The Best Free RAW Photo Editing Programs in 2024

Best Free RAW Photo editing programs

One of the most exciting advancements in digital photography over the last several years has been the rapid increase in the ability to shoot and edit RAW photos. Even cell phones are now capable of capturing — and editing — the unparalleled color, detail, and dynamic range RAW files have to offer. No wonder, then, that more photographers than ever are on the hunt for software powerful enough to edit these files without compromising their unique quality.

Any RAW editor is an advanced piece of software, often relying on complex processing and rendering to get the job done. As such, the highest power options often come with a price tag to match. Thankfully, just as RAW has become democratized, so too have the programs needed to work with these files.

What We’re Looking For

When compiling a list of free applications for editing RAW, many factors come into play. Rendering, processing, batch processing, and asset management are critical functional elements to consider. Just as important, though, are usability, interface, and how well a program suits a user’s experience level. We have selected six programs we believe represent the cream of the crop.

At a Glance

Best Free RAW Photo Editing Program Overall: RawTherapee

RawTherapee is an open-source cross-platform photo editor that offers a non-destructive, 32-bit engine and utilizes powerful algorithms to help you develop the highest quality image possible.

Boasting a full seven pages of customization, you are guaranteed the ability to develop a workspace that really works for you, though novices may find the number of options more overwhelming than useful. Where the options are of benefit is RawTherapee’s Quick Catalog, its best feature.

Though far from the most user-friendly on the list, which tends to be the case with the most versatile and feature-loaded programs out there, RawTherapee excels as a powerful organizational tool with top-notch color tweaking and a host of editing options. As a bonus, it is the top choice on this list for those lacking computing strength, as it has been specifically built to run smoothly on weaker PCs.

It may not be the best at any one thing, but it excels as an all-around phenomenal photo editing program that will suit the needs of most users.

Best Free Lightroom Alternative for RAW Photo Editing: darktable

If you know Lightroom, you will have no problem navigating darktable. Like GIMP, darktable is also open-source. New functionality is added regularly, which only increases the appeal.

While by no means beginner software, the interface is sneakily slick for a program with this much power under the hood. Adjusting contrast, brightness, and saturation is a breeze, manipulated by simple sliders. The same can be said for achieving perfect shadows and highlights, modifying the graduated density of your image, or adding grain. Do not be fooled, though: just beyond those simple controls lies a wealth of robust tools for more advanced users

As a photo-organizing software, darktable both excels and fails in equal measure. Want to view your images by applying presets? By geotag? darktable makes navigating your photos a fun, intuitive process. Unfortunately, cataloging speed is anything but enjoyable. Compared to RawTherapee, uploading can take up to double the time.

Best Easy-to-Use RAW Photo Editing Program: Photoscape X

Image Credit: Matt Williams

Photoscape has possibly the least refined aesthetic of any of the programs mentioned here, but I think this makes it a little more accessible to beginning photographers. Tasks — like batch editing, single photo editor, etc. — are laid out in tabs across the top, and adjustments are laid out down the side. It may not be sleek, but it is highly functional. Hundreds of editing functions, dozens of filters, numerous tools, borders, collages, HDR photo merging, and so much more are available in Photoscape X.

Photoscape lacks the most intricate and complex editing tools of RawTherapee or Darktable, but it’s also insanely quick and easy to use. I use it to batch edit JPEGs for eBay or e-mail or to quickly convert HEIC to JPEG because I can apply global adjustments and then downsize a huge number of full-resolution photos in just a few seconds.

The software is very easy on computer resources — if it can do what you need it to, it is probably more efficient at doing it than anything else out there.

Best Free Browser-Based RAW Photo Editing Program: Photopea

Those who have used Photopea already know why it made the list. A Photoshop clone that can be accessed for free via your web browser? On paper, that is enough to warrant consideration. For the most part, it delivers admirably on that promise.

Photopea does indeed offer many of the features you have come to expect of Adobe’s signature software. Layers, masking, cloning, healing, levels, curves — all available. This is not to say you will be fooled into believing you are on Photoshop. Newer advancements, notably those remarkable AI-powered tools, are missing, and some features that are present are less effective than the real thing. No matter. For basic editing, you are still in good hands.

The obvious benefit of any web-based program is that no download is required. You are free to hop on, do your work, and hop off at any time without hogging space on your hard drive. The downside, of course, is that you are subject to the temperamental nature of a website. Photopea is not immune to this issue. A strong connection is a must, and users do report issues of lag, or even losing work due to overuse of memory.

In terms of RAW editing, Photopea is once again capable, but limited. Independently adjusting your blacks or whites is not going to be possible, but basic tweaks like exposure, tint, and contrast are still within your grasp. Overall, a handy program on the go or if you are in a hurry.

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

Krita may strike some as an interesting choice for this list. After all, the program has been around for nearly 25 years and is widely known as an illustrator, not a photo editor. This is accurate, but what many forget is that Krita is also capable of handling RAW files.

To get it out of the way: No, Krita will not be anyone’s final solution for a free RAW editor. This does not mean it has no place as a specialized tool in your arsenal. Krita’s background as a powerful digital painting application brings with it a massive array of brushes and filters that could very well take your digital photos to the next level. It is an especially exciting possibility for those working on a graphics tablet like those from Wacom.

It should be noted that while Krita does indeed handle RAW images, the options for editing are profoundly basic. You will be able to do the major adjustments — highlight, exposure, color correction, et cetera — but this occurs in a separate RAW editing window, and the process is not non-destructive, unlike most other applications.

Still, for specialty work or more graphically inclined image manipulation, Krita is certainly worth a look.

Best Free RAW Photo Editing Program for Tablets or Smartphones: Adobe Lightroom CC

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

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

Adobe distilled many of the functions and features of their desktop app into a very fluid, easy-to-use, and, most importantly, fast-functioning piece of mobile software. The free version requires nothing more than e-mail registration and offers a huge amount of functionality that you’d 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 do choose to pay for it, you can sync via the Adobe Cloud across all your devices, including your desktop.

Image credits: Header photo licensed via Depositphotos.