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Adobe Alternatives: Photo Editing Applications

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This post is part of a series called The Complete Guide to Adobe Alternatives.
Adobe Alternatives: Broadening Our Horizons
Adobe Alternatives: Digital Painting Applications

Welcome to the first of our our six part series exploring the wide world of creative software! We’re going to get the ball rolling by looking at alternatives for work you might usually do in Adobe Photoshop. 

Photoshop is a real “Jack of All Trades” which can do just about everything in one place, so looking generically at “Photoshop Alternatives” doesn’t always make a lot of sense. For that reason we’re going to be digging into software choices available for three different areas of specialty.

In this first article we’re covering software you can use for raster based design with a focus on working with photos. In subsequent articles in this series we’ll be covering two other specialized areas: digital painting and pixel art creation.

While there are some amazing applications in this list that are undoubtedly well suited to photographers, I won’t actually be covering software meant solely for photography, i.e. Lightroom alternatives. The reason being I’m personally a designer rather than a photographer so my background doesn’t adequately qualify me to make strong recommendations on that front. That said, from what I can tell the applications Polarr, Darktable and RawTherapee seem quite solid and look to have happy users, so if you’re a photographer you may like to check them out.

I’ve also left out software that is meant only for simple actions like cropping and re-scaling as these types of tasks can typically be handled by native tools in most operating systems. We’re keeping the focus here on processes that really need Adobe level software.

And as an interesting preface for those of you who might not be Windows users, all but one of the applications on this list can be used on Linux (Affinity Photo), and all but one on Mac (Pixeluvo), so enjoy!

1. Affinity Photo

Without a doubt, Affinity Photo is the strongest raster design app to come from a developer other than Adobe in the last twenty years. This award winning software has spread like wildfire since release, and for good reason. I can say fairly simply: if you are on Mac or Windows, working with photos, and interested in Photoshop alternatives this is probably the first place you should look. To be honest you might not look any further after you try it.

I personally liked it so much I bought it on Mac and then again on Windows. If they ever release it on Linux I’ll buy it there too. To be honest, even if every single raster app were the exact same price and available on the same operating systems, Affinity Photo might be the only one I ever used.

Overall the thing that struck me when I first picked up Affinity Photo is how intuitive it is. Not once did I feel like I had to consult the manual to perform common tasks. I did end up consulting the manual to make sure I learned every little trick available to me, but never because I was lost.

Affinity Photo has a lot of power, but it also has a lot of little things that just help speed your workflow along. For example, when you are selecting a blending mode you can preview each mode just by hovering over it in the drop down list. No need to select, check, select, check and so on.

Another example is that when painting on a mask to reveal a layer below you will get a preview of that layer peaking through your brush shape, which is incredibly helpful. I find the attention to detail demonstrated by the inclusion of these features particularly endearing.

When painting on a mask layer you will see a preview through your brush

Timing consuming selection processes become a thing of the past with Photo’s selection tools. Their flood select tool is probably the easiest and most accurate selection tool I’ve ever used, and for anything it misses the selection brush will quickly and easily pick up any extra areas. And their selection refinement tools cap off the whole process to mean your selections are pretty much perfect first time, every time.

Affinity Photos selection refinement
Affinity Photo’s selection refinement

Sometimes you won’t even need to bother making selections though because their inpainting tool for removing spots or whole objects like trees, coffee cups or entire humans from an image works like magic:

Affinity Photo also provides powerful non destructive editing with its Live Filter Layers and Live Adjustment Layers. These are absolutely fantastic. Rather than using permanent adjustments or filters you create these live layers that in turn apply adjustments or filters to any other layers you designate.

You can have live layers affect all the layers below them, or you can have them affect only specific layers. You can also easily apply masks to these live layers to control exactly where the effects appear. And at any point you can go back and tweak the parameters of your layers, and adjust your masks. It makes for an incredibly smooth workflow.

A quick photo manipulation I threw together to accompany this article. Note the live filter and adjustment layers in the layers panel.

You can see some of these live layers applied in the layers panel on the right of the screenshot above, e.g. Levels Adjustment, Curves Adjustment, Lighting, Gradient Map Adjustment. You can also see where I have painted in masks over the Lighting layers.

Another massive plus for Affinity Photo is the lengths it goes to to help you keep you happily interacting in a Photoshop dominated creative space. The PSD import and export function is the best I’ve encountered in any graphics application, you can import and use Photoshop ABR brushes, and you can even use most Photoshop plugins.

I have no hesitation in recommending this software, and from what I’ve seen the vast majority of people who try it love it. That said, there’s no need to take my word for it because a free seven day trial is available so you can decide for yourself.

2. Pencilsheep

You might expect a totally free application to have a limited tool set, but if you go into using Pencilsheep with that expectation be prepared to be blown away. Pencilsheep has the works, including some features you won’t even find in paid applications.

It has editable, non-destructive filter layers. It has layer styles, (with a cool long shadow style I haven’t seen elsewhere). It has a copy stamp tool, distort tool, wand tool and soften / sharpen tool. It possesses a full kit of high level tools, a feat made even more remarkable by the fact this application is totally free.

This photo from Unsplash with a stack of filter layers applied.

Pencilsheep doesn’t have any shape drawing tools so if you need anything other than filling a selection you’re out of luck. However it does have a collection of paint brushes so for your photo manipulation needs you’re pretty well set.

In my opinion its greatest strength is its exceptional array of non-destructive filter layers that can stack on top of each other and have their parameters altered at any time. When you hit the “Create” button in the menu you’ll see a long list of filters, and while they’re all great some of them are spectacularly good fun to play with, like the “Rays”, “Glow” and “Tilt-Shift” layers.

Pencilsheep’s collection of editable filter layers. In the background, the original coloring of the photo seen in the previous screenshot.

