The 5 Best Free Online Photo Editors Reviewed and Compared


Let’s face it: Photoshop ain’t cheap.  And, worse, Photoshop is a kind of software—much like most kinds of software—that only works offline.  If you’ve purchased it (or any other graphics-editing program, for that matter), yet you don’t have it installed on the system you’re currently working with, you’re out of luck.  No photo editing for you.

Besides, we live in the world of the Web nowadays.  With storage turning to the cloud and applications turning to the Internet, we question the need for an offline photo editing program to begin with. For as long as you have an internet connection, you don’t need to spend umpteen amounts of money in order to crop, tweak, and save your images—you can do it all right from the comfort of your Web browser of choice.  It’s free.  It’s easy.  And, best of all, there are plenty of different Web-based photo editors out there, which gives you the opportunity to pick-and-choose a particular service that best meets your needs.

Of course, we wouldn’t want to strand you in a sea of potential Web apps , which is exactly why this life preserver of a guide is going to walk you through the highs and lows of five of the Web’s most well-recognized photo editing tools.  We’ll assess each app based on the features it offers, how easy it is for an average PC user to grapple with said app’s interface, and the general user experience that each app delivers.  Here’s one good note to get you started, however: All of these Web apps are one-hundred-percent free.  Gratis.  Costs nothing.  On that point, everyone wins the day.

If you like this article, check out The Best Freeware Alternative to Photoshop

Aviary (Phoenix)

Just to steer away confusion from the start: The Phoenix image editor is part of the Aviary suite of online tools, so if you hear someone referencing the former and talking about audio editing or what-have-you, don’t get confused.

However, it’s an important note nevertheless, as one of Phoenix’s key strengths is its ability to interact with Aviary’s other apps—namely the effects-driven graphics tool Peacock and the vector-based design tool, Raven.  You can import the work you’ve previously done in either app as a new layer in the Flash-based Phoenix (sorry, iPad users) and, from there, you’re treated to the usual laundry list of features: Masking layers, grouping layers, blending layers in various ways based on a set alpha level, et cetera.

Since it’s a Flash app, one missing—and common—feature in Phoenix is the ability to right-click on anything and pull up a context menu based on one of the 11 “tools” the app provides.  Similarly, while you can perform Photoshop-style commands like holding CTRL and ALT to add and remove to selections, there’s no status bar nor cursor change that will indicate you’re actually doing (or can do)… that.  Just a user interface quibble, that’s all.

While it’s a wee annoying to have to register for a common Aviary login just to be able to save your files, the app nevertheless covers all the basic tasks one would need to accomplish in an online photo editing tool.  Cropping and resizing images is as easy as ever, the selection tools work fairly well for an online Web app (especially the ol’ magic wand), and everything from filling with gradients to adding text to images is well-constructed, albeit lacking in advanced options or features.

That said, you can still edit an image’s levels using the same histogram-type tool you’d find in Photoshop, so it’s not as if Phoenix is a newbie-only Web app. Don’t fire up the program and expect to experience wonders, but at the same time, the app’s no-frills approach covers a number of common scenarios without fault or confusion.

Next page: Picnik >>


The blessing and curse of Picnik is its comprehensiveness, for this Web app contains as much as it contains none.  That’s not supposed to be a cryptic statement on its face, just an accurate description of Picnik’s triumphs and losses in the Web graphics editing space.

Here’s the deal: Picnik’s greatest strength—and one of its only strengths, at that—is its ability to pull in pictures from all the major Web 2.0 platforms/communities in existence.  That includes support for transferring/importing pictures from: Picasa, Flickr, MySpace, Facebook, Webs, Webshots, and Photobucket.  Just link your third-party account to your Picnik account via the latter’s Web app and, voila, instant access to your preexisting archive.

Now what you can actually do with said pictures is, unfortunately, Picnik’s big weakness.  This Web app isn’t so much a photo editing tool as it is a novice method for applying a scant few effects to images.  You get a few basic commands to play around with, including the usual crop/resize feature common to most graphical tools, as well as exposure and contrast adjustments, saturation and temperature adjustments, red-eye reduction and a tool for applying a universal sharpening filter to your images.  That’s about it.

You don’t really have a way to apply any kind of individual filter or effect to a portion or selection of the image—you’re just given very, very basic methods for editing an image as a whole.  A separate tab allows you to add extremely minimal (and usually annoying) effects to your image, including a very generic color painting tool and stickers.  Yes, you can use Picnik to slap a few bits of silly, predefined art over your shot, as if you were plastering a physical picture in a scrapbook with a bunch of stickers you picked up at the dollar store.  Feh.

Picnik definitely has its uses—if you want to make a very generic, almost campy slideshow of a ton of images or what-have-you, or if you want to teach your grandmother how to touch-up pictures as a new hobby, then Picnik is the best, most simple way to do so.  Perhaps the app unlocks a wealth of functionality if you pony up the $25 per year to unlock Picnik Premium, but it’s a wholly unnecessary upgrade given the wealth of stronger, free contenders on the market.

Next page: Photoshop Express >>

Photoshop Express

Here we go.  It’s the big gun--Adobe’s online answer to its popular Photoshop image editing program.  But can this Web app fulfill the same work demands that are so frequently made of its more expensive offline cousin?  Spoiler: Yes… and no.

Like Picnik, Photoshop Express comes with the capability to pull in images from a few different “hubs” across the Internet.  You can import your previously uploaded shots from Flickr, Facebook, Picasa, and Photobucket—that’s not exactly the most comprehensive list of supported sites but, nevertheless, we appreciate the easy-import functionality.

