December 6, 2022
We round up the best photo-editing software with no subscription required.
These days, it’s a statement of fact that if you’re going to be a digital photographer, you’re going to need the best photo-editing software. The post process is a huge part of shaping the final image, and as such, there are loads of programs out there competing for your attention when it comes to image-editing.
Of course, the biggest name in image editing is Adobe. Lightroom and Photoshop have long been considered the best choice for pros and amateurs – with good reason. However, with Adobe firmly aboard the subscription train and monthly outlays starting at £10 for the photography plan, it can be an annoying ongoing expense. That’s why we’ve put together this list of the best photo-editing software with no subscription required. Drawing on the experience of our expert technical team – who have used all sorts of image-editing software – we’ve picked a range of options. These include premium packages, cheap alternatives, and even some options that cost nothing at all.
How to choose the best free photo-editing software
Before you make your choice, it’s worth considering what you really need out of your photo editor. If your priority is for raw processing and basic tonal enhancements, then you may not necessarily need an editor with more advanced functions such as layers and selections. In fact, you might be able to get by with the free software bundled with your camera, and we’ve included a run-down of these programs at the bottom of this guide, to give you an idea of what your options are.
However, if you want to add custom effects, blend exposures, or create HDRs and panoramas, then you’ll certainly need a more involved editor. This might be a paid-for option like Skylum’s Luminar or Affinity Photo, a free browser-based app like Fotor, or an open-source project like GIMP. We’ve included all these in our guide, along with plenty more.
So, let’s take a look at some of the best photo-editing software out there – with no subscription required.
Affinity Photo 2
affinity.serif.com, £59.99/ $79.99
Newly released as version 2, Affinity Photo is the best Photoshop alternative. It’s based heavily on the Photoshop mould, which is no bad thing considering that Photoshop is still the gold standard in image-editing. Anybody who is familiar with Photoshop will feel at home in moments, so those ex-Adobe Creative Cloud subscribers who are looking for a subscription-free alternative can jump straight in.
Affinity Photo borrows heavily from Photoshop. Features such as Layers, Adjustment Layers, Masks and Filters are all here. What’s more, some features arguably surpass their Photoshop forebears, such as the powerful Brush tool that gives you a preview of your strokes, or the dedicated Frequency Separation tool for retouching portraits, or the HDR tone-mapping tools.
Affinity Photo’s real strength is in more involved photo edits, like compositing, making cutouts, adding effects or exposure blending – the sort of things that a while back could only have been done in Photoshop.
It’s worth nothing that for a limited time you can get Affinity Photo version 2 for a one-off payment of £35.99/ $40.99. You can also buy the iPad version for £9.99/ $11.99.
Skylum Luminar Neo
As well as being one of the simplest photo editors, Luminar AI is also one of the most fun. There’s an emphasis on presets and beginner-friendly, one-click ‘looks’ that take seconds to apply. But with customisable panels, tons of tonal tools, selective edits and layer functionality, there’s still a good level of depth for those who want a finer degree of control over their images.
The reality-bending AI of Luminar has become the stuff of legend, starting with Skylum’s AI sky replacement (still arguably the best) and progressing to portrait enhancement, portrait bokeh, AI subject masking, sun rays, power line removal and more.
It’s all presented in a slick package with a gentle learning curve. If you want an editor that you can be up-and-running with in no time, but still has plenty of scope for those who want to explore further, then Luminar Neo is an excellent choice. Be aware, though, that Skylum is moving very quickly, and none too subtly, towards subscription plans.
DxO PhotoLab 6 Elite
dxo.com, from £199/ $219 (Elite)
DxO’s strength has long been in its raw processing controls. These kick in before you even begin editing, with images automatically corrected for optical imperfections and lens flaws such as chromatic aberration, vignetting and corner sharpness.
In doing so, DxO draws on its unparalleled database of lens/camera combinations to give you a beautiful raw photo before you have to lift a finger. The editor offers an impressive array of tonal sliders, sharpening features and local adjustment tools that are similar to those on offer in Lightroom.
If you choose the more expensive Elite edition, you will also get DxO’s latest DeepPRIME XD noise reduction, which automatically analyses your image and applies an astonishingly effective level of noise reduction, cutting out the graininess but retaining the fine detail. If you often shoot in low-light, high-ISO scenarios such as weddings or events then the noise reduction controls are worth the price alone.
