Photoshop isn't the only image editing software around – the best free photo editors offer all the key tools you need to make your pictures look amazing, but without the price tag.
There's an amazing range of free photo editors, with many offering manual control over curves, contrast, and exposure enhancement to refine colors. They also provides clone stamps and healing brushes to erase flaws; masks for isolating areas; and layers to help you blend elements and combine effects.
If speed is your main priority, there are also great free photo editors that automate the process with smart filters. You can combine and tweak these effects to achieve the desired result, then save the custom settings and apply them to all the pictures in a folder with a couple of clicks.
Phone cameras are improving every few months, and enthusiast-level DSLRs are equipped with brilliant sensors, but even the best photos can benefit from a little adjustment in post-production and these are the perfect tools for the job.
An exceptional photo editor, GIMP is a worthy rival to premium software
The elder statesperson of free photo editing, GIMP (also known as the GNU Image Manipulation Program) is the most powerful photo editor around. It's packed with amazing tools that perfectly match those you'd find in premium software, and more are being added all the time.
If you've ever used Photoshop, GIMP's interface will be immediately familiar – particularly if you select the single-window mode, which arranges all its toolbars and canvases in an Adobe-style layout.
The photo editing toolkit is amazing, and includes layers, masks, curves, and levels. You can erase flaws with the excellent clone stamp and healing tools, create custom brushes, apply perspective changes, and apply changes to isolated areas with intelligent selection tools.
GIMP is an open source project, and its community of users and developers have created a huge collection of plugins to extend its capabilities even further. Many of these come pre-installed, and you can download more from the official glossary. If that's not enough, you can even use Photoshop plugins with GIMP.
Its power and flexibility make GIMP the best free photo editor for Windows.
Review and where to download: GIMP
With layers, filters and plugins, Paint.NET will make your photos shine
Sometimes it's best if your photo editor isn't overloaded with bells and whistles. Paint.NET's simplicity is one of its key selling points; it's a fast, easy to operate free photo editor that's perfect for those little tasks that don't need the sheer power of GIMP.
Don't be fooled by the name, though. This isn't just a clone of Microsoft's ultra-basic Paint – though it was originally intended to replace it. It's a proper photo editor, just one that lands on the basic side of the curve.
Interface-wise it's reminiscent of its namesake, but as it's grown, Paint.NET has added essential editing tools like layers, an undo history, a raft of filters, numerous community-created plugins, and a brilliant 3D rotate/zoom function that's useful for recomposing images.
Yes, it's lacking in certain areas, but if your machine is lacking in power or RAM we can't think of a better choice.
Review and where to download: Paint.NET
Well designed and easy to use – a superb photo editor with a few limitations
Photo Pos Pro might not be as well known as Paint.net and GIMP, but it's another top-quality photo editor packed with advanced image-enhancing tools.
Its interface is smarter and more accessible than GIMP's array of menus and toolbars, with everything arranged in a logical and consistent way. If it's still too intimidating, there's also an optional 'novice' layout that resembles Fotor's filter-based approach. The choice is yours.
The expert layout offers both layers and layer masks for sophisticated editing, as well as tools for adjusting curves and levels manually. You can still access the one-click filters via the main menu, but the focus is much more on fine editing.
Photo Pos Pro also includes a clone brush for erasing unwanted blemishes, and there's extra support for batch-editing and scripts to help you save time when refining a whole folder of photos.
The free edition of Photo Pos Pro only has one drawback: files can only be saved at a maximum resolution of 1,024 x 2,014 pixels, which might be too small if you're planning to have them printed professionally. If you want to remove this restriction, Photo Pos Pro Premium is available for a license free of £17.67, US$ 19.90, AU$ 29.78.
Review and where to download: Photo Pos Pro
Its interface is unusual, but PhotoScape boasts a great set of editing tools
PhotoScape might look like a rather simple photo editor, but take a look at its main menu and you'll find a wealth of features: raw conversion, photo splitting and merging, animated GIF creation, and even a rather odd (but useful) function with which you can print lined, graph or sheet music paper.
The meat, of course, is in the photo editing. PhotoScape's interface is among the most esoteric of all the apps we've looked at here, with tools grouped into pages in odd configurations. It certainly doesn't attempt to ape Photoshop, and includes fewer features.
We'd definitely point this towards the beginner, but that doesn't mean you can't get some solid results. PhotoScape's filters are functional and not at all beginner-like, so it's if good choice if you need to quickly level, sharpen or add mild filtering to pictures in a snap.
Steer clear of the rest of the tools, though: you'll find better elsewhere.
Review and where to download: PhotoScape
A terrific selection of filters for one-click enhancement, plus manual controls
Fotor is a photo enhancer first and foremost, more than it is a photo editor; if there's specific area of retouching you need doing with, say, the clone brush or healing tool, you're out of luck. But it includes a stack of high-end filters that really do shine.
There's a foolproof tilt-shift tool, for example, and a raft of vintage and vibrant colour tweaks, all easily accessed through Fotor's clever menu system. You can manually alter your own curves and levels, too, but without the complexity of high-end tools.
Fotor's most brilliant function, and one that's sorely lacking in many photo editing packages, is its batch processing tool – feed it a pile of pics and it'll filter the lot of them in one go, perfect if you have a memory card full of holiday snaps and need to cover up the results of a dodgy camera or shaky hand.
Review and where to download: Fotor