You can find plenty of free photo-editing programs. But when you really want to make significant, subtle, or skillful changes in a picture, is free good enough?
I tested four highly regarded free photo-editing programs and compared each program’s results with those of Photoshop Elements, consumer software for which you must pay. Here’s what I learned.
Simple tweaking is not always good enough
Photos often need minor adjustments, and there are plenty of free tools for that job. In fact, you can improve an image considerably with a free photo organizer such as Microsoft’s Photo Gallery or Google’s Picasa — programs in which a little set of editing tools is almost an afterthought.
But when you want to make more substantive changes to an image — substitute a color or add a different background, for example — you need an editor that has first-rate selection tools, detailed exposure controls, effective color search-and-replace options, and layers that let you work with foreground and background separately.
Among professionals, Adobe Photoshop CS has been the de facto standard for years. But with a price tag north of U.S. $500 ($300 for the Student and Teacher Edition), it’s a bit rich for the average consumer photographer. Photoshop Elements 11 (info), however, costs under $100 and has many of the advanced tools found in its professional sibling.
Elements has an excellent reputation and contains just about every image-manipulating tool a nonprofessional (and some pros, too) could conceivably want. It’s also — most of the time — reasonably easy to use. (Elements also includes a photo organizer, but there are excellent free options for that.)
To find out whether you really need to pay for good tools, I tried four photo-editing tasks using four highly regarded, free, photo-editing programs. I then compared each program’s results to what I created with Adobe Elements.