Top 4 free photo editing programs

Updated: 18 Oct, 2020

For the majority of my photo work, I only need something simple and quick.

Most of my editing involves cropping, brightness, contrast, curves, levels and colour balance.

Photoshop is fantastic, but it can be a huge lumbering beast.

As an underwater photographer, my usual workflow is:

  • Browse photos, and delete bad photos as I go through them.
  • Go through my short list.
  • Crop the image to centre it.
  • Edit RGB curves.
  • Edit luminosity curves.
  • Tweak the saturation (which is often adversely affected by the last step).
  • Save high-resolution version.
  • Save resized, compressed-for web version.

Here’s my shortlist for photographers looking for a decent toolkit to get started with that meets the above requirements.

  1. Paint.NET
  2. XnView MP
  3. Irfanview
  4. Nik’s Collection


Pros: It’s completely free (even for commercial use!) – but accepts donations. Good plugin support & community.

Cons: No way to feather masks or selections like in Photoshop.

XnView MP

Pros: Free for private, educational or non-profit org use. Fairly quick viewer, with some nice built in tools, like lossless JPG rotation and cropping. As just a viewer, slightly faster than Irfanview thanks to reading ahead.

For workflow, XnView is amazing. Being able to tag the photos I liked, and then go see that short list, and just drag that into Photoshop or Paint.NET is fantastic. Saves me so much time!

Cons: 29EUR for commercial use.


Pros: Free for private use, or educational or non-profit organisations. It is a fairly quick viewer, with some nice built in tools, like lossless JPG rotation and cropping.

Cons: $12USD / 10EUR for commercial use. Aging user interface hasn’t changed since the late 90s. Doesn’t pre-cache the next image, so it’s not the fastest viewer around, and can lag a bit with big images because of this.

Niks Collection 2012

This was free for Windows, Mac and Adobe Photoshop. However, it is no longer being updated or supported. In this package, three parts are particularly useful:

Color Efex Pro

“A comprehensive set of filters for color correction, retouching, and creative effects.”

Sharpener Pro

“Bring out hidden details consistently with the professional’s choice for image sharpening.”


“Improve your images with noise reduction tailored to your camera.”

Why not GIMP?

I found GIMP to be a much bigger program, and far slower to start up and make changes with. Admittedly, it is powerful and flexible, but I found the complexity and reduced speed were not worth it for my purposes.

However, it is free, has a huge support network, and works under Linux – which is also free. (Also works on Mac!)

Why not Photoshop?

To me, Adobe Photoshop is that massive red tool chest in your dad’s garage that he uses for everything from cars to plumbing. It’s about the size and shape of that tall-boy dresser in your room, at 1.5m tall and 1.5 metric tonnes in weight – give or take. If you need something done, Photoshop will find a way to do it, and do it right. You have to know what you’re doing, and what it’s capable of, though.

Sometimes… sometimes you just need a hammer and a screwdriver.

Paint.NET to me is that small toolbox you keep in the house. This is the one you use to fix most of the problems around the house – fixing loose pot handles, or squeaky doors. Handy.

If you can afford Photoshop, I definitely recommend adding to your collection, but it’s not the only option. If you can afford it, and learn how to use it fully, Photoshop will take your images to the next level. Its ability to remove spots, or intelligently fill in gaps is nothing short of amazing.

What about videography?

For underwater videos, I recommend DaVinci Resolve. While it is huge and complex, it is also amazingly powerful (and completely free!).

Adobe Premier is fantastic, but DaVinci Resolve is starting to become more widely recommended.

What you want from video editing software is  the ability to color-grade, to help fix the blue/green shades from the sea – and both Davinci and Adobe support that.

What about Apple, or a mixed environment?

In this case, you are better off sticking to Adobe’s ecosystem. The files you create on one system will be completely compatible on the other, allowing you to go back and forth between operating systems to edit content.

I am a travel-diver, with one Dell laptop. I like small and fast, and my recommendations reflect that, but may not be the best for you.

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