5 Free (and 1 Almost Free) Photoshop Alternatives

I don’t think there’s a whole lot of debate over the premise that Photoshop has become the gold standard in photo editing software. I’m pretty sure that my earliest use of Photoshop goes back to Version 3 or 4. Now deeply entrenched in CS6, I’ve decided to sit tight for a while. If I actually stopped to think about the relatively small percentage of PS’s full functionality that I actually use on a daily basis, I might also have to stop and ponder why I’m not still using an earlier version. Features have obviously evolved over Photoshop’s lifetime, but much of my workflow remains the same. So, in the absence of some huge development that I just can’t ignore, PSCS6 and I are doing just fine together for the time being. Also, while I see the potential benefits of The Cloud– immediate updates, etc.– there’s still a part of me that remains more than just a little pissed off about the new subscription format. There seems to be a new deal every time I turn around, and nobody seems capable of giving me a straight answer to the question of how much it costs when the discount period comes to an end.

It would seem that I’m not alone.

ps-alternatives-006-title-diyphotography

In a Photoshop-dominated editing world, it’s nice to know that there are options available that are either free, or at least won’t break the bank if you choose to purchase them. Today we’re going to take a look at some of those Photoshop alternatives.

GIMP

Originally launched as General Image Manipulation Program in the late 1990s,  GIMP is a free graphics editor that packs a pretty powerful punch. While most of us only care about its image editing and retouching capabilities, it can– like Photoshop– be used for some pretty robust graphic design work. Almost constantly evolving, GIMP relies heavily on input from its diverse group of users for suggestions and recommendations when implementing new features and functions. Available as a free download for Windows, Mac, and Linux.

ps-alternatives-001-gimp-diyphotography

Paint.NET

Paint.NET is a free image and photo editing software program, featuring a similar user interface to Photoshop’s. Supporting layers and other effects, the interface was designed for a pretty short learning curve. One feature I really like about the tabbed display when multiple images are open is that each tab can be easily identified by an image thumbnail, rather than just the file name. I tend to have several images open at once, and would love to see Photoshop incorporate a feature like this. Available as a free download for Windows only.

ps-alternatives-003-paintnet-diyphotography

Picasa

Originally created by Lifescape in 2002 and owned by Google since 2004, Picasa is a free image viewer, organizer, and editor. In addition to its file importing and tagging features, it also offers several basic photo editing functions, including the usual suspects– cropping, color enhancement, red eye reduction, etc. Images can also be optimized for external use, such as email and web posting, as well as slide shows and integration with online photo printing services. Picasa supports both JPEG and RAW formats, as well as Google’s WebP image format. Available for Windows and Mac.

ps-alternatives-005-picasa-diyphotography

Pixlr Editor

Pixlr Editor is a completely cloud-based set of imaging tools and utilities, including a solid editing program and photo sharing service. Originally developed in Sweden in 2008, the program was never intended for non-professionals.  Don’t let the anti-hype fool you, though. Pixlr’s got some serious game. Pixlr Editor is free and available for Windows PC, but is also downloadable in two mobile versions, Pixlr Express and Pixlr O-Matic, for both iOS and Android.

ps-alternatives-004-pixlreditor-diyphotography

Pixelmator

I’m not a Mac user, but checking out Pixelmator’s website had me making some phone calls to borrow one. Pixelmator is a full-featured graphics/image editor developed for Mac OS, built on a combination of open source and Mac OS technologies. The program features retouching, selecting, painting, and color correction tools, as well as layer-based image editing functions. Pixelmator uses Core Image and OpenGL technologies that use the Mac’s video card for image processing. Pixelmator is the only non-free entry on this list, but at $29.99 (USD), it’s incredibly affordable. Ridiculously affordable, actually, when compared to even just a one-year subscription to Adobe CC.

ps-alternatives-002-pixelmator-diyphotography

Just to be clear, Photoshop is still my image editor of choice. It has been part of my workflow for years and I don’t see that changing any time soon. I’m sure at some point I will even suck it up, cross over to the Dark Side, and subscribe to the cloud. The fact remains, though, that I’m a guy who believes in options– even if I don’t necessarily need them for myself. Additionally, the less-expensive editing options tend to be stripped down, or at least scaled back a bit from Photoshop. The result for new photographers and editors is a much more shallow learning curve, and– sometimes– an even better understanding of what the tools do and why. Let’s not forget that virtually everything in the digital darkroom originated in the REAL darkroom. Having a better understanding of the editing process brings with it a better understanding of photography, as well as your goal of getting it right in the camera.

