Everyone knows about the big guns in the graphics field. Adobe is pretty much the unchallenged master of image editing with Photoshop, Illustrator, and Fireworks. Adobe’s InDesign shares the digital publishing field, albeit grudgingly, with Quark’s QuarkXPress. Serious graphic designers find themselves stuck between these two large corporations, due in part to format lock-in and in part to features that other pieces of software just don’t have.
For those of us who don’t need things like the ability to switch from right-to-left text to left-to-right text with one click of the mouse, or even more obscure features, there are a number of other third-party applications out there that may meet our needs.
They range from cross-platform open source programs with more power than beauty, to applications with innovative user interfaces developed by pillars of the indie Mac developer community. One thing is true in all of them: they’re less expensive than the Adobe alternative!
Raster Image Editors
Raster image editors are similar to Adobe’s Photoshop. They’re often great for making small alterations to an image, adding notes or other features to it, or creating an image of a certain limited size. They can’t create images that can be infinitely scaled up, but if you don’t need to do that anyway, no harm done. In alphabetical order:
Developed by Gus Mueller of Flying Meat, Acorn subverts the ‘palettes everywhere’ design that several other raster image editors have inherited from Photoshop. Everything you need is there in one drawing window and one easily hide-able tools window. It even boasts excellent Applescript support and a built-in hex colour-picker, which is extremely handy for web designers.
It opens .psd files (Photoshop documents), but can only save out to its own proprietary format, Adobe’s FXG, or any common flat raster image format.
Pieter Omvlee of Bohemian Coding, also known for the excellent application Fontcase, created DrawIt to look like an iWork application and behave like a vector image editor. The result is a simple, beautiful raster image editor with lots of vector features. Unfortunately, it uses its own file format, lacks the ability to open .psd files, and exports only to JPEG, PNG, TIFF, GIF, or ICNS.
Price: €29, or about $38 at current exchange rates
The free and open source GIMP (standing for GNU Image Manipulation Program) is the standard hardcore image-editing program on Linux—the nearest thing that exists to an open source Photoshop. While it has many powerful features, it’s built to use X11, which makes it feel very out of place on a Mac.
There’s an experimental native version, but releases run behind the official version and it tends to be very buggy—even more so than the normal version. GIMP can open and save more file types than perhaps any other image editor, including saving to ridiculous formats like ASCII art and C source code. When you truly need power and don’t have tons of money to spend, GIMP may be the way to go.
Opacity is a developer’s image editor at heart. It can import from most common formats, including .psd and .svg (a vector format), and save out to all the standard raster formats as well as several kinds of source (including code for the iPhone, Mac, and the HTML canvas element).
It allows you to set up “factories” that remember the different formats you export to and automatically export a new version on save, and all number value fields respond to math (i.e., it understands 256/2 as 128).
Jon Hicks found it to be nearly a replacement for Adobe Fireworks in his testing (which also included Acorn and DrawIt), and used it to create all the new graphics for Opera 10.5. Definitely worth a look if you’re bored with the same old.
Price: $89.99 for the full version, $39.99 for Opacity Express
Photoline is billed as able to handle both raster and vector graphics, as well as desktop publishing and layout and exporting Flash and GIF animations. It runs on Windows as well, so if you’re looking for something you can use on both platforms, Photoline is worth a closer look. It reads and writes most major raster graphics formats, including .psd.
Price: €59, or about $78 at current exchange rates
One of the best-known Photoshop alternatives for Mac, Pixelmator sports a lickable HUD-like interface that’s otherwise very similar to Photoshop. It lacks a number of features commonly used by professional designers, but it’s more than capable of what most normal users will ask of it.
Pixelmator is under constant development, so if it lacks a feature you need right now, keep an eye on future releases. It supports most common raster image formats and reads and writes .psd files.
Seashore is a GIMP-inspired free and open source native Mac image editor. For several years, the project had lain dormant at a stable but unimpressive 0.1.9 release. In June, the project quietly released an updated and much improved preview version.
While still not as feature-rich as Photoshop or GIMP, Seashore now sports a Mac-like interface and the ability to read and write GIMP’s native .xcf format. It can’t currently read or write .psd files, but that’s high on the list of features to add. Provides free basic image-editing capabilities with a native feel and a few rough edges.
