Even the cheapest iPhone models include a really high-quality camera, and there are dozens of free and affordable iOS apps available that will allow you to quickly add a variety of filters and effects to your photos.
That’s fine for uploading a few selfies to Instagram, but if you’re a keen photographer and want to have more creative control over your work then it’s worth looking at some more advanced apps that provide a wider and more powerful set of photo-editing tools. And if you really want to edit your photos in fine detail then it makes sense to do it on the larger screen of a Mac.
Apple does include the Photos app on all Macs, but this app is primarily intended for organising your photo collection, and only has a limited selection of editing tools. In this article we round up the alternatives: the best budget photo-editing programs for the Mac. Several are free, and several more offer free trials, so you can check them out before deciding whether or not to break out your credit card.
Best money off deals
The good news is that that you can get money off some of these photo editors. For example:
- Affinity Photo is 30% off, so it’s £32.99 (normally £48.99). Get it direct from Serif, or on the Mac App Store.
- Pixelmator Pro has a 50% discount right now. You can get it for £17.99/$19.99 rather than the usual £34.99/$39.99.
Adobe Photoshop Elements 2022
Adobe’s Photoshop Elements has plenty of rivals that are less expensive, but it’s been the leader in this category for many years because it manages to combine powerful editing tools with easy-to-use ‘guided edits’ that can help even beginners create impressive results.
The 2022 Photoshop Elements update adds fun new AI features to its powerful collection of tools. Adobe called these new artificial intelligence techniques ‘Sensei’ and they automatically perform editing tasks that might normally require hours of work.
A new set of Artistic effects mimic a variety of artistic styles, such as cubist and post-impressionist. These are fun to experiment with. You can, for example, apply the artistic effect to the entire photo, or just to the subject or background.
You can also apply simple animated effects, such as falling snowflakes, autumn leaves, or flickering flames to your photos and save them as a video clip.
As usual Photoshop Elements includes Guided Edits to help use some of the powerful tools. A new guided edit for the 2022 version is the ability to alter the aspect ratio of a photo by extending the background of a photo. There’s also a guided edit for refining photos of animals.
Some of our favourite guided edits introduced in earlier versions include the Perfect Landscapes guided edit that helps you change the sky or background on a landscape photo for greater dramatic effect. We also like the one that can be used for a group shot with one person standing off to the side – you can select that person and bring them closer in to the rest of the group. You can even adjust the angle and tilt of their face.
There’s also the Moving Photos tool, which provides a series of automatic effects for turning still photos into animated GIFs.
You can buy Photoshop Elements 2022 from the Mac App Store for £89.99, but it’s worth noting that if you buy directly from Adobe ( Adobe UK / Adobe US) you can save a few pounds and also get a two-pack that includes both Photoshop Elements and Premiere Elements 2022 (for video-editing) for £130.36/$149.99. These are one time purchases, no subscription options here.
Read our full review of Photoshop Elements 2022.Read our full Adobe Photoshop Elements review
Pixelmator Pro 2
The Pixelmator range of products offers really good value for money, but can be a little confusing at times. There are two mobile versions – Pixelmator for iPhone, and Pixelmator Photo for the iPad – and two Mac versions. The original Mac version of Pixelmator that we reviewed a couple of years ago has now been renamed Pixelmator Classic and costs £25.99, while Pixelmator Pro sits at the top of the range, and was recently updated to v2.2 (as well as getting a small price cut).
Version 2.0 of Pixelmator added native support for Apple’s M1 chips, and version 2.2 adds support for macOS Monterey – including a collection of photo-editing shortcuts that can be used with the new Shortcuts app.
There are precise tools for selecting objects and colours, and both preset and customizable brush styles, all of which are neatly arranged in a palette that runs down the right-hand side of the main editing window.
Over on the left you’ll find the Layers palette, which is key to using many of the app’s more powerful features. You can create both raster (bitmap) and vector layers, and use masks to isolate specific parts of a layer or image, and there are powerful and precise histograms for adjusting colour and lighting.
