With Photoshop CS versions moving to a subscription-only fees package, now could be the time to consider alternative image-editing software. Here are 12 of the best contenders…
WORDS • AUDLEY JARVIS
While Adobe Photoshop has long been the benchmark that all other image-editing software is judged by, it’s always been one of the most expensive applications on the market. That fact has been exacerbated in recent weeks with the announcement from Adobe that it intends to restructure its business model and the way it sells its flagship products.
In essence, Adobe has signalled its intention to license its industry-standard Creative Suite range — including Photoshop — to be subscription only. Adobe is calling it the Creative Cloud, and it essentially means that you’ll only be able to rent forthcoming Creative Suite (now renamed Creative Cloud by Adobe) releases on a month-by-month basis. You won’t be able to buy independent copies of the software and keep them for as long as you like. The only two exclusions from this move — at least as far as photographers are concerned — are Photoshop Elements and Lightroom. For everything else you’ll be required to sign up and pay as you go.
Understandably, this move has caused quite a bit of controversy within photography circles, with many decrying the move towards a subscription model. With that in mind, it might be time to look at some alternatives to Photoshop. We’ve rounded up 12 contenders, including six paid-for applications and six free-to-use ones. Read on to see if there’s a software alternative that suits you.
ADOBE LIGHTROOM 5
Lightroom was originally conceived of as a Raw workflow and image management tool but over the years has grown into a much more powerful piece of software. Indeed, many photographers now use it as their primary editor and only turn to Photoshop when absolutely necessary. While Lightroom 5 lacks the scope to work with layers it offers many adjustment tools including white balance, exposure, colour management, sharpening, noise control, lens corrections and more. You can choose to process your images individually or in batches and export them directly to a printer or website, and also embed your own metadata within them. New for Lightroom 5 is an advanced Healing Brush that allows you to easily paint out unwanted details and touch up skin blemishes, along with an Upright tool for sorting out non-vertical lines. If you can live without layers support, there’s little fault with Lightroom — it’s a fantastic bit of software.
PHASE ONE CAPTURE PRO 7
Essentially a three-in-one tethered studio capture tool, Raw converter and digital assets management system, Capture Pro 7 offers an extremely powerful array of image-processing tools. The latest version represents a generous upgrade over its predecessors with a new image-processing engine that brings noticeable improvements to overall performance speed, noise control and sharpening. As with previous versions you can choose to customise the interface allowing you to de-clutter your workspace, keeping everything you regularly use close to hand while discarding less important tools. Pro 7 also supports individual camera profiles, which helps to ensure effective colour management. In order to fully appreciate the powerful new image-processing engine at its heart you will need to be running a relatively powerful 64-bit computer though. That said, and despite its higher price, it remains a highly credible alternative to Lightroom 5. Thankfully, you can trial a free version first to help you decide.
COREL PAINT SHOP PRO X5
While most of the paid-for software we feature here is aimed at pro photographers and advanced digital darkroom enthusiasts, Paint Shop Pro X5 is targeted at photographers looking for a straightforward but effective image-processor. That’s not to say X5 is basic; it still offers plenty of processing power, the full range of basic adjustments and some layers support. There are three main tabs — Manage, Adjust and Edit — while a new Corel Guide offers video tutorials direct from the interface, great for first-time users. Other new features include a Retro Lab for vintage colour effects, Instant Effects, and enhanced Face Recognition that allows you to upload already-tagged images to Facebook and to geo-tag your social media-bound photos.
PHOTOSHOP ELEMENTS 11
Photoshop Elements is the market leader when it comes to prosumer editing software. The image-editing module offers three main levels to choose from: Quick, Guided and Expert. While the Quick and Expert modes have changed little since Elements 10, the Guided mode now offers four new digital effects including tilt-shift. As with previous editions Elements 11 allows you to work in layers, although the layers palette has shifted to the top-right of the interface. In the organiser mode you can email photos directly or even upload images to Facebook. Images that are being worked on now have «in progress» superimposed over them too, which is a nice touch.
ACDSEE PRO 6
ACDSee first began manufacturing image-editing software for 16-bit Windows computers over 20 years ago and the latest flagship version of ACDSee Pro 6 now offers native 64-bit support for faster processing. At least for Windows users it does; Mac users will need to purchase ACDSee Pro 3 instead as Pro 6 is PC-only. The two versions differ in several ways, although Pro 3 for Mac is also БД-bit and supports Retina displays. As with Lightroom, ACDSee Pro 6 offers non-destructive editing, which means the software will keep the original copy intact, saving all your edits instead. In addition to the usual range of basic adjustments there’s also a non-destructive brush tool, although it isn’t quite as flexible as the one in Lightroom 5. It’s all quite neatly laid out too, with the option to move panels around your screen to create a workspace that best suits you. Overall. Pro 6 offers a good package at a decent price.