Like Lightroom, PhotoLab also gives you an array of image-organising tools within the PhotoLibrary. You can add keywords, apply ratings and search through your image library, making it easier to find the photos you need. It’s also compatible with keywords and can sync with Lightroom. If raw editing is your main priority and you want maximum image quality from both your camera and lenses, then this software is really good value, with outstanding noise-reduction tools.
Read our DxO PhotoLab 6 Elite Review to find out more.
Capture One 23
captureone.com, £299 / $299
At £299 / $299 for a standalone licence this is the priciest option, but it’s also the closest to Lightroom that you’ll get without signing up for the monthly subscription. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, it produces wonderful raw files.
You might think that a raw file would look the same no matter which editor it’s viewed in, but there can be marked changes in quality depending on the way the raw data is processed. Capture One gives you a level of detail and quality that often can’t be matched.
The workflow and tethering features are unsurpassed and it also offers advanced tonal tools that let you finesse your photos to a fine degree, with specialised tools for contrast and colour control, and layers-based local adjustments. While the interface has recently been updated to make it more beginner-friendly, Capture One can still seem daunting. The learning curve and cost are steeper than most (for the cost of a licence you could get a Photoshop/Lightroom subscription for two and a half years).
But there’s a reason why many pros prefer Capture One. It’s a slick, high-end package that many consider the best you can buy both for its raw editing and workflow tools.
Photoshop on the web (beta)
photoshop.adobe.com, free (requires Adobe account)
Photoshop on the web has been introduced in Adobe’s October 2021 update, and gives you a number of editing options, replacing Photoshop Express (web). Accessing it isn’t as straightforward as you might expect, as you need to have files in your “Cloud documents” before you can access it, and it currently only supports Edge and Chrome browsers.
We’d recommend having a look at the Photoshop on the web FAQ to find out more. As it is currently in beta status, we expect it to improve with future updates.
Pixlr Desktop app
The impressive Pixlr app comes in two versions. There’s the beginner-friendly Pixlr X and the more advanced Pixlr E. Both apps are free, and the advanced version has support for layers. There are a range of good looking effects available, though a few features are restricted to the paid-for premium edition, such as one-click background removal and a larger font library for adding text.
The interface is pretty easy to use, with clear icons and a generally sensible layout. It’s a particularly good option if you want to integrate your photos into designs, such as leaflets or brochures. This is helped by the selection of cutting tools in Pixlr X, which allow you to easily cut different parts of images together.
Another good option is Fotor, a beginner-friendly online photo editor that offers a useful array of tonal sliders, and even an HDR merge feature. It’s actually an online browser-based package, so while it may not be suitable for advanced users or those working with large, high-resolution files, it’s ideal for quick, fuss-free adjustments.
Fotor offers a few one-click adjustments that are designed to take the fuss out of portrait editing in particular. There’s a background remover, a skin-blemish tool, red-eye remover and more. The fact that it’s online and browser-based also makes it easy to access from anywhere, and any device. If you like, there are also Fotor apps for Android and iPhone, allowing you to continue your imaging edits on the go.
While the editor is free to use, something worth bearing in mind is that quite a few of the smart features are locked behind the premium edition. If all you want is to make simple adjustments to JPG files then the Basic version will be fine; otherwise, you’ll need to upgrade to Pro. The cheapest price you an get this version for is $39.99, billed annually.
With features such as Layers, Masks, retouching tools and advanced brushes, the ‘GNU Image Manipulation Program’ can be used for all kinds of amazing edits and effects, and all for nothing. But GIMP is not just a free Photoshop alternative; it also represents the work of a wide community of generous coders and developers, who’ve honed it over the years from its beginnings as a simplistic image editor into the slick package available today, one that can hold its own against any of the other choices mentioned here.
It’s not the easiest image editor to grasp, but the same could be said of Photoshop and Affinity Photo. What’s more, there’s a vast array of presets, helpful tutorials and plug-ins out there that will help you get up and running. This is due to the fact that GIMP is open-source. This means that anyone with enough programming knowledge can customise the software and make their own add-ons. As such, there is a rich community of enthusiasts who are dedicated to making the program better. Feature-rich, customisable and completely free, GIMP is unique.