The program also provides a useful selection of text and vector graphics tools, so that you can design documents that go beyond pure photography.
It’s not, admittedly, the most intuitive program for newcomers to get to grips with, and tends fill the screen with controls and palettes and just assume that you know what you’re doing. However, the recent 2.0.6 update added some new video tooltips that can help to explain how many of the main tools work, and point you towards some online tutorials if you need a little more help.
Pixelmator Pro is a real bargain at just £35.99 but right now it’s 50% off – so you can get it for £19.99, and there’s a 15-day free trial available too. You can download Pixelmator Pro from the Mac App Store.
Gimp (which we look at later in this article) may be free, but it’s not the most user-friendly program around. Seashore started life as a ‘fork’ of Gimp – a kind of clone that took Gimp as its starting point – but it has developed a distinct identity of its own over the years.
It doesn’t offer the same level of editing power as Gimp, but Seashore is a lot more straightforward to use. A simple toolbar running across the top of the editing window provides quick access to features such as a crop tool, pen, paintbrush, colour dropper, and clone tool. There’s also a Text tool for adding captions and annotations.
As you select each tool, a second context-sensitive toolbar appears below it that offers additional options for that particular tool. So selecting the paintbrush will show options for adjusting the shape and size of the brush, along with features such as different materials and brush textures.
There’s a selection of colour effects and filters, and – unusually for open-source software – it even provides a manual that explains how the various effects work to help you get started. More advanced tools include colour adjustment, and controls for brightness and contrast, along with precise selection tools that allow you to apply edits just to specific areas of an image.
The app also supports layers for creating composite images, and alpha channels for adjusting transparency. The app’s interface is a little eccentric – such as the sneaky vanishing dialogue boxes that sometimes turn transparent while you’re using them – but Seashore is a great option for getting started with photo editing without spending a penny.
You can download it from the Mac App Store.Read our full Seashore review
Affinity Photo has long been a top seller as it provides a really powerful selection of photo-editing tools for just under £50/$50.
You will, however, need a bit of patience in order to get to grips with all those tools. The app makes few concessions for beginners, and its interface throws a rather intimidating array of palettes, tools, and menu commands at you right from the start. Fortunately, the main Start screen does include some sample files that you can download and experiment with, along with links to a selection of online video tutorials to help you get started.
And, if you persevere, you’ll find that Affinity Photo has all the editing tools you’re ever likely to need. There are dozens of filters and effects, including some fun ‘liquify’ effects that allow you to distort images like putty. And, to help keep everything under control, you can also view simultaneous ‘before’ and ‘after’ versions of your photos to see how your changes will look.
Affinity Photo allows you to edit HDR photos that you shoot on the latest iPhones, as well as stitching multiple photos together to create panoramas. It can even edit 360-degree shots taken with specialist cameras for virtual reality projects.
There are precise selection tools and layers that allow you to combine elements from different photos into dramatic composite images, and Affinity Photo is available on Windows and there’s an iOS version for the iPad as well, so it’s a good option for people who need to work with photos on a variety of devices.
You can download it from the Mac App Store.
For some reason, Google decided to kill off its popular Picasa photo app a few years ago, and its photographic offerings now focus on the online Google Photos service.
This is essentially Google’s version of Apple’s Photos and iCloud. There’s a simple app available for Macs and iOS devices that allows you to upload your photos to the Google website – and videos too, if you want – and then sync them across all your devices (as long as they’re signed into your Google account). You can view all your photos online using a web browser on your Mac, and organise them into albums for easy browsing.
The actual editing tools are pretty basic, limited to a selection of simple filters, and slider controls for adjusting lighting and colour, along with tools for cropping, rotation and adjusting aspect ratio. You can also combine a set of photos to create a collage or animated slideshow, but Google Photos’ editing tools are certainly more limited than Photos on the Mac and most of the other photo-editing apps that we review here.
