Is free photo-editing software any good?

This is Darktable, a free open-source Lightroom alternative.

I was commissioned to write a roundup of the best free photo-editing software for Digital Camera World and you can read the full version here. There wasn’t the space or to cover every single application out there, so if I’ve missed out anyone’s favourite, apologies for that.

I won’t repeat the whole list here, but researching and writing this story highlighted some interesting questions about ‘free’ software and whether it’s worth using.

Open source altruism

GIMP is one of the best-know free open-source photo-editing applications of all, but I was also struck by Darktable and its non-destructive Lightroom-style workflow. Both programs are open source, developed by teams of programmers working and collaborating for no profit for the good of the photographic community.

GIMP is the most famous free Photoshop alternative.

So would I use either program myself? No. I admire the effort that’s gone into them but I would rather pay for a commercial application which runs faster and smoother, with a more polished interface, a faster development cycle and backed by companies with the money for software research and development. Besides, programmers should get paid for their work, just like the rest of us.

Free vs freemium

Many programs which are promoted as being ‘free’ are actually just ‘lite’ versions of a commercial product. It’s like the old-fashioned version of in-app purchases. It’s possible that the free version will do everything you need if your needs are simple, but very often it turns out you need the premium version to get the tools and effects you really want.

Is Photoscape X free? Yes it is, but in the same way that free samples are free.

Examples include Picktorial, Photoscape X and InPixio Photo Editor. There’s nothing shady or underhand about this, it’s a deal like any other, but you do need to be aware of what ‘free’ software may be leading you into.

Bundled software you just don’t notice

You might have free software already that you just haven’t paid any attention to. Apple Photos is a good deal better than many ‘free’ apps out there and camera makers publish free-to-download editors and RAW converters for their cameras which are actually pretty decent.

Some free software is right under your nose, bundled with products you’ve bought such as your computer or your camera.

Canon’s Digital Photo Professional does as good a job at processing your RAW files as you can get, and Nikon’s Capture NX-D even offers local adjustments. I’m not a big fan of the branded SilkPix variants used by Fujifilm and Panasonic, but hey, these are free too.

Are we looking at ‘free’ the right way?

So this is the thing. Is a free program infinitely better value than one you have to pay for, or is that going too far? I mean, we make a big deal of one product being half the price of another, and get practically apoplectic if one is a tenth the price of another, but are we multiplying when we should be adding?

I’ll explain. So let’s say you compare GIMP with Affinity Photo. GIMP is free, but Affinity Photo is around £50/$50. That doesn’t make GIMP infinitely better value, it just makes it £50/$50 cheaper.

Look at it this way. Would you pay an extra £50/$50 to be able to use Affinity Photo instead? Well, I would.

And then there’s ‘opportunity cost’

Opportunity cost is a term in economics to describe the cost of not choosing an alternative. If you choose a free app over a commercial one, what’s it going to cost you?

How about the time taken to master a highly technical piece of open source software, or the effort needed to find workarounds for processes not directly supported by your free app? Free software may not offer the tools, the features, the effects and the ideas you get with commercial software. You’ve saved money but you’ve lost the opportunity to do something new, different, better and faster with your images.

The lure of free software is very strong, and I’ve used it plenty of times myself, but you have to make sure it’s delivering what you need and that the money you’ve saved isn’t cancelled out by what this software actually costs you in time, effort and its own limitations.

Let’s finish on a high note. Mobile users have never had it so good, as Google Snapseed isn’t just a superb, powerful and inspiring photo editing app, it’s also free.