DXO OPTICS PRO 8
DxO Labs is the French company behind the respected sensor and lens-testing website DxOmark, which objectively scores digital camera equipment based on stringent lab tests. Making use of the information gained as a result of this process DxO also produces software products, with DxO Optics Pro 8 being the flagship. It’s primarily an image-optimising application, so there’s no support for layers or local adjustments. As a first port of call for unconverted Raw files though it’s excellent. The way it works is that the software reads the metadata within each image presented to it to determine the camera model and lens that was used to take the picture. From here the software will automatically correct any optical impurities, including distortion and chromatic aberrations, and can also eliminate noise while increasing the resolution of fine detail to optimum levels. You can choose to do all this automatically or you can, of course, optimise your images manually.
Like Pixlr and FotoFLexer, Pic Monkey is a cloud-based image-editor that lets you manipulate images via a desktop web-browser rather than via an application that needs downloading to your hard drive. Unlike the many Adobe clones, it dispenses with the Photoshop template in favour of a more streamlined, web-optimised and easy-to-use interface designed for casual users who don’t want to get too technical. Indeed, if you just want to make basic adjustments this is one of Pic Monkey’s core strengths. Once you’ve uploaded an image you are presented with a list of options down the left side of the screen that allow you to make basic changes, apply digital effects, touch-up portraits and add text or frames. Just click on the effect you want and Pic Monkey will automatically apply it for you. Our only minor gripe is that many of the more useful tools and effects are only available via a subscription-based upgrade package.
There’s much to admire about Pixlr’s approach to image editing. It’s entirely cloud-based, which means you can access and use applications directly from a web browser and don’t need to download software. You will, of course, need an internet connection and a compatible desktop browser — it doesn’t work on tablets and mobile devices, although free tablet-optimised Pixlr apps are available. Accessed via a desktop computer, the Pixlr homepage presents you with a suite of five applications. For the more advanced user, Pixlr Editor is by far the best option. The interface is based on the standard Photoshop template with the usual array of drop-down menu options and a tools palette. You’ll need to upload an image from your hard drive first, and you get much of the functionality of Photoshop [albeit in a lite version], which includes layers support. The Pixlr-o-matic and Pixlr Grabber applications are much simpler than Pixlr Editor to use, and offer plenty of artistic filters to jazz your images up with.
Much like Gimp (right), Paint.NET is a freeware Photoshop clone that was originally released as an alternative to the MS Paint software that came preinstalled with Microsoft’s XP operating system. Since then it’s grown to become a much more rounded and flexible image editor, although like Photoshop it offers no image-management facilities. Unfortunately for Mac users the software is PC only, however if you’re running a Windows computer then Paint.NET offers a pretty good range of editing options. As with Gimp, the Paint.NET interface is closely modelled on Photoshop with the same drop-down menu options running across the top of the screen and a standard tools palette to the left. For our money the Paint. NET interface does look a bit dated and isn’t anywhere as neatly styled as Gimp, however this doesn’t affect its overall functionality. In addition to the regular array of basic image adjustments and tools Paint.NET also supports layers, which will keep more advanced users happy.
Not particularly sophisticated or advanced. Aimed at casual users rather than digital darkroom enthusiasts
The FotoFlexer software is cloud-based, so you only need a desktop web browser and an internet connection to use it. As well as being able to upload images direct from your hard drive you can also use it to access images stored on Facebook, Flickr and suchlike. You’ll need to supply your login details but once you’ve integrated the two services, opening images that you’ve already stored on the internet is a simple process. The only downside with respect to Facebook is that FotoFlexer will also be able to gain access to all your friends’ photos, which might raise privacy issues. The editing interface is neatly laid out with tabs offering access to basic adjustments, artistic effects, decorations, animations, a portrait enhancer and even a (very basic) layers tool. For novices the basic adjustments panel offers an Auto Fix button that isn’t too bad, while more creative users can sink their teeth into the range of artistic digital effects. Everything is free, with no subscription fees required to unlock any «premium» tools.
If you’re looking for a free version of Photoshop then Gimp is the closest thing to it. Available as a free download from www.gimp.org the software runs on both Windows PCs and Macs. Once installed the interface looks uncannily like the regular paid-for version of Photoshop with a tools palette to the left and drop-down menus running across the top of the screen giving you access to various processing options. There are a few cosmetic differences, but Gimp should be instantly familiar to users of Photoshop. As well as the regular array of healing, cloning and cropping tools and basic exposure adjustments, you’ll also find support for working with layers for more advanced editing. Plus, should you want to process an unconverted Raw file, Gimp will open its own Raw converter when you click on the Raw file you want to work on. Overall Gimp is one of the best bits of image-editing freeware currently available.
Hailing from Google, Picasa is an easy-to-use photo-management application that’s free to download and which allows you to store, browse and view all of your images conveniently from one window, and also to make basic edits to them. While the photo management side of things isn’t too bad, the image-editing features are at best basic with not a great deal on offer compared to some of the other software options featured here. You do get a range of basic adjustments (emphasis on the «basic») though, with the ability to crop, straighten and remove redeye. Exposure options are limited to fill-light, highlights and shadows though, which seems a bit measly. To get a bit more out of Picasa you really need to click the «Edit in Creative Kit» tab. This opens your image in a cloud-based image editor that does at least offer some digital filter effects in addition to the basic edits. For a company with as much web presence and experience as Google though, the overall feeling with Picasa is one of slight disappointment.