Paint.Net – a Free and Customisable Alternative to Photoshop

A few years back I needed to edit some images and went out looking for an image editor that could do everything I needed, and most importantly, it had to be free as I was a poor freelancer! I downloaded a few and dived in to see how easy it was to complete a few general tasks like rotating images, adding layers, changing colours and re-sizing images for use on the web. It goes without saying that this is standard fare for image editors, but some do it in a better way than others. To my mind Paint.Net is one of those that does it in a way that is easy to pick up and yet still affords all of the power of the expensive apps.

Paint.Net was originally intended as a free replacement for Microsoft Paint that comes with Windows. It started life as a development project for some undergraduate developers, mentored by Microsoft. According to the site it is still maintained by a number of the alumni that originally worked on the project. Read on to see if this powerful yet simple application is for you.

Getting Started

As I mentioned earlier, Paint.Net is free, so it costs you nothing to download, there’s no trial and it won’t nag you to pay for it. You can donate if you wish to support the project, but that is entirely up to you.

Editor with gallery

The image editor is well laid out and the windows can easily be hidden to better show the image.

Once you have downloaded the application you simply install it as any other. Along the way it will ask you what types of files you would like to associate with I find it generally better not to associate common files such as .jpg with Paint.Net as because it has more features, it takes longer to load than a simple image viewer.


Layers are a great feature of Paint.Net, it’s part of what sets it apart from a number of lesser applications. It is of course common for applications that are paid for, but less so for ones that are free. It allows you to add a layer on top of the background that not only allows you to add new items on top of others, but to edit them independently of the other layers.


It took me a few seconds to transform Felix Baumgartner into the rather cool ink sketch on the right.

The number of special effects is huge, it allows you to alter the appearance of the images in much the same way as Instagram has become famous for, but obviously in much more depth as this is a much larger application. You can use blurs, sepia toning, colour level altering, ink sketch transformations, anti redeye, distortions such as bulging, denting and pixelation, the list goes on.

Gallery thumbs closeup

Thumbnails of open images act as tabs. Note the asterisk, this indicates the file has unsaved changes.

Having multiple files open at one time is very useful for increasing productivity, and Paint.Net deals with this in a very user friendly way. There is no list of images for which you have to know the name of each image you have opened, there is just a gallery of thumbnails of open images at the top of the screen and clicking on one takes you to that image, simple. You don’t have to save changes to flip to another image, but it will prompt you to save changes upon closing the application.

There are a number of tools that are aimed at image creation as opposed to image manipulation. These include the standard set of shapes, but also more interesting ones such as curve creators, spline drawers and an easy to use gradient tool. Other tools can also be added by adding plugins


Paint.Net supports all the usual image types (including Photoshop PSDs with a plugin). When you add a layer to an image, regardless of the type that it was when you started, Paint.Net will suggest that you save it as a .pdn which is their file format. This preserves the layers so that they can be edited later, other formats that are chosen will generally cause the image to be ‘flattened’ and you will end up with a one dimensional image, without layers. This is a pretty common trait of image editors.


What really struck me about Paint.Net is the community that surrounds the application. There are support forums which have a large number of people who are willing to help you out. I suggest using the search first as you will very likely find that someone has already posted the answer to the problem that you are encountering, or answered the question you are pondering.

paint forums

The Paint.Net forums offer user made tutorials and guides, a sub category is Text Effects, shown above.

The Paint.Net forums offer user made tutorials and guides, a sub category is Text Effects, shown above

The forums aren’t just for support though, they are for learning as well. There are loads of tutorials and run-throughs that people have taken the time to put together to guide you through some simple tasks right up to complex manipulation of images and creation of new pieces or work which is something I don’t usually dabble with.

I followed a tutorial from the forums and in about half an hour I created the image below, which I’m pleased with. It’s great compared to what I would have produced without the tutorial, but that’s a reflection on me not the image editor!


Following tutorials allows you to create some cool images and logos, even if you don’t know where to start!


Paint.Net is designed in such a way that you can add plugins to the application to enhance the functionality that might otherwise not be present. The best place to get the plugins is the plugin section of the forums . You can also jump to the plugins section of the site by going through the help menu and choosing plugins.

The selection of plugins is extensive, there are literally hundreds, ranging from the aforementioned psd compatibility plugin, to new types of blurs, lines, 3d shape creation, drop shadows, alpha masks, alignment tools, all sorts.

Paint.Net vs Gimp

The most common comparison of two free image editors is likely this one, Paint.Net vs Gimp (GNU Image Manipulation Program). It generally boils down to a couple of things, ease of access vs power. It is generally accepted that GIMP is slightly more powerful, but it is also more complex to use. I would say that if you are going to be doing a lot of image editing then give GIMP a go as you might find the feature set better suits you. If you are looking for something that has almost all of the features of GIMP, but is much easier to learn, then Paint.Net is for you. I prefer it, but that’s just my opinion.



A good alternative to Photoshop for most tasks, and almost everything that the application can’t do out of the box can be accomplished with the use of plugins. Intuitive, reliable and very easily usable with a great community of people who produce detailed tutorials and guides to help you achieve your goals