Photography has never been easier and more universal now that most of us carry cameras in our pockets every day. Because of this, there’s a wide variety of image editing apps and websites, offering streamlined and easy ways of enhancing photos.
If you’re someone who wants to get into the highest level of detail, you’ll be best using professional-grade software, such as Photoshop. But many of us are happy with more user-friendly options that offer the essentials and are free to use.
We’ve looked at some of the most-downloaded mobile apps and most-visited online image editors in this area to help you compare what each service offers. These are all free to access, but some of them have premium features that you might want to pay for.
Mobile app image editors
Simple, streamlined editing without a paywall.
Social media app Instagram requires little introduction. It offers image editing and an in-app camera for the purposes of sharing your content on your profile. But you can also download edited images and video before you publish them, so Instagram can be used solely to edit images if you want. Conversely, you can edit your raw images elsewhere and then simply upload them straight to your Instagram profile.
Through the ‘Post upload’ button, Instagram offers 40 filter presets. These include:
- Black and white filters (Willow and Inkwell)
- Retro filters (Lo-Fi and 1977)
- ‘Nashville’, which makes the photo low-contrast, high-exposure, and amps up warm colours to create a nostalgic mood.
You can also go straight into settings and change things like brightness, saturation, warmth and highlights/shadows yourself.
Instagram also offers filters through its Stories feature. These are different presets named after places. ‘Rio De Janeiro’ splashes a pronounced orange-blue gradient over the photo, and ‘Abu Dhabi’ paints it with a red hue, and so on.
Instagram’s enormous popularity rests on its social features and the special-effects camera available through Stories, while its photo editing options have remained unchanged for a long time.
The app is so ubiquitous that its filter presets are instantly recognisable to people who are used to them, and it’s increasingly rare to see photos use them now because of better, more detailed editing options elsewhere. But Instagram is still a mainstay, and none of its editing features are locked behind a subscription.
Detailed photo editing with a massive library of presets.
VSCO is the inverse of Instagram: it’s mainly popular for its photo editing options, while its social features are considered secondary. Free of charge, VSCO users have access to a small number of preset filters, as well as options for photo editing. It allows you to edit:
- white balance
- highlight/shadow colours
- exposure, contrast and saturation
- effects such as vignettes, grain and fade.
Users who pay £5 a month to subscribe get access to a massive library of filter presets categorised by theme. Themes include emulations of film styles (Fuji T64), a collection of vibrant presets (C series), moody underexposed filters (M series) and soft, low-contrast styles (V series). This collection of presets does a great job of transforming your photos to create different visual styles.
With a membership, you can also access the HSL panel (hue/saturation/luminence) of your photo, another useful feature that offers more precise editing than other basic options. This makes VSCO a great choice for people who want ease of use but are also looking for more choice with their edits. There is also a new layout tool for arranging photos in a grid, which is ideal for creating a photo collage.
Detailed portrait editing.
Facetune is solely focused on beauty editing, so it has a fairly limited purpose. However, it’s one of the top 100 most-downloaded apps in the UK because of its range of features and ease of use. Many of the tools require a membership to access (£7.99 a month), but basic editing, such as use of the healing brush, is free.
The tools include:
- a retouch tool to remove blemishes
- a mattifying brush
- a surface blur tool to make skin appear smoother
- a reshaper to change the proportions of your face
- a selection of filter presets
- an artificial lighting adjuster
- eye editing tools to remove red-eye and change colours.
You can also use brushes to paint colours onto portraits by touch.
For portraits, Facetune’s list of features is exhaustive. They can go beyond touching up, however, and can go into the realm of completely changing a person’s appearance with certain tools. Although Facetune has everything you need for portrait editing, you might want to avoid it if you find its reality-warping tools to be objectionable or unnecessary.
Detailed photo and portrait edits, plus collages.
Picsart is an image editor based on crafting fun designs and collages. To create collages, it has a number of layout options, which let you select a grid arrangement for your photos, shape them on the canvas, and create borders and backgrounds. It also has a library of stickers and fonts to overlay onto your collage. Its subscription comes at a steep cost, however, at £4.49 for one week.
For single photo editing, Picsart has a large array of tools. The list is exhaustive, but they include:
- crop options (standard, freehand and shaped cropping)
- a curves tool for precise colour grade and brightness adjustments
- the ability to draw on your photo using brush presets
- adding a mask to your photo
- lens flare, bokeh effects and colour gradients.
