The Best Free Graphic and Photo Editing Software (When You’re Too Broke for Photoshop)

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Many fancy photography effects, created by utilizing fancy lighting setups and a professional-grade camera (both very expensive), can be recreated in Photoshop with a little electronic wizardry. “Photoshop” has gone beyond being merely a brand name to become a regular household word, a verb and a noun even.

Like the name, “Band-Aid”, which is technically Band-Aid brand adhesive bandages (but who calls them that?!), Photoshop is really just a Adobe’s brand of fancy image editing software. Fancy, and expensive, image editing software.

According to, Standard Adobe Photoshop (not the Extended Version) is $599 and Adobe Illustrator, (Adobe’s standard vector image editing software) is $699. The Design Standard Suite is over $1,000. Again, just a little out of my price range.

If you can’t shell out the money for a special lighting setup or a professional, high-end camera, how can you afford Photoshop?

Below is a list of my favorite image editing software – free alternatives to Photoshop and even Adobe Illustrator. I’ve also included a couple new online favorites that I only recently discovered. All of them are great, and there is something for everyone – from the beginner to the advanced.

1. IrfanView (

Experience Level Required: Novice

Pros: Fast, compact, uses minimal resources, many features (even more with plugins installed), many easy keyboard shortcuts available, functions as a viewer as well as a basic image editor, batch conversions, slideshow creation, precise cropping, variety of screen capture options, handles tons of file types, straight forward and easy to use.

Cons: Does not seem to do background saves (file saving requires overwriting the previously saved version every time), photo edits apply to entire image even if only one area is selected.

My Review:
IrfanView is far and wide my absolute favorite image viewer/editor. I have been using it several years now, and have no plans to stop anytime soon.It is not for hardcore advanced edits but IrfanView has manyuseful features for basic and somewhat advanced editing. For me, it is absolutely the most fast and efficient viewer.It is easy to use even for novices and I recommend it to everyone. The only thing that I use Windows Picture Manager for over IrfanView is to rotate multiple but intermittent files – going in filmstrip view and editing images as I come to them is simpler because it automatically saves as rotated.

IrfanView does not automatically save when you make a change, but for good reason. On the contrary, it has a very handy “reopen” feature if you’ve messed up an image beyond repair and need to go back to how you started.

IrfanView is a quick, small and compact. The default display size is whatever IrfanView is maxed to, but you can also easily view large images at full size with a keyboard shortcut. Rotating and flipping are at the touch of a key also.

IrfanView offers a variety of screen capture options that prove very handy. You can capture the screen with or without the cursor, foreground area, whole desktop, or just a specific window. You can set a hot-key to trigger the snapshot or have it timed if you are trying to catch everything in exact positions.

Editing is basic, but very convenient. Rotate, flip, crop, brighten, sharpen, resize, simple bevels, saturation, hue, add text, etc.

It all happens quickly and unlike some programs, is simple enough even for a novice to sit down and get started without reading a lengthy manual.

One of my favorite features is the crop tool. Unlike cropping in some Windows programs, you can see the pixel size of the area you’ve selected. If you want to cut a perfect 100px by 100px square out of an image, IrfanView allows you to see if you’ve highlighted an exactly square section. If it’s still too large, the Resize/Resample function allows you to size it down to an exact size without losing image quality.

IrfanView’s also offers a convenient Batch Conversion/Batch Rename function. I’ve used this countless times and it, too, is quick and easy.

I have not used it for cropping but it is invaluable for resizing multiple photos at once (such as resizing those huge, high-resolution photos to fit smaller versions on a CD for someone) and you can rename the resized versions simultaneously.

All this packaged into one compact little program – and for free!

2. Inkscape (

Experience Level Required: Intermediate to Advanced

Pros: Relatively easy to use, variety of in-depth editing features, supports a variety of input and output types including support for Adobe Illustrator .eps files, filters make professional looking edits with ease, many features are easily tweaked to accommodate your particular needs, many options for exporting bitmaps.

Cons: Some features are more technical than novices may be comfortable with (prior experience with Adobe Illustrator would likely be helpful), resource intensive program, viewing files at full size has to be done carefully to avoid locking up the program, cropping took some time to figure out.

My Review:
I’d like to start by saying that I’m still only a beginner with Inkscape. I have used Adobe Illustrator a bit before, but I never had much time to go in-depth with it and would usually get frustrated at not knowing what to do. I have had much more opportunity to use Inkscape, but I still consider myself quite the novice when it comes to editing vector graphics.In spite of my lack of knowledge about vector graphic editors, and vector graphics in general, Inkscape is still a convenient and simple way to create professional, impressive looking logos and buttons with almost no technical expertise or knowledge of graphics editing software.The simplest way to do this is to use the text tool to type out what you want, choose a nice font, and then play around with the various filters until you get the effect you want.