Do you edit your images in a program other than Photoshop and Lightroom? Tell us about it in the comments.

  • whitemanek

    I recommend http://rawtherapee.com/ for RAW files.

    Also free.

    • Alan Klughammer

      Rawtherapee is great for converting RAW files to enable them to be edited in something like photoshop, but it is not a replacement for photoshop, and not really for lightroom either.

  • Dim

    I use Krita & Darktable. The 1st to edit & the 2nd to
    develop. to calibrate the screen… DispcalGUI, to download… Rapid
    Photo Downloader, compositing… Blender compositor, for panoramic , stack
    focus… Hugin. All are free & very pro. Only for hdr, i use snsHDR

    • yopyop

      Darktable, what a great software!

  • http://www.100flash.fr/ Jerome

    I’m using AfterShotPro for the RAW files, Gimp for editing, AutoPano Pro for panoramic, DispcalGUI (with a colormunki photo) to calibrate screen and printer, Turboprint for printing, rsync for backup. They are not all free, but I work with Linux only.

  • http://www.toddjana.com Todd Patterson

    How about Zoner Photo Studio? It seems to be very good, though the free version does not have full RAW processing, HDR and a few other features.

  • Dim

    Gimp is not really useful… It works only in 8 bits. Krita works until 32bits float & 100 megapixels

    • http://blog.patdavid.net/ Pat David

      Current GIMP 2.9 dev works in high bit depths. Not to mention that if you’re looking at images in a browser or on your computer it’s 8bit already. :)

      I normally try to do any violent things to images earlier in the postprocessing anyway…

      • Dim

        Gimp 2.10 was announced in 2012 for the end of 2013, The 2.9 is out in january 2014 & in development phase… not useful. Wait&see.

        When you work on a 8 bits image even slightly, you clip your image. In a browser, you can use png 16bits/pixel or send it to social site for best quality.

        • http://blog.patdavid.net/ Pat David

          Sure, I’m only saying that your monitor can (likely) only display 8bits per channel. If the final work will end up on a computer for display (website or otherwise), you’ll only be seeing an 8bpc representation of it, regardless of what software you used to get there.

          If you need to do violent things to your images where this is a concern, better to move it upstream in the process if possible before getting to GIMP. At that point, the 8bpc is not so much of a problem. :)

          • Dim

            if I follow your reasoning then the new features of gimp 2.10 are nonsense… as for the other editors!

          • Dim

            But in a photography, you dont have all the colors disposable with a 32 bits/pixel image at the same time but it’s use to smooth transition between shades of the same color. The difference is noticeable, for example in a blue sky. Work on a 8bits image with big shade of the same color & do the same work on a 16 bits image, then downgrade it to 8 bits & compare… You will have noticeable banding in the sky for the first one

          • http://blog.patdavid.net/ Pat David

            Only if you do violent things to the levels of the image in 8bit. Shouldn’t the question be, what are you doing to the image such that banding becomes an issue? As I said, better to move anything violent earlier in the process. :)

          • Dim

            Keep a glass full full of water and move it. You will lose water even if you move it smooth. Take a half full of water glass… no problems

          • http://blog.patdavid.net/ Pat David

            I’ll give you a simple example, have a look at this:

            https://lh5.googleusercontent.com/-MuIFyZuN-cs/Uw0mefB6IDI/AAAAAAAAOTs/WOA8UTTRZRY/s0/out.png

            One of those images is the 16bit straight from the RAW file.

            The other is exported 8bit, brought into GIMP, then had levels adjusted such that I removed 64 from either end (of 255), then re-expanded to full range. That type of violent action should produce a ‘noticeable’ banding in the blue sky, right?

