Free image editors

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Bring out the best in your happy snaps.

How much should you spend on an image editing program? The answer could be nothing at all. We compared 10 popular free image editors to see which might be your best choice for a virtual photo lab.

From our test

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What we found

We compared the 10 programs for their capabilities and ease of use.

Upgrade to a gold or silver membership to find out how they rated.

The tested programs

Some photo management and cataloguing packages also have limited image-editing capabilities.

But for Windows we’ve included only standalone programs in our test. These editors can be used in combination with any other software, including digital photo organisers.

4 programs on test have Mac versions, and one, iPhoto, also catalogues and organises digital photos. But we’ve included it because it’s the default digital image-editing program for OS X, included with the operating system.

Don't get locked in

The good thing with image editors is that you don’t have to be locked into one particular program.

This is unlike using a photo manager, where considerable effort can be put into cataloguing your pictures over time – something that would largely have to be redone when moving to another cataloguing program. Image editors save files in standard formats that can be read by other programs, with JPEG, PNG and TIF being most common.

So if you use one of these image editors for a while and find you want to change, you can quite easily do so (the exception being iPhoto, which also catalogues). Because they’re free you can even use several if you like, making use of the strengths of each one – perhaps one for quick and simple touch-ups and a more detailed program for more detailed work.

Cloud-based editors

While downloading a decent photo editor for free is a good deal, there are also free online photo editors worth considering.

These cloud-based apps can be surprisingly full-featured and can be particularly good for quick editing jobs. Of course, they require you to upload your photos to the cloud first, so they aren’t a good option for large collections.

Among the best are:

Most of these online image editors also have apps for iOS and Android. Fotor also has an app for Windows 8.

Smartphone photography tips

The better the image is in the first place, the less work you’ll have to do to it.

Even if you’re an experienced photographer, knowing how to adapt your skills to a smartphone camera can make a difference.

  • Get to know your camera. Even if you commonly use the camera in your smartphone, find out what it can and can’t do. Learn about its advanced features and software settings, what sort of lighting it can cope with and so on. Many smartphone cameras will have several camera modes including panorama and HDR (High Dynamic Range), along with video.
  • Tap to focus. You know better than your smartphone what area of your shot you want to show clearly. Focus manually on an area by tapping the screen with your finger.
  • Get the light right. Are you shooting under indoor lighting or outdoors? There are many kinds of lighting, and even digital SLRs can struggle with getting correct exposure. That’s why professionals shoot in raw mode, to capture the most image data to allow for later exposure adjustment. Using HDR on a smartphone is the closest equivalent, but no replacement. Avoid backlit scenes, look for even lighting across your shot and use HDR for still scenes only to avoid blurring. Experiment with flash settings rather than just keeping it on auto.

  • Compose your shot. Frame your subject carefully and don’t crop too tightly while shooting. Allow a little room – you can crop later in software if needed. Fixed-lens smartphone cameras don’t offer depth of field adjustment. Don’t always put your subject in centre-screen – being slightly off-centre can often be more interesting or dramatic.

  • Move around. Don’t take every shot from the same standing position. Vary your height, distance and angle to make things interesting. Keep moving and shooting to increase your chances of getting the best shot.

  • Add effects later. Whether on your smartphone camera or on your computer, there are plenty of programs that can add special effects to your shots to give them a special look, from mild to wild.

  • Keep it clean. Regardless of your camera, features or skills, you need to keep the lens clean. It’s easy for any camera to develop a dirty lens, but smartphones in particular are subject to lens smearing, dust and lint due to handling and pocket/purse storage. Keep a lens cloth handy to give it a good wipe before use.

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