Tips on Choosing a Free Photo Editor for Post-Processing

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A question I get asked a lot is, “What software for post processing would you recommend if you were starting out in photography today?”

Don’t know which photo editor to choose, here are some free options worth considering.

My go-to software for editing photos is Adobe Photoshop. This doesn’t mean I am advocating that Photoshop is the only photo editor worth considering – far from it. I will be using Photoshop as a frame of reference only, and not as a direct comparison to other software products mentioned in this article.

Title

Deciding which Photo Editor can be daunting for a beginner, especially as there are so many to choose from!

However, it is the industry’s number one software for professionals. Prior to the new subscription model, Photoshop was a standalone piece of software and was expensive. But even with the subscription model, it’s a recurrent expense, which over time will amount considerably for your buck.

After doing some research, I was quite amazed at the plethora of photo editing software applications, on the market that are relatively inexpensive to purchase. Most of which equip the beginner with more than enough features and tools to get your images looking great.

Also, most of the applications can be downloaded free, for a limited trial period. This gives you a better idea what it’s like, and you’re able to test the software and its capabilities.

Other products can be downloaded for entirely free and some are even web based, so you don’t have to download any software onto your computer. The disadvantage is that you do need a reliable internet connection. Also, I did find the annoying ads that pop up alongside the interface distracting. An alternative to get rid of these ads is to pay for an upgrade.

Let’s take a look at some of the free options:

Pixlr

Pixlr is a web based, online editing tool. You can create a new image, upload an image, or grab one directly from a URL location. I found this product very intuitive and easy to use. The images load up fast in the web browser. The interface is quite similar to Photoshop. It has all the tools like: layers, lasso tool, brush controls, cloning, and filters.

Pixlr-web-based-launch-screen

The Launch screen as it appears when you load Pixlr in your web browser.

Pilxr-web-based-image-editor-interface

You have four options to choose from when you go to open your file. It’s that easy.

Ok, so where do you start with your post-processing?

When you have your image open, duplicate it so that you keep the original intact. That way, if you completely mess up, don’t worry, you still have the original to begin again.

Post editing is a skill. It does take patience and time to master.

Color correction

I would consider color correction an important area to begin your post-processing.

The Levels setting exists in many image editors. It is a powerful tool for adjusting the tones (contrast) in your image, and for making color adjustments. In Photoshop, you select Layer> New Adjustment Layer > Levels. In Photoshop Elements choose Enhance > Adjust Lighting > Levels. Other image editors place it differently, but essentially it does the same job. The Levels setting is a bit daunting and complex to begin with, but I do feel it is worth the time to get to know.

The Levels dialog box has an image histogram which is similar to the display on the back of your camera. A simple explanation of the histogram is: the shadows (blacks) are on the far left, mid-tones (grays) are in the middle and the highlights (whites) are on the far right. So by adjusting any of the sliders on the bottom, you will affect the contrast of your image.

Levels-in-Pixlr-and-Photoshop

The Levels setting on the left belongs to Pixlr, and on the right is the Levels adjustment as it appears in Photoshop CS6.

Okay, but what about the color of the image?

An easy way to adjust color correction is by changing the color channels which are found in the Levels dialog box. The default setting is RGB in Pixlr.

Adjustment-Levels-Pixlr

Where you find the Levels setting in Pixlr.

Go to Adjustment Tab and select Levels. Click on the downward arrow next to RGB in Channel, this brings up a drop-down menu for the red, green and blue channels. Choose the first one, which is red. Look at the histogram graph and check for gaps in it.

Color-channels-in-Levels-pixlr

The colour channels appear in a drop down menu by clicking on the small arrow to the right of RGB.

For this image, as it is quite over-exposed a lot of the shadow detail is lost (overly gray and no black in the image), see left of the graph. Move the shadow slider to the right, in towards the middle, where the graph starts to go up.

You want your graph to represent a nice mountain shape starting from the shadows rising high in the midtones and back down to the highlights. See photo. Repeat this process for the other two channels. Click back to RGB.

To add some contrast, just move the middle slider (mid-tones) to the right, see photo below. There is a lot more to learn about the Levels adjustment, but this is just an easy way for beginners to start.

Before-and-after-color-correction-pixlr

Before and after colour correction on the RGB channels using Pixlr.

Some other alternative web based solutions are SumoPaint, which has a similar interface to Photoshop, and another called PicMonkey.

SumoPaint

Similar to Pixlr, SumoPaint was very easy to use. I was able to adjust the color correction on this image using the Levels adjustment and modifying the color channels, as I did using Pixlr.

Sumopaint-in-browser

Sumopaint-Levels

Sumopaint-Levels-channels

If you prefer to download software onto your computer. Again there is a wide choice of free products available.

