Free Photo Software Guide

If you are just getting started and can’t justify the huge cost of Adobe Photoshop, don’t worry, there are lots of free photo apps out there. A lot of photo freeware is very good too - here are some that stand above the rest. These are full commercial quality programs that just happen to be free.

So if you’re just getting started, here’s my suggested free photo software setup.

Photoshop Alternative : The GIMP:

Yes, it’s a terrible name - it stands for GNU Image Manipulation Program, and although its main platform is Linux, the GIMP is available for Windows and Mac too. This is as near to a free Adobe Photoshop as you can get. Like Photoshop, the GIMP isn’t aimed at beginners, but despite a rather odd interface, it is very, very good.

I really like the GIMP. All you need is here, so:

 if you want a free alternative to Photoshop or Lightroom, this is it.

In fact I find the latest version of the GIMP far nicer to use than recent versions of Paint Shop Pro or Photoshop Elements. The GIMP doesn’t have any wizards to guide you through, but it does have all the basic tools including color correction, levels and curves, layers and sharpening. For serious photographers this offers far more power and control than you would expect in a free package, and it is possible to arrange the interface to look more normal, to me at least. 

Installing and Using the GIMP

Browser : Google Picassa:

Picassa isn’t just as good as some paid for photo software, it’s better than many. The browser interface is a work of art - it really makes almost anything else look very old fashioned - and there are lots of great tools for making montages and web albums, plus the library updates automatically whenever you start the program. However, although Picassa is a superb image browser, it isn’t so good for  basic photo adjustments. Despite having lots of quick fix buttons, the choice of manual controls is a little strange, and one vital control is missing. Picassa has lots of ways to lighten images, but there is no way to darken them. Very strange. Yes you can deepen the shadows, but not the whole image.  An imaging program without even a basic brightness / contrast?

When repeatedly asked why in user forums, Google’s answer is that although digital images lighten very well, you can’t fix an image by darkening it. (Obviously Adobe and every other software company haven’t realised this...............)  That one omission makes Picassa a great browser, rather than a great overall imaging package.

Download Google Picassa

Desk Top Publishing : Open Office:

Yes, I know Open office isn’t really an imaging application, or makes any claims about desk top publishing, but it can do a lot more than you might think.  Using Open Office Write, you can import a picture on to a page, and then adjust it’s color, lighten or darken it, adjust the contrast and then add a border to it.

My main use of Open office is in printing - particularly DVD or report covers, where images are combined with text. Open Office is one of the best free applications out there and surprisingly powerful. Just open a text document, import an image, then click on the toolbar that appears above the image and the adjustments panel will appear.

Right clicking on the image and selecting Picture will give an enormous amount of options for borders, page background etc.  Open Office is a really good layout and printing application, and a worthwhile competitor to Microsoft Office, even if it wasn’t free.

Download Open Office

Free Photo Utility 1 : RAW File Codecs

Most camera manufacturers supply a RAW file codec to use with Windows or Mac. From my recent straw poll of 0 out of 2 - not many people know this. Installing a RAW file codec  allows you to view thumbnails of your RAW images very quickly in Windows without any other software. Canon, Nikon, Sony and Pentax all offer RAW codecs, so :

 Google : [your Camera Model] RAW Codec

life will be much simpler when you have hundreds of images to browse.

Free Photo Utility 2 : Instant JPEG from RAW

I came across Instant JPEG From RAW while looking for an answer to a problem - how do I supply a few quick JPEGs to customers without slowing down my cameras by shooting both RAW and JPEG, or carrying a laptop with enough power to run Lightroom. Since I bought my Canon 5D Mk2 and Canon 7D my netbook takes ages even to preview RAW files. Instant JPEG from RAW is the answer and is one of the most useful bits of free software out there. It’s just plain brilliant. Download it now !!

It works by using the JPEG that already exists, embedded in every RAW file : The JPEG that the camera uses to display images on its LCD screen. This means that extracting a JPEG is instant as the name says. A whole folder of 100 JPEGs takes my netbook about 25 seconds to extract and the resulting JPEGs which are stored in a separate folder aren’t tiny - with both my Canon 7D and 5D Mk2 these are full size JPEGs. The program installs as an extra right click option so is also instantly available whenever you’re browsing files.

Download Instant JPEG from RAW

Free Photo Utility 3 : Irfanview

Irfanview is a viewer rather than an image manipulation program. so you can’t lighten or darken or adjust the color of images, but it can convert file formats and has powerful batch commands.  It is also useful for opening odd file types, and converting them to JPEG or TIF. One of its main advantages is that it’s tiny, in the sense that it uses very few resources, so Irfanview will be quick, even on an old PC. Not something you could say about Photoshop !!

Download Irfanview

© David Gold
All text and images copyright David Gold 2006 - 2011
and must not be reproduced in any way without permission.