Best Free RAW Photo Editing Programs in 2022

One of the most exciting advances in digital photography in recent years has been the rapid increase in the ability to take and edit RAW photos. Even cell phones are now able to capture – and edit – the unparalleled color, detail and dynamic range that RAW files have to offer. It’s no wonder that more photographers than ever are looking for software powerful enough to edit these files without compromising their unique quality.

Any RAW editor is advanced software, relying on complex processing and rendering to get the job done. As such, the higher horsepower options often come with a corresponding price tag. Fortunately, just as RAW has become more popular, the programs needed to work with these files have also become more popular.

What we are looking for

When compiling a list of free apps for RAW editing, many factors come into play. Rendering, processing, batch processing, and asset management are essential functional elements to consider. Equally important, however, is the usability, interface, and suitability of a program to the user’s level of experience. We have selected six programs that we believe represent the crème de la crème.

In short

Best Free RAW Photo Editing Program Overall: GIMP

GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Software) is frequently praised on this site, and for good reason. It really is one of the most powerful photo editing apps available – and that includes paid software.

There aren’t many bells and whistles that you don’t get with GIMP. Layers, masks, curves, brushes, clone stamps, perspective shifts – they’re all there. Best of all, GIMP is open-source. When you download GIMP, you get more than the program — you gain an active community of fellow editors, eager to provide tutorials, develop plugins, and increase functionality.

To work with RAW photos in GIMP, community contributions are needed. On its own, GIMP does not have the ability to natively open RAW photos. You will need to rely on an additional program or plugin to send your RAW photo for demosaicing and then to GIMP in TIFF format.

At this point, you might be wondering why we chose to open a list of “best free RAW editors” with a program that cannot perform this task natively. The answer is twofold. First of all, GIMP is simply a great program and equal to Photoshop in many ways, with a zero on its price. The second reason offers the opportunity to provide some education.

Adobe has designed such a complete ecosystem that we sometimes don’t realize what each program is and isn’t capable of doing on its own. No, you can’t “just open” a RAW file in GIMP without a hand – but neither can you in Photoshop. It’s just feels like you can. In reality, any RAW file opened in Photoshop is processed through Adobe Camera RAW and then opened in Photoshop. The process is so transparent that it seems invisible.

Fortunately, there are plenty of free and easy RAW converters that work in conjunction with GIMP – much like how Adobe Camera RAW and Photoshop work together. One of the most common is UFRaw: a GIMP plugin that may actually be installed along with GIMP depending on your download source.

Best Free Alternative to Lightroom for Editing RAW Photos: darktable

If you’re familiar with Lightroom, you’ll have no problem navigating black table. Like GIMP, darktable is also open-source. New features are added regularly, which only increases the appeal.

While this is by no means beginner’s software, the interface is deviously elegant for a program with so much power under the hood. Adjusting contrast, brightness and saturation is a snap, manipulated by simple sliders. The same can be said for getting perfect shadows and highlights, changing the graduated density of your image, or adding grain. But make no mistake: just beyond these simple controls are a host of robust tools for more advanced users.

As photo organization software, darktable excels and fails in equal measure. Want to view your images by applied presets? By geolocation? darktable makes browsing through your photos a fun and intuitive process. Unfortunately, the cataloging speed is anything but pleasant. Compared to RawTherapee, downloading can take up to twice as long.

Best free RAW photo editing program for budget computers: RawTherapee

RawTherapy is an open-source, cross-platform photo editor that offers a non-destructive 32-bit engine and uses powerful algorithms to help you develop the best image quality possible. If GIMP is Photoshop, consider RawTherapee like Lightroom.

Although more useful as a processing tool in conjunction with another editing application, RawTherapee is still a fully functional editor in its own right, offering several features familiar to Photoshop users. Its real strength, however, lies in its impressive color correction capabilities and fast cataloguing.

With seven full pages of customization, you’re guaranteed to be able to develop a workspace that really works for you, although novices may find the number of options more overwhelming than helpful. Where the options are advantageous, RawTherapee’s Quick Catalog, its best feature.

While far from the most user-friendly on the list, and despite having a weaker online support/tutorial community, RawTherapee excels as a powerful organizational tool with top-notch color adjustment and a host of editing options. Even better, it’s the top pick on this list for those lacking in computing power, as it’s been specifically designed to run smoothly on weaker PCs.

Best Free Browser-Based RAW Photo Editing Program: Photopea

Those who used Photopea already know why he made the list. A clone of Photoshop accessible for free via your web browser? On paper, that’s enough to warrant a review. For the most part, it delivers on that promise admirably.

Photopea indeed offers many of the features you would expect from Adobe’s signature software. Layers, masking, cloning, healing, levels, curves – all available. That’s not to say you’ll be tricked into thinking you’re in Photoshop. New advancements, including these remarkable AI-powered tools, are missing, and some of the features present are less effective than the real thing. No matter. For the basic edition, you are always in good hands.

The obvious advantage of any web-based program is that no download is required. You are free to go up, do your thing and go down at any time without hogging your hard drive space. The downside, of course, is that you’re subject to the finicky nature of a website. Photopea is not immune to this problem. A strong connection is a must and users report lag issues and even loss of work due to excessive memory usage.

In terms of RAW editing, Photopea is again capable, but limited. Adjusting your blacks or whites independently won’t be possible, but basic adjustments like exposure, tint and contrast are still at your fingertips. All in all, a handy program on the go or if you’re in a hurry.

Best Free RAW Photo Editing Program to Use with a Graphics Tablet: Krita

krita may seem to some an interesting choice for this list. After all, the program has been around for almost 25 years and is widely known as an illustrator, not a photo editor. That’s right, but what many forget is that Krita is also capable of handling RAW files.

To eliminate it: No, Krita will not be anyone’s final solution for a free RAW editor. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t belong as a specialist tool in your arsenal. Krita’s background as a powerful digital painting app brings a huge array of brushes and filters that could very well take your digital photos to the next level. It’s an especially exciting possibility for those working on a graphics tablet like those at WacomComment.

It should be noted that while Krita does indeed handle RAW images, the editing options are deeply basic. You will be able to make the main adjustments – highlight, exposure, color correction, etc. – but it happens in a separate RAW editing window, and the process isn’t non-destructive, unlike most other apps.

Still, for specialized work or more graphic image manipulation, Krita is definitely worth a look.

Best free RAW photo editing program for tablets or smartphones: Adobe Lightroom CC

Yeah, Adobe Lightroom CC is free, at least the mobile version, and has been since 2015.

While we’ve looked at apps that are more focused on desktop or laptop use, it’s worth talking about high-quality mobile apps, especially given the excellent number of tablets or of today’s Android-based iPads for image editing. And while many of our aforementioned apps will work on a tablet or phone, our pick in this section is optimized for mobile use in a way most others aren’t.

Adobe has distilled many of the functions and features of its desktop app into a very smooth, easy-to-use, and most importantly, fast mobile software. The free version requires nothing more than email registration and offers a huge amount of features that you would expect from Adobe software.

The user interface is easy to navigate with its minimalist design and the use of sliders and toggles to make editing quick and simple, even for less advanced users.

Best of all, and unlike many other free apps, if you choose to pay, you can sync through Adobe Cloud across all your devices, including your desktop.

Picture credits: Header photo licensed via Depositphotos.

Jack C. Nugent