I recently had the pleasure of presenting a hands-on workshop to a friendly group of artists at the South Shore Art Center (SSAC) in Cohasset. We covered a lot of technical territory concerning the types of images you use for web and print and the software tools available on computers and iPads. The gold standard tool is still Photoshop, which is part of the Adobe Creative Cloud subscription plan. That’s a pricey option because it includes all of the Adobe products. If you don’t need or want that plan, you can subscribe to a single application. There’s one specifically for Photography, which includes Photoshop and Lightroom for $9.99/month or $119.88/year.
One thing my workshop group was looking for was a free alternative to Photoshop, something that could be used on a computer or an iPad. As far as I know, there’s no single, free application that works on both platforms. In my workshop, we used GIMP for computers and Pixlr for iPads. Free image editing software programs are generally limited in their features, but GIMP is very similar to Photoshop. A good free tool for iPads and tablets is even more difficult to find and we did encounter obstacles with Pixlr. One of the reasons for the limitations is that a tablet is not a full computer and simply doesn’t have the capability to do complex calculations. Tablets are built more for consumption of content, rather than creation of content, as least in their current incarnation.
If you are willing to add the category of “affordable” to your search for Photoshop alternatives and spend a little money, your options expand. Check out the list below to see what applications you may want to explore.
Image Editing Applications
Platform: Linux, Windows, Mac
A full-featured image editor that offers most of Photoshop’s capabilities (photo retouching, image composition and image authoring), with a more PC-style interface. You can work on high- and low-resolution files, but only in RGB. GIMP can open CMYK files, but the color conversion from RGB is horrible. Furthermore, you cannot save a file in CMYK. There are suggestions you’ll find online for GIMP plug-ins that will convert to CMYK, but these plug-ins are no longer supported and maintained, and may actually contain viruses, so don’t use them! Lastly, you must export your file to TIFF or JPG, rather than use the “SAVE AS” option (which gives you only GIMP-proprietary file formats).
Platform: iOS, Android, Browser
Decent image editor can crop, resize, modify, and compress files. Chrome and Firefox have extensions for using it online and you can also download the app to your iPad. Some folks in my workshop experienced difficulty using it on the iPad, so I recommend trying out the online version first. Pixlr has a nice range of image editing features, but image size is translated to pixels and 72ppi, which can be confusing if you want to prepare high-resolution images for print.
Platform: Windows, Mac, iPad
Professional editing software for enhancing, modifying and retouching your images. Works in any color space (including CMYK!) and can output to Photoshop’s layered PSD format as well as all of the other standards: TIFF, PDF, JPG, PNG, and SVG.
Platform: Mac, iPhone, iPad
This tool looks very promising as a powerful and affordable alternative to GIMP and Photoshop that iPad users should investigate. The only limitation that I can find is that it works only in RGB. 30-day free trial period.
Platform: Mac OSX
First developed in 2007, Acorn is now up to version 5 and continues to offer a wide range of image editing capabilities. This program provides the information for both print and web images in physical dimensions as well as pixels and ppi, which is extremely helpful. The documentation is well-written, supported with good visuals. 14-day free trial period.
Cost: $79.99 (standard) / $39.99 sale, $99.99 / $49.99 sale (Ultimate) – NOTE: Save up to 50% off through Black Friday
One of the best alternatives to Photoshop for the Windows environment, this program has been around for quite some time and is now up to version 8. It has all the photo editing tools you need, including retouching, color correction, layers, filters, and much, much more. Paintshop Pro continues to receive high marks in reviews.
Perhaps not as well-known as Corel’s software, Paint.NET is a well-rounded tool for Windows users. It’s maintained by the developer alumni who originally worked on it, but I’m not sure how much support and improvement it actually receives. The user-interface feels clunky and dated.
Platform: Browser or iPad
Cost: Free for basic online version, $4/month for pro version, £1.49 for iPad app
A nice, clean interface makes adapting to this program pretty smooth. It can do most of the standard image editing, but some tools may behave differently than what you might be used to in Photoshop. The online version is certainly worth exploring to help you decide whether or not you want either the pro or iPad version.
Image Optimization Applications
Platform: Mac OSX
One of several free applications pre-installed on new Macs, Preview is often used as the default PDF viewer. But, it can also be used to resize your images. Go to the TOOLS menu > Adjust Size … You’ll still need to compress the image, though, with another tool.
This online application can resize and compress files.
Platform: Mac OSX
Compression tool with drag and drop interface.
Platform: Mac OSX
A photographer client has used this for years and loves it. Specializes as an awesome tool for optimization: resize, convert, optimize, and rename images at incredibly fast speeds.
Although not a continuous tone image editor and thus not a true alternative to Photoshop’s raster toolset, this vector application deserves special mention because it has become quite popular in the design community. Sketch has a user-friendly interface that makes it easy to learn. It does some tasks faster than Photoshop and Illustrator. You can create shapes with the exactness of Illustrator and export to web file formats.