One filter is nice, but multiple filters can make something even more impressive looking. The logo on my blog is a result of doing just that. The rainbow-swirled paint splash is actually the product of a square with a gradient and several different filters stacked on top of each other.

You’d never know by looking at it that it started as a square (a gray square even, if I remember right).

Working with text is also pretty simple with Inkscape and you don’t need to rasterize it to use the filters. Filter options include the very basic (lighten, darken, sharpen, blur, etc), textures, colorize, “non-realistic 3D shaders”, overlays, materials, bevels, and more.

Although Inkscape isn’t designed to be a photo editor, I recently used it to create some pretty neat photo effects. I created a collage of small photos and wanted it to look like it was a bunch of wrinkled old photos put together – and it worked to do just that.

Resizing and rotating individual components is a breeze, but cropping them can be a bit confusing. Cropping in Inkscape is actually called “clipping” and it doesn’t function exactly the same as most cropping tools.

I actually had to conduct a Google search to figure it out, and even then it was difficult finding a clear explanation that made sense. I have re-posted it on my blog for your convenience (see below).

You also have to watch your actual file sizes in Inkscape. It is easy to set the canvas size as say 110×110 and then fill it from there. But if you work without setting the canvas size and go mostly freeform, you can end up with a very large image file without realizing it (especially if you zoom out to improve Inkscape’s performance.

If you’ve done this and try to zoom in, Inkscape’s performance reduces significantly, depending on your computer’s technical specs. It corrects itself well, but you may have to give it awhile.

The most advanced part of Inkscape is working with paths and nodes. Admittedly I am not experienced with paths and nodes yet. I have used them a little in experimentation, but for the most part I can’t give a good review on the usage of paths and nodes with Inkscape.

Flattening layers is also something that I imagine is possible, but I have yet to figure it out exactly. That’s where the “Advanced” recommendation comes in.

If you are comfortable using Adobe Illustrator, figuring out paths and nodes in Inkscape should be simple, and is covered a bit here. I never got comfortable enough with Adobe Illustrator to have a definite opinion on the paths and nodes functions in Inkscape (and have not had a reason to use them much in Inkscape, either).

3. GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program –

Experience Level Required: Intermediate to Advanced

Pros: Great feature list, hover tips explain feature icons, supports a variety of input and output types including support for Adobe Photoshop .psd files, variety of filters for professional looking image edits, clean and efficient interface, generally faster load time than Adobe Photshop, many tweakable features for enhanced control, ability to easily reset defaults, supports a variety of keyboard shortcuts, results using GIMP are generally comparable to using Adobe Photoshop.

Cons: Lacks some features of Adobe Photoshop, certain functions take some getting used to, recreating some an Adobe Photoshop type results may require additional steps.

My Review:
Honestly, I haven’t used GIMP much. In fact, for awhile I did have access to Adobe Photoshop and would mess around with it trying to do all sorts of effects with different photos. Usually, I would take a photo of a person and test out different things by cutting out the background from behind them, or separating it on a different layer just to swirl it or some other funky and ridiculous effect.

I’m not usually creative enough to recreate some of the amazing “photoshopped” images that some people do. My problem was my own creative limitations – I’m not usually artsy so, while I can typically recreate what I see, I need to have a clear image (or at least a clear vision) of what I’m going for – and some sort of motivation to achieve it.

Recently, I got that motivation along with a purpose, and needed some more photo editing capabilities. I’d been using IrfanView for quick, basic edits and Inkscape for designing logos, icons, and messing around in general. But I no longer had Adobe Photoshop, so I decided to try out GIMP.

It took me a little bit to mentally switch gears from Adobe Photoshop tools to GIMP tools, and a couple tools took me a little Google searching to figure out. I can’t say it’s because GIMP is that hard to learn, but rather that I was frustrated and impatient and not thinking about it practically.

I used selection, crop, layers, filters, set the image size, etc. All of these were pretty easy. I used the tools for gradient, fill (color and pattern), clone, blur, smudge, airbrush, and various selection tools. Nothing too fancy but very frequently used tools for many common photo edits.

The clone tool took me a minute to figure out, and the brush sizes originally seemed to be lacking. Once I experimented a little more, I was very pleasantly surprised with the ability to tweak the brush in a wide variety of ways.

