Even the cheapest iPhone models now 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 Photos on all new 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.
Adobe Photoshop Elements 2021
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. Those guided edits are the focus for the new 2021 edition, with new tools that allow you to quickly convert your photos into 'duotones', using just two colours, with a number of simple options for adjusting the direction and gradient of the colour blend.
The Perfect Landscapes guided edit helps you to change the sky or background on a landscape photo for greater dramatic effect, and there's a set of three connected guided edits that make it easier to quickly select, move and resize elements within a photo. If you've got a group shot with one person standing off to the side then you can use these tools to select that person and bring them closer in to the rest of the group, or even adjust the angle and tilt of their face.
However, the tool that will probably get the most use is the new Moving Photos tool, which provides a series of automatic effects for turning still photos into animated GIFs.
We'll conclude with a quick warning - at time of writing the Mac App Store is still selling the 2020 version of Photoshop Elements for £99.99/$99.99, so if you want to make sure that you get the new 2021 edition then you need to buy it direct from Adobe's own website. Adobe's price is also cheaper in the UK - it's £86.56/$99.99 - and there's a 30-day free trial. Also note that the 2021 edition only runs on macOS 10.14 or later (including macOS 11 Big Sur).
Pixelmator is one of the most popular photo-editing apps on the Mac, as it hits the sweet spot that combines powerful editing tools, an attractive and easy-to-use interface, and a very competitive price. In fact, it was one of Apple's Mac Apps of the Year in 2018.
There are actually two versions of the software available at the moment, the company is still developing the original, standard version of Pixelmator (£28.99/$29.99), but its main focus is on the newer Pixelmator Pro, which costs £38.99/$39.99 on the Mac App Store.
The standard version will be more than adequate for most day-to-day editing tasks, with the latest update supporting macOS Catalina, Sidecar and Apple Pencil, but the Pro version also works with Mac technologies such as Apple's Metal graphics and the TouchBar on the MacBook Pro models. It also includes additional editing tools, brushes and effects so that you can create even more striking images.
Fortunately, there are 30-day trials available on the Pixelmator site, so you can check them out before deciding which one is best for you.
Both versions are packed with filters and effects, along with quick selection tools and layers that provide really precise control when making fine edits to specific parts of an image. They also include a wide range of brushes, pens and pencils that allow you to paint or enhance images by hand.
But what we really like about Pixelmator is the way that all these tools are presented within a streamlined interface that doesn't overwhelm new users. You can customise the main tool bar so that it just focuses on the key tools you like to work with, and all the filters, effects and other features are neatly organised within their own individual palettes that you can hide or show as required.
The Pixelmator website also has a really good online manual, along with dozens of video tutorials to help you get started.
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.
Serif Affinity Photo
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.
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.
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.