What is the best cheap (or even free) video editing software for Mac?

Video editing software historically tends to be fairly costly, but there have always been cheaper alternatives. In this article we round up the best free and cheap Mac video editors.

Read next: Best Mac for video editing

Best free & cheap Mac video editing software: iMovie

Any discussion of low-cost video editing on a Mac needs to start with iMovie. Originally making its debut way back in 1999 with the iconic iMac DV, iMovie has been the entry-level for many would-be video editors, home movie enthusiasts and school children over the years. These days it is still "included" with the purchase of every new Mac - that is, it is available for download for free from the Mac App Store should you have purchased a new Mac in the last few years. Otherwise it'll cost you £10.99.

The software has and kept pace with the evolution of video cameras and technology remarkably well. From the tape-based mini-DV cameras of the late 1990's, through the introduction of high-definition and tapeless cameras, the most recent version of iMovie is happily supporting the new 4K and UHD cameras the have appeared on the consumer market. Indeed, the iMovie homepage has an example film which was edited in iMovie at 4K resolution. I encourage you to check it out on Apple's website.

Best cheap & free Mac video editing software: iMovie

iMovie has the feel of a modern piece of software. The dark interface isn't cluttered with buttons and enables you to really focus on working with your video footage. It follows the same library approach to storing your videos as its bigger brother, Final Cut Pro X. You could use one big iMovie library to store all your videos in different events, similar in nature to your Photos library, or you could create new libraries for each "production" you might be working on. It's very easy to move footage around between events and libraries, with iMovie copying the source files as necessary, so you don't have to remember where you're storing everything.

As well as importing content from a variety of consumer cameras and your hard drive, you can also import photos and videos directly from your iPhone, iPad or your Photos library, and audio from your iTunes library - all accessible from within iMovie, so you don't need to drag files from one application to another. You can also import any projects that you'd been editing in iMovie for iOS.

Skimming the footage is great fun - you can quickly review the footage by waving your mouse pointer across the filmstrips. Surprisingly, iMovie also supports common video editing shortcuts for playback that most professional editors will be familiar with - try using J and L on your keyboard to play footage backwards and forwards! (And K will stop playback if things get out of control!) Ranges can also be applied across a portion of footage you want to edit using I and O keyboard shortcuts and these can easily be marked as Favourites so you can find them again quickly when you need to, or Rejected so that they can be hidden if required.

Its easy to add and reorder footage within the timeline. Again, keyboard shortcuts exist for the different editing operations such as insert and connect, mirroring those in Final Cut Pro X, and its so easy to simply trim a portion of video to make it longer or shorter. Double-clicking any edit point brings up the Precision Editor for precise, frame-by-frame control of your edits.

Audio mixing is just as intuitive. Audio can be faded in and out by dragging on the fade handles available on every clip. Individual clip levels can be easily adjusted in the timeline and you can see how your adjustments are affecting the audio by the size of the waveform. A voiceover feature allows you to record your own commentary using either the Mac's built-in microphone or an external USB mic. Music that overlaps this voiceover automatically lowers but you can also easily "duck" the music when other people are talking by option-clicking the volume bar to add control points, just like in Final Cut Pro X. Unfortunately there's no audio metering in iMovie, so audio mixing can only really be done by ear.

Read more: Best iMovie tips | How to get started in iMovie for Mac

iMovie comes with a large selection of ready to use audio files (including royalty-free sound effects and music beds), a reasonable selection of titles and backgrounds that should be suitable for all but the most specific of occasions (including the animated maps and globes that are always a big draw for the holiday movie), and a good choice of transitions - all of which can be easily previewed by skimming.

Above the viewer, a row of controls allows you to manipulate your video further; from adjusting the text of your titles, to changing clip speed, stabilising shaky hand-held footage and cleaning up audio. All the controls are very intuitive with simple sliders and options that allow you to really play around with the effect you're after without adding unnecessary complications. A range of video and audio effects are also available, all of which can be easily previewed by placing your mouse over the different options - try increasing the audio pitch of the best man speech for comedy effect!

More advanced users can create basic composited effects by layering clips on top of one another and choosing options to create picture-in-picture, split screen or effective green-screen effects. However, you are only limited to two video clips at any one time with basic animation, so creating that complicated graphic featuring 16 separate videos can't be done here.

When it comes to outputting your movie, iMovie has a good selection of options: from creating a standalone MP4 movie or uploading it directly to video sharing sites such as Vimeo, YouTube or Facebook. No further configuration is required other than choosing the video resolution and signing into your account. You can also add your masterpiece to iMovie Theater so that you can view it on your iPhone, iPad or AppleTV. If you need to go further with your editing, you can also send your iMovie libraries over to Final Cut Pro X for greater refinement and flexibility.

