Looking for an alternative photo editor? Look no further — these are the best affordable image editors for creators of all skill levels.
When I was in college and spending late nights editing images at the computer lab, I just wished I could use a cheap, decent photo editor to do some basic image editing on my computer. Nothing fancy. I certainly wasn’t about to launch a career in photojournalism, so I just needed bare-bones software to edit images into an acceptable state. Apart from Photoshop and other expensive image editing software, there weren’t many options.
Years later, things have changed. There are now several free or affordable image editing apps and software available. Those looking for a basic, affordable photo editing alternative to Photoshop and Lightroom have a few solid options.
1. Luminar 4
Luminar 4 is an AI-assisted image editor for people who don’t know how to edit photos and don’t want to learn. Don’t get me wrong, the software can’t produce amazing images instantly without human input, but it can elevate a user’s skill thanks to artificial intelligence. Luminar 4 uses AI to enhance every aspect of the image editing workflow, and it also works as a plug-in for Lightroom, Photoshop, and other software. At its easiest, Luminar 4 lets users apply a filter a la Instagram that uses AI to enhance various settings.
Applying a filter can change how an image looks, but it’s best to dive into the toolbar to get the most out of any image. Portrait Enhancer, for example, has multiple sliders that adjust a subject’s face, lips, eyes, and other facial features. AI Skin Enhancer is another feature for editing portraits that corrects the image to give subjects a more natural skin tone.
Using the AI Augmented Sky feature, I replaced the sky with a mountain backdrop. I also used some of the other features to touch up the image.
For landscape images, Luminar 4’s Sky Enhancer can completely replace the sky in the image with one from their list. Though some features may appear too advanced to the average user, the software’s interface makes it a breeze. With an abundance of AI-assisted tools, it’s best to experiment and use every slider. To see the progress in any image, users can click the eyeball icon at the top of the window. This toggles the image to its original state. The “before and after” tool is also great to see progress — just look at the world of difference above.
With LUTs, users can apply an artistic pre-set color that can change the overall tone of an image. Users can also apply an edit to multiple images via batch processing. There are just so many fun features to mess with. It can make even the most uninspired pictures appear like works of art. Whether the user is a veteran wedding photographer or a camera-for-my-birthday newcomer, Luminar 4 looks to simplify and enhance any image. Skylum’s Luminar AI, due to release in the fall of 2020, is doubling down on AI, making it, according to Skylum, “the first image editor fully powered by artificial intelligence.”
Price Point: One-time $67 payment for one license
Whereas Photoshop asks for a monthly subscription to access their professional editing tools, GIMP, or GNU Image Manipulation Program, gives access to all operating systems for free. GIMP has been around since the mid-90s, and has received numerous updates since then. The 2.10.20 update, released in June of 2020, is the latest, but there are plans to release a 3.0 version soon.
The free, open-source software runs on all three major operating systems. With Linux (Beta) running on Chromebook, GIMP can run on Google’s Chrome OS, making it the most powerful, egalitarian image editing software around. Users on a tight budget can buy a $50 Raspberry Pi and install GIMP. I’ve tried this, and it’s not bad, though it’s considerably slower than using it on a proper machine.
Although the software is free, it offers robust features similar to Photoshop, with improved PSD file support. It’s true that Photoshop has more frequent updates and more tools. However, GIMP’s suite of tools offers much more than the basics, and its non-existent price-point is too good to pass up.
Price Point: Free
3. Shutterstock Editor
Shutterstock’s browser-based editing service, Shutterstock Editor, is made for designers looking to create ebook covers, brochures, social media posts, and other marketing content. The app has excellent templates for various projects, with access to fonts and other image-based assets.
Using Shutterstock Editor’s tools, it’s possible to create any kind of marketing material. For more premium features and ten standard image licenses a month, users can pay $49/month.
Shutterstock Editor’s best feature, however, and the one that separates it from competitors, is the built-in image search tool. Users can access Shutterstock’s vast library of photos, illustrations, and vector-based assets with a few keystrokes on the search bar. The free version of the software allows up to three downloads a month without the “Shutterstock Editor” badge.
Shutterstock Editor Pro starts at $49 and unlocks several features within the app, such as unlimited pro templates and custom preset sizes, Pro design elements, and unlimited downloads without the “Shutterstock Editor” badge. Better yet, users get access to over 300 million images, with ten standard image licenses every month. Creators who want a fast, simple-to-use experience, making anything from an Instagram story to a party invite, can get a lot out of Shutterstock Editor.
Price Point: Free or $49 for Pro
This free editor for Android and iOS devices has been around for almost a decade, and it’s still a go-to app for editing images on-the-go. Snapseed, which Google bought from Nik Software, has one of the best user interfaces for editing images, easily making it a top choice for newcomers.
These are all the tools available within Snapseed, giving users a high degree of control on anything from an iPad to Google Pixel phone to a Chromebook running Android apps.
Snapseed initially launched on the iPad before coming to iOS, but it works just as good on smaller phone screens. Like Instagram, users can apply a filter from the “Looks” tab. Or, they can get granular in the “Tools” tab, where it’s possible to adjust curves, add text, crop, and get the image as close to perfect as possible.
I couldn’t resist taking this shot of the sun hiding behind tall grass. The original image was okay, but Snapseed shaped it into something worth sharing.
With phone cameras producing richer, more detailed images every year, it’s worth using Snapseed to squeeze the most out of every shot. Thanks to Snapseed’s wonderful user interface, editing via the sliders is as easy as dragging a finger across any part of the screen. This minimal, user-friendly app will feel right at home with those familiar with Instagram, and those who aren’t will pick it up quickly.
Price Point: Free
You can use some version of Pixlr on almost any device (Browsers, Chromebooks, Raspberry Pis, etc). The phone versions of Pixlr tailor more to the Instagram crowd, with filters and options to create collages. However it’s the browser version of the software that’s the most interesting. Using Pixlr on the browser requires no payment, account creation, or download. Once on the website, users can upload an image and start editing right away from any major browser.
However, there are two versions of Pixlr to consider. Pixlr X is similar to Lightroom, offering essential image editing tools to adjust exposure, lighting, sizing, and other values. For most people who want to add some color or resize an image, this version of Pixlr for the browser is perfect.
Then, there’s Pixlr E, a more advanced version of Pixlr that offers tools similar to Photoshop. The tools in Pixlr E are more advanced so you can do more with an image, but it does require some prior knowledge. For most users, Pixlr E may be too advanced.
Pixlr’s free plan, but their paid plans offer exclusive features and premium assets. Screenshot via Pixlr.
Both Pixlr X and E are free to use, but premium features are gated behind a yearly payment or monthly subscription — $7.99/month for Premium or $14.99/month for Professional. Apart from unlocking certain features, the paid versions of these apps also unlock thousands of overlays, stickers, decorative texts, and other assets. Most importantly, paying for the apps gets rid of ads.
The Premium and Professional tiers may be appealing to some, but most users won’t need the extra stuff. However, the free versions are great browser apps, especially for users with Chromebooks or Raspberry Pi’s running Raspbian.
Price Point: Free or $7.99/month for Premium / $14.99 for Professional
And You Get an Image Editor
Ten years ago, there weren’t many choices for image editing software, especially not affordable or outright free services. Now the Android and iOS app stores are full of free image editors, but they’re not all good. With an abundance of choice comes the burden of picking the right software for the right skill level.
Sure, those with the experience and funds to use Photoshop will probably stick with Adobe. Still, for students, creators on a budget, or casual photographers, the apps and software listed above have robust features and tools that are good enough for most skill levels and budgets.
Cover image via Engineer studio.
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