Life Without Photoshop

Zac Bolan
August 10, 2014
By Zac Bolan

Imagine if you dare a world without Photoshop – a barren image editing wasteland offering little to comfort those longing to adjust a photo’s hue, or straighten and crop a wayward picture. How would you apply effects to your pictures, convert to black and white or resize low-resolution images without Adobe? Sounds like a pretty bleak existence, doesn’t it? Thankfully it doesn’t have to be.

Photoshop remains at the heart of most serious image-editing workflows, but there are options on the market.  These days, savvy software consumers can save a few dollars and still fulfill a surprising percentage of their image editing needs. While there are a number of open source and share-ware image-editing alternatives on the market, a couple of the early Photoshop challengers have matured into significant contenders in the pixel-pushing arena.


Tested: Pixelmator 3.2 (Mac OS X), pixelmator.com, Apple App Store $29.95

I first discovered this powerful yet unassuming app shortly after returning from drupa years ago and wrote about version 1 in PrintAction magazine (July 2008). At the time, I was impressed with the versatility of the inexpensive image editor and it soon became my go-to tool for quick image adjustments when away from my Photoshop workstation.

Over the years, Pixelmator matured with each successive release, bringing it ever closer to Photoshop functionality while remaining a fraction of the price. Within an intuitive and stylish interface, Pixelmator delivers most of the features you would expect in an image editor. The Tools palette will feel immediately familiar to anyone with a working knowledge of Photoshop. Pixelmator is replete with a full range of tools covering everything from selection; cropping; cloning; erasing; drawing; painting; shapes; and blurring to typography and effects.

And like that other image editor, Pixelmator supports layers – in fact, you can even open your layered .PSD files, edit them and export the file back to .PSD, or any one of several common image formats. I use the term ‘export’ because Pixelmator can only save images in its own proprietary format. This might not be such a bad thing because, on cursory inspection, Pixelmator appears to produce a smaller file size than .PSD for the same image. Pixelmator also features a number of tools geared toward those combining or creating new images, such as Alignment Guides and Relative Spacing Guides, which are much like the smart guides found in Creative Suite apps.  

The latest release, Pixelmator 3.2, brings some new advanced editing features to the table including a completely re-engineered Repair Tool.  The Repair Tool can be used for anything from simple dust and scratch removal to difficult repairs such as large image removal from a complex background. Pixelmator ‘patches’ the areas removed with colour-corrected pieces from the image surrounding it. Even if the object to be removed was not selected precisely, the Repair Tool builds a smooth transition area and matches the structure of the background. The results are often quite impressive.

Other new Pixelmator features include support for 16-bit colour, lockable layers and a cool little feature that apparently converts any selection into a shape for editing. I say ‘apparently’ because I cannot actually figure out how to do it, which highlights one of the few flaws of the application – the lack of a manual! There is, however, a fairly comprehensive help file and quite a few online tutorials to get new users up to speed. Also, because Pixelmator restricts users to living in an RGB world, it will not unseat Photoshop for heavy-duty prepress use anytime soon. Having said that, Pixelmator is a robust, fun and surprisingly fully featured image editor for a very, very good price!

Tested: Perfect Photo Suite 8.5 (Mac OS X, Windows 7 & 8), onOnesoftware.com, Starting at $79.95

Another blast from my image-editing past, Perfect Photo Suite began its life as a collection of high-priced plug-ins for Photoshop. When I last reviewed the product (version 5 in PrintAction, August 2010), Perfect Photo Suite cashed out at a hefty $499 for the full assemblage of plug-ins. At the time, each of the plug-ins was also available as an independent product, so users could buy just the tools or effects they wanted.

onOne Software has since taken the collection in the opposite direction and combined Perfect Photo Suite into a fully featured standalone application containing all of the functionality of the individual plug-ins. As a result, Perfect Photo Suite 8.5 has evolved into a surprisingly comprehensive image-editing workflow well suited for the artistic image manipulator and premedia pro alike.

When launching any Perfect Photo Suite plug-in from Photoshop, Lightroom or Aperture, the net result is the same: The full suite opens outside of the host application with the image and the selected functions active. From there, users can access any of the other Suite tools encompassing a wide range of image-editing chores.

The Enhance tool provides everything an image geek needs to improve brightness, contrast or hue, as well as play with focus or remove offending spots and elements in the style of Photoshop’s Content Aware Fill. Enhance provides loads of presets for the novice and a complete set of finicky adjustments for the pro. Once you make your perfect enhancement, save it as a preset for other images, or even batch processing.

As its name implies, Effects is the Suite tool for stylizing images. As with Enhance, this function comes with both a full catalogue of photographic effects and plenty of adjustable filter options to create entirely unique looks. Additionally, Effects filters can be stacked to create masterpieces or abhorrent messes, depending on the skill of the user.

Portrait provides both presets and manual tools to make short work of tedious portrait re-touching tasks like removing blemishes, shine and wrinkles. Portrait also has specific adjustments for eyes and mouths, including red-eye removal and teeth whitening – cheaper than a trip to the ophthalmologist or the dentist!

But for me the big draw to Perfect Photo Suite has always been its excellent Resize and Mask functions. Resize started life as a very pricey Photoshop plug-in called Genuine Fractals and over its nearly 20-year life has matured into the very best software to scale a lower resolution image to a large print size. Able to make sharp enlargements up to 1,000 percent, Resize is well equipped with presets optimized to a wide range of large-format-inkjet printers and media in addition to a full range of user-adjustable parameters to get your enlargement just right. Personally, I often use Resize to bring low-quality customer-supplied images up to
prepress standards for print. And Mask has only improved with age – with a little practice, most users can easily mask around soft-edged image elements such as clouds or hair.

Perfect Photo Suite, however, is not the perfect way to kick the Photoshop habit. Like Pixelmator, the Suite only works with RGB images. Also, I found the application stuttered a bit with very large images on my 11-inch Macbook Air – the Suite seemed to want more RAM than I could muster. Working with the same images in Photoshop was no problem, suggesting there is room for improvement in the Perfect Photo Suite memory management department. But, considering Genuine Fractals alone used to sell for more than $200, the entire Perfect Photo Suite is a steal starting at $79.

Can you live without Photoshop
If you wrangle images for a living, the short answer is no. There is a good reason Photoshop has been the tool of choice for pixel wranglers for decades, and likely for the foreseeable future. However, given Adobe’s subscription model not everyone will want to shell out for the Creative Cloud just to straighten a few images, downsize some photos for a blog or play with bokeh at home. Also, each of these innovative applications has unique strengths that can enhance any pro image editing workflow for a relatively small investment.

Having alternatives is a great thing for users, and hopefully having some competition will keep the engineers at Adobe on its toes.

Zac Bolan’s blog: blog.softcircus.com

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