For its price-point and the user level its aimed at, iMovie is a highly competent video editor that works well and intuitively. It's aimed at the consumer end of the market so doesn't support some of the more higher end formats. But, if you have a DSLR, AVCHD camcorder, iPhone or consumer-level UHD camera, and modest aspirations, then iMovie is a competent video editor that's hard to beat.

Best free & cheap Mac video editing software: Adobe Premiere Elements 15

  • Price: £79.10 (£64.81 upgrade)
  • Buy: Adobe

In the same way that iMovie has its sibling in Final Cut Pro, so Adobe's Premiere Elements is often seen as baby brother to the professional-level Premiere Pro.

Premiere Elements has some advantages over iMovie in that it can import a wider range of file formats. Unfortunately the process is not as slick as in iMovie, where one import option covers most eventualities. In Premiere Elements there are different options whether you are importing from different cameras, folders from your hard drive or photos. There is the Elements Organiser that installs with the application - a piece of software shared by Photoshop Elements that lets you organise your media - but if you're using Photos for this task, then the lack of integration means you'll have to manually copy files around your system.

Best cheap & free Mac video editing software: Adobe Premiere Elements

Premiere Elements offers you three main ways of working.

The "Quick" option simply grabs your selected media on import and strings it together in a basic timeline. From here you can easily trim the clips, reorder the shots, add titles, music and record narration. You can add further shots as you go along and adjust the video and audio of the different clips in the timeline to add volume changes or colour correction. It's all relatively straightforward, with a list of options on the right of the interface in sections such as "Fix" - where you'll find options such as Shake Reduction and Smart Fix that'll quickly correct any major problems it detects - "Edit", which allows for more manual control over your shots, and "Add" that allows you to populate your movies with various titles, music beds and jolly graphics. Much of this content has to be painstakingly downloaded and won't necessarily be suitable for all uses. However, the music scores are worth checking out as they can be adjusted in intensity and length to fit the tone and pace of your movie.

The "Guided" option for editing is just that - on screen prompts take you through guided tutorials on using the software, pointing out where you'll find transitions and how you can adjust your clips. This could be useful for someone new to video editing, or someone who's returning to the software having not used it for a while.

The final option is "Expert", which allows you to fully explore what the software has to offer. Here you're faced with a timeline that allows you to add additional layers - I managed to add an extra 100 tracks! This view also gives you a better view of how you are manipulating your audio and you can edit the audio and video portions of the same clip independently to create split edits. The whole experience, however, just feels much more clunky when compared to that in iMovie, especially when you are prompted to render your effects for smoother playback. Nevertheless, many of the controls are more flexible than those in iMovie. With Premiere Elements you can create picture in picture effects with precise control over size, position and rotation, and add your own keyframes for custom animations.

Expert mode also give you better control over your source media, allowing you to import it into a Project Assets pane before editing it - you can move it into a separate folder if you want, or even double click a clip to open it in a separate player to add in and out points - but these windows open over much of the interface and become annoyances quite quickly.

There are also a variety of wizards available to help you create your movies - from instant movies for birthdays and weddings, to video collages - all of which contain their own theme elements.

When it comes to sharing your videos, there are the usual export options for uploading to Vimeo, YouTube and Facebook, or outputting to DVD or Blu-ray discs (something which cannot be done in iMovie). There are also options for exporting at resolutions up to 4K UHD or creating your own custom export options if none of the default settings fits your purposes.

Overall, Premiere Elements offers a step-up in controls from iMovie. However, this does come at a cost in terms of the price-tag and complexity. If you're someone who finds iMovie a little too restrictive you may welcome the additional flexibility offered by Premiere Elements. If, on the other hand, you're familiar with or looking for a more fully-featured editing package, you may find Premiere Elements more than a little frustrating. I'd certainly recommend taking the 30-day trial for a whirl before committing to the full version.

Best free & cheap Mac video editing software: Filmora 7.8

There are a number of video editors out there that occupy the middle ground between iMovie and Premiere Elements and Filmora by Wondershare is a prime example.

Aimed at the iMovie user who needs a bit more flexibility, Filmora takes a middle-ground approach between Apple and Adobe's offerings.

The application is simple enough to get to grips with. Video, audio and photos can imported into notional "folders" from your hard drive, supported cameras, Photos and iTunes library, and even your Facebook, Flickr or Instagram accounts. Once imported they can be added by simply dragging and dropping to the timeline or clicking the plus symbol on each clip, then can be easily rearranged in a manner similar to iMovie. You'll also need to do all your trimming here. Simple controls allow you split the clips and chop out the bits you don't want.

