straight forward, and it gets the job done nicely. You can download it via the link below.

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About the Author
Founder , Ayrne
I am an artist, traveler, and lover of the beauty of life
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