Best Free Digital Image Editor

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Introduction

Digital image editors mix painting and drawing tools with some features specific to digital imaging, which creates images from the physical environment using normally cameras or scanners, and have two additional features you should know about:

  • Process raw images: Digital imaging systems produce a raw image file which is the image detected by the sensors. This raw image is processed to produce an image file, most commonly the JPEG image format, which we then view and edit in our digital image editor. The Raw files are often described as "digital negatives" because they have a similar role to the negatives produced by film photography. For this article, you just need to know that some digital image editors are able to decode Raw files and provide further options for editing those images.
  • View or edit Exif/DCF data: When a raw image is created the camera or scanner also stores information about the state of the imaging device and the physical conditions. This data is called meta-data because it is "data about data". You just need to know that there are standard formats for storing this meta-data. The two most common standards being Exif (Exchangeable Image File) and DCF (Design rule for Camera File system).

I have deliberately looked for application programs that allow you to examine and edit the above two features. There are many good products which is why there are so many options in this category. Just remember that very few are general-purpose so most users will benefit from mixing products from this category and the image viewer and photo organizer categories.

Read also Classifying Digital Image Editors and Important Features at the end of this article.

 

Basic Editors

Pixlr for Desktop  

Easy to use but powerful image editors with many special effects


Our Rating: 
4
License: Free (Limited features)
High marks for being easy to use; A good selection of special effects; Consistent and simple interface; EXIF data; Share to email, Facebook, and Twitter.
No control over individual elements as transformations generally work on the whole image; Can't edit objects after they are inserted; A membership account - the user name is your email account - is required to unlock many free transformations; Tracks what you do by default until you turn it off by becoming a member.
Read full review...

PhotoPad Photo Editor  

A very good photo editor with a consistent interface for basic users


Our Rating: 
4
License: Free (Private/Educational use)
Consistent interface; Excellent history of changes that you can review, undo, delete, or modify at any step; Wide range of features; Raw file support.
Only free for "non-commercial home use"; Lacks drawing tools.
Read full review...

Visions  

An image editor with the most modern look and a 3D viewing gallery


Our Rating: 
4
License: Free
Unique interface for viewing images and other tasks; Consistent approach to editing; Easy to use; 3D image viewing gallery is very popular; Print greeting cards, postcards, and photo frames; Preview changes; Flickr and Facebook integration.
Can be slow.
Read full review...

Lightbox  

An excellent editor with features for basic users


Our Rating: 
3.5
License: Free (Last free version)
Very attractive, simple and straight-forward to use; Excellent help specific to adjustments; Before and after view; Presets for adjustments Opens Raw files.
Could do with more easy presets adjustments e.g. to improve focus; Free version has some features of the paid version grayed out; No PNG support; Bug in Windows 64-bit; No longer updated.
Read full review...

Photo! Editor  

The easiest photo editor with basic enhancement tools


Our Rating: 
3
License: Free
Extremely easy to use with some very nice professional quality makeup tools; All options are clearly visible with preset buttons; The best straightening tool I've seen; Options to adjust settings too; File folder tree view.
Has not been updated since 2008, forum inactive since 2009; A number of bugs such as distorted thumbnails;
Read full review...

Mid-level Editors

PhotoFiltre  

An excellent mid-level image editor with a comprehensive feature set


Our Rating: 
4.5
License: Free (Private/Educational use)
Many features including some that not many editors have; Now has layers which also means that transformations can apply to the image or just a layer; Photoshop 8bf filters; GIF animation; Scanner interface; Batch automation.
Not for basic users as there is not a lot of help to determine what some settings do; No HDR or Raw processing.
Read full review...

Paint.NET  

A very good mid-level photo retouching choice with a modern interface


Our Rating: 
4
License: Free
Very well designed and attractive interface; Looks like some paid editors; Has the best "3D" rotation tool; Many tools clearly separated into Adjustments and Effects.
No local help only online; Not really suitable for basic users; Effects and transformations can be slow.
Read full review...

Artweaver  

Primarily a paint program but equipped with a curves-and-levels tool that works better than Paint.NET


Our Rating: 
3
License: Free (Limited features)
Comprehensive help with tutorial instructions; Interface is sparse and some features are not intuitive; Extensible with four types of plug-ins; Creates PDF files.
Really a paint program at the moment; Visual interface supports paint rather than image adjustment.
Read full review...

