Best Alternatives To Photoshop


Are there any really good, truly free alternatives to Photoshop out there? You bet there are!

Let’s say you have this amazing photo of your cat-just not quite amazing enough. You want to “fix it up.” How can you do that? Simple; you need a photo manipulation or photo editing program. Are there any free ones? Yep.

Want to know what they are? Thought so!

First, you must decide exactly what is it that you want to do to your image? Crop it, lighten it, darken it? Put a border around it? Add a little text to it? That is simple image editing. Do you want to take the photo and make it part of an image that incorporates 3D lettering and other elements that will become part of a spectacular logo design? That’s image design. Give the cat three heads instead of one? Distort the image so it’s 3 feet tall and 2 inches wide? That’s photo manipulation. And there are programs that allow you to do it all, making them excellent FREE alternatives to Photoshop!

About Adobe Photoshop

Adobe Photoshop

For many years, I ran a home-based business making pinback buttons and refrigerator magnets. During that time, I used Adobe Photoshop (version 6) for most of my image editing, photo manipulation, and image design work. Primarily because, many moons ago, I had a very generous boss who bought it for me with a series of video training tapes. I never upgraded because v6 does everything I need it to do. And because it’s very expensive. Only those who make a living with graphics design or photo editing need such a powerful program and are willing to pay the price this software commands.

Any powerful photo manipulation application with very robust, advanced capabilities will have a steep learning curve. Each will require you to spend time reading tutorials and practicing to refine your skills. With time and experience, you can master all image editing and image design techniques and use your photo manipulation application for these as well as more complex tasks. If you decide you really need a powerful photo manipulation program, look below for some wonderful free alternatives to Photoshop.

Definitions – Sort Of

Following are loose definitions and descriptions of the various types of photo manipulation and image editing tools.

Image Editing (or photo enhancement) – normally implies that you want to do something quick and easy to a single photo (or other digital image). The range of possibilities is very broad and includes, but is not limited to, such things as:

  • Resizing
  • Cropping
  • Making Lighter or Darker
  • Changing the Contrast
  • Inserting Titles or Talk Balloons
  • Framing or Adding Borders

Image Design – normally involves more than one basic element and allows you some freedom in manipulating the various components of your design to achieve the desired look. Options might include such things as:

  • Adding Multiple Images
  • Adding Other Design Elements
  • Adding and Dramatizing Text
  • Manipulating the Design Elements

Photo Manipulation – capability is required when you want to make more elaborate and complicated adjustments, such as:

  • Skew
  • Distort
  • Liquify
  • Imitate Art Forms
  • Add Lighting Effects
  • Extract Images from Backgrounds

The application(s) you choose should be based on your end goal. Study the examples above for a bit and decide just how much time and effort you want to commit to learning the tools available for each application you choose.

More About Photo Manipulation Software

Whenever possible, I use online applications for simple image editing.

I am delighted to have so many full and easy editing options quickly and easily available online. Many of the things I would normally do in Photoshop can be done much more quickly with these online applications; and I like saving time, don’t you?

However, sometimes I really need to have a very robust, full-featured program that is almost limitless in the photo manipulation tasks I can perform. True graphics artists and designers need such capabilities. As mentioned above, however, Adobe Photoshop is extremely expensive when initially purchased and very expensive to keep updated to the current version. In addition, many users complain that each new version becomes more bloated and, therefore, more cumbersome to use.

Fortunately, there are several free photo manipulation programs available that have functionality very similar to Photoshop. Many of them even look very similar to Photoshop so the tools and functions will be easily recognizable and instantly usable for those who are already familiar with Photoshop. Try one or more of these to decide which one best suits your needs in terms of functionality, learning curve, availability, and operating system. Cost, of course, is not a factor as all of these programs are FREE.

Disclaimer and Anti-Flamewar Declaration

Please realize that I am not a professional graphics artist and do not make my living using any photo manipulation software. What I am is a fairly-adept user of Adobe Photoshop and familiar with a great number of the tools and functionality that are available in that program.

That knowledge, combined with research related to these alternative programs, formed the basis for my conclusions about competing programs. I am not attempting to start a “flamewar” with regard to whether or not there are any true substitutes for Photoshop. Those who love Photoshop will always believe there are no good alternatives, free or otherwise. Those who cannot afford Photoshop will always seek acceptable alternatives. It is to the latter that this review is directed.