Photoscape

Here’s another one that you may or may not have come across, called Photoscape. This software is packed with excellent features for free. It has a built-in image viewer, which lets you see all your images quickly at a glance using thumbnails. It also has a Batch Editor, so if you apply an edit to one photo or resize it – using the Batch Editor will apply the same edit to multiple images. It even has a RAW Converter. For beginners, it offers image cropping, brightness and colour adjustment, red eye removal, and some great effects too. It does appear to more intuitive and offer a less steep learning curve for beginners.

Photoscape

Photoscape

Editor-tool-in-Photoscape

Main editor tools in Photoscape

Adding-frames-in-Photoscape

Adding frames in Photoscape

Edit-photo-edge-photoscape

Edit photo edge in Photoscape

Preview, which is Apple’s built-in image and document viewer for OS X, surprised me. It has the capability to crop, resize, and do color adjustment which was quite impressive.

Conclusion

In summing up, there is a vast range of post-processing image editors to choose from. In this article, I only hinted at a mere few. The list is endless!

As a guide for beginners, I would experiment with the free options and test them out for yourself. There is no financial investment only your time. The time invested will give you a better idea which application suits you best in the long run.

Post-processing does require time, no matter how skillful you become at it. Once you have established a certain level of skill at post editing, you can then graduate to purchasing a reasonable priced standalone image editor, if you prefer.

Example products are:

Or you could simply download GIMP, (some equate this software as being powerful to Photoshop) which is an open source image editor with versions available for Windows, OS X, and Linux. There are lots of tutorials and resources already on the web to help you further with this software.

In fact, if I was new to photography and I had to decide which photo editor to pick, I would feel spoilt for choice!

Disclaimer: I was not contacted or sponsored to test any of the above software applications. Opinions are purely by the author only.

Read more from our Post Production category

Sarah Hipwell is an independent professional photographer based in Dublin. She specialises in high-quality corporate, stock and portraiture photography. Her background is in Design. She received her BA in Hons Design from the University of Ulster, Belfast. She has many years commercial design experience working as a designer and as a trainer for large multimedia companies. See more of her work at SarahHipwell.com or at 500px.

  • kazoid

    If you choose Photoshop for post processing, I don’t understand your article. GIMP is the best free tool to replace Photoshop. None of the choices you present compare to Photoshop or GIMP. If you can compare Photoshop to Pixlr I think that says a lot about what you use Photoshop for…

  • Bezorgde burger

    Gimp is a very good alternative to Photoshop. Darktable is a very good alternative to lightroom. Both are free and Open Source.
    darktable is an open source photography workflow application and RAW developer. A virtual lighttable and darkroom for photographers. It manages your digital negatives in a database, lets you view them through a zoomable lighttable and enables you to develop raw images and enhance them.

    GIMP is the GNU Image Manipulation Program. It is a freely distributed piece of software for such tasks asphoto retouching, image composition and image authoring. It works on many operating systems, in many languages. (more…)

  • I’ve been using Gimp for a few years, and I haven’t found it to be every bit as powerful as PS. I use the Nikon ViewNX2 software to adjust sharpness, color, etc. to the RAW files, and Gimp for any editing, like layers and cloning, to the JPEGs.

  • I’m curious what people think of Zoner Photo Studio. It advertises a 30 day free trial but after the 30 days you can continue to use a limited (e.g. no RAW editing, batch editing, etc.) version.
    https://www.zoner.com/

  • Craig Crowder

    This pretty much sums it up. Darktable and GIMP are the only real alternatives.

  • Dre Mosley

    gIMP is a powerful PS alternative. . . .if you can get past the interface.

  • Sarah Hipwell

    Hi Kazoid,

    I wanted to highlight some of the many(as there are indeed many more) of the free photo editors available, both as a standalone software or a web based version, for post processing.

    However, I did mention Photoshop is my go-to software and I used this purely as a frame of reference only and not as a direct comparison. It was not my intention to infer one photo editor is better than others.

    The point of my article was to illustrate to photographers (beginners, hobbyists or advanced) that for the purpose of post editing, the free options are worth exploring. Hope this helps.

  • Ameliorate

    Polarr is great for filters!

  • Mattia Cortesi

    May I suggest http://www.rawtherapee.com ? A free, multi-platform and complete raw development software.

  • eric rehbein

    I’ve used several versions since #12. I recently upgrade to v17 and find it to be an excellent value and a very capable program, easy to learn. I paid $39 for a whole house license shortly before v18 came out. I have psp x7, pse 11 and lr5, but zoner is my go to program now.

