Photoshop Alternatives

With Adobe's move to a monthly tithe instead of outright ownership of their software, a number of photographers are looking for alternatives to fill the role they were using Photoshop for. 

What role is that, you ask? Well, that’s an important question. Photographers tend to use three aspects of Photoshop: (1) raw conversion (ACR); (2) bit-level modifications (literally, as well as using broader tools like filters); and (3) layering. 

We’re now seeing some hybrid approaches that take a more Lightroom-type of approach to dealing with photographic images, so be careful about whether you’re really looking for a Photoshop alternative or just a photography image modification tool. The reason most of us talk about Photoshop “alternatives” is that we’re trying to apply techniques that we learned in Photoshop. Thus, I’m restricting my comments in this article simply to those products that in some way let you do that (also to products that can read and write PSD files).

Here are the Photoshop alternatives I've been looking at:

  • Acorn(Mac App Store, US$50) One of the better of the alternatives for a Macintosh user, and updated many times in its 10-year history. Layer styles and non-destructive filters are all here, as are brushes and vector drawing should you need them. Imports and exports to PSD format. It's definitely not the full equivalent of Photoshop CS6 or CC, but it's definitely the equivalent of some slightly limited version of Photoshop, and well documented at that. Very stable product. 
  • Affinity Photo — (macOS, Windows, US$50) This is the current reigning Photoshop clone champ, as it is pretty feature-to-feature equivalent to Photoshop. It's still missing a few things, but it feels a lot like Photoshop CS6 would to a Photoshop CC user now, it's that complete. It understands PSD files just fine, and it includes the ability to demosaic raw camera files. This is a program from a long-time veteran of the graphics software marketplace, and the thoroughness and stability shows. Thom's Recommended choice
  • GIMP — (macOS, Linux, Windows, free) This Open Source project is an acronym that stands for GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP). The source code is available for anyone to play with, should they be interested, and studying GIMP has helped a lot of folk understand how a lot of different imaging tools work under the covers. GIMP is a broad and deep product, much like Photoshop, though the UI will sometimes make you think that you’re still in the 20th century. A few things you might want are works in progress (you can check GIMP’s progress here). GIMP sometimes feels a little sluggish in some things, probably because it’s trying to support multiple systems and not take advantage of OS-specific goodies. But it feels like a solid Photoshop clone, only something along the lines of CS4 or CS5. 
  • Krita — (macOS, Linux, Windows, free) This is a lightweight Photoshop clone that is mostly targeted at artists with drawing tablets (or touchscreen). It doesn't have the ACR components, the photography type filters, or even cloning/healing, though it does fully support layers. As a quick way to do a few minor pixel change operations, it suffices just fine, especially since it can understand and load PSD files. If you ask the Krita folk for new features that can help for photography, I suggest that you start with ones that might appeal to artists (e.g. clone, heal). 
  • PaintShop Pro X9 — (Windows, US$66-85) Corel has kept this program going for some time now, and integrated other products they’ve acquired into it. Like Photoshop, it’s evolved from a simpler bitmap type editing program to a full fledged image manipulation and painting program. The tool checklist may come close to matching Photoshop, but the user interface is quite different. It’s one of the better matches if you need a lot of the Photoshop non-photography tools (e.g. text, painting, tempting, etc. Compatible with Nik plug-ins. 
  • Pixelmator — (Mac App Store, US$30) Another of the alternatives that are available to the Macintosh user, now on Version 3.6. Pixelmator takes a bit of a different approach than Photoshop to the user interface, but you can certainly do many—if not most—of the things with this clever little program that you can do with Photoshop. The latest version has Touch Bar support for the new MacBook Pros and Apple’s P3 Color Space preference. Portions of the program are available for use within Apple Photos, as well. Bonus: Pixelmator can export direct to Facebook and Flickr. 

I’ll continue to add to this page as I get a chance to work with more Photoshop alternatives.

text and images © 2017 Thom Hogan
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