Advanced Editors

GIMP  

The most advanced image editor for drawing and painting


Our Rating: 
4
License: Free (Open source)
Has lots of advanced features and can do almost everything the Photoshop can do; Extensible with many add-ons; Now allows all tool windows to dock within the main window.
Has a steep learning curve but will not be too hard if you have used any of the image editors in the mid-level or suites classes.
Read full review...

Imagina - Virtual Lightbox  

An excellent photo viewer and editor


Our Rating: 
4
License: Free
Focuses on digital photography particularly whole images; Excellent Raw processing; Has basic and advanced options; Assistance from descriptive tooltips, inline help; HDR support from the start; Color management is excellent.
No painting/drawing tools and no layers because Imagina focuses on digital photography; Online help links are broken; Online feature descriptions are for an older version.
Read full review...

digiKam  

A photo management application complete with an editor module


Our Rating: 
4
License: Free (Open source)
Photo management suite - viewer, organizer, editor, slideshow, calendar; Has a separate editor, ShowFoto; Very good manual and Wiki; Raw support including Exif and Makernotes; Batch processing; Sharing of images.
Very large download and program because it installs a suite of KDE programs without asking permission! Windows version is less stable (Linux version is more stable) - sometimes it won't even install correctly; Raw processing previews can't be split screen.
Read full review...

Image Analyzer  

A small image editor aimed at photographers


Our Rating: 
3.5
License: Free
The most advanced free image editor for photographic processing; Transforms not found in other free software; Exif data; Plug-ins; Scripts; Multi-language.
Not easy to understand - basic users should avoid it; Far from the best for general image editing.
Read full review...

Digital Imaging Suites

Chasys Draw IES  

An excellent suite of programs including Artist, Viewer, Converter and raw-Photo, each runs individually


Our Rating: 
4
License: Free
Three useful programs: Artist, Converter, Raw processor; Modern user interface; Many features; Excellent help; HDR; sRGB model; Independent layers mean you can have multiple workspaces in the same file! Raw file processing; Batch processing and scripting; Many file formats for import and export; Plug-ins including Photoshop b8f filters; Portable version.
Some unusual (but innovative) features; Viewer is limited.
Read full review...

Photoscape  

A suite of modules containing image editor, file management, presentation and capture


Our Rating: 
4
License: Free
Very robust suite type program that can be fun to use. Includes everything from enhancing your photos and adding shapes and clip-art, to creating collages and printing.
Lacks a few of the usual retouching tools and has a slightly unusual menu system and user interface; Bundled with OpenCandy.
Read full review...

Other Free Digital Image Editors

Most of the other Free Digital Image Editors we have reviewed are listed below. Let us know if you have any good suggestions. Either contact the editor or leave a comment below at the end of this article.

For added security we advise you to run virus scans on the websites and any downloads from those websites as they are not checked as regularly as the recommended products above.

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Related Products and Links

Several articles review programs with similar functions:

 

Classifying Digital Image Editors

In this article, digital image editors are classified in four sub-categories below:

  1. Basic Editors are programs that only allow you to edit an existing image: "those little gems that help you quickly and easily make small adjustments to the overall lighting, colors, and tones of your images without the clutter of a lot of advanced tool sets. These also offer such tools as cropping, sharpening, and red eye correction." Ease of use is the key.
  2. Mid-level Editors offer more advanced tools like layers, adding captions and shapes, the ability to select portions of the image and make adjustments to just those portions, etc. These will also offer filters for applying textures, artistic effects, edge enhancements, borders and frames. The breadth of image enhancements and drawing tools are the most important considerations.
  3. Advanced Editors have advanced photographic features that work with the features of specific cameras and the files that they generate. They usually compete with professional programs like Photoshop or Paint Shop Pro in some aspects if not all. The primary criterion is the ability to work with imaging from many devices.
  4. Digital Imaging Suites that bundle related modules or programs to extend the functionality of the core image editor. The extra features can be both basic and advanced so the suites generally cover all three levels of capability. There is no primary criterion for this group because they cover aspects of the other three classes.

This article does not include on-line or web-based digital image editors which are reviewed in their own category Best Free Web-Based Image Editor.

 

Important Features

The following are key features that will help you to decide which digital image editor is best for you.

