My Three Favorite Alternatives to Photoshop and InDesign

Need to quickly edit pictures and design posters? These work great

Clive Thompson
5 min readFeb 27


A laptop on a wooden table, next to a plant and a DSLR camera, with a coffee in front of it. On screen is a photo-editing piece of software
Photo by Mylene Tremoyet on Unsplash

Every so often I need to do a bit of lightweight photo editing and design. Sometimes it’s for journalism; I’ll do a blog post and want to create some text cards for it. Other times it’s for the bands I play in — I’ll be creating shareable cards for upcoming gigs.

For years, I used Adobe products. Way back in the late-90s I went to a conference where the swag bag contained a free copy of Photoshop Elements — woo! I rode that train until the wheels came off. (Eventually it stopped working on Windows Vista or something, dammit.)

In the years since, I’ve often contemplated subscribing to Adobe products like Photoshop or InDesign, but blanched at the price tag, which can add up to hundreds and hundreds a year. I don’t need them that often, so it feels like I’d be paying for far more capability than I need. Plus, I’m doing really simple editing and design; both products feel wildly overpowered light-sabers, when all I need is a butter knife.

So, over the years, I’ve settled on a handful of tools that are much cheaper, or entirely free. Last weekend a friend asked me to tell him which ones I used, so I figured I’d share that here on Medium in case it’s useful for others.

My Three Tools for Lightweight Photo-Editing and Design:

1) Gimp

A screenshot of Gimp, showing a closeup photo of a women with brown eyes and brown hair being edited
By montelale, via Wikipedia (CC 4.0 license, unmodified)

For most of the photo editing I need to do, Gimp is a superb stand-in for Photoshop.

For the basics — resizing a photo, reducing file size, cropping — it’s awfully simple. Dive in a little bit and it’s got phenomenal settings for tweaking the color, saturation, contrast and whatnot.

Go a little deeper and there are oodles of filters for creating artistic effects, like cartoonizing an image, giving it a gorgeous bloom, or applying low-fi old-school-style noise. And it’s also got terrific edge-detection algorithms for isolating a figure and stripping out the background. I use it several times a week when I’m slightly…



Clive Thompson

I write 2X a week on tech, science, culture — and how those collide. Writer at NYT mag/Wired; author, “Coders”.