Manufacturers’ Free Software
If you’ve recently bought a new camera, then have a look in the box to see whether software is included. In most cases, you’ll find the camera comes with photo editing software, or at least raw conversion software, in the box, or available for download. In fact, most new cameras will come without the software on a CD, as many computers don’t even have a CD drive anymore, so here you’ll find links where you can download the software, as well as what each manufacturer recommends.
Why would I use the manufacturer’s software?
The manufacturer’s software is a good choice if you’ve got a brand-new camera, as other raw software may not support raw conversion for the latest models straight away, or without an update, and some software will never be updated to include raw support for new models, for example if you’ve got an older (non-cloud) version of Photoshop.
You’ll also find support for camera specific colour profiles, or film simulations with Fujifilm cameras. For Canon users, it’s possible to add new lens profiles to your DSLR, to add-in optical corrections when needed, but for this you’ll needs Canon’s photo editing software.
Canon – DPP – Digital Photo Professional
Available from Canon’s website, Digital Photo Professional can be downloaded once you enter your Canon camera’s serial number. It works with all of Canon’s digital cameras, from the old Canon EOS 300D, right up to the latest models. The app supports remote shooting with compatible cameras.
- To use your Canon camera as a webcam, you’ll need Canon’s webcam software, called “EOS webcam utility” and a supported Canon EOS camera.
Nikon – NX Studio
Nikon has updated all of it’s different photo editing packages, into one neat program, called NX Studio, and best of all it’s completely free. You don’t need to enter any camera information and it supports all Nikon cameras, from the Nikon D1 released in 1999, all the way up to the latest Nikon mirrorless cameras.
- To use your Nikon camera as a webcam, you’ll need the Nikon Webcam Utility, and there is a list of supported cameras on the download page.
Nikon users can also use Capture One Express (for Nikon).
Sony – Sony Imaging Edge
Sony has a range of software for it’s cameras, you end up with a range of different programs on your computer, starting with Imaging Edge Desktop, which then lets you launch Remote (for remote tether shooting using live view, and webcam use), Viewer (for rating raw images and applying batch edits made with the Edit part), and Edit (for raw development of images). It’s also needed to merge multi-shot images taken on Sony cameras that support high-res multi-shot shooting.
You can download it for free from Sony’s website.
Sony users can also use Capture One Express (for Sony).
Fujifilm – Pick your poison
Fujifilm users have the choice of a number of different programs, and we’d recommend trying the “Fujifilm X” software packages first.
- Capture One Express (for Fujifilm).
- Raw File Converter EX 3.0 (powered by SilkyPix)
- Fujifilm X Raw studio
There’s also Fujifilm X Acquire software to let you get images processed by your camera’s own raw processing engine, and there’s X Webcam to use your camera as a webcam, plus Pixel Shift Combiner for GFX cameras with high-res multi-shot mode.
All of these are available for download from Fujifilm’s website.
Olympus – Olympus Workspace
Olympus offers free image editing software, called Olympus Workspace, available for Mac and Windows machines, you’ll need to enter your serial number before you can download it. It also gives access to Olympus’ Art Filters, in-camera raw processing (with supported models), and advanced raw editing, with options to adjust Clarity and more. You can also update your camera and lens firmware using this program.
- Olympus offer webcam software, “OM-D Webcam” letting you use supported cameras as a webcam, the software is currently in beta status, and available here.
Olympus Workspare is available for download from the Olympus website.
Panasonic – Photo Editing Software
Panasonic offer PhotofunStudio, a raw editing package, there’s also a separate tether package called “Lumix Tether” available here.
- Panasonic’s webcam software, Lumix Webcam Software is currently in (Beta) status, and lets you use supported cameras as a webcam. It can be downloaded here.
Panasonic PhotofunStudio is available for download from Panasonic’s website.
Pentax / Ricoh Raw Software
Pentax and Ricoh cameras support AdobeDNG raw files, so you can use any raw editing software, and it will be able to open the DNG raw files. However, if you shoot .PEF raw files with Pentax DSLRs, then you might want to use the manufacturer’s software. Pentax provides “Digital Camera Utility” in the box, or on the camera’s memory on the K-3 III. You can also download the update from the Ricoh website.
Have we missed any? Let us know!
Article by: Rod Lawton and AP Staff.
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