October 27, 2021
Tired of paying an Adobe subscription? Here are the best subscription-free photo editors.
Image editing is an inevitable part of the photographer’s process, but it needn’t necessarily require an expensive monthly subscription. The Lightroom/Photoshop axis has long been considered the best choice for pros and amateurs, but at £10 a month for the photography plan, it may be an unnecessary outlay, particularly when there are plenty of other excellent options out there that cost a fraction of the price, and some that cost nothing at all.
We’ll round up some of the best photo editing software options, as well as some free options.
But 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. But if you want to add custom effects, blend exposures, create HDRs and panoramas, then you’ll certainly need a more involved editor. Let’s take a look at some of the best non-subscription options out there.
Affinity Photo £47.99
For our money – or in fact for £48 of yours – 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. There’s impressive depth to the feature set, so for under £50 it offers astonishing value for money.
Skylum Luminar 4
Skylum Luminar 4 £59
As well as being one of the simplest photo editors, Luminar 4 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 headline feature is the AI sky replacement tool, which lets you automatically drop in a different sky.
However you feel about the morals of such an image-altering edit, it’s an impressive feature that works well. 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 4 is an excellent choice.
DxO PhotoLab 5
DxO Photolab 5 Noise Reduction Options
DxO PhotoLab 5 (from £99)
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.
One of the most impressive features that DxO has to offer is Deep Prime noise reduction. This 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. The latest version also adds support for Fujifilm X-Trans raw files, with some impressive results.
Capture One (£299 or monthly plan)
At £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 on the web – editing
Photoshop on the Web (beta)
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 – Free
Elsewhere there’s the impressive Pixlr app, which comes in two versions, the beginner-friendly Pixlr X and the more advanced Pixlr E. The software is free, and the advanced version has support for layers, and there are a range of good looking effects available.
Fotor – Free
Another good option is Fotor, a beginner-friendly app which offers a useful array of tonal sliders, and even an HDR merge feature. Fotor is a free online photo editing package, so may not be suitable for those looking for more advanced options.
GIMP – Free
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. Feature-rich, customisable and completely free, Gimp is unique.