The timeline itself doesn't work in the manner of other timelines we've looked at. Storyboard View allows you to simply arrange your clips in the order you want, whilst still giving you control over effects, whilst a somewhat familiar Timeline View allows you more control over trimming and titles. Dedicated tracks are available for your video clips, with separate tracks available for titles and music. Additional clips can be layered to created cutaways or composited picture-in-picture effects, though they have to be placed below the main video track, making for a slightly bizarre way of arranging your timeline. Moving back and forth along the timeline is also rather frustrating. You have to actually grab hold of the red playhead (or time indicator) to drag through the timeline - miss it and you'll end up zooming your timeline instead.

Despite its reverse method of working, Filmora does have some nice controls that can be adjusted in realtime. A simple Video and Audio Inspector window gives you some intuitive controls not unlike those in iMovie, whilst more advanced tools give you further control over the colour - including a series of LUTs and presets with names such as "Game of Thrones", "House of Cards" and "Star Wars". Sadly these can only be applied to clips in the main video track, not the lower compositing tracks. Additional filters and overlays can also be applied to a separate filter track meaning that you can quickly change the look of your whole film with one effect.

A familiar array of transitions is available with basic controls (again, sadly available only to clips on the topmost video track), along with a series of animated titles. What's interesting about these titles however is that they can be customised not just in terms of the text, but in the entire animation. Double-clicking a title opens it in its own inspector where you can add or remove elements and change the animation of each element. You can also save these as your own presets. In fact, the Filmora Effects Store offers additional collections, either for free or to purchase, so you to expand the default offerings.

For exporting, Filmora gives you simple to follow options for logging into and uploading to YouTube, Vimeo and Facebook, making a DVD or a file compatible with everything from iPhone, iPad and AppleTV, through to Playstation and PSP. Or you can output a standalone file as QuickTime .mov, MP4, GIF or even WMV in various resolutions up to UHD and 4K, depending on the format.

Filmora definitely has its quirks and may take some getting used to. However, most of the bases seem to be covered in one way or another. Nevertheless, grab the free trial to see how you get along with it. There seems to be an active online community, which promises to keep growing with the introduction of filmora.io some point soon. There's also handy bite-sized tutorials available, hosted by the ever enthusiastic Heidi, to guide you through the process of creating your video.

Best cheap & free Mac video editing software: Filmora

Best free & cheap Mac video editing software: Lightworks

  • Price: Free (£14.99 per month for Pro features)
  • Buy: Lightworks

Lightworks holds a venerable position in the history non-linear editing. Amongst the numbers professional editors I have met over the years, many of them speak highly and fondly of Lightworks as it was used to edit many feature films, TV dramas and commercials since its initial release in 1989. Films edited in Lightworks include Pulp Fiction, LA Confidential, The Kings Speech and The Wolf of Wall Street. Owned by several different companies throughout its history, in 2009 it was acquired by EditShare who announced that they would make it available as open source. Today, Lightworks is billed as "the professional video editor for everyone" and is available as a free download for Mac, Windows and Linux systems.

Actually, Lightworks is available as two licences. The free version we're interested in is a seven-day renewable licence that you can activate immediately once you have registered and installed the software; you just need to sign in and you can start editing. The second type of license is for Lightworks Pro and is available as a monthly or yearly subscription (which includes new version updates), or as a single one-off payment for an Outright Licence for the current version.

The differences between the two licences are notable if they are features you'll feel you'll need, and is summed up very succinctly on the Lightworks homepage. Both licences support importing of a full range of video, audio and still image formats (including the professional, high-end formats such as Apple ProRes, RED R3D and Cinema DNG). However, whereas Lightworks Free can import and work with high resolution footage (up to 5K in this case), one of its limitations is that you will only be able to export up to 720p HD, with optional upload to YouTube. You can export up to 1080p HD resolution, but only if you're also uploading directly to Vimeo, Lightworks' "preferred upload partner". This is, undoubtedly, a bit of a drawback, especially if you are limiting yourself to a free Vimeo account with limited uploads, as you will also have to be online when exporting. At least the local file is kept, so you could do something else with it afterwards and you don't need to make your Vimeo uploads public immediately.

This limitation aside, Lightworks Free offers some powerful editing features generally only seen on expensive, professional editing systems; including realtime effects, titles and even multi-camera editing. The familiar process of adding in and out points is more efficient in Lightworks due to the software's "mark and park" feature and there is a fully-featured GPU-accelerated three-way colour corrector and green screen keyer. Titles are straightforward to create and edit and are great quality, avoiding some of the silly templates we've seen in other applications.

