7 low-cost (or free) alternatives to Adobe Photoshop CC

Let's face it: Nothing is going to completely replace Adobe's flagship Photoshop image editing software if you need its whiz-bang, technological marvel features. Features like content-aware fill, smart objects, and the new camera shake correction simply can’t be found in any other software.

But if you just need basic, standard Photoshop features – adding text, glows, drop shadows, overlay layers, or sharpening – Adobe’s heavyweight application is overkill. And Adobe's recent jump to a cloud subscription model with Adobe Photoshop CC has made many users hopping, frothing, foaming mad. Fear not: Photoshop isn't the only game in town.

Some of the lower cost Photoshop alternatives come from Adobe itself: Serious photographers can get most of the Photoshop features they need in the company's workflow application, Lightroom, which lists for £102. Photo enthusiasts and imaging hobbyists will get what they need from the even less expensive Photoshop Elements, which actually simplifies creating a lot of the effects pros produce in Photoshop itself. It's available directly from Adobe for £78 standalone, or £117 in a bundle with sister program Premiere Elements, an enthusiast-level video editor.

Even lower cost Photoshop alternatives come from competitors. One of the longest standing of these is Corel, with its similarly named Paintshop Pro (£60), which offers a surprising amount of Photoshop-like functionality. Another competitor is ACDSee (£26) which offers the likes of brush-on edits, 20 effect filters, drawing tools, and noise reduction. Its big brother ACDSee Pro runs along the lines of Lightroom, and is a more powerful app which is currently discounted to a remarkable £39.

But if you really want to save money, there's a lot you can do for free, and even in some cases, in a web browser. The granddaddy of free but powerful image editing software is "the Gimp." This extremely customisable and powerful open source application is, however, very far from being a usability champ – expect a steep learning curve. Even though it lives in your web browser, Autodesk's Pixlr Editor is an amazingly powerful web-based image editor that can even work with layers, and sports toolbars and panels that will look familiar to any Photoshop user. A similar though less polished offering is Paint.net, but deceptively, it's software you download rather than a web app.

So, as you can see, you may be able to do everything you thought you needed Photoshop for with something less expensive. Read on to see if any of our suggested applications fit your needs – here’s our pick of seven wallet friendly alternatives, starting with...

ACDSee offers fast, simple operation, nice photo organisation tools, and all the standard photo-fixing basics: Cropping, rotating, exposure, colour correction, sharpening, red-eye reduction, and blemish removal. The app can also do several Photoshop-like tricks, including applying lots of artistic effects such as the popular lomo and Orton, as well as pencil drawing and painting effects. In all, the app offers 45 effects, but falls short of Adobe Photoshop Elements in really advanced stuff like content-aware filling and photo merging. There’s also a Pro version of the package, which as we’ve already mentioned has been discounted to a very cheap £39, and you can read our review of it here.

The latest version of this venerable imaging software adds some whiz-bang features like face tagging, mapping, and Instagram-like one-click photo effects. PaintShop may not be as polished or loaded with unique, mind-blowing imaging tools as Photoshop, but it's capable of everything a lot of users will ever need, and it's priced to sell. Read our full review of Paintshop Pro X5 here.

The name of this longstanding open source image editing project is short for GNU Image Manipulation Program. Though you can use it for free to your heart's content, the project does accept contributions through Bitcoin and Flattr. A lot of GIMP's capabilities come courtesy of plug-ins, such as its support for raw camera files and custom brushes. You get the expected layers, gradients, paths, text, curves, and levels tools. And if you're running Linux it's your most powerful image editing option.

Paint.net is pretty bare bones, but at least it's free, and it does give you a lot of Photoshoppy tools. It features an easy-to-use interface and an array of effects, but there are no built-in sharing tools (like every other photo editor on the planet now has), no photo organising tools and no Mac version.

Coming from the same source as Photoshop itself, you know Elements will offer some state-of-the-art imaging software technology, and it does. Not only that, it makes a lot of effects that would take painstaking effort in Photoshop far simpler with its Guided Edits. Two other modes, Quick and Expert, do as their names suggest: The first offers very basic, simple fixes and adjustments, and the latter comes closer to Photoshop itself. Read the full review of Photoshop Elements 11 here.

Load the web page at http://pixlr.com and you may be amazed that you're not looking at Photoshop: You see the same toolbar running down the left, with crop, lasso, marquee, wand (alas, no "magic"), pencil, brush, eraser, bucket, gradient, clone stamp, smudge, and lots more. You even get tooltips telling you what the tools are when you hover the cursor over them. On the right, you'll see panels for layers, history, and a navigator. The app – I mean site – offers adjustments for levels and curves, and many effects including water swirl, kaleidoscope, night vision, selective blurs, and mimicking HDR.

With a 64-bit image processing engine, Smart Selection and Edge Refinement tools, noise reduction, and a tilt-shift effect, Serif PhotoPlus is no slouch. It's just not as slick or intuitive as the competition, with no face recognition and no adjustment brushes. For an admittedly somewhat pricey £71, you do get non-destructive cropping, raw camera file support, and tools for adjusting white balance and exposure, and reducing noise. You can even use masks to apply adjustments to specific areas of the image. Read our full review of Serif PhotoPlus X6 here.