Your memory cards are full, but your pockets are empty. We’ve all been there. For a photographer in today’s market, access to quality post-processing tools is not a wish list item; it is a must-have.
Camera equipment is expensive. Everything about photography can feel expensive. So, the desire to seek out a free copy of Adobe Photoshop is understandable.
Because it’s such a powerful tool and the industry standard, millions of people have asked the question, “Is there a free version of Photoshop I can download?”
The answer to that question is both YES and NO.
First, Let’s Start with a Quick History Lesson on Photoshop
Once you know the story of Photoshop, you would think its humble beginnings would inspire the creators to give it away for free. The Knoll brothers created the earliest version of Photoshop as a pet project, not an industry-building behemoth.
While a college student in 1987, Thomas Knoll started writing the very earliest versions of what would become Adobe Photoshop and his brother, John, upon seeing his work, realized what Thomas was creating could become something powerful. John started asking for new features and improvements until it became clear that they had something they could sell commercially.
John began doing door-to-door salesmanship to promote the program, using a photo of his wife on a beach to demonstrate the possibilities. His persistence paid off; by 1990 Thomas’s side project (originally called Display) had evolved into the program that would be shipped as Adobe Photoshop.
30 years later, Photoshop’s popularity has only grown with time and sticker-shock doesn’t seem to keep people from buying it. It’s not only the industry standard at this point, Photoshop has become a verb (despite Adobe’s insistence to the contrary.)
Okay, cool. Nice story… So, how do I get my free copy?!?
Not so fast. Even if you find a website or person who is willing to pass out stolen copies of Photoshop like Halloween candy, it’s not the only thing your computer will leave their website with. Computer viruses and malware are extremely common in free downloads of the illegal software that you are most likely not adequately equipped to deal with.
Please forgive our assumption, but since you’re reading this article in the first place instead of just pirating a copy right from the start, you are probably not a world-class cybercriminal. So setting aside the fact that obtaining Photoshop from anyone but Adobe or one of their official distribution partners, is flat-out thievery, it’s a gamble at best for your computer (and your sanity). Just don’t.
The development of Photoshop is decades in the making and requires continuous testing and development. Adobe’s work has only just begun when you click the “purchase” button. Photoshop is not static; it is frequently changing and as a result expectations are constantly rising. Your investment goes toward much more than what you receive on the day of your purchase. It goes toward patches and updates, not to mention Adobe actually has awesome customer support for Photoshop users.
You said I could get it FREE!!! How do I get Photoshop legally without having to pay?
There is really only one way: an Adobe Photoshop free trial.
Seven days of blissful, unfettered access everything Photoshop. After those seven days you will be charged monthly for whichever subscription plan you settle on, unless, you cancel. Seven days may not seem like long, but access to the full version of such a massive, powerful piece of software before paying a cent is worth it if you have a project you need to work on right now.
If you, like several million other Photoshop customers, find that once your free trial is over, that you can’t imagine life without access to content aware technology, you aren’t going to have to give up food for a month or anything. Creative Cloud apps (particularly the photography related ones) are surprisingly cheap if you’re smart about your subscription.
Here’s How the Photoshop Plans Break Down:
IMPORTANT: This is a little tricky, so please pay close attention.
The Photoshop single app subscription price is currently $20.99 per month with a yearlong commitment.
BUT, Adobe also offers what they call the “Photography Plan” which is $9.99 per month that not only includes Photoshop CC, but Lightroom CC and Lightroom Classic CC along with 20GB of cloud storage.
That’s not a typo or a mistake in our article. You can get Photoshop CC, Lightroom CC, and Lightroom Classic CC for $9.99 a month. But the single app price for just Photoshop CC is $20.99 a month.
Obviously, we recommend you buy the Photography Plan and begin your free trial. It is paid monthly, but it is for a one-year long commitment.
BONUS: Students and teachers can even get all of the Creative Cloud apps for $19.99 per month, a far cry from the $52.99 per month that the rest of us would pay.
Wait, why can’t I just buy the software?
You’re not alone if you feel like there should be a one-time download option, but let’s go back to something we said earlier about development and support. Technology is a fast-moving train and the amount of updates needed to keep up are staggering. Photoshop is not maintained and updated solely by a handful of executives at the top of some skyscraper.
There are hundreds of developers, designers, writers, translators, (you didn’t think Photoshop was just for English speakers, did you?) and customer support reps dedicated just to Photoshop alone. Let along the hundreds more who strictly work on Lightroom and the mobile apps.
That’s a lot of talented people to pay! Adobe switched to a monthly subscription billing plan, because Photoshop is updated constantly, with an ever-increasing amount of powerful new features being added.
