Adobe Photoshop is the gold standard in the realm of photo editing and has dominated the market for years. However, due to its immense range of functions, the programme is often too complicated and expensive for amateur photographers and designers. It’s no wonder then that there are many appealing cheap and free Photoshop alternatives available.
For many years now, smartphones have been outperforming digital cameras in many respects; with their high-resolution cameras, modern cell phones are the perfect, handy device for creating impactful, stirring images, as well as casual snapshots and selfies. The second a photo is taken, it can be uploaded to social media and shared with friends, family, and acquaintances.
To add the perfect finishing touches, users can take advantage of a wide range of picture editing apps. Designed to optimise photos quickly, these programs can run directly on mobile devices. These applications are generally so user-friendly and intuitive that there is no need to have any special knowledge of photo editing. This means that even inexperienced photographers can quickly achieve first-class results.
What are the benefits of using picture editing apps?
For many years, it’s been possible to create and enhance digital images on the computer using programs such as Photoshop, Microsoft Paint, and Gimp. These applications provide a variety of tools for correcting and embellishing images, as well as tools for removing and adding details. Inexperienced users can also get the most out of their pictures by using features such as:
- Filters (e.g. grayscale)
- Effects (e.g. cartoon)
- Red eye removal
- Softening and sharpening tools
- Exposure correction
- Adjust contrast
- Cut and crop objects
However, if using the older desktop applications, users are first required to upload their image files to their PC, which proves to be rather impractical if you just want to share your snapshot on social media as soon as possible. As a result, users are increasingly switching to photo editing apps that they can install and use directly on mobile devices. Although these are not as complex and comprehensive as the desktop solutions, they are perfectly adequate for processing amateur images.
The differences between picture editing apps
When looking for the perfect image editing app, the options are seemingly endless. Recognising the importance of photos, graphics, and other visual elements for modern communication, software developers have succeeded in introducing a huge range of diverse solutions that can aid users in making their images look professional and unique. Storage space is of course of great importance when it comes to mobile apps, so providers tend to specialise in a particular area of photo editing. It's a good idea to test a range of software to find the photo editing app that best meets your specific requirements.
To be able to better assess and distinguish the individual applications, we take into account the following basic criteria:
- Price: There are many free image editing apps, most of which are rather simplified due to the demands of mobile devices. The apps that do require a fee tend to cost around $10 or less. There are also some apps that offer different versions; a free basic version, an addition to a premium edition with additional features, or an ad-free interface.
- Platform: To use an image editing app on a mobile device, you must first install it from an application database. Android users find their programs in the Google Play Store, while iOS users must look in the App Store. Developers usually provide parallel image editing apps for both Android and iOS devices, although some apps are developed for one specific operating system. The use of an app also depends on whether the device can support the current version. Furthermore, owners of Windows phones have a much smaller selection of photo editing apps to choose from, as they do with other mobile applications.
- Tools: As previously mentioned filters, effects, and simple correction features play the most important role for most smartphone users. For this reason, many picture editing apps are strong in these areas. Another important evaluation criterion is therefore the number of optimisation tools offered by the apps. In order to edit pictures on a smartphone or tablet heavily, users require an app that also contains different tools for a wide range of purposes, such as cropping, and adding text, graphics, emojis, stickers, and so on.
- Operability: The usability of the app is a further criterion to bear in mind when choosing the perfect image editing app for your Android or iOS device. If the program offers the right tools but the operation if too complicated, users will struggle to achieve convincing results and may become frustrated and uninstall the app. Touchscreen technology also presents developers with its own unique set of challenges. Preset settings and intensity levels for filters and effects thereby play a central role, as they save the user both time and effort. While manually operated controls provide more diverse results, the smaller the user’s screen, the more important templates and automated optimisation become.
- Additional features: The developers’ focus should always be on offering users software with a user interface that provides the perfect basis for image editing. The apps can also have additional features besides image editing, such as functions for creating collages or slideshows. In addition, many applications provide direct links to social media channels to publish the finished works with a single click. Some apps can also be synchronised with online storage services so users can upload and store files in the cloud.
Image editing apps for iOS and Android at a glance
Unlike desktop applications, which are more extensive, photo editing apps usually have a limited range of basic functions for image manipulation and optimisation. Although this is common to most programs for mobile devices, they differ in individual areas: While the developers of one app focus on the playful editing aspect, the developers of another application attach importance to particularly detailed optimisation options that satisfy even professionals. A third image editing app combines as many features as possible and shines with all-rounder qualities.