This makes pixel-by-pixel editing around curves and edges extremely simple. You can tweak the hardness, opacity, angle, shape, aspect ratio, radius, even add spikes and make a funky-shaped brush style!

Editing the brush sizes and shapes proved to be an invaluable feature when using the clone tool to capture a very specific portion of an image. The brush editor allows you to create a brush up to 1,000 pixels in size – huge!

One feature of GIMP is the ability to open new images as layers, and open multiple images simultaneously. This came in handy both because it was quick and also because having the images on automatically different layers lets you overlap them easily.

Another handy feature is the locator icon (not sure its actual name) in the bottom right hand corner. If you zoom in too far on a given image and want to locate a specific portion, you can drag the cursor around the icon and go right to the desired spot..

I didn’t find as many filter options in GIMP as I did in Inkscape, or maybe they just weren’t as cut-and-dry, but there are still a wide range with many options.

The real power to GIMP comes very similar to Adobe Photoshop – layers and masks. Layers and masks are invaluable tools and allow you to create a wide variety of effects that are not necessarily built in. Some are somewhat built in, others are not. Many of the realistic, elegant, or impressive effects can be created with layers.

Just like using paths and nodes in Inkscape, layer and mask functions require a more advanced level of knowledge. You can use layers and masks to create more subtle effects than what I had to use personally for my pet project.

Rays of sunlight, shiny and/or colored hair, realistic looking shadows and more can be created with these functions.

4. Pixlr – Online Photo Editing Software (

Experience Level Required: Novice to Advanced

Pros: Offers 3 different types of editors – Pixlr O-Matic, Pixlr Express, and Pixlr Editor– ranging from novice level to advanced, creates beautiful photo effects without the hassle, allows you to save your files online, downloadable plug-in allows you to edit images “grabbed” off the web, variety of preset settings, lighting effects, frame effects, more advanced editing options available, allows you to edit images from anywhere, easy to use interface, many languages available, no registration required.

Cons: Pixlr Editor (advanced) and Pixlr Express (novice to intermediate) may run slowly when applying certain effects, functionality of Pixlr Editor is not as in-depth as GIMP or Adobe Photoshop, requires internet connection, may resize your original photo.

My Review:
I don’t remember exactly how I found Pixlr, but I was ecstatic that I did. After fussing with a particular photo for some time, I didn’t want to attempt layers and filters and masks to create the appearance that I wanted for the image – a soft focus lens appearance with a vignette around it.

I found Pixlr O-Matic first, which contains many preset settings for the photo style, then light effects on the photo, and finally a framed appearance around the photo.

The photo styles all have interesting names, but some seem too funky to be useful, such as having your entire photo in a double-vision appearance.

Using Pixlr O-Matic, I eventually decided on the “Melissa” setting, with a Vignette, and set the frame as “Cornered”.

Combined, the three effects made the person in the photo stand out with a hazy, dark background and a torn appearance around the edges of the photo. All in all, it gave it an elegant, aged appearance and all in only three quick steps.

I just went on their website and used one of their sample (test) photos to do the same and it took less than a minute – a 5 yr old could do it.

Pixlr Express offers the same image effects, but allows you to edit them. For example, don’t want your vignette to end so close to the corners? Pixlr Express allows you to put the same basic vignette around your image, but if you wanted it to take up over half your photo you could.

It offers basic image editing functions (rotate, crop, etc) and breaks down some of its other effects that are combined in Pixlr O-Matic. While Pixlr O-Matic is extremely fast, Pixlr Express may take a little longer to apply some of the effects to your image given that does it online.

Pixlr Express is still good for the novice user as it is quick, easy and very self-explanatory.

Pixlr Editor on the other hand resembles an online version of GIMP or Adobe Photoshop. There is a toolbox, layers, brush options. advanced editing, and more. It is not nearly as robust as GIMP, but just as with Pixlr O-Matic and Pixlr Express, its presets make more advanced editing possible in fewer steps.

You can edit the brush, layers, masks, etc and also use the filters and other basic image editor functions.

As with Pixlr Express, Pixlr Editor may run more slowly when applying effects since it is an online editor. When I was testing each version out, Pixlr O-Matic had no delay, Pixlr Express had a delay while applying some effects (not others), and Pixlr Editor got held up a few times trying to make edits or test out various effects.

When all is said and done, Pixlr can make time-consuming work into child’s play.

My one qualm is that Pixlr wound up shrinking my photo unexpectedly. It had been reduced in size by roughly 50%, maybe even more. However, if you keep track of it (it may only occur in Pixlr O-Matic) I’m sure there’s an option to prevent that, which I may have just overlooked.

