Adobe may dominate the photo-editing software market, but there are many more options available if you get tired of coughing up for a monthly subscription rather than 'owning' the thing outright. James Abbott looks at free and low-cost alternatives

Snapseed

Snapseed

  • Price: Free
  • Raw processing: Yes
  • Layers: No, but adjustments can be stacked
  • 16-bit images: No
  • Desktop, phone or web: Phone
  • Operating system: Android and iOS
  • System requirements: Android 4.4 and above/iOS 9.0 and above
  • Google Play and App Store

When Google bought the Nik Collection of Photoshop plug-ins, the acquisition also included Snapseed. And while the Nik Collection was sold to DxO a few years ago, Google kept the Snapseed app for Android and iOS smartphones while the desktop app was discontinued. Snapseed has remained a popular and well-respected image-editing app with more than 989,500 downloads on Google Play alone.

The sheer number of controls available in Snapseed would be impossible to list and rather boring to read. But to give you some idea of what’s possible there are 29 tools and filters in total and each filter/texture overlay can be applied in a range of strengths and combinations.

Raw processing of DNGs is possible alongside JPEGs, so you can edit whichever file type you choose to shoot on your smartphone. With smartphones now more popular than compact cameras for family snaps and even shooting on those occasions where you don’t have your main camera, the ability to shoot and edit high-quality raw files is a great way to get more from such a small and portable camera. All the basic adjustments you’d expect – ranging from brightness and contrast to shadows and highlights to healing and local adjustments – are available, alongside more advanced options such as curves and even a histogram to assess shadows, highlights and mid-tones in images. Any ‘looks’ that you create that consist of a range of filters and adjustments can also be saved, allowing you to reapply them very easily at a later date to different images. Layers aren’t available in Snapseed, but multiple effects can be stacked.

A must-have for smartphone users

Snapseed is undoubtedly one of the best image-editing apps available for Android and iOS, and the fact that such a powerful app is free to use and free of obtrusive advertising is nothing short of amazing. The number of controls, filters and looks available makes editing phone images, both raw and JPEG, a quick and easy process and the results look fantastic. It’s certainly not as powerful as a fully edged desktop app, but it’s as powerful as you need on a mobile device and is excellent at creating great results fast. In short, it’s a must-have app for all photographers using their smartphone to shoot and edit images.

Gold


Pixlr

Pixlr

  • Price: Free
  • Raw processing: Yes
  • Layers: Yes
  • 16-bit images: No
  • Desktop, phone or web: Web and phone
  • Operating system: Browser-based editing
  • System requirements: Windows 7 and above/Mac OS 10.9 or later/Linux/latest version of browser
  • pixlr.com

In the days of internet cafes, before the advent of smartphones and apps that allow you to perform a multitude of tasks, browser-based image editing was an extremely useful way of applying basic edits to images that could be downloaded from your camera and emailed while away from home. But, in the age of high-quality and indeed advanced smartphone cameras and apps, is there still a place for this type of editing?

Pixlr is one such browser-based image editor that’s also available as an app for Android and iOS, but for this review we’ll be focusing on the functionality available in the browser version. As the description suggests, the editor opens in a browser tab so you must have an active internet connection to edit your images. Another major downside to Pixlr is that image size is limited to a maximum of 3,840px on the long edge, which is much smaller than native le sizes produced by modern cameras.

The editing workspace

The editor includes all the features you’d need to crop, resize, retouch using cloning tools, add filters and overlays, add text and even create basic and limited layers. Plus, of course, the ability to apply all the basic adjustments you can with standalone image-editing software ranging from brightness and contrast to shadows and highlights and everything in between. In this area, there’s very little you can’t do. And with some existing image-editing knowledge and experience of layers including blending modes, you can even achieve a handful of more in-depth effects such as the Orton Effect.

Ultimately, there’s no reason why browser-based image editing such as Pixlr shouldn’t exist. For whatever reason, however unlikely, there’s always a chance you might need to use one so their very existence remains useful. It would be advisable not to rely on such an image editor as part of an amateur or professional workflow, owing to the limitations of what you can actually achieve with the editor and the strict limit it has on le dimensions. Overall, Pixlr is undoubtedly a useful image editor, but one that many people would never need or want to use, especially when the free-to-download GIMP is a better option and available for Mac, PC and Linux.