Programs for mobile devices tend to have many common elements, although there are many individual areas in which they differ; for example, one app may focus on fun editing aspects, while another may be better suited to detailed, professional standard optimisation. Meanwhile, other image editing apps are great all-rounders, combining as many features as possible and satisfying a range of requirements.
In this article, we lay out the differences between six interesting apps, to make it easier for you to find a suitable image editing app for your mobile device.
Launched in 2008 by developer Ola Sevandersson, photo editing software Pixlr was initially offered exclusively for desktop computers. The software was taken over by Autodesk a short time later and is now owned by the stock photo agency 123rf. Pixlr Mobile now presents a variant that is available for iOS and Android devices, which is suited to novices and professionals alike. The picture editing app is kitted out with the most important functions for optical improvement and digital manipulation, which can be divided into the following five categories:
- Tools: Typical optimisation tools include red-eye corrector, crop, sharpen, and general image correction.
- Paintbrushes: Different paintbrushes allow users to add their own artistic flourishes or make extensive corrections (i.e. brightening, darkening, pixellation).
- Effects: Different effects and filters can be applied to change the atmosphere of the image.
- Frames and stickers: In this category, there are hundreds of templates to add a decorative touch to the image, although the user needs to first download them to use them.
- Text: This feature allows you to enter a short text, as well as select the text color, font family, and font, and requires the user to download the correct files first.
In addition to its other tools, this free image-editing app provides an intensity regulator. This can be used to control the strength of the filters, effects, and corrections. The program therefore always presents a live preview of the image, including of changes made. These are only saved once the user confirms manually. With the undo and redo buttons, you can move back and forth between individual work steps at any time. Once the work is finished, users can either save the image directly to the mobile device, send it via e-mail, or share it on a social media platform such as Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook. It is also possible to create collages.
|Great selection of filters, effects, and objects||Objects (i.e. text/image) cannot be repositioned afterwards|
|User friendly during upload, editing, up until export|
PicsArt Photo Studio & Collage
Although PicsArt initially released its PicsArt Photo Studio & Collage software for Android devices only, the picture editing app was downloaded over 35 million times in its first year alone. Since the release of further versions for iOS devices and Windows phones, the app has been installed more than 400 million times, making PicsArt one of the most successful image editing mobile apps of all time. Since the very beginning, the community has played an important role in the app’s development; PicsArt boasts a platform for sharing edited images and drafts in addition to its own messaging service, Remix Chat.
PicsArt is a true all-rounder when it comes to image editing software. Whether you want to create a drawing, optimise or manipulate a photo, or assemble a collage, the app has all the right functions at its disposal. The following list includes just some of the features users can access:
- Correction and manipulation tools: These tools allow users to adjust the underlying image, for example, by cropping, cutting specific elements, cloning, flipping and rotating elements, as well as adjusting perspective.
- Effects: Effects allow you to change the tone and mood of an image dramatically with filters such as greyscale and fade. It’s also possible to transform ordinary snapshots into works of art using effects such as cartoon, sketch, and oil painting. In this section, you will also find facial correction tools (remove red eyes, change eye color, whiten teeth, etc.).
- Magic: In the Magic section, users can find special transformation effects.
- Sticker: Stickers are a central feature of this photo editing app. There are over two million of these additional images available, most of which have been created by the community.
- Within the app, you can use an integrated search engine to find the best stickers for your project; in some cases, however, these are subject to a fee.
- Text: The text function allows users to add their own captions, where they can also determine the text color and font, change the direction of the text, and add shadows.
The effects and correction tools found among PicsArt Photo Studio’s arsenal are by no means static; users can determine the intensity of their changes on a scale of 0 to 100. Users can also link the app to their Facebook and Instagram profiles to publish photos immediately. User can then either save their final works on their device or send them in an e-mail as an attachment. In addition to its impressive range of editing tools, the picture editing app also contains a collage function and a tool for creating drawings.
|Wide range of tools||Added text/images cannot be moved after changes have been saved|
|Linked to users’ social media profiles||Login required|
|More than two million reusable objects and tools available|
Google’s free image editing app for iOS and Android, developed by its subsidiary, Nik Software, first appeared on the market in June 2011. While it was initially conceived as a desktop application, the development team has since concentrated its focus entirely on the further development of the mobile application, Snapseed. This app is available to download from both the Google Play Store or App Store. One of Snapseed’s special features is the support of RAW files; using the app, users can open, edit, and save these native camera files with no loss to the quality of the document. Alternatively, images can be exported in commercial JPG format.