There are two down sides to working with Lightworks, though. Firstly, it has some fairly high system specifications. Please check out the list of tech specs and make sure your system is up to the job, especially with regards to the graphics card you're using. I've put it through its paces it on a MacBook Pro with 2GB RAM and it runs very smoothly.

Secondly, we should never forget that although the software is available as a free download, it's a full, professional video editing package. As such, there are many more options here than the casual user will ever need. Also, it's not like other user-friendly macOS applications you may have used in the past. The interface, tools and menus are distinctly un-Mac-like, so it does take some time to get used to it. However, there are plenty of video tutorials available on the Lightworks web site and YouTube to help you get to grips with the software. I would sincerely suggest anyone interested in taking a look at Lightworks works their way through these tutorials before diving in and swimming with the shark.

Best cheap & free Mac video editing software: Lightworks

Best free & cheap Mac video editing software: DaVinci Resolve

Similar to Lightworks, DaVinci Resolve has been a familiar name in the high-end film production world since its release back in 2004 when it was originally designed as a dedicated colour correction system for film production. However it's destiny was changed in 2009 when it was acquired by Blackmagic Design who have spent the last few years developing it further and adding some sophisticated editing features. Today, much like Lightworks, DaVinci Resolve is available in two "flavours"; as DaVinci Resolve Studio (available for £785) and the completely free DaVinci Resolve. Both versions are available as either downloads direct from the Blackmagic website or via the Mac App Store. The difference to the free offering from Lightworks, is that DaVinci Resolve is a complete package, not hobbled or restricted in any way.

Of course, there has to be some differences between a piece of software that available for free and it's £785 sibling. Indeed there are; but briefly compare the offerings and you'll see there's more in common between them than not - and where there are discrepancies it usually for the high-end stuff that you're unlikely to need unless you're working in a Soho post production facility.

(The Mac App Store versions are slightly different to the Blackmagic downloads due to restrictions imposed by Apple, but for the purposes of this review, these differences are negligible.)

Best cheap & free Mac video editing software: DaVinci Resolve

The casual user may be quite overwhelmed when they first open DaVinci Resolve. There are no helpful, on-screen guides pointing out what you should do or where to start. Opening the default project reveals an interface that might look a little intimidating. However, the processes are the same as most video editors.

Different "Pages" help to divide the editing process into different steps. In the first of these pages, you can bring footage into the Media Pool of available clips. DaVinci will handle most of the footage you can throw at it; even the high end stuff - that what it's designed for. There are some powerful organisational tools such as Power Bins, Smart Bins and comprehensive metadata support. Delightfully, you can also preview your media by skimming across it, in a similar manner to iMovie.

Editing in the timeline is slick and easy. The Edit Page features a two-monitor setup. Clips from the Media Pool and can opened, reviewed and marked with in an out points before being added to the timeline. Reordering clips isn't as intuitive as in other applications - additional keys need to be held down - and trimming also has its own quirks unless you enter trim edit mode. There are some lovely touches to the interface though that would be highly prized on other professional NLEs, such as the ability to display a "mini waveform" in the source monitor. Audio mixing can be achieved both in the timeline and through either the clip or track mixers. Though one notable omission is that you can't record voiceover directly into Resolve; you'll need to do that elsewhere and import your voiceover.

There are a reasonable number of effects available in the Edit Page. You can choose from a generous amount of transitions, a few basic titles, a selection of generators and the host of AU plugins available by default on your Mac. But the Open FX list remains stubbornly empty. This is because most (but not all) video effects in Resolve are added in the Color Page. This is probably where most people will be at a disadvantage as, although Resolve has some of the industry-leading tools for colour correction, grading, keying and stabilising, the ability to just drag and drop effects onto clips simply doesn't exist and you'll need to get to grips with the intricacies of the Color Page if you want to affect your clips beyond simple scaling, rotation and speed changes. That said, if you do take the time to learn these tools available - and there are several excellent online resources for this - it will pay off in the long-run as many of these features are second-to-none.

Moving to the Deliver Page, Resolve provides the now familiar export options - from outputting your own customisable file, to presets for uploading to YouTube, and Vimeo (but no Facebook as of writing). It even has good interoperability with other professional editing systems such as Final Cut Pro, Premiere Pro and Avid, all up to UHD resolution without any restrictions.

As with Lightworks, DaVinci Resolve is not for the faint of heart as it too is a fully featured professional editing system. What makes DaVinci Resolve remarkable though is that anyone can access these features for free. If there is a cost it's that you will probably need a decent spec'd computer to work efficiently and you'll need to put some time aside to learn how it works, but it does mean that for those willing to invest that time, it just might be the right tool.