Of particular delight to game developers is the inclusion of a normal map filter layer. Creating normal maps often involves both Photoshop and an Nvidia GPU, so if you’re not using one or both of those things this is a very accessible option.

All these editable filter layers take some juice to keep running, and for that reason Pencilsheep taps into your GPU (graphics processing unit) to power everything. The developer says on their website:

“Unlike other image editors (which either don’t use GPU computing at all, or only offer partial GPU acceleration), PencilSheep has been specifically designed from the ground up to fully utilize the GPU for all image operations.”

Fair warning though, I don’t know who the developer of this software is and haven’t been able to make contact with them, (though this seems to be their YouTube channel), so use your discretion as to whether that influences your decision to try this software or not.

Other than the mystery developer, for the grand price of totally free it’s pretty hard to look past this excellent image editor.

3. Pixeluvo

Pixeluvo is a compact but powerful image editor with an excellent collection of tools, and is another fully cross platform application (this Linux user thanks you Pixeluvo!)

Among other things, Pixeluvo has some great tools for retouching portraits, a handy skin softening filter, and a great masking system. Note that even though the videos linked to in the previous sentence are a couple of years old, the developer Andy is active on the Pixeluvo forums so the software is alive and kicking.

A stand out feature of Pixeluvo is its “Quick Color” tool, which allows you to apply a range of premade color balancing settings to your image. I often open up Pixeluvo just to use this tool because it’s such a quick and easy way to experiment with colors.

One of my favorite features in Pixeluvo is its click and drag Wand tool. You click on a point you want to select, then as you drag you increase the tolerance level for the selection making it very easy to quickly select like-colored regions. In my opionion it’s second only to Affinity Photo’s selection tools, which are a hard act to follow.

Another really fantastic feature is that when you draw out a selection using the Ellipse Select or Box Select tool the shape can be transformed with resizing handles. Only once happy with the selection shape do you click to convert it into an actual selection.

Like Affinity Photo, Pixeluvo also has live blending mode previews as you hover over available selections on the layer dropdown menu. On the downside, when working in the layers panel however, there are a few things missing you might be used to from other applications. There are no layer styles, layer groups or multiple layer selections which can make things a little slower.

A quick photo manipulation I put together while testing out Pixeluvo

While we’re on the topic of the layers panel, I also really love Pixeluvo’s effects layers, which allow you to create things like gradient overlay layers, color modification layers and so on. The little fx button at the top of the layers panel makes adding these functions super quick and easy.

My overall take on Pixeluvo is that it’s great for image manipulation and post production work on art created in other applications. If you’d like to check it out the trial version is fully functional, with the only restriction being a saving width cap of 800px. Everything else is available for you to play with.

4. GIMP (Further Down the Road)

For a long time when you asked for an alternative to Photoshop the go-to suggestion would be GIMP and, despite often heard complaints about its UI, it’s true to say it is indeed a very powerful application with a lot of little known unique strengths that might surprise you. I would actually love to recommend it right now, because I use it often and once you get past the initial unfamiliarity it’s actually a great program. When you add the G’MIC library of fantastic filters and effects you get some powerful image processing.

However there is at present one major missing feature that many people interested in Photoshop alternatives would find near impossible to live without, and that is non-destructive editing. For most of us, especially those designing professionally, the absence of non-destructive editing is a deal breaker due to way in which it interrupts and slows workflows. Unfortunately GIMP doesn’t have any form of non-destructive editing at present.

Don’t write GIMP off just yet though, because all that is about to change. The 20 year old workhorse is currently undergoing a massive overhaul that, when complete, could make it a serious contender in the raster design space. Its core is being completely re-written to use GEGL (the Generic Graphics Library) and this will enable it to provide the types of features designers need.

GIMP is currently at version 2.8 with 2.9 available to those who want to try it out. Version 3.2 will be focused on non-destructive editing with filter and adjustment layers set to enter the picture, as well as layer effects. Already implemented thus far are high bit depths, on canvas filter previews, OpenCL support, an excellent library of paint brushes, canvas rotation and masks on layer groups. It also opens in single window mode by default, for those who find those separate windows annoying. And due for inclusion at as yet unplanned dates, are smart objects, shape tools, improved text handling and automated layer boundary management.

Every single thing I have wished was in GIMP, or heard others wish was there, is now on the roadmap so I will be watching its development with great interest. Check out the full roadmap on gimp.org.

Photo Editing Software at a Glance

Hopefully your interest has been piqued by some of these fantastic applications for working with photos. I’d like to wrap up this article by summarizing my thoughts on each of the programs we’ve covered here, and what I feel are their biggest strengths.

Affinity Photo

The clear leader with the most powerful functionality and comprehensive tool set. If you heavily depend on Photoshop in a professional capacity it is probably the most viable contender to form a part of your day to day workflows. If you’re on Windows or Mac you might not need or want to look any further.

Pencilsheep

An exceptional application with excellent GPU powered live filter layers that are great fun to work with. One of the best options if you need a free tool. Available on all platforms.

Pixeluvo

A compact but feature rich application with a number of high level tools for working with photos. Excellent live fx layers and instant blend mode previews. Great portrait retouching tools. Arguably the best application for working with photos on Linux right now, though not currently available for Mac users.

GIMP, soon

GIMP is almost awesome, and if you can live without non-destructive editing it already is. However it will really step up and become a serious contender when non-destructive editing is rolled out in version 3.2, along with other new features, three versions from now.

Up Next: Digital Painting

In the next of our articles on Adobe alternatives we’ll be looking at another area of specialty that commonly employs Photoshop, and that is digital painting. We’ll be covering a range of outstanding software that supports all types of digital painting, from emulating physical media to producing great line art for comics.

I’ll see you there!

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