Download to Computer or Use Online?

Will you choose programs that will be downloaded to your desktop or laptop computer, or will you choose to use web-based (online) applications? There are pros and cons for each. Quite often these are mirror images. The advantages of one could very well be the disadvantages of the other.

#1 Downloaded Programs


  • Requires space on your computer; most programs are very large
  • Requires a lot of system resources (memory and CPU usage)
  • Restricted to use at computer where they were downloaded
  • May be lost in a computer disaster
  • Choice of program limited by operating system (platform)


  • Preferences can be set to your way of working
  • Options and add-ons can be configured for your specific needs
  • Always available (assuming your computer is up and running)
  • Usually installed to the computer where images are stored
  • Usually optimized for a specific operating system (platform)

#2 Web-Based Applications


  • Speed is determined by the website hosting the application
  • Preferences are often not configurable or cannot be saved
  • May not work properly with all browsers
  • May require add-ons or plug-ins for some browsers
  • Availability depends on the website hosting the application


  • Requires no space on your personal computer or laptop
  • Usually not greatly affected by your personal system resources
  • Always available (assuming your computer is up and running)
  • Are available anywhere there is an Internet connection
  • Still there after a computer crash

Note: Be aware that some downloaded programs may not work well (or at all) when you update your computer to a new operating system. Although my v6 Photoshop does still work after upgrading to Windows 7, some of the tools do not work as well as before.

You may also experience other changes that are a little difficult to accept. Previously, when looking at PSD (Photoshop) files in Windows Explorer, in the icon view, I could see an actual image of the top layer of any PSD file. With Windows 7, the icon no longer displays any layer at all. Therefore, sometimes with similarly-named files it is difficult to determine which one you need without opening them. Fortunately, Irfanview Thumbnails viewer does still show the icon. (Irfanview is a free, downloadable image viewer.)

FREE Download Alternatives for Photoshop

If you prefer a program that runs locally on your PC or laptop, you need one that is sure to work with your operating system. This article focuses on Windows and Macintosh operating systems, although Gimp runs on many other platforms.

After a lot of research, I believe the top-three contenders for computer-based Photoshop alternative applications are:

  • Gimp – cross platform, Windows and Macintosh
  • – Windows only
  • Seashore: – Macintosh only

Free Alternative to Photoshop

#1 Gimp


Gimp is now, and forever will be, totally free because it is open-source. Users are encouraged to develop applications that extend the functionality of the program. Therefore, the basic program (already strong and stable) is constantly being improved with new add-ons and plug-ins. These features, combined with the cross-platform capability of Gimp (meaning it runs on a multitude of different operating systems), make it an extremely viable alternative for Adobe Photoshop.


  • Free (forever) | Open source | Cross platform | Portable
  • Bitmap/pixel-based editing
  • Excellent for image editing, image creation, photo manipulation, and animations
  • Can use many of the Photoshop plug-ins
  • Wealth of plug-ins and extensions written for Gimp
  • Huge user base constantly adding features and writing tutorials
  • Significant core functionality, including layers, channel support, and paths
  • Opens and saves (exports) to wide range of file formats (jpg, gif, tiff, etc)
  • Many advanced features which are not available in Photoshop


  • User interface not the most intuitive or user-friendly
  • Significant learning curve (documentation written by users and widely scattered)
  • No 16-bit imaging and adjustments (under development)
  • 3D not available (under development)
  • Lacks layer styles (under development)
  • Lacks CMYK colors (under development)
  • Does have some bugs and no real quality assurance program in place
  • “Under development” doesn’t necessarily equate to “coming soon”


Paint-Net is another bitmap/pixel-based image editing application, designed specifically for the Windows operating system. Most true graphics designers will find it somewhat lacking when compared to Adobe Photoshop. Others who are not already very familiar with Photoshop and those who use only the more common tools in that program or are new to the world of photo manipulation will find much to love with


  • Free (forever) | Open source
  • Clean, easy to use, very intuitive user interface
  • Small disk usage and less memory intensive
  • Faster than Gimp (and, of course, Photoshop)
  • Bitmap/pixel-based image editor
  • Supports layers, lots of special effects, and powerful editing tools
  • Thousands of plug-ins and extensions that can be downloaded
  • Save to multiple common file formats (jpg, gif, tiff, etc)
  • Extensive user base constantly adding features and writing tutorials
  • Strong, active forum