This free image-editing app has around 30 different tools, filters, and correction functions to help users optimise their images. Among the impressive and intuitive features the app has to offer are:
- Fine-tuning: Automatic or manual adjustment of light, contrast, and color.
- Paintbrush tool: With the paintbrush tool, individual elements of the image can be edited, i.e. should the user wish to optimise selected areas such as brightness, saturation, contrast, etc.
- Text: With the text feature, images can be optimised with the use of captions. Users can adjust the position, font, color, and transparency level individually.
- Facial optimisation: These include features specifically for selfies that can be used to focus on the eyes, add facial lighting, or smoothen the appearance of the skin. This tool can also be used to fix red eye.
- Looks (filters): The array of ‘looks’ on offer gives users the option to change the entire style of their image with Google’s picture editing app. These include, for example, ‘drama’ (increases contrast and exaggerates shadows),’vintage’ (gives images hues in colors typical of film photography in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s) or ‘noir’ (a black and white film effect).
From version 2.3 up, Snapseed can also automatically recognise faces with the focus effect. By analysing the angle of the face and illumination in the photo, the image editing app makes smart suggestions for adjusting the sharpness and depth of field. The perspective tool also allows users to adjust skewed lines or have them corrected automatically. In addition, skewed images are automatically aligned with the horizon line. Snapseed saves all individual changes, but it is also possible to keep the original image and save the finished work as a new file. The photo editing app also allows you to export images in JPG format, publish them on social networks, send them by e-mail, and print them out.
|Supports RAW files||Some editing icons inconveniently small|
|All individual changes to a work can be saved|
Launched in 2011, VSCO is a photo editing app developed by an American art and technology company of the same name. The company has made it its mission to connect its creative user base in the style of a social media platform, so the app therefore includes social features similar to those found on Instagram and Twitter. For example, users can create personal profiles, which can be used to publish their own works, follow other users, and categorise their images with the use of hashtags. Thanks to partnerships and regular creative collaborations with other companies such as Nike, the VSCO network can be an excellent marketing platform for up-and-coming photographers. The basic version of the app is free, however, users can also take out an annual subscription for VSCO-X membership and have access to exclusive Film X presets and tools, which also allows users to edit videos.
When using the VSCO editor, users can either take a photo with the app or, alternatively, import an image file from their device. The user will then be presented with two menus: the list of correction tools (which enable the user to tweak their images manually), and the effects menu (also known as presets), which allow users to adjust the general mood and tone of the image with a single touch. When applying a preset25Basm, users can determine the intensity of the filter on a sliding scale. The individual correction functions can also be controlled on a scale; editing the photos this way is more precise and can take longer than simply applying a filter. This picture editing app grants users full control when it comes to modifying the following properties:
- lighting conditions
- color tone
When the editing is complete, users can save the results onto their device. VSCO also saves a copy of the original image, which can be restored in the editing mode at the touch of a button. You can also send photos by e-mail or share them on Instagram and other social media platform, as well as with other users on the app's network.
|Has its own social network for both amateur and professional photographers||No options for optimising specific areas|
|Simple operation||The free version only offers a small selection of tools and filters|
Adobe Photoshop Express
For many years now, Adobe has offered Photoshop Express as a free alternative to its famous picture editing software, Photoshop. After initially launching the program as a web application, Adobe developed simplified mobile applications for iOS, Android, and Windows devices. Due to high demand, it is still available as a desktop application. The range of tools available are based on Photoshop’s algorithms to make the image editing app attractive for newcomers and experienced users alike.
Use of this app is free, although users can pay to link their app with the Creative Cloud, granting them access to the arsenal of Adobe stock photos, 60 professional preset filters, and increasing the great range of functions.