However, Google Photos does have one big strong point that might tempt you away from simply sticking with iCloud. High-res photos and video can take up a lot of storage space, and when you sign up for a Google account its Google Drive service gives you 15GB of free online storage for your files – compared to just 5GB for iCloud Drive (although you can upgrade your iCloud Drive to 50GB for just 79p/99c a month, which is actually pretty good value – here’s a list of iCloud Drive prices).
If you’re going on holiday and plan to take a stack of photos on your trip, then it might be worth signing up for Google Photos just for the extra storage, and then using Photos or another app to do some serious editing when you get back home.
Gimp is a popular open-source photo-editor that has been available for many years, and which runs on Macs, Windows and even Linux (its full name is GNU Image Manipulation Program, named after the GNU version of Linux). But while it’s free to download, Gimp’s powerful editing tools are light years beyond the simple selfie filters and effects that you find in most free apps. There are no ads and no in-app purchases to tempt cash out of you, either.
The downside of Gimp’s Linux background is that its interface will come as a bit of a shock to most Mac users. Instead of colourful icons and helpful tools, Gimp fills its main editing screen with dull grey icons and long menus and dialogue boxes containing annoyingly small text descriptions.
The app can also feel a little sluggish when applying some of its more complex effects, which suggests that it hasn’t been optimised to take advantage of Mac-specific technologies such as Apple’s Metal graphics system.
But if you’re determined to avoid spending any money at all then you’ll find that Gimp offers a range of powerful tools that are rarely found in a free app such as this.
There are dozens of filters and effects, with a handy split-screen view that gives you ‘before’ and ‘after’ views of your photos. There are even a few animated effects, such as ‘wave’ and ‘ripple’ that you can use to create GIF files for the web. Gimp also has many of the same editing tools as more expensive rivals such as Photoshop Elements, with precise selection tools, layers, clone brush, and a variety of transformation tools, such as crop, scale and shear. And, if you’re feeling really brave, you can delve into some very powerful and precise colour and lighting controls too.
Gimp is undoubtedly a powerful and versatile photo-editor, and it seems churlish to criticise a free app such as this – but the program’s unfriendly interface could deter quite a few people, so it might be worth parting with some cash if you’d rather work with something a little more user-friendly.
PhotoScape X is a relative newcomer when compared to photo-editing veterans like Photoshop Elements, but this free app has proved popular with many users on both Macs and Windows PCs. It’s also quite unusual, as it completely ignores the traditional interface design of most of its photo-editing rivals.
Instead of tool bars and palettes, PhotoScape X displays its main editing window with a series of tabs running along the top of the window. Each tab focuses on a specific task, starting with the Viewer tab that provides a quick preview of an entire folder of photos at once.
You can then select a specific photo that you want to work on and switch into the Editor tab. This includes a wide range filters, effects and lighting controls, with a handy ‘Compare’ button that shows ‘before’ and ‘after’ versions of your photos. You can also tidy up your photos using options such as red-eye removal, and a ‘healing’ brush to eliminate scratches and other blemishes.
The other tabs at the top of the editing window tend to focus on working with multiple photos, including the Batch tab, which allows you to crop, resize or apply effects to a whole group of photos all at once. We also like the GIF tab, which allows you to quickly combine a series of photos into an animated GIF for use on the web.
One area where PhotoScape X does fall short is with its rather limited selection tools – which means that you generally have to apply edits and effects to an entire photo rather than selected areas within an image. There is a Pro version of the app available as an in-app purchase that provides additional editing tools for £38.99/$39.99, but that seems a little pricey when compared to affordable rivals such as Pixelmator.
You can download it from the Mac App Store.
That concludes our guide to the best free and cheap photo-editing apps for Mac.
In this article, by the nature of the budget software market, we’ve been talking about apps that just about anybody can get to grips with, and which offer results without a near-vertical learning curve. If you need something more advanced, check out our separate guide to the best pro photo editors for Mac.
If you were hoping to get Photoshop for free read How to get Photoshop on a Mac, which includes a section on a way to get Photoshop for free.