$9.99 a month is a bargain considering it used to cost $699.99 for a single copy of Photoshop! In fact, you could pay the monthly rate for five years and it still wouldn’t end up costing you as much as Photoshop CS6 would have on the day it was released.
Can’t I Just Snag an Old Version?
If you bought a Creative Suite version of Photoshop back in the day, you can download a legacy copy using your serial number (for now, at least.) This is a stopgap measure at best, since compatibility and support may be greatly reduced and eventually discontinued, and you’ll be missing out on the newer features.
Without a lawfully acquired serial number this is irrelevant information. Adobe is not selling old versions of Photoshop anymore and for good reason: as computers and operating systems continue to update and evolve, Adobe would have to do more and more work to make sure its older versions still continued to work on modern operating systems. That’s wasted effort that could be put toward making the current Photoshop even better.
In any case, older versions are not the droids you’re looking for. In a technological field being a step behind the times can cost you. This is not all on Adobe’s shoulders; they can’t force operating systems to maintain backwards compatibility and sometimes it’s not worth the time and resources to do so. The most up-to-date editing capabilities are an investment, but that investment pays off.
Photoshop Alternatives: What Free Options Exist?
Most Photoshoppers would be hard-pressed to name a single app that provides everything the full-scale Photoshop can for a friendlier price, but it’s no secret that there are competitors. Many of these competitors aim themselves at photography enthusiasts who want to organize their catalog and dabble in mid-level editing techniques without signing on for continuous access to a pro-level software they’ll only scratch the surface of.
For these consumers, Lightroom may be an ideal solution (you know, the one that comes with Adobe’s $9.99/mo photography plan?) That makes some of these programs Lightroom competitors rather than Photoshop competitors. It would take a lot more time than we have here to do an in-depth comparison of every image editing software that exists, but let’s take a look at some basic pros and cons of popular alternatives:
Affinity Photo ($49.99)
It belongs to a suite of apps by Serif, much like Adobe’s Creative Cloud. It also has 200+ structured tutorials and a powerful iOS app. Some users report that it runs more slowly for them than Photoshop and although it has many pro-level features, there are still some growing pains.
It’s free, obviously!It’s also open source, so you can customize it to a greater degree if you have the know-how. It’s free because it’s run completely by volunteers. Updates are sporadic and unpredictable, and you have to find your own support.
You can organize your images with a Lightroom-esque catalogue. Luminar’s Erasing Brush and Clone & Stamp Tool work well enough for spot retouching, but can’t complete with Photoshop’s Content-Aware features.
ON1 Photo Raw ($99.99)
The support is surprisingly good and there are monthly courses you can take to help master the software. Its interface is a little rough around the edges and it lacks features like geo-tagging.
Pixelmator Pro ($39.99)
It has a very sleek, intuitive interface and is specifically designed to appeal to a Mac user’s workflow. It is only for Mac users and it has no multi-step history function. So it’s perfect if you’re a Mac user and only make one mistake at a time.
PaintShop Pro ($79.99)
Say hello to dedicated HDR tools and hands-on RAW edits…unless you work on a Mac. This club is Windows only and it comes with a very Windows aesthetic.
Capture One Pro (299 for a perpetual license or $20/mo)
Unlike Lightroom, Capture One Pro has layers. It also offers tethered shooting that many photographers swear by. RAW support for new camera models takes a little time. As a Lightroom competitor Capture One Pro has legs, but it’s not intended to go toe to toe with Photoshop’s more advanced features.
DxO Photolab (Starts at $129)
You get great results with auto features like noise reduction and lens corrections. You’re working with a more spartan selection of tools.
Raw Therapee ($0)
This is as close as you’ll get to a free Lightroom. Batch processing RAW images can be a breeze without handing over your credit card information. As close as you’ll get to a free Lightroom, not a free Photoshop. And it doesn’t completely stack up against Lightroom either…the features are solid for an open-source program but the image cataloging leaves something to be desired.
A web-based service like PicMonkey, Canva, or Pixlr ($5/mo — $12.95/mo)
You get more flexibility. These services tend to be geared toward non-intensive edits. They offer less control over the editing process and may only export to a handful of file types. They may also rely heavily on Flash, which will be going away soon, or on revenue from distracting ads.
Maybe the subscription isn’t your sticking point. Maybe you just want something to get started on and don’t need all of the bells and whistles yet. In that case, it might be worthwhile to look into Photoshop Elements. It has just enough functionality to be useful for dabbling around but not enough functionality to be at risk of going Creative Cloud with its big brother and sister apps. You get the Adobe infrastructure and the Photoshop name with training wheels for $99.99.
So as you can see, although Photoshop is not your only option, Photoshop is the only Photoshop. Only you can decide if it’s a must-have for your post-processing workflow, but one thing is for certain: if it’s worth having, it’s worth paying for.