Let's face it: If cropping was all you needed to do, you'd just use MS Paint. Photoshop, Adobe's industry standard for image editing, costs a whopping, unforgivable $600; and because there's no affordable and equivalent option for non-pro users, we're willing to wager Photoshop places high in the rankings for the most illegally cracked warez of them all. But when you need tools such as layers, filters, and other effects, 101-level apps such as Picnik and Picasa just don't cut it. So we've rounded up and road-tested seven free resources that pack the punch of Photoshop's bells and whistles without the price. You just might find your dream freebie below.
First, here's the test photo we used on all the image editing resources listed here:
1. Photofiltre is a desktop app with a UI reminiscent of Photoshop and a pared-down set of functions. This app eliminates layers and some user controls for certain tools but leaves plenty of room to play with color, saturation, and effects.
The toolbar allows for certain types of painting and selection, but basically, users are limited to making whole-image adjustments.
Has: Levels, lots of color correction and highlight/shadow options, clone stamp
Lacks: Layers, settings and controls for certain tools
If Photoshop Is a Ten: Photofiltre is a 5.
2. Paint.NET is a fascinating desktop app we just found out about through reader recommendations. And our readers were completely right. We found that this app, even though it required a multi-step download process, just might be able to replace Photoshop entirely for many users. We were able to adjust layer blend modes and opacities, create new gradient layers, apply and adjust a bevy of effects and filters, and just about everything an average, non-professional Photoshop user would do.
The toolbar and palettes were familiar, and although some of the breadth and scope of the features felt a little shallow, there's a lot that can be done with this tool.
Has: Layers, full toolbar, levels, curves
Lacks: Sophisticated color correction/alteration, paintbrush, and selection tools; adjustment layers
If Photoshop Is a Ten: Paint.NET is an 8.
3. The GIMP is touted by many as the be-all, end-all of image editing apps. This open-source, desktop-based piece of work has been part of amateur designers' stable of resources for a long time and retains a solid place among Photoshop's free competitors.
All things being equal, there's not a lot we can say to criticize GIMP. As an open source app, it is subject to continuous rounds of improvement; there is no free app that will duplicate the Photoshop experience as well as GIMP will.
Has: Lighting effects, a full paintbrush tool set, pen tool path selection, layer masks
Lacks: Adjustment layers, some effects previews, layer effects
If Photoshop Is a Ten: GIMP is an 11, because it gives users 90 percent of Photoshop's functionality at zero percent of its cost.
4. Aviary is the hot new kid on the block when it comes to image editors. The four-app suite is a web-based beauty that allows for separate functions for images, vector graphics, design work, and more. Photos can be imported from Flickr, Picasa, Facebook, and a number of other sites.
And although having separate apps for different levels of control and execution is the perfect way to scale the overall functionality for different user groups, we found having to switch back and forth between, for example, the Peacock effects editor and the Phoenix image editor, was disconcerting. And Peacock itself is a radical departure from current image editing paradigms, confusing in a way that is only rivaled by Yahoo! Pipes and tax documents. Instead of launching themselves and their work right into the UI, users will have to spend some time in tutorials and make an initial investment before they see a payoff in their results.
Has: Mask layers, layer blend modes, toolbar, selection modification, layer filters, keyboard shortcuts
Lacks: Previews of many filters/effects, controls for customizing effects, continuity and integration between apps
If Photoshop Is a Ten: Aviary Phoenix is a 7; with Aviary Peacock, it's a 2-9, just depending on how much time you want to spend on tutorials.
5. Splashup is just about as good as it gets. Although it lacks a few crucial tools, it makes up for it all by delivering a beautiful knockoff of the Photoshop interface. It actually looks - dare we say it? - a lot sexier than Photoshop. The app also allows for easy importing of photos stored on social sites such as Facebook, Flickr, and more.
Without so much as registering an account, users are taken immediately to a pared-down, in-browser PS with an abbreviated but adequate set of capabilities. This is the Photoshop Lite we've all been asking for all these years. The tools presented allow for just enough control and just enough subtlety to create professional-looking results:
Has: Layers with effects and blend mode/opacity options and a full, floating toolbar
Lacks: Curves, levels, vibrance, and a slew of the less-used Photoshop features
If Photoshop Is a Ten: Splashup is an 8.
6. Users must register accounts to use flauntR app suite. This Flash-based, in-browser app is definitely one of the best-looking of the bunch, but it lacks the all-important layers that take the amateurish edge off an edited image. Without layers, the final results will always look just a little bit ham-fisted. Nevertheless, flauntR gives users a quick, effective way to adjust images and apply effects.
Images from Flickr, Facebook, and other sites can be pulled into the editor, as well. In addition to offering print services through the printR app, the mobilR app also allows for creating background images for several mobile devices, a cool and unique offering. The profilR moreover allows for the automatic creation of appropriately dimensioned avatars for various social network profiles.
Our finished product isn't something we're terribly proud of, and we certainly wouldn't call the result "professional," but the app was quick and simple to use:
Has: Curves, a range of photo filters and effects, one-click palette adjustments, and a decent set of color adjustment tools
Lacks: The ability to change settings and strengths of many effects, and, as aforementioned, layers
If Photoshop Is a Ten: flauntR is a 4.
7. FotoFlexer is a convenient, quick, in-browser editor with lots of great features. It's also got an API, which we find fascinating.
While we weren't able to experience the levels of magic we would have liked (we couldn't create new layers not based on existing images, for example), we did get to jerry rig a few cool effects and create an image that looks 'Shopped enough.
Users can register accounts to store their edited images on the site, and they can also pull photos in from Flickr, Facebook, and similar social sites.
Has: Equivalents of Curves, Pen selection, Magic Wand, Layers, Liquify, and a ton of easy-to-use filters
Lacks: Full-featured opacity settings and blend modes, a Paintbrush equivalent
If Photoshop Is a Ten: FotoFlexer is a 5.
There are quite a few apps we left out of this list; which ones are your favorites to use? If we missed anything crucial, please be sure to let us know in the comments.