  • Not as robust as Gimp
  • Plug-ins cannot be managed from within the application
  • Text editor lacking; must insert separate layer; not editable after deselected
  • Lack of non-destructive editing options; no adjustment layers
  • Lacks dodge and burn tools
  • Has limited brush options
  • No support for CMYK
  • Can’t save as a TIFF file with layers

#3 Seashore

When looking for an alternative for Adobe Photoshop that would run on a Mac, I stumbled. It seems there aren’t any really good programs for the Mac that mimic Photoshop’s functionality, except Gimp. The closest contender that I could find is Seashore.

Seashore is smaller, easier, and faster, built on the Gimp code, specifically altered for the Mac. For the majority of people who need only a few of the more sophisticated photo manipulation tools, Seahorse might be just what you need.


  • Free (forever) | Open Source
  • Easy, straightforward, user-friendly interface
  • Large selection of brushes and shapes tools
  • Most common tools such as gradients, clone, smudge
  • Anti-aliased (smooth edges) brush strokes
  • Supports layers and alpha channel editing
  • Integrates tightly with Mac operating system
  • Supports most common file formats through Save or Export
  • Thorough documentation with PDF user guide


  • No huge array of image manipulation options or automated filters
  • Limited text capabilities, with no font preview and limited manipulation
  • Does not include some common effects such as drop shadow and bevel
  • No live preview for effects and filters
  • Does not embed ICC profiles for some file formats (must export)
  • No plug-ins

Photo Manipulation Programs – Not Dependent on Operating System

In the following modules, we will look at photo manipulation alternatives for Photoshop that are web-based, also referred to as online applications or browser-based applications. The programs are independent of all operating systems because all you need to use them is a computer of some sort and an Internet connection. Since I didn’t have to download these programs, I have been able to personally “test drive” them all in offering my conclusions.

Please note: No applications were selected that did not support layers because all true graphics artists will demand that functionality!

Only two online photo manipulation programs met even my needs as a graphics designer. As alternatives to Photoshop, both are really quite good. Not Photoshop, but still very nice alternatives. They are:

Sumo Paint and Pixlr

SplashUp is another alternative photo manipulation program that is highly rated by some users. It is very “like” Photoshop in appearance and general layout. However, I found the tools to be very limited (no zoom, no magic wand). There is no additional layer support (such as adjustments and layer masks), and the layer effects and filters are somewhat limited. I also found it to be unstable, as it locked up several times, causing me to lose my work. In fairness, this may be due to the last update I did to my Adobe Flash Player. I would personally not choose this program as a “substitute” for Photoshop.

Honorable mentions go to Picnik and FotoFlexer because both do support layers and selectable text objects. The layer functionality is limited, but at least it’s there. Each of these programs also has several very nice “pretty up” options. These will be covered in a later article.

Update: Unfortunately, Picnik is no more. Picnik was a Google-supported application, and Google simply decided to close it down. There are some “rumors” going around that Google will develop an alternative image editing application as part of the Google+ initiative, but I have found no confirmation of that as of yet.

#1 Sumo Paint


As a true alternative photo manipulation program, Sumo Paint is quite desirable. It is very similar to Photoshop in appearance, tools, and functionality. Experienced Photoshop users will be able to use the program immediately. Newcomers to photo manipulation programs will find a wealth of tutorials, from within the application itself, as well as a marvelous array of outside training sources, such as YouTube. With a little time learning and “playing,” even newbies to the world of graphic design will be delighted with this program.