General features

  • Context-sensitive help and other assistance. Tutorials are particularly important.
  • Preview or comparison view. The example on the right is from Visions ⟹.
  • Undo/Redo to multiple levels as shown in the far-right image of the undo list in PhotoPad ⟹⟹.
  • Batch processing and scripting allows the same editing steps to be applied to multiple images in a consistent manner.
  • Support for sharing of images through email, web uploads and social media.

Basic photo features

  • Straightening in the two-dimensional sense usually means rotating the entire image. The easiest method is to draw a line to indicate where the horizon should be and let the program rotate the photo for you as Imagina does in the example image on the right ⟹.
  • Cropping images to cut out unneeded elements. The best cropping tools allow the aspect ratio to fit a specific output format such as a standard photo print size.
  • Scaling, resizing and re-sampling to fit your output requirement.
  • Photo correction tools including lighten/darken, sharpen/blur, and red-eye reduction.
  • Captions, timestamps, and borders.

Drawing and painting features

  • Layers allow objects and effefts to be separated from the original image and from each other. Layers also allow drawn objects to retain their properties when an image file is saved.
  • Vector graphic and font support so that drawn objects are scale independent while you are working with them.
  • Drawing tools including lines, brushes, shapes/polygons, clip art, fonts, accompanied by transformations that alter the drawn objects.
  • Complex selections including silhouettes, tracing, and clipping paths. This allows areas to be selected by the outline, based on a colour, or by any shape that you want. The example to the right shows the Chasys IES Artist's magic wand selecting a shade of black anywhere in the image  ⟹.
  • Drawing file format support e.g. EPS, SVG, DDS (for games).

Advanced photo features

  • View metadata provided from the source camera or scanner. EXIF/DCF and Raw metadata have been mentioned in the introduction.
  • Advanced straightening consists of several similar features that even allow 3D-like manipulation. Perspective correction and vertical straightening are often used to provide square faces to buildings as shown in the example ⟹. Warping using a grid or mesh allows lens distortions (pincushion, barrel, fish-eye, moustache) to be.
  • Image enhancement tools like cloning, blending, and combining images.
  • Plug-ins to provide additional features: tools, filters, and file import & export formats.
  • Raw file support. Raw images are direct from the camera or scanner sensors before any pre-processing attempts to correct the image to match the human eye. This feature can be provided by plug-ins.

Professional color support

  • HDR (High-Dynamic Range) support. Normally, 255 levels (8 bits) are used for each color of Red, Green & Blue (RGB) and the alpha channel to make up 32-bit color. 255 levels is not very much if are performing complex transformations and the rounding errors can become significant. So if you want to retain as much detail as possible then you should consider using 16-bits per channel to retain highlights and ensure smooth transitions in colors without any banding. That is why the HDR file formats are important. Some programs are limited to 8-bits per channel and others require plug-ins.
    Suitable file formats for HDR also provide for metadata, transparency, color management, and some handle layers (L) too. A couple are vector-based (V). The main difference between them all is the maximum bits for greater color depth.
    • Device dependent but normally 32-bit: Adobe EPSVL
    • 32-bit: IMA, TIFF (floating), SVGVL.
    • 64-bit: freedesktop.org's ORAL, Photoline's PLDL, Photoshop's PSDL, XAMLVL
    • 128-bit: EXR (used for video rendering), Microsoft's HD Photo/JPEG XR and DDSV (used for gaming)
  • Color management to reproduce colors accurately on various devices, for example, displayed on your screen and printed on paper. The Windows Color System (WCS) is not enabled by default. The following two features are part of color management ⟹.
  • Color space conversion (gamut mapping between different color spaces) allows the best representation of colours. sRGB is usually the default.
  • Rendering intent which indicates the priority for color representation. The International Color Consortium (ICC) has four profiles that are used to match the image color space to the output device color space. Two factors determine the colors you will see. What happens to colors that fall outside the output device gamut and what happens to the white point.
    • absolute maintains the original white point which may not match the output device so it often looks wrong to us because it produces a color cast.
    • saturation is best for graphics where exact colors don't matter.
    • relative is good for photographers: it fits colors within the boundaries but does not adjust any other colors within the boundaries.
    • perceptual is also good for photographers: it fits colors within the boundaries and adjusts the other colors to preserve relative differences between them.