Adobe’s photo editing app has achieved recognition for its wide range of impressive filters such as ‘infrared’, ‘twilight’, ‘60s TV picture’, ‘autumn’, and ‘spring’. To use a filter, all the user has to do is tap on the desired style and it will automatically be applied to the original image. The user can then adjust the intensity as required by means of a slider. Individual manipulation tools follow the same process, allowing users to change the following image properties:
- and many more
With Adobe Photoshop Express, users can rotate, mirror, and crop their images to their heart’s content. This smart free photo app even provides various template formats such as ‘Facebook profile cover’, ‘YouTube thumbnail’ or ‘16:9’. Users can also choose to adorn their images with frames, and Android users can also add text to their works. Other features include automatic red eye removal for people and animals, as well as an auto-fix feature that instantly optimises the image’s contrast, exposure, and white balance. The finished image can then be saved to your gallery, published on the various social media platforms, and sent by e-mail or messenger. On the iOS version of the app, users are also able to create collages.
|Based on Photoshop’s algorithms in order to satisfy a wide audience||Login required with either an Adobe or Facebook account|
|Available for users of Windows devices||Android version severely limited compared to iOS version|
Founded in 1996, the prominent Taiwanese software company CyberLink has long been renowned for its high-quality applications in the multimedia sector – in particular, the playback software, PowerDVD, and the PowerCinema media center enjoy a great deal of popularity. With PhotoDirector, Cyberlink adds an image editing program to its portfolio. This has been available for some time now as an app for Android, iOS, and Windows Phones. To download the app from the app store and use the app is generally free of charge. However, there is also a premium version, which users can purchase for a one-time payment (between 5 and 10 dollars); this allows unlimited use of all tools, offers higher image resolution, and is free of advertising.
PhotoDirector is by far one of the most wide-ranging photo editing apps on the market. Like its competitors, the software offers all the typical optimisation tools that can be used to improve the quality of images without making drastic changes to the mood and tone. For example, among the optimisation tools are functions to adjust individual image properties such as saturation, sharpness, and color tones, as well as tools to remove red eye and other image errors. In addition, users can cut out or release individual objects as required. Furthermore, the entire image can be mirrored or rotated. In addition to all these features, this extensive image editing app offers various creative functions to transform photographs into works of art:
- Effects: The atmosphere of an image can be changed wildly with the help of these different templates. Among them include black and white filters, HDR (high contrast image), artistic, and lomography (retro). By swiping to the left or right, the user can change the intensity of the selected effect.
- Splash: In the Splash category you can find tools, which can be used to adjust the image’s color alignment, add shape masks, and delete editing stages.
- Mixer: Within the ‘Mixer’ category, the photo editing app offers atmospheric templates, which can be placed over the original image and appear to merge with it. The intensity of these templates can be controlled with a slide control.
- Overlays: The overlay tools are essentially the same as the mixer effects, although these are generally far more subtle. For example, here you can find templates for adding scratches, flecks of light, or lens flare to the original image.
- Scene: Both Android and iOS users alike can incorporate their pictures into professionally designed scenes. For example, they can lay their own image above a template, which will give the impression that there is a tram moving in the background.
CyberLink's picture editing app also includes a text function that can be used to insert words or speech bubbles. Users can choose from a variety of fonts, some of which have to be downloaded first. They can also choose to accentuate their images with attractive frames and stickers to add their own creative flourish. Furthermore, a collage function allows users to group individual images together. CyberLink is constantly updating and reinventing itself, publishing new templates for overlays, stickers, scenes, and more in its own template store. This can be accessed directly within the app, and users then simply download the appropriate material and add it to their own PhotoDirector work. The photo editing app includes options to save finished images locally or publish them on Facebook and Instagram.
|Effects and range of tools expanded on a regular basis||Certain features are very CPU-intensive|
|Visually appealing user interface|
The best free image-editing apps at a glance
|Developer||Active since||Platform||Distinguishing features|
|Adobe Photoshop Express||Adobe||1982||iOS, Android, Windows Phone, Webanwendung||Photoshop algorithms|
|CyberLink PhotoDirector||CyberLink||1996||iOS, Android, macOS, Windows (Phone)||Template store with regular input|
|PicsArt Photo Studio & Collage||PicsArt||2011||iOS, Android, Windows Phone||over 2 million extra objects available|
|Pixlr Mobile||Autodesk||1982||iOS, Android||Huge selection of filters, effects, and objects|
|Snapseed||1997||iOS, Android||Projects save every individual stage of editing process|
|VSCO||VSCO||2011||iOS, Android||Large network of photographers available with different social features|