Once you press the shutter release, your photo is still only half done—like a bowl of cookie dough that hasn’t gone into the oven yet. Even if you only want to crop a photo or brighten a slightly underexposed shot, you’ll need to write a check for some sort of photo editing program like Adobe Photoshop, Photoshop Elements, or Corel PaintShop Pro.
Or will you? We’re living in a golden age of free photo editing thanks to a wealth of online options. These days, you can visit your favorite online photo editor and do almost any editing for free. Here are some of the best options to try.
Windows Live Photo Gallery
Once upon a time, Microsoft sold a photo editor in a box; now, it's packed most of its old Digital Image Suite into Windows Live Photo Gallery, a free program you can download as part of Windows Live Essentials, or on its own. Photo Gallery combines a photo organizer—complete with an elegant tagging system for keeping track of your photos—with all the essential photo editing tools, like cropping, color adjustments, exposure tools, and noise reduction. Don’t expect to do anything fancy with Photo Gallery, but it’s handy for quickly improving snapshots before you upload them to Facebook. A hidden gem: Photo Gallery includes an outstanding panoramic stitching tool for combining a series of shots into a huge panoramic scene. And the program's Photo Fuse feature is a genuinely useful tool that lets you combine the best parts of several similar shots, such as a group portrait in which not everyone was smiling at the same time.
The FotoFlexer photo editor lives entirely within a Web page—you have nothing to download or install—yet its power rivals that of commercial programs. In addition to simple tools to tweak your photos, such as a one-click Auto Fix button, red-eye correction, cropping, and exposure controls, FotoFlexer has a wealth of extras. Click through a slew of tabs to apply special effects, cartoonify your photo, or add text and borders. It even has elementary support for layers, so you can combine two photos and adjust their relative transparency.
As nice as FotoFlexer is, it’s not especially refined. The site isn’t pretty, and the tools can be clumsy to wield. You won’t have that problem with Photoshop Express.
Photoshop Express, the online version of Adobe’s familiar Photoshop Elements, feels polished, like a commercial program. You get all the basics—crop, rotate, red-eye removal, and exposure correction, for example. Many of the tools work like the desktop version of Photoshop Elements, where you can choose an effect by comparing several thumbnail variations. You'll also find some cool special effects, such as the one-click Pop Color for creating a black-and-white image with a dollop of spot color.
Of course, you don’t get all the goodies of Photoshop Elements online for free. In fact, Express is quite limited; you won’t even find support for multiple layers. On the plus side, Adobe offers 2GB of online storage to organize and view your photos, with subscription options for additional photo storage.
Finally, I’d be remiss not to mention Picasa, Google’s popular photo editor. Like Windows Live Photo Gallery, Picasa is a downloadable photo editor that you install on your computer rather than run in a Web page. And like Photo Gallery, it is part editor and part organizer, complete with tagging and face identification features. Picasa lives on its own as part of your Gmail account, and also connects to Google+ so you can easily tag photos with friends in your circles. Picasa also offers a ton of easy tweaks and edits, including one-click adjustments. If you want special effects that can transform your photos with inverted colors, a vintage 1960s look, the Lomographic style, and more, this is your app. Plus, a batch-editing feature lets you make changes—rename, rotate, perform color correction and red-eye removal, and more—on a group of photos at once; and look for a poster mode that can assemble your photo across a grid of papers to make an oversized image, suitable for printing and hanging in a dorm room.