 

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Comments

"... JugiPaint provides capable tools and features for creating various types of drawn or painted art ...": http://jugilus.com/wordpress/?page_id=550

"... Saint Paint is the ideal paint package for creating and editing True Colour, 256 colour, 16 colour, and Monochrome graphics, and animating in any mode or combination of modes, with AVI editing support ...":
http://www.saintpaint.com/

http://www.softpedia.com/get/Multimedia/Graphic/Graphic-Editors/Saint-Pa...

"... Labography is a feature rich, progressive program which unites in its highly efficient tabbed interface 3 powerful modules for: Graphic design with vector objects and elements, Photo editing with Batch processing function, Publishing on professional level ...":

http://axpha.com/labography/review-english/

Phocus - free image processing software:
http://www.hasselblad.com/software/phocus

The download link to Chasys Draw IES is broken.

Thank you for pointing this our Photo Addict. It appears the vendor's site is undergoing a revamp. For now, we have updated the product details and listed MajorGeeks as the download source. MC - Site Manager.

I have corrected the links to point to John Paul Chacha's website.

The product record was incorrectly changed by another editor. The Imaging Luminary website you refer to is undergoing a revamp but it is not the correct website for Chasys Draw IES.

Latest update corrects spelling and grammatical mistakes with no changes to the recommended products although some product details have been updated. Remah - Category Editor
"... Vintager is fun, creative and easy-to-use software that provides you with a number of special effects that can be applied to your photos to give them a retro/vintage style ...": http://www.exeone.com/vintager
I won't be reviewing G'MIC or any similar product. G'MIC would only be a "digital image editor" in the broadest sense of the term. Technically it is an "image processor" which we don't have an article for. It could also be more easily compared with "image converters" but we don't have an article for that software either. The command-line version of G'MIC uses the G'MIC (of the same name) C++ library and it is one of several different interfaces. The command-line interface is a command interpreter where the programmed instructions are executed as they are entered. Another interface is a gmic_gimp plug-in for GIMP which is an "image editor" recommended in this article.

Love the article and all the comments... I have been using Photoscape for years now and love it, find it easy to use but all the reviews say its difficult to learn because of different placement.. This is my question is there something similar but a little more advanced.

Latest changes: - There is a new section on important features. - Completed reviews of more products so some have short mentions in the Other Free Digital Image Editor section. - Imagina - Virtual Lightbox has been added to the recommended advanced editors. Remah - Category editor

Remah, you missed a great one...Pixlr

"Pixlr has been a favorite online photo editor and mobile app for years. Now, you can get the same Pixlr experience with even more fun and powerful tools on your Mac or Windows computer."

https://pixlr.com/desktop

https://pixlr.com/mobile

https://pixlr.com/web

I apologize for not reading your comment correctly. :)
There is a separate category for online image editors and it's already recommended there. I will be updating that category once I've finished reviewing software for this category.

While I can't say I'm a fan of the Pixlr online editor, the version that ChronicChaos refers to is a new downloadable/installable desktop version, that would qualify to belong in this category.

https://pixlr.com/desktop

I haven't tested this version; don't know how faithful it is to the online version.

Thanks for clarifying that. :)

Here is my humble opinion:
The usefulness of a image editor ( or any software ) depends on the needs of the user. The writer of this article quite properly went for three categories & gave us a good overview of some nice softwares. My thanks & gratitude for that.

IMHO the best free advanced category image editors are GIMP & Photoshop CS2. They are almost equally capable & have daunting learning curves. But they are "a must know" for young hobbyists interested in image editing. After all quality of the job is the last word.

For a majority of people Paint.net should prove an excellent choice. It is easy to use as an entry-level software as well as a more advanced one. Of course it is not as good as GIMP or Photoshop.

For cropping, resizing & minor adjustments of brightness/contrast any of the basic editors will do. The choice given by the writer is quite agreeable. Only that he missed the popular Irfan View.

