The 6 Best Free Photo Editing Software: Expert Review and Comparison
The demand for photo editor software has exploded over recent years, and is no longer the preserve of a few technically-minded people with high-end computer systems and expensive image editing software such as Photoshop. Now there are numerous freeware photo editor programs available to download online- so many in fact that it may be a little daunting to the uninitiated as to which of these freeware programs is best suited to them. This comparison review will set out to present to you the pros, cons and hard facts regarding six of these programs, with the end goal of allowing you to choose the best free photo editing software for your own needs. So what should you expect? All photo editing software should at the very least have basic image manipulation features such as brightness/contrast controls, color correction, cropping tools text and graphic insertion options and so forth. With this in mind, we will evaluate each of these programs with an overview, pros, cons and a final score out of 10.
Starting life as a college computer science experiment, Paint.NET has grown over the years into a potent photo editing system, with numerous features and plugins bolstering its capabilities. The program, developed primarily for Windows, is well-regarded as a potential entry point to photo editing software for beginners due to its straightforward user interface, but it is also attractive to more advantaged users due to the number of additional plugins and downloads available.
- Simple, user-friendly interface. Paint.NET's layout is intuitive and logical; well suited to beginners who want to explore photo editing software without being confused by numerous panels and countless options.
- Capacity for advancement. The features and abilities of Paint.NET can be augmented with plugins, affording users a more powerful photo editing tool as their own abilities and requirements advance.
- Good range of image-enhancement tools. Using the program's adjustments menu, you can access a good range of typical image adjusting options such as hue, saturation and gamma curves, all presented in a simple, easy-to-use manner.
- Reasonably good variety of creative editing tools. Once new users grasp the basics of photo editing, a lot of the fun thereafter comes from exploring the program's creative possibilities. Paint.NET offers a fair selection of tools in this regard, plenty for a beginner, but if you require more options, it will be necessary to explore plugins.
- No plugins management tool. Considering the important role that plugins play in Paint.NET, the management of these add-ons could be better integrated into the program itself rather than the current option where you have to navigate to Windows Explorer.
- Less power and options. Paint.NET is a great option for any photo editing novices out there, but for intermediate to advanced users, there are other freeware programs that are simply more powerful and have more options.
Score: 7 out of 10.
A far more powerful freeware program, GIMP is often touted as a potential rival to Adobe Photoshop in that it could be used by professionals for more high-end image editing and graphic design work. GIMP can operate on Windows, Mac and Linux operating systems, and features a comprehensive selection of image enhancing and editing tools, virtually on-par with the selection available on Photoshop. It also allows for a broad range of file types to be edited. Sounds impressive in summary, but how does GIMP fare in the comparison review?
- Excellent array of features and tools. GIMP has features as standard which other freeware programs can only access via plugins, if at all. The range and power of these tools certainly amount to a formidable challenge to Photoshop.
- Interface options. One drawback of previous versions of GIMP was that many found its interface- which consisted of numerous windows and panels- too overwhelming. But the latest versions of the freeware now have a single window mode for more streamlined use, while retaining the option of the traditional interface for those who have grown to prefer it.
- Simplified text editing. With GIMP, you can now make text additions to the image directly onto the image canvas rather than in a separate text control panel. This tool also allows you to adjust font and size of text directly on the image with relative ease.
- A more complicated program. The drawback of GIMP's power and features is that it is inevitably more complicated to use than some other freeware programs. For less-experienced users, GIMP's capabilities will be of no benefit to them if they can't navigate the system's controls, but for the more advanced, this is a tough option to beat.
- No non-destructive editing. More most users, it is crucial that they can edit their images without altering the original image data. Future versions of GIMP are due to have this feature, but for now, its absence is sorely missed.
Score: 8.5 out of 10.
If you don't need a vast amount of photo-editing power, but aren't a complete novice either, then there are numerous mid-range photo editor software packages freely available online. One such program is PixBuilder Studio, favored by some for its straightforward interface and moderate image manipulation capabilities. But as neither the simplest or most powerful of freeware image editing programs, is this Windows editor worth a look or is it destined to be lost in the shuffle?
- Intuitive interface. PixBuilder Studio's layout is simple and easy to grasp, but just in case, there is a comprehensive and well-written help guide available with the program. Menu options can be found along the top of the program, while a selection of tools can be found to the left, showing you right away what kind of adjustments you can accomplish.
- Layer support. Unlike some other freeware programs, PixBuilder Studio allows for the use of layers, which are crucial for anything other than the most rudimentary of photo edits.
- Solid image manipulation features. PixBuilder Studio's editing capabilities aren't necessarily the most exciting bunch, but for essential manipulations such as crop, color adjust, brightness and more, the program performs diligently and reliably.
- Limit to editing capabilities. If you want more power and options from your photo editor, then there is a definite ceiling to PixBuilder Studio's usefulness.
- Limited range of supported files. PixBuilder Studio supports some of the most popular file types, but its range pales in comparison to more powerful freeware programs.