            Which one is which, then?

            I understand what you’re trying to say, but to dismiss the usefulness of GIMP out of hand in such a fashion does a disservice to both GIMP and yourself…

          • Dim

            Just read… http://www.cambridgeincolour.com/tutorials/posterization.htm.

            That’s the truth. Why it doesn’t serve me, nor Gimp?! Somebody uses Gimp, he is waiting great results & if it’s not the case, Gimp’s reputation is destroyed. So it’s better to say i’m not completly good, i’ll be better later & perhaps very impressive…

          • http://blog.patdavid.net/ Pat David

            Look, I’m not debating that 16bit will provide more leeway to violently manipulate an image and avoid things like posterization. I think we all understand that it does.

            I am saying two things:
            1. It’s not nearly as bad as you think it is. It’s dependent on the image, what you’re doing to it, and what its intended display medium is.

            2. Dismissing GIMP out of hand because of this is a flawed premise. It’s not “useless” unless your only definition of usefulness is that you can violently compress and expand the image levels with minimal posterization.

          • http://blog.patdavid.net/ Pat David

            Ok, not to beat a dead horse, but here’s a quick example I did to demonstrate using the cambridgeincolour example image.

            To demonstrate the bad effects of banding, they had to remove a whopping 95% of the image data (that’s what I’d call violent).

            Even throwing away 22% of the image data in my example is hardly noticeable (mostly).

          • johnhs

            The one on the left is from GIMP. Still a darn good effort.

          • Alan Klughammer

            I really want to like gimp, but the issue of 8 bit is real. a small png on the web is not going to show anything. I can’t even tell if the image is in focus.
            Also, the 8-bit thing is only one of GIMP’s flaws. Realistically, GIMP is a good replacement for somewhere between Photoshop version 7 and CS2 (of course ignoring all of the 3d stuff I never use)

          • Dim

            Look at Eizo or even Dell monitors (U2413 for ex) & you will have the answer… 1.07 billions of colors! Gimp is an editor… the only “non-violent” operation, you can apply to an image is reduce the amount of colors!

          • Dim

            There are monitors which can display 16 millions of colors (cheap) & monitors which can display billions of colors (more expensive & some very expensive)

          • http://blog.patdavid.net/ Pat David

            Ummmm. Not sure how to respond to this. You’re aware that 8bpc = 16,777,216 possible colors? (ie: 24 bit monitors). I’m quite sure if you’re using an LCD panel, you’ve got 8bits (at best) to work with…

    • horacio

      I’m not a professional photographer, but I find Gimp very usefull. It has awesome plugins (heal selection to remove things, wavelet decompose for skin retouch) and G’MIC is really really good (I have to say I never used Krita)

  • joe_average

    my 2c…I love paint.net for basic pixel editing, Microsoft ice for panoramas, and picasa for photo organization (blows away everything else for face recognition), lightroom for lighting retouch (hate the bloated user interface), and goodsync for photo backups.

  • http://toptechphoto.com/ Konstantin Shtondenko

    Check out Pixlr rival “Edit”. It uses 32bits processing and handles images up to 42 megapixels.

    http://news.cnet.com/8301-1023_3-57618978-93/pics.io-edit-aims-for-better-online-photo-editing/

  • http://photosbyjsm.blogspot.com/ Jesse McCarty

    I use Gimp, Darktable & Hugin for my photography. I have never had the bit depth of Gimp be an issue. Gimp 2.8 also has the thumbnail view the author likes when multiple images are loaded. And if you really need the high bit depth editing, it is supposed to be available in the 2.10 release and is currently available in the 2.9 development branch (as Pat mentioned).

  • Eric Dye

    My workflow is mostly Import>Lightroom>Photoshop if needed>Nix>Lightroom>Export

  • Dean JAMIESON

    Lightzone is a good alternative, especially for raw conversion.

    http://lightzoneproject.org/

  • Sparky

    Capture One

  • London City Print

    Have you ever tried Gimpshop? seems to be better than normal GIMP and very similar to photoshop… but free! :P http://bit.ly/1nSUdVx