5. Picnik – Online Photo Editing Software (

Experience Level Required: Novice to Intermediate

Pros: Easy to use even for a novice, basic editing options, lots of filter effects; ability to create collages, calendars, and other professional looking photo-imprinted items; no registration required, doesn’t resize your photos by default, photos can be edited from any computer.

Cons: Many features and effects are not available unless you upgrade to a premium account, tweaking options may not be enough for advanced users, registered accounts only allow 5 photos to be saved.

My Review:
Picnik was recommended to me after I’d just discovered Pixlr, so my review looks more like a comparison between the two. Nevertheless, it should still be helpful if you are trying to decide which image editor is right for you.

Aside from the landing page, Picnik looks and acts, in many ways, almost identical to Pixlr Express.

The filter options are generally pretty similar, although the framing effects are somewhat more varied and more colorful. Some of the image effects are drastically different and look more time-consuming (if you had to recreate the effects manually) than effects in Pixlr Express.

On the other hand, many fancy features require you to be a registered, paying user. Granted, registration doesn’t exactly require a month’s salary.

Picnik’s premium features are advertised at a price of “as little as $2.08 a month”. The feature list advertised (for Picnik Premium) sounds pretty robust, and the benefit is the ease of use of the features.

I guess it really comes down to the amount of time that it would take you to do these things manually (if you have the expertise to be able to) versus the ability to recreate the effects in mere minutes without the hassle.

Picnik Premium includes more effects, collage styles, advanced editing tools, “stickers”, frames, and more. Picnik Premium also lets you work without ads, and offers touch-up tools (burn, dodge, etc aren’t included in Picnik by default), batch uploading, and special fonts.

Prices start at $4.95 for one month, to $24.95 for 12 months (where the “$2.08 per month” pricing comes in). $19.95 for 6 months, if you want to get half a year less for the cost of one extra month. The 6 month plan almost sounds like an insult.

$25 a year isn’t a lot if you’re a novice user wanting to do a lot of photo edits. If you have more advanced skills, it may be worth it to you to minimize the amount of time you spend editing any one photo.

Then again, if you are well versed in photo editing software, you may find Picnik’s features to be too constrained and prefer more control over your images.

Overall, the basic free version of Picnik is an incredibly useful tool that anyone could use. If you don’t want to register at all, you don’t have to. You couldn’t save your edited photos and edit history in Picnik, but you could always save your originals in one folder and then download your edited photos in another to maintain backups.

Which is the Single Best Photo Editor?

You’ll have to decide for yourself. Each of the ones I’ve listed (with the exception of Pixlr [Express] and Picnik [Free Version]) have their own defined purpose. Each one has its own unique qualities.

There are things you can do in GIMP that you can’t do in Inkscape. Inkscape can create sharper images than GIMP, which makes some filter effects “pop” even more.

Pixlr O-Matic can be used by anyone. Picnik has filters not found in Pixlr.

Both Pixlr and Picnik create gorgeous effects in mere minutes that a novice or intermediate user may not be able to recreate with GIMP or Inkscape.

The best image editing software is a matter of your expertise, the time you want to spend, and the purpose(s) you need it for. Try each one and decide for yourself.

Or do like I did – use them all.

PS – If you are curious about how to crop (clip) with Inkscape, I’ve included the instructions below. It’s an unusual way, but it works.

How to Crop (Clip) with Inkscape
1. Set out the image, shapes, and/or text you wish to crop (clip).
2. Draw a box or other shape around the parts you want to remain after cropping/clipping. Make sure this object is the topmost layer in your image.
3. Go to Object > Clip > Set. Voila! Your image has been cropped to the box.
Note: Inkscape only hides the remaining portion of the image, it has not been deleted. However, it acts virtually the same.

Alternative Inkscape “Cropping” Method (If Exporting a Bitmap):
1. Set your canvas size to the desired image size (under File > Document Properties).
2. Set your image to look the way you want it within the confines of the canvas. (i.e. If you wanted half a star in your image, set only half a star within the confines of the canvas.)
3. Choose File > Export Bitmap
4. Choose the “Page” tab, and your bitmap will automatically exclude any parts outside the canvas.

This entry was posted in Beginner, Blogging, General Techie, Intermediate, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Best Free Graphic and Photo Editing Software (When You’re Too Broke for Photoshop)

  1. jimdaniel says:

    You can add effects to your photos at without installed software

  2. Heather says:

    I wasn't aware of that one, there are so many that are similar to Pixlr and Picnik! I'll have to check it out. Thanks for the recommendation!

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