While specialised image processing software such as Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Lightroom, Phase One Capture One and Apple Aperture are the industry standards when it comes to the professional editing of images, none of them are particularly cheap - especially for the enthusiast on a tight budget. Indeed, for the cost of Photoshop CS6 alone (around £650), you could buy a mid-range DSLR or a very good lens! This is where free online software - usually referred to as freeware - can help.
There are literally hundreds - if not thousands - of free photography software programs and applications available to download, some of which are advanced enough to rival their costly big-name equivalents, while others are aimed more at the novice user who is just looking to make a few basic edits.
In addition to image editing, other freeware applications aim to provide you with a comprehensive photo management solution, including the ability to organise your images into folders, or to tag (or even geotag) images for easy retrieval. And that's not all; search around and you'll find everything from free Raw converters to HDR creation and data retrieval programs for when you accidentally delete your images from your camera's memory card or computer hard drive.
Of course, given the "free" nature of freeware, there are some caveats to bear in mind and you should always ensure that anything you download doesn't come with any hidden extras, such as unwanted browser plug-ins or worse. Over the page you'll find a range of recommended freeware options all of which you can trust, along with a brief commentary on the strengths and weaknesses of each...
What to look for...
While the vast majority of new cameras come bundled with some kind of image editing software in the box, these do tend to be fairly basic and sometimes not all that user-friendly either.
The first thing to bear in mind about image editing freeware is that it comes in all shapes and sizes. Therefore the first thing you need to determine before clicking on any download buttons is just how advanced you need it to be - are you looking for something you can create multiple layers and really go to town on your images with, or are you just looking for a simple image editor to straighten horizons, boost saturation and remove redeye? If you're looking for the former then something like Gimp is ideal, while if you're looking for the latter then either Picasa or PicMonkey will fit the bill perfectly.
If your home computer is a Windows PC then the chances are you'll be using Windows Photo Gallery to manage your photos with. Mac users, meanwhile, get iPhoto bundled with their machine. While both programs are actually pretty good in their own right, you might want to use a third-party application.
Google Picasa is probably the pick of the bunch, with its neat layout and built-in editing, slideshow and photo collage features. It's certainly easy to use, although being part of the Google empire, the abilities to share your images with social network sites are limited to just Google+.
Other useful freeware apps
In addition to image editing and photo management apps, there is plenty of good freeware out there that can be used for a variety of duties - including Raw conversion, HDR creation and data retrieval software.
One potential problem when looking for good freeware is that developer-speak can often
dominate the websites they are hosted on, along with multiple versions and builds to choose from. Unfortunately given the fact that freeware is - by its very nature - the result of collaborations by groups of talented coders, this is somewhat unavoidable. So you'll need to be sure to check that the build version you intend to download is going to be compatible with your Windows or Mac operating system before hitting the download button.
Speaking of operating systems you'll find that the majority of photography-related freeware is written exclusively for either the Windows PC or Mac platform. That said, some of the bigger open
source projects will usually offer a version for each.
Lastly, a quick word about cost. While freeware is just that - free - it's worth bearing in mind that a lot of time and effort has gone into making the software you'll be using. If you find something that you really like and the site it's hosted on has a donation page, you might want to consider making a small contribution so that the developers can continue to update and improve the software and, above all, keep it free.
Read our article 'Best free software packages' for more details on some of the best free programs