Score: 7.5 out of 10
Much like GIMP, PhotoLine is freeware software clearly intended to pose a real challenge to Adobe Photoshop in terms of performance and features. Compatible with both Windows and Mac, and claiming an impressive list of image-editing tools, this program appears to tick a lot of boxes, but does it fulfill on its promise?
- Extensive range of editing options. PhotoLine's range of image manipulation features are comparable to those offered by both GIMP and Photoshop. The tools themselves work effectively, but some may require a steady hand in order to get the optimum results.-Wide-ranging adjustment options. A unique benefit of PhotoLine is the degree to which filters and blending options can be adjusted; +/- 200% in some instances. This can afford experienced photo editors to tweak images to a highly precise degree.
- Non-destructive editing support. Considering the range of manipulation options available with this program, layer adjustment and non-destructive editing capabilities are a very necessary and welcome inclusion.
- Unintuitive. PhotoLine is quite definitely not for beginners, who may find its interface cluttered and its array of options bewildering. Many of its editing options have highly-specific purposes which will require a strong knowledge of image-editing techniques and functions in order to get the best from this program.
- Poor user-support network. Compounding the issues with its complicated design and unintuitive nature is the lack of a decent support community or help options. Tutorials and support can be difficult to come across, and many of those available are in German rather than English.
- Unattractive design and layout. PhotoLine occupies a bizarre and hazardous space whereby it has an initially basic and no-frills appearance, only to reveal itself as a rather complicated and multi-faceted program. For any other than experienced photo editors, this will be a major turn-off.
Score: 6.5 out of 10
Overview.Another rough-and-ready basic photo editor, PhotoScape can't compete with higher-end programs, but in reality it isn't expected to. This Windows-only software has a limited but effective array of features which are perhaps best suited to casual users who wish to manipulate images for the likes of social media. It's emphasis on areas such as GIF animations and instant photo filters will likely make it a favorite for leisure use rather than to be deployed in any elaborate or professional capacity.
- Simple, one-click features. PhotoScape is about fast results rather than precision work, with a focus on filters and clip art that lends itself well to generate or tweak social media content. Its simple, colorful interface and features also marks it out as a potential introductory program for children to the world of photo editing.
- Effective cropping function. One area in which PhotoScape excels is its image cropping feature, which includes standard crop ratios for printing, as well as a host of less-common ratios, as well as the option for customization.
- Severely limited range of features. It would be unfair to compare PhotoScape to the likes of Photoshop or GIMP; it is nowhere near as powerful or wide-ranging as those programs. In short, PhotoScape is not for serious work- it should be treated as a fun tool and nothing more.
- Ineffective image adjustments. PhotoScape doesn't emphasize its image-enhancing capabilities, so it's perhaps unsurprising that many of its tools, such as red eye reduction, simply don't work very well.
Score: 5.5 out of 10
While some other freeware programs place sole emphasis on image editing and enhancement, other programs could be more considered as photo management software, with some editing capabilities. These programs may lack the range of features available from their more-powerful rivals, but they can satisfy the requirements of a different kind of user, one who desires a one-stop program that allows them to manage and view photos as well as carry out some image-editing when necessary.
- Comprehensive image management. PhotoPerfect boasts a rather effective photo library function which allows you to keep track of large numbers of photos with ease. It can adjust image view from full-size to thumbnails quickly, as well as grant easy access to any image's information. This is a very welcome feature for users who are anticipating handling a large amount of images.
- Batch image processing. As well as more conventional image-editing and enhancement functions, PhotoPerfect also features batch processing capabilities aimed at the optimization of whole photo collections at once, typically for web publication. Again, if you intend to handle a lot of photos and require a mass-output solution, then this is a very effective tool.
- Overcomplicated interface. The most serious drawback of PhotoPerfect is that its overall design and interface has been rendered more cluttered and complicated than it really needs to be, which unfortunately damages its appeal as a multi-faced and convenient program.
- Not solely a photo editor. This is less a flaw, but an important point to to be made in that this is not purely a photo-editing program like other freeware, and if its content management functions do not appeal, then users would be better off opting for more dedicated editing software.
Score: 6 out of 10.
The final ranking of the six programs reviewed, from best to worst, is as follows:
- GIMP (8.5/10)
- PixBuilder Studio (7.5/10)
- Paint.NET (7.0/10)
- PhotoLine (6.5/10)
- PhotoPerfect (6.0/10)
- PhotoScape (5.5/10)
These scores should be treated as a broad guidance tool however; in order to ensure that you select the best free photo editing software for yourself, you must firstly evaluate your own requirements from the software, as well as your experience level. With this in mind, the following recommendations have been decided upon:
Best for Beginners: Paint.NET. Simple and intuitive, Paint.NET is the best place to start if you are a novice to photo editing software. It's plugin capabilities can allow you to enhance the program as your own knowledge develops.
Best for Intermediates: PixBuilder Studio. For those seeking more of a challenge, this program has all-round potential as an unassuming image-editing workhorse.
Best for Advanced Users: GIMP. Certainly not a program to start off with, but if you have to requisite level of experience, GIMP's capabilities are second-to-none among freeware photo editor software.