  • No registration required unless you want to store your work on their site.
  • Runs in any Flash-enabled browser
  • Instantly Recognizable to Photoshop Users
  • Zero learning curve for experienced Photoshop users
  • Outstanding performance, very fast even with complex layouts
  • Comprehensive Image Editing, Image Creation & Design and Photo Manipulation
  • Clean, attractive interface, very similar to Photoshop
  • Wide range of shapes tools, including some I’ve not seen before
  • Text is easy to create; can be selected, edited, and scaled after deselected
  • All fonts on your PC are available for use
  • Nice assortment of standard and fun filters
  • Wide assortment of brushes and pen styles
  • Includes layers and layer styles
  • Results of photo manipulations previewed immediately on the original image
  • Magic Wand better and easier to use than the one in Photoshop (v.6)
  • 3D transformations (cube, sphere, cylinder, etc.)
  • Allows multiple open workspaces
  • Multiple levels of Undo
  • Workspaces can be saved on Sumo for future use (with registration)
  • Uses standard Windows keyboard shortcuts as well as its own
  • Frequent enhancements and updates
  • Strong community and involved user base
  • Excellent learning tools, inside and outside the program


  • No adjustment layers, layer masks, etc.
  • No extract or liquefy (two of my favorite tools)
  • Lacks the photo-sharing and social networking site integration
  • No one-click “dress up” features like adding frames and borders
  • Font list does not include review of the font
  • Crop tool – automatic with no adjustment
  • Limited options for import (from disk or URL)
  • Limited options for save / export (jpg, png, sumo)

#2 Pixlr


Pixlr is also a very good alternative photo manipulation program, equal in most respects to Sumo Paint. It also has a few very nice features that are not available in Sumo Paint. In large part, this online application will satisfy those who want a “lighter” version of Photoshop. Newcomers to the world of photo manipulation will find it easy to learn and be able to achieve some really amazing images in a short period of time just by trial and error.


  • No registration required
  • Instantly Recognizable to Photoshop Users
  • Zero learning curve for experienced Photoshop users
  • Outstanding performance, very fast even with complex layouts
  • Can choose full screen mode for editing
  • Comprehensive Image Editing, Image Creation & Design and Photo Manipulation
  • Acceptable range of shapes tools
  • Text is easy to create; can be selected, edited, and scaled after deselected
  • All fonts on your PC are available for use
  • Adequate assortment of standard and some fun filters
  • Very good assortment of brushes
  • Includes layers, layer masks and layer styles with blending options
  • Layer manipulation is identical to Photoshop
  • Results of photo manipulations previewed immediately on the original image
  • Magic Wand is excellent
  • Allows you to flip and rotate individual layers as well as the whole image
  • Allows multiple open workspaces
  • Multiple levels of Undo
  • Uses standard Windows keyboard shortcuts
  • Has image “grabber” plug-in for Firefox and Chrome (awesome tool)
  • Excellent learning tools, inside and outside the program
  • API for developers


  • Can’t save workspace for later editing
  • No extract or liquefy (two of my favorite tools)
  • Lacks the photo-sharing and social networking site integration
  • No one-click “dress up” features like adding frames and borders
  • Font list does not include review of the font
  • Limited options for import (from disk or URL)
  • Limited options for save / export (jpg, png, bmp, pxd)

Sumo Paint vs Pixlr

In all truthfulness, I find very little difference between these online applications. They are both very viable FREE alternatives to Photoshop. Each has a few small differences in such things as layers, filters, brushes, and shapes. Each also has some great things that the other does not include.

Unique things I like about each are:

1. Sumo Paint

  • Workspaces can be saved on Sumo for future use (with registration)
  • Wide range of shapes tools, including some cool ones I’ve not seen before
  • 3D transformations (cube, sphere, cylinder, etc.)

2. Pixlr

  • Superior crop tool – selects, has grid for centering, movable, can be resized
  • Has image “grabber” add-on for Firefox and Chrome (awesome tool)
  • API for Developers

Since both of these applications are FREE, have zero learning curve for experienced Photoshop users, have great training materials available to assist new users, and require no download, why not use both for the unique features of each?

General point of interest: Both of these applications are based on Adobe’s Flash Player technology. Older PCs, running older versions of Flash may not give you the same exciting and satisfying results that I have with them. However, if your PC is not capable of good performance with these online applications, chances are very good that it will not work well with Adobe Photoshop either. So, I highly recommend that (before purchasing Photoshop – or even downloading the computer-based applications shown here) that you give these apps a shot. All you have to lose is a few minutes of time. What you can potentially gain is two very exciting programs, capable of handling many image editing, image design and photo manipulation tasks!

Final Conclusion

Do you think you have discovered through this article a viable free alternative for Photoshop? Have you tried any of the suggested programs and want to add your comments about them? Just have questions about anything covered here? All comments are welcome; remember everyone’s opinion is unique and important.

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