BLUE-2


VSCO

VSCO

  • Price: Free to £18.49 per year
  • Raw processing: Yes
  • Layers: No, but filters can be stacked
  • 16-bit images: No
  • Desktop, phone or web: Phone
  • Operating system: Android and iOS
  • System requirements: Android 4.4 and above/iOS 11.0 and above
  • vsco.com

There are some phone apps that have huge followings and download figures, but you just don’t hear quite as much about them as other apps, and VSCO is one of them. VSCO was perhaps best known for its desktop presets for Lightroom that replicated a wide range of classic film and analogue effects, but these were discontinued as the company focused on its smartphone app and associated subscription service.

Getting to grips with VSCO

When you first start up the app you’re asked to create an account because as well as being an image-editing app, VSCO offers an Instagram- style community where you can share your own images, view other images, like them, and follow other individuals. It’s a much more pared-back community than Instagram and doesn’t include all of the advertising, algorithm and ‘influencers’.

A subscription to the app costs either £1.54 monthly or £18.49 per year, and there’s a free seven-day trial so you can try the subscription package before spending a penny. The benefits include over 130 presets and Film X which makes classic film looks available and tools including Hue, Saturation and Luminosity controls, alongside borders and video editing. Whether or not you’d need these depends on you and how you wish to edit your phone shots, so the ability to try before you buy is well worth taking advantage of.

The use of the app centres on applying a large number of presets that are available with a free account, or substantially more if you subscribe. The presets can be applied at varying strengths before you then apply adjustments, which are limited and quite basic but provide just enough control to improve the overall look of your images.

VSCO is an interesting app that has maintained a loyal following despite the dominance of Instagram, and shows that a subscription-based model can work for a phone app in the same way as it does for desktop apps such as Lightroom and Photoshop. The presets on offer, even with a free account, are great and the ability to control them is very welcome, but the basic adjustments available are severely limited compared to those on offer with Snapseed. Definitely an app worth trying, but one that may just have the Marmite effect – you’ll either love it or hate it.

blue score 3


GIMP

GIMP

  • Price: Free
  • Raw processing: No, but works with Darktable and RawTherapee
  • Layers: Yes
  • 16-bit images: Yes
  • Desktop, phone or web: Desktop
  • Operating system: Linux, Mac OS and Windows
  • System requirements: Linux/Mac OS 10.9 and above/Windows 7 and above
  • gimp.org

Arguably the best-known and most highly regarded free image-editing software available since the mid-1990s is the General Image Manipulation Program, most commonly known as GIMP. It’s available for Linux, Mac OS and Windows and can be downloaded for free from the gimp.org website.

In terms of the interface, there’s no denying that it lacks the finesse of paid-for options, and the functionality is much more limited. For instance, adjustment layers aren’t available so if you wish to work non-destructively you have to create duplicates of the background layer and apply adjustments to those. The difficulty here is that you lose the standard layer hierarchy that makes stacking adjustments in other software so powerful.

One of the downsides to GIMP is that it doesn’t offer native raw support, but it’s compatible with the free raw-processing software options Darktable and RawTherapee which can be used as plug-ins and are also free to use. This ultimately results in a package that may feel less complete than Affinity Photo or Luminar for instance, but considering the program is free means this is one small concession worth making if you would prefer not to pay for editing software.

Useful tools and controls

Looking beyond these deficiencies, you’ll find many useful tools like adjustments, filters, blending modes and cloning/healing tools, etc., so there’s still a great deal that can be achieved with the software. This means that while the software is more than adequate for use by beginners and intermediate photographers, it certainly wouldn’t live up to the requirements of a professional image-editing workflow.

GIMP is amazing software considering it’s free to use and doesn’t include unwanted advertising like many free smartphone apps. It’s fairly easy to use but you have to spend a little time working out where things are, and the Toolbar icons aren’t as clear as they could be. I often found myself hovering the cursor over the Toolbar icons to activate the tool name and description pop-up so I knew what each one was. Again, it’s impressive considering it’s free, but when Affinity Photo only costs £48.99, this is ultimately a much better option at a highly affordable price.

blue score 3


Serif Affinity Photo

Serif Affinity Photo

  • Price: £48.99
  • Raw processing: Yes
  • Layers: Yes
  • 16-bit images: Yes
  • Desktop, phone or web: Desktop
  • Operating system: Mac OS and Windows
  • System requirements: Mac OS 10.9 and above/Intel 64-bit Core 2 Duo or better and 2GB RAM/Windows 7 SP1 and above, 64-bit OS and 2GB RAM
  • affinity.serif.com

If you’re looking for a straight-up Photoshop alternative offering much of, if not all, the same functionality, then look no further than Serif Affinity Photo. The software is available for Mac OS, Windows and iPads, making it available to the vast majority of photographers regardless of the computer system you’re using.