Once the image hits your library, that’s where the fun begins.  Similar to Adobe’s Bridge app, you can rename your pictures at-will—more importantly, you can add descriptions and tags to your images (as well as star ratings and comments) to better facilitate organization amongst your thousands upon thousands of shots.  Pulling up a specific image for editing is as easy as double-clicking it and selecting the “edit” icon at the bottom of the screen.

Photoshop Express doesn’t contain the same kind of editing tools as good ol’ fashioned offline Photoshop.  If anything, this app is more like a souped-up version of Picnik.  You can toggle 18 different effects on and off of your image, including cropping and rotation commands, fill lights, and an artsy-to-the-extreme spot color focusing tool, amongst others.  You don’t really the specific degree of the effect to a particular numerical value, however; you instead choose from a predefined list of 5-10 degrees of the effect.  The “decorate” portion of Photoshop Express throws in the same sticker-type treatment as Picnik, only you can add text to your images as well.

However, don’t expect to find the fancy kinds of layering tools, paint brushes, and selection-specific modifications as in Photoshop proper—or Phoenix, for that matter.  While Photoshop Express performs leagues better (and much cheaper) than Picnik, it still isn’t a direct substitute for the kinds of precise manipulations that a typical graphics editor can provide.  However, you aren’t going to find a better combination of an editor and an organizational tool than Photoshop Express, period.

Next page: Pixlr >>


Pixlr describes itself as, “the most popular advanced online image editor in the world.”  We can’t speak to the app’s friendships, however, it is a fairly complete image editing tool that resembles (and replicates) some of the key features of a typical offline editing program.

As soon as the app launches, it asks you whether you’re going to start with a fresh canvas, upload a picture from your hard drive, or grab an image from a URL—there’s no direct pull from any preexisting albums on other Web communities, alas.

Once the real meat of the app fires up, you’ll notice a distinct resemblance to a certain Photoshop-esqe offline image editing program—ok, really, it’s not as blatant as other apps on this list.  You can pick from a list of 26 tools on the left that all give you some fun way to perform a great number of modifications on any given image (of the seven file formats Pixlr supports for importing).  The usual layering features are throw into the program, including support for different kinds of blending effects between said layers and masks for showing or concealing particular parts of an image.

Pixlr’s real strengths can be found in its Adjustment and Filter menus.  The former gives you the ability to edit your image by directly tweaking the RGB levels via common histogram or, better yet, by using a more complicated curve adjustment feature to really throw down the granular modifications you have in mind.  As for the Filter menu, Pixlr comes with a swath of preset adjustments—23 in all—that you can use to dice up your image in all sorts of interesting ways.

Yes, slapping on a water swirl effect to every image will still make you look like a Photoshop newbie.  Nevertheless, more options are always a good thing—they give you just that many more tools in your belt that you can combine to create some pretty cool effects on your various digital artworks.  In that sense, Pixlr is a great online editing tool.

Next page: Sumo Paint >>

Sumo Paint

We didn’t intend to save the best for last on purpose but, nevertheless, Sumo Paint is a killer Web app for editing photos—provided that you’re only interested in that part of the equation and not in any kind of online photo organization.  Sumo builds the latter into its services if you register for a free account, but it’s hardly the most killer part of the company’s offerings.

Sumo Paint, however, is as close as you’re going to get to a Web-based version of an offline image editor, in that not only is the user interface basically styled like Photoshop, but many of the included effects and manipulations retain the very names of Adobe’s said offline app.  Right-clicking on any part of an image doesn’t just give you an “About Flash 10” context menu; you’re instead delivered actionable options akin to what you’d find in a standard offline app—like a quick option to “free transform” the image, flip its orientation, or resize it in various ways.

The 34 different tools, located to the left of your main editing window, each come with a number of sub-options for further customization.  In that context, Sumo Paint easily presents the most configurability of any of the reviewed apps in this feature.  As well, you can easily select a specific color you want to use in your editing from the easy-to-access Color Picker or Swath menu on the right of the screen—it’s a bummer that you can’t save your specific colors in the Swath menu, but that’s really the only glaring fault present.  That, and the lack of an easy-to-undo History menu.

Not only does Sumo Paint’s layering functionality support the standard mishmash of options for combining layers—think Hard Light, Inversions, Lighten/Darken, et cetera—but the program also allows you to enact Photoshop-style effects on the entirety of a layer itself.  Want to quickly fire up a drop shadow on a given element?  Three clicks.  The same goes for glow effects, stroke options, bevels, and more!

With plenty of filters for additional tweaks and customizations, as well as numerous adjustment tools for the image’s RGB values as a whole—including histograms, curves, posterization, et cetera—it’s just too difficult to list all the many things Sumo Paint can do within this meager overview.  Suffice it to say, this Web app is the kitchen sink of online photo editing tools.  It’s hard to believe that a Flash-based app can do so much!

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Picnik PS Express
Sumo Paint
File Types Supported
JPG, PSD, sraw, tif, raw, erf, orf, tiff, mef, cr2, mfw, rw2, kdc, crw, srf, sr2, x3f, dng, mrw, dcr, mos, arw, pef, nrw, nef, raf, avi, dv, flv, MPEG (all), 3GP, 3GPP, 3G2, MOV, WMV
Third-party Import?
No Yes
No No
Online Storage?
Yes, with registration
Yes, with registration Yes Yes Yes, with registration
Descriptions / Tags
Yes, with registration
No Yes No Yes
Save to PC?
Yes, with registration
Yes Yes Yes Yes
Editing Tools
None None 26 34
Right-click Context? No No No No Yes
Layering Support? Yes No No Yes Yes
Blending Modes
14 None
No 14 11
Layering Effects
6 No No 5 9
13 8 18 23 34
Text Support
Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Included Graphics Library
No Yes Yes No No
Paid-for upgrade?
No Yes Yes No Yes

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