What is an image editor? An application for manipulating and enhancing photos. The basic functionality of an image editor includes resizing, cropping, lighting adjustments, touch-up and adding text. Image editors typically work with raster or bitmap graphics. Bitmaps use rectangular picture elements (pixels) organized in a grid to represent an image.
As a secondary feature, some image editors function as paint programs for creating graphics from scratch. However, you may get better results using drawing programs for this purpose, such as the free applications Inkscape and SVG-Edit. Professional drawing applications create vector graphics, which are based on computer algorithms and can be scaled to any size without degrading.
In the world of image or graphic editors, Adobe Photoshop remains the gold standard. It has the tools and features that allow users to create professional looking images, but the learning curve and price tag are more than some are willing to invest. If you’ve been hunting for an alternative to Photoshop, here are five free photo editing tools you may want to consider for your eLearning and slide images.
Types of Editors
I’ve reviewed two types of editors here: browser-based applications and desktop software. Browser-based editing is fast and efficient and can be accomplished whenever you have an internet connection. Desktop applications—especially GIMP—often have more options though cloud-based editors are catching up.
What’s Not Included
I did not include those online image editors that focus on graphics for social media. Although those programs have many features, I don’t think they are ideal for the intensive graphic work you may need for eLearning and slide production. Also, I did not review Photoshop Express because it does not work with the PNG format needed for the transparent backgrounds used in many eLearning products.
What follows are reviews of Aviary, Fotor, GIMP, Pixlr Editor and SumoPaint. You’ll find that some of these free browser apps display distracting ads. Hey, they’re free.
If you’re looking for a photo editing app that is straightforward and simple to use, then Aviary is one worth considering. Although it lacks the complex features you’d find in professional editing software like GIMP or Photoshop, Aviary has a good mix of the functionality that most people use. If you simply want a fast and easy editing job, then Aviary should suffice.
One of the things that makes Aviary a good choice is its intuitive user interface. All of the editing options are displayed in a horizontal toolbar at the top of the screen (see below).
Aviary User Interface. Character Cutout Courtesy of the eLearning Brothers.
After manipulating an attribute, such as focus, you simply Cancel it or Apply it. Many of the tools—like brightness and contrast—are adjusted using sliders. As you move the sliders, you immediately see the effect on your image, unlike some programs without a Preview mode. Aviary is definitely a graphic editor to try out for adjusting and enhancing your photographs for eLearning and slides.
Like many of the free browser-based tools, Fotor encourages users to upgrade to the Premium version (a few dollars a month) by displaying ads and limiting the available features. Options that display a diamond next to the name are premium only. That said, I think Fotor is a powerful browser-based graphic editor worth checking out.
Fotor User Interface.Character Cutout Courtesy of eLearning Art.
The user interface is clean, with all of the basic features just a click away on the left panel (see above). In addition to the standard tools for resizing, rotating and cropping, Fotor has a “Beauty” option with features for editing portraits. Aside from the laughable name, there are editing options you might use if you do your own photo shoots, such as removing blemishes and cloning (repeating) areas of the photograph.
You may also like Fotor’s Collage option, which allows you to combine photographs into one image. However, it only seems to allow a vertical orientation.
As a free application, Fotor is useful for quickly making basic photo enhancements with decent output. It also comes with a helpful tutorial. As soon as you upload your first photograph to Fotor, you’re presented with an explanation of the key tools. If you want more graphic power, it’s probably worth it to upgrade to the premium version.
GIMP is the most sophisticated free image editor available. It is an installed desktop application and is widely considered the best free alternative to Adobe Photoshop.
This free and open source image editor is an amazing achievement. The latest release provides professional-level editing and retouching tools. It uses the layer model found in Photoshop, which allows you to place an image or graphic element on top of another one, such as placing a cutout person on a unique background, merging the two together.
GIMP User Interface. Screen Capture Courtesy of GIMP.
Also similar to Photoshop are panels for displaying Layers, Brushes, Tools, and other features. GIMP uses sliders for changing attributes like size and opacity. But if you require greater accuracy, you can still make adjustments by typing the values in dedicated boxes. Note that when you save an image in GIMP, it saves to its native format: XCF. The XCF format is similar to the Photoshop PSD format in that it saves all the layers of your work. To save an image as a JPG or PNG file, you will need to select the File > Export option.
GIMP is a feature rich, free and open source alternative to Photoshop. There is a lot to learn here. You’ll be able to find good documentation and tutorials for gaining competence with GIMP. If you’re looking for a graphic program that will support your growing skills, GIMP may be your solution.
Pixlr Editor is one of the most user-friendly and powerful online photo editing tools available right now. It has a clean and easy to understand interface with a lot of options and features ideal for moderate levels of editing.
You’ll find a user interface similar to that of Photoshop, with a vertical toolbar, layers for building images and lots of options accessible through the menu. In the toolbar panel there are several powerful features, like color replace, spot heal, red-eye reduction and a cloning tool.
Pixlr Editor User Interface. Pilot Photo Courtesy of PhotoDune.
You can also build graphics from scratch, which is one of the four options when you open the application online. Pixlr Editor is heads above the simple applications created for social media posts. You’ll like the power of this free browser-based app.
SumoPaint is a hybrid tool in two ways. First, you can either use it in your browser or download and install it. Also, it has a healthy mix of photo editing tools as well as being a paint/drawing program. All for free.
Upon first glance, you might think that all the features are for creating graphics. But you’ll find photo editing tools mixed into the toolbar and in the menu. Again, it has a Photoshop user interface, with a vertical toolbar on the left and a layers panel on the right.
SumoPaint User Interface. Character Cutout Courtesy of the eLearning Brothers.
Aside from the familiar photo editing tools like blur, smudge, and others, there are also a wide array of filters, like kaleidoscope, wavelab, camouflage and more. SumoPaint is one of the most feature rich applications available. Like many of the other apps, the biggest drawback is that the work area is surrounded by distracting advertisements. For a nominal monthly payment, you can upgrade to the Pro version and remove the ads.
SumoPaint also has a large community of users who are willing to share their knowledge and techniques on YouTube and elsewhere.
These image editing applications provide a lot of power at no cost. If you’re in low budget mode or just need to make a quick fix, they offer a range of image manipulation, retouching and paint capabilities. Do you have a favorite free image editor? Share your picks in the Comments section below.