Picsart is another app that has beautifying tools. These allow you to:
- edit the proportions of your face
- remove blemishes
- make aesthetic adjustments to hair colour, eye colour and more.
The free features are enough for minor corrections. Some of the tools, especially the ones that reshape features, are potentially excessive, in the same vein as Facetune.
In terms of filters, Picsart comes with several styles of artistic filters that redraw the image. For example, you can re-render the image as a line drawing, an oil painting or as Pop Art. There are also perspective edits, such as a fish-eye lens, and colour changes like ‘colour replacement’ and ‘colour splash’ options.
Overall, Picsart offers a huge library of tools for designing collages and editing portraits.
Stylised portrait and photo editing.
Prequel is another app that focuses largely on portraits and selfies. Most of its retouching features are locked behind a subscription costing £3.49 a week. They include a surface blur brush, for removing blemishes, and several reshaping options. Prequel also comes with a range of tools to edit photos, but we noticed that some of them were subscription-only where competitors offer them free of charge – for example the saturation, colour tint and vignette dials.
The app hosts a large library of filters across different styles. The filters are intense and give even high-quality photos an over-produced look. This can be mitigated by dialling down the opacity of the filter, but more subtlety would be nice. For a lower-quality photo, the intense filters are likely to exaggerate the photo’s flaws.
Prequel also comes with a library of ‘styles, which are filters that have design quirks, such as VHS-style digital watermarks, retro frames and lens flares. These are fun, but not for subtle or authentic-looking edits.
Collages and design templates for fun.
PicCollage has a library of layouts, backgrounds, stickers and fonts for designing collages. It also comes with a library of templates for all sorts of purposes, including templates for:
- shopping lists
Additional content and watermark removal is available at £4.49 a month.
Interestingly, the app also has an animate tool that allows you to program basic movements for photos and icons on your canvas. These save to your gallery as videos rather than animated gifs. This novel feature can be entertaining for people who are experimenting with their edits and just playing around.
Overall, PicCollage is light on most features, but it has a very clean interface and it’s easy to use. It’s not the best for image editing, but it’s good for designing collages and entertainment, and it looks particularly appealing for people who want a user-friendly app.
Web-based image editors
Similar to a popular and very well-known image editor.
Pixlr is a free web-based editor that offers ‘playful’ and @advanced’ modes, depending on what you need. It looks a bit like Photoshop and, crucially, it allows you to work on multiple layers, which is key to detailed picture editing and creating composite images.
Its list of tools include everything you’d get from mobile apps, plus advanced tools, such as the liquefy tool which grows, shrinks, and pushes parts of the image you touch.
It comes with a library of filters and allows you to have greater control than mobile-based apps. Because it enables layer-based working, you can combine different presets, or selectively edit parts of the photo. With marquee, lasso, and ‘magic wand’ selection tools, it’s possible to isolate parts of the photo and just work on that area, or crop shapes so you can cut out the parts of the photo you need.
Pixlr also has important format settings, such as the ability to create any canvas size, which makes it highly versatile. The site is able to work with a large range of filetypes as well, such as PSD files created by Photoshop.
Handy graphic design and collage maker.
This is Adobe’s free option, which offers subscriptions to access premium tools and upgrades. For free, you can access ‘thousands of free images and icons for your designs’. If you pay, you can collaborate on projects, remove the Adobe Spark watermark, and easily attach your preloaded brand designs with one click.
Spark offers templates for various formats that you can use for print and digital designs. Its most popular formats include:
- invitation cards
- graphics made for social media, such as Instagram and Pinterest
Once you’ve selected your format, you can then select a template to obtain a preset design that you can then edit. Alternatively, you can start with a blank canvas.
You can create a collage of images and use presets to rearrange the layout of the graphic as well as the colour palette. Spark has a library of fonts and icons to accompany your images. If you select an image in the project you’re working on, you can access filters and settings to edit just the photo.
Spark is great for creating graphic designs quickly and easily without skimping too much on quality and customisation. It’s also available as a mobile app, which offers a more streamlined interface, so you can use it on the device you prefer.
If you’re looking for professional-level image editing free of charge, we’ve compiled a list of the top free Photoshop alternatives.