Yes, IrfanView is a good option but I deliberately omitted it because it is primarily an image viewer and has been recommended in Best Free Digital Image Viewer. It will be reviewed as part of a later update that will cover digital image viewers with editing features.
Adobe Photoshop CS2 is available from free download sites but Adobe has not positively authorized its free use. In fact, Adobe's published comments on this issue say that it is not free (see http://prodesigntools.com/about-adobe-cs2-free-download-rumor.html): http://blogs.adobe.com/conversations/2013/01/update-on-cs2-and-acrobat-7... says "Adobe has disabled the activation server for CS2 products, including Acrobat 7, because of a technical issue. These products were released more than seven years ago, do not run on many modern operating systems, and are no longer supported. Adobe strongly advises against running unsupported and outdated software. The serial numbers provided as a part of the download may only be used by customers who legitimately purchased CS2 or Acrobat 7 and need to maintain their current use of these products." http://blogs.adobe.com/jnack/2013/01/whats-up-with-adobe-giving-away-cs2... responds to the question "Is it OK for someone who did NOT purchase CS2 to download this now for personal use?" with "No, it isn't. The download link is there only for the benefit of people who've paid for CS2. --J." On the other hand, Adobe may have softened its initial stance. Adobe don't appear to have spent any time or money forcing sites to take down the downloads. Also the strongest statements are no longer visible on Adobe sites: https://forums.adobe.com/message/4974662?PID=2159997#4974662 "On behalf of Adobe Systems Incorporated … You have heard wrong! Adobe is absolutely not providing free copies of CS2! What is true is that Adobe is terminating the activation servers for CS2 and that for existing licensed users of CS2 who need to reinstall their software, copies of CS2 that don’t require activation but do require valid serial numbers are available. (Special serial numbers are provided on the page for each product download.)" http://www.adobe.com/jp/downloads/cs2_downloads?PID=2159997 which used to say "The purpose of this measure was not to distribute software free of charge to a large number of people. Rather, the measure was initially put in place in order to make the software as user-friendly as possible for those customers with the proper license. Anybody using it without the proper license is in violation of the licensing agreement. We thank you for your understanding." In either case, Photoshop CS2 does not meet our policy for free software so it will not be included in this review.

First, my kudos to Remah for a professional-quality article that should be a model and inspiration for other reviewers.

Second, my thanks to JediInverse for mentioning MS Picture Manager that comes free with MS Office. I knew, of course, that I owned the latter, but never realized that it included the former.

My story: On those infrequent occasions when I do image editing, I take a simplistic approach. I don't create fantastic but realistic-looking images of a sliced-open egg with its yolk replaced by a sliced-open kiwi fruit, or a cruise ship floating in a bowl of soup; I just do things that I think should be easy. Yesterday I edited an image that I wanted to rotate by 45 degrees. I used Paint.net and was appalled to discover that this sophisticated program--with so many features that I'll never need or know how to use--offered on the Image menu to rotate only in 90-degree increments. Now that I've read Remah's review, I see that all I had to do was move to the Layers menu to find its Rotate/Zoom tool, but why would a SW designer split those functions over two different menus without at least cross-linking them? And, now I know that next time I can also use Picture Manager to do the same job (and probably others that I'll soon discover) very simply.

Thanks for the compliment. This is a category that has many products of a high-standard and it is hard to go wrong with so much choice. But as you point out there are some significant deficiencies and strange design choices. Paint.NET's layer rotate tool is so good that I'm considering adding a list of desirable features. This would be at the end of the introduction to alert people to the best features, promote the programs that provide them, and hopefully raise the bar for the rest of the programs. I will be adding a short review of MS Picture Manager at the end of the article because so many Office users are not aware of. I have been a heavy user of it for many years.

My vote goes for a must-see that should be on the list :

http://photodemon.org/

Fantastic numbers of effects and adjustments - check it out.

Thanks for the suggestion. I will review it soon.

The following sentence is in the LIGHTBOX discussion--seems out of place:

"As for Photo! Editor, the biggest issue is that the program is not being updated although you do have an assured upgrade path by purchasing the more fully-featured paid version."

The issue applies to Lightbox and Photo! Editor because they are not being updated. I have changed the sentence to make that clearer.

This is the first time I've seen a list of the best photo editors where IrfanView was not included. Been using it for years and it's at least in the top five.

Thanks for the suggestion. It's already on my list so I will be reviewing IrfanView soon. I used to use it so it will be interesting to see how it has changed. It generally gets high marks for its features but it has always been hindered by its idiosyncratic interface.

Wonderful review, hours of programs to try out. Thanks for the excellent job.

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