  • Sarah Hipwell

    Hi Mattia, I agree I found this editor quite intuitive to use. I did another article comparing some of the free RAW editors here at https://digital-photography-school.com/post-processing-raw-files-acr-compared-to-some-free-software-options/

  • stevepitman

    I’d suggest ‘free’ isn’t the only option here – we should now also consider ‘vastly cheaper than Photoshop’ because if you do so you include these two, both of which are great (though Mac-only):

    1) Pixelmator – http://www.pixelmator.com/mac

    2) Affinity Photo – https://affinity.serif.com/en-gb/photo

    Affinity is just stunning for the modest cost vs anything that Adobe offers.

  • Howard Raver

    While I have not used any of these, I have used GIMP in the past. I equate the most current version of GIMP to the early days of Photoshop – more specifically Photoshop version 5 (circa 1999 -2000). It is really not very good, it hasn’t changed very much in the past 10 years or so and no matter which platform I use (yes, I have used Windows, Linux, and Mac) it sucks. It crashes all the time regardless of my computer. It hangs and I have to restart either the application or quite often, the computer itself. Do yourselves a favour and avoid GIMP, and try the others so stated in this article. Or, for $10 per month, use the Photographer bundle of Photoshop and Lightroom and avoid all the hassles of being cheap.

  • WillyPs

    Another voice for the Gimp here… Though I usually start with XnView, and only go to Gimp for more complex edits.

  • Yep. I got a free copy of Aftershot 2 when I bought Paintshop Pro but I still use rawtherapee as I find it does more. Great raw program.

  • PDL

    How about Capture One? Why is this site so dedicated to Adobe?

  • BazzaBoy

    I use IrfanView, Photo Filtre and Photoscape. Between the three of them, they pretty much get the job done. I use Picasa to organise my photos and Microsoft ICE to create panoramas.

  • Alastair Preston

    I’m surprised at your comments about GIMP – I’ve been using it for years on my Linux systems and the only time that I had lockups was when using the xsane plugin to do a scan, and even then only on rare occasions. Turned out to be a scanner driver problem, and it hasn’t happened at all since I bought a new scanner.

  • Stephanie

    I always use Snapseed, i know its not even CLOSE to PS or anything, but for beginners wanting to enhance their images, its a stunning app, and free.
    I attached some images below as examples.

  • Calvin Hodgson

    For photo editing, Photoshop is overkill. Half the tools you’ll likely never use or not even know is there. If you were doing photo manipulation, Photoshop is excellent. Things like making composites with varying level of light, colors etc., blending them, adjusting the photo layers, and cloning some stuff out is what Photoshop is meant for. Not simply to adjust the saturation, lumosity, contrast, whites, shadows, hues, clarity, et. al. That is what Lightroom is for.

    There are a few times I have used Photoshop recently like this picture https://flic.kr/p/yYtifV.

    Otherwise, I just use Lightroom like in this picture to do my edits. https://flic.kr/p/yCZgW6

    The few occasions you NEED PS you would be better served using GIMP. Many of the features in Shop I rarely touch, mainly due to a lack of understanding or knowledge about them.

    Photoshop = Pixel editing
    Lightroom + others = global (all over) photo editing

  • Post-processing is used in the business for quality-improvement image processing (specifically digital image processing) methods. As i like GIMP is a great and powerful PS alternative.

  • rwhunt99

    I have used Photoshop for years and when they went to subscription, I immediately set out to find a lower cost solution. I found the Paint Shop Pro from Corel as a reasonably cost effective solution. It uses Photoshop brushes and can use their image format (.psd) files too. If you have used Photoshop before, this will make your transition pretty easy. There are plenty of training videos on line also. It is not as quick as Photoshop, but it is nearly as powerful and surprisingly good. it is reasonably priced and is cheaper than Photoshop essentials and regularly goes on sale also.

  • Richard

    Darktable + Gimp + Digikam + Geeqie. I use Geeqie for quick review and culling. Digikam for organizing and exporting.

  • Richard

    I should also add: Hugin for pano stitching, and Luminance HDR for, well, HDR… Though I don’t do much of the latter lately.

  • Richard

    I don’t understand how something can be a frame of reference without directly comparing the things you are reviewing to it.

  • Linda Williams

    I agree, GIMP is a real alternative to Photoshop. But for someone who’s not that familiar with this advanced kind of tools it may be a little bit overwhelming, especially if they have to perform basic tasks. For example, for batch processing I use BatchPhoto because it’s a tool designed exactly for this kind of operations. It just makes it easier. Here’s an article on that:
    http://www.batchphoto.com/blog/batch-editing-without-photoshop/

  • Liam P Burke

    I had gotten kind of excited when you mention darktable. I mean finally… an open source raw editor comparable to Lightroom…..

    To bad it is only possible to run 12% of the computers in the world…. Honestly… What good is a program that you cant run on windows?

  • Bezorgde burger

    Some people can argue what good is Windows if it can run a program.
    All Linux distributions and Macs certainly can run it.

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