Vector Image Editors
Vector image editors are similar to Adobe’s Illustrator. They create images that can be scaled infinitely, because they use—in the words of Wikipedia—”geometrical primitives such as points, lines, curves, and shapes or polygons, which are all based on mathematical equations”.
This means they’re often better for creating images for print, as well as icons that may later need to be reproduced at a higher resolution. Unless otherwise indicated, all the applications in this list can both import/open and export/save vector PDFs. In alphabetical order:
Inkscape plays Illustrator to GIMP’s Photoshop. It’s a very capable vector image editor, but requires X11 to run on a Mac and is best suited to larger screens. Like many of the other free and open source applications listed here, it isn’t well-integrated to the Mac way of doing things, but offers broad import and export capabilities and depth of features at the expense of an attractive and intuitable interface.
Unlike GIMP, there’s no publicly available native version, although a technically knowledgeable and patient Mac user may be able to build a native (but still ugly) version from source. Inkscape can read and write several common vector formats, including .svg (the de facto open standard) and .ai (the de facto-er Adobe standard), and can write (but not read) .eps files.
Intaglio claims to trace its ease-of-use heritage back to MacDraw, improved by the addition of modern Mac OS X features like Quartz and CoreImage.
For the most part, it feels very at home on a Mac, and it reads and writes all common vector formats (.svg, .ai, and .eps) as well as its own proprietary format, although there are occasional odd artifacts when importing .svgs.
The winner of a 2006 Apple Design Award, Lineform bills itself as the “clear modern Mac alternative to Illustrator” with “all of the most popular tools, including everything from freeform gradients to compositing effects”.
It supports importing from .eps and .svg (but not .ai), and can save out to its own proprietary format or export to .eps, several raster image formats, and .svg (after registration).
Featuring an iWork-like appearance and workflow and nifty, easy features like text inside a shape (or along a path), raster-to-vector conversion, iSight and Flickr integration, and QuickLook support, VectorDesigner fits in well on a Mac.
It can import from .eps and .svg files and open .ai files, export to EPS and a number of raster formats, and save to its own proprietary .vdesigner format. It’s not the most powerful app in this list, but it’s fairly capable for most purposes, tightly integrated, and boasts perhaps the most intuitable interface out of all Mac vector apps.
“A new vector drawing program with a fluid, graceful interface, great brushes and a host of other features.” ZeusDraw’s interface is the least traditionally Mac-like of the Mac-native applications in this list, but at least one very thoughtful user has come to the conclusion that that’s actually for the best.
His comparison also considers Intaglio, Lineform, and VectorDesigner, so it’s worth a read for those still on the fence. ZeusDraw can import but not open .eps files (not .ai or .svg files), and can save to its own proprietary format and export to Postscript and a number of raster image formats.
If it even resembles an image file (raster or vector), GraphicConverter can probably open it. GC supports Photoshop plugins, features Applescript and Automator support, and includes many image-editing features.
If you need to process a large number of images in similar ways, there’s a good chance GraphicConverter is what you’re looking for. Truly the Swiss Army knife of Mac image applications.
Price: €29.95, or about $40 at current exchange rates
Another Apple Design Award Winner, Picturesque is great for adding reflections, changing perspective, and putting some curves on a photo (among other nifty effects). It’s also designed to be useful for batch-processing a whole folder of photos and adding the same effects to all of them.
Prizmo offers perspective, distortion, and curvature correction, allowing you to straighten out a hastily-snapped photograph so the poster you wanted to show your friends is a little bit more readable. More importantly, it boasts OCR, or optical character recognition; in other words, it can see words in an image and output them to a .rtf or .pdf file.
While the transcription is nowhere near perfect (especially when dealing with old, uneven text), it’s a very handy tool to have in your arsenal at one tenth the cost of Acrobat, Adobe’s OCR offering.
Unless you have a specific need that can only be solved by Adobe applications, the apps on this list are definitely worth checking out. My personal favourites at the moment are Pixelmator and VectorDesigner, but Acorn and Opacity are very capable raster editors, and I’m looking forward to giving DrawIt and Seashore some further testing.
Which of the graphics tools on this list do you use and love (or hate)? Did I miss any? Do you subscribe to the rumour that Apple may release an image editing app with iLife ‘11? Let us know in the comments!