In terms of the interface, everything is well designed and easy to find. In fact, some adjustments and filters that are most commonly used in conjunction with layers can be accessed via the Layers panel, which is in many ways more intuitive than how these are accessed in Photoshop. The software is so easy to use, especially if you’re familiar with other editing software, that you start to feel con dent with it after just five or ten minutes’ use.

A serious alternative to Photoshop

There’s practically nothing in Photoshop that you can’t do with Affinity Photo. It’s undoubtedly a professional-level editing program that’s suitable for all photographers regardless of their level of editing knowledge and experience. Even many shortcuts are the same as in Photoshop, functionality is similar, and many adjustments are easier to find thanks to not being buried deep in menus. Those transitioning over to Affinity Photo will find they can work just as quickly as they did in Photoshop; these include HDR Merge, Panorama, Focus Merge and even frequency-separation retouching for portraits. In Photoshop, the layers required for the latter have to be set up manually, whereas in Affinity Photo it’s a simple menu selection, and when performing these intensive tasks there are no slowdowns like those with Skylum Luminar 3.

At just £48.99, Affinity Photo represents incredible value for money considering the professional functionality of the software and the fact that this is for a perpetual license. Photoshop and Elements users will find themselves very much at home with the software, and will no doubt discover how much of a pleasure it is to edit your images and process raw files with the software. For the latter, the controls on offer are similar to those available in Adobe Camera Raw, but the process of applying effects such as localised adjustments is a little different. All in all, it’s an absolutely terrific image editor at an amazing price.

Gold


Skylum Luminar 3

Skylum Luminar 3

  • Price: £65
  • Raw processing: Yes
  • Layers: Yes
  • 16-bit images: Yes
  • Desktop, phone or web: Desktop
  • Operating system: Mac OS and Windows
  • System requirements: Mac OS 10.10.5 and above/Intel 64-bit Core 2 Duo or better and 8GB RAM/Windows 7 64-bit OS and above and 8GB RAM
  • skylum.com

In a short space of time, in editing software terms, Skylum Luminar has grown in popularity alongside the highly respected Aurora HDR, which is commonly considered one of the best HDR software options on the market.

Luminar is a standalone program that blends the capabilities of raw processing and standard image-editing software in a single package. And to better compete with Adobe Lightroom, Luminar 3 introduced a library feature that allows you to view, rate and select images to edit. The way the software differs, however, is that you also have the ability to use layers and to apply a range of adjustments and filters to them, as well as masks and blending modes.

The workflow in Luminar is slightly different from most other editing software when it comes to the way layers work, how they’re created and ultimately what’s possible with them. It certainly takes a little getting used to, but like most software, after processing a few images and exploring the possibilities things quickly become more familiar.

Eight different workspaces

The interface is well laid out and intuitive; in fact, there’s much less to learn than even with Photoshop Elements. There are eight workspaces focusing on different workflows and image types: Professional, Quick & Awesome, Essential, Aerial Photography, Black & White, Landscape, Portrait and Street. Plus there’s the ability to create and save custom workspaces that suit your photographic style. Some processor- and RAM-intensive tasks do create slowdowns at times, even when using a powerful PC, but these are not so debilitating that it makes them a deal breaker.

Skylum Luminar 3 is a fantastic software option that’s cost-effective at £65 for a perpetual license that works with up to five computers. And the addition of the new library feature makes the software a tough competitor for the likes of Lightroom, of which it offers much more in the way of controls generally but lacks advanced HDR and panoramic controls. While Luminar spans the capabilities, to some degree, of Lightroom and Photoshop, it’s definitely much more of an image cataloguing and raw-processing program, but one that provides a great deal of control over raw files, TIFFs and JPEGs. It’s certainly a great option.

Recommended-4