The Best Free Photo Editors for macOS

By Justin Pot on May 4th, 2017

If you’re a Mac-using professional photographer, you’re probably already paying $10 a month for Adobe Creative Cloud’s Photography plan, which includes Photoshop and Lightroom. But what about the rest of us, who occasionally edit images but not enough to justify a $120 annual bill? Are there any free Mac image editors?

A few, but none without compromise. Most of the options either don’t offer that much power, or don’t have the best user interfaces. But if you’re willing to put up with limitations, or put in the time to learn something that’s not necessarily intuitive, you can edit your photos for free. Here are the best choices.

GIMP: Feature Complete With a Steep Learning Curve

In terms of features and flexibility, open source stalwart GIMP is the best free Mac image editor you can find. This layer-based editor supports most file formats, and has all of the tools you need to touch up photos: adjustments for things like color balance and contrast, yes, but also filters and simple drawing tools. You can customize the user interface, putting tools you use regularly front-and-center and burying the tools you don’t.

You just need to find those tools, and figure out how they work. Experience with software like Photoshop won’t help much, because GIMP does things its own way, and expects users to figure those ways out on their own. There’s going to be a learning curve, and it’s going to involve a lot of Google searches. If you’re the kind of person who likes thinking about design, you might end up wondering what exactly the creators were thinking. The GTK interface also doesn’t feel 100% at home on in macOS, and that may turn some diehard Mac users off.

So there are downsides, but they might be worth it, because this is a full-blown photo editor that’s completely free. No ads, no gimmicks: just open source software that you’re free to use as you like.

Fotor: Quick Photo Tweaks From a Simple Interface

If you’re not concerned with flexibility, and just want to quickly make a few changes to your photos, Fotor might be what you’re looking for. This simple app gives you access to a bunch of one-button adjustments. When you load a photo, you’ll see the “Scenes” toolkit, which allows you to choose from one of several lighting adjustments.

There’s not a lot of fine-tuning: just click a button and decide if it looks better. There are similarly simple tools for adjusting the focus, adding text, and cropping your image.

Again, if you’re looking for a full-blown photo editor, this isn’t it. But it’s free, with one tiny ad in the bottom-right corner. It’s worth a look.

Preview or Photos: Built-In Basic Editing Tools

Not everyone realizes this, but you can use macOS’ built-in Preview app to edit images. Just open any image, then click the toolbox icon. A second toolbar of icons for editing images will show up.

From here, you can add simple shapes and draw. You can also adjust the color and contrast levels by clicking Tools > Adjust Color in the menu bar. It’s not the most complete photo editor on the planet, but it gives you access to the basics without any third party software.

If you organize your photo collection using the built-in Photos tool on your Mac, you can also edit images in Photos. Just open any photo, then click the “Edit” button, which looks like a bunch of sliders.

This will open a variety of editing tools, which let you do things like choose filters, adjust the lighting, or crop the image.

There’s nothing like layer-based editing here, but it’s easy to use and built into software you’re probably already using, so give it a shot.

Paintbrush: Basically Microsoft Paint for macOS

If every one of these options seemed too complicated for you, and all you want is the ability to doodle with your mouse, check out Paintbrush. This open source application is basically paint.exe for you Mac, and it’s glorious. I used it to supplement my wife’s photo, I think it really highlights the nuance of her art.

Use this tool to make similar masterpieces, and not a whole lot more.

Paid, but Worth a Look: Pixelmator

Pixelmator isn’t free, but it is a great cheaper alternative to Photoshop. It doesn’t offer all the features of Adobe’s premier image editor, but it offers a lot of them, and with a beautiful user interface that won’t hurt your head to use.

You’ve got layer-based editing, advanced effects, and a native user interface that even supports newfangled features like the touch bar. Pixelmator costs $30, but there’s a one-month free trial. That should be more than enough time to figure out if it fits into your workflow.


If none of these tools quite work for you, it might be time to look into some of the other paid, but cheaper photo editors on the Mac. You’d be surprised what you can get for under $100.

Justin Pot is a staff writer for How-To Geek, and a technology enthusiast who lives in Hillsboro, Oregon. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook, if you want. You don't have to.

  • Published 05/4/17
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