If Adobe's monthly fees aren't for you, or if you're simply looking for an alternative to try, you'll be pleased to hear that there are plenty of photo-editing tools for professionals and serious image editors that'll help you achieve just as much as you can in Photoshop. Here, we round up seven of the best photo-editing apps for pros.
Adobe Photoshop is considered the king of the image editing hill and, hey, we're not going to argue. It has an incredible range of features and consistency of use that rightly makes it the tool of choice for professionals.
Well, the tool of choice for wealthy professionals, that is, because a few years ago Adobe switched to obligatory monthly and yearly subscription packages. No longer could you simply pay a one-off fee to buy your software. Here in the UK this means you'll need to pay anything up to £824 every year to get what was once bought for much less every couple of years. True, you can get just Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom for a snatch over £100 per year, via the Photography subscription, but even this is considered by many to be a form of extortion.
What's to be done? Well, you can look elsewhere for your photo editing needs, at least. In our round-up of apps we've found examples of apps that are as good as, if not better, than anything Adobe's currently offering. In fact, it was truly eye-opening how good the competition has got. Adobe no longer holds a monopoly in any way, shape or form.
We were only interested in professional products aimed at the photo editor who needs power and flexibility. We've nothing against apps designed for one-click improvements, or the application of simple Instagram-like filters, but to get on to our test Mac the software had to provide clear benefits for those to whom image editing is either part of their work, or to whom it's a pastime they take seriously.
1. Pixelmator 3.6
- Buy from Pixelmator
Imagine if there was a Mac image editor that somewhat cynically took all that was good in other image editors and abandoned all the dross, or the hyper-complicated tools used by a tiny minority. However, what if it that image editor didn't sacrifice much of the pro-level usefulness, such as support for a variety of CMYK colour spaces used in professional printing?
That product would be Pixelmator, launched a decade ago and favoured by many OS X/macOS enthusiasts if only because it's a fraction of the cost of not only Photoshop but most competitor image editors. Like Photoshop, Pixelmator focuses on not just being an image tweaker or editor. Many people use it to produce original art via its creative brush and shape tools. However, here we're looking solely at its image editing chops.
Simplicity is the name of the game with Pixelmator. Want to adjust the levels of the current layer? Just find the Levels thumbnail within the Effects Browser window, and drag it on top of the image window. Then adjust the sliders in the dialog box that appears. Want to remove a zit from your model's face? Just click the Heal tool on the toolbar, and then draw over the blemish. Like magic, it's gone (and it really is - it can be spooky at times). Although there might be the most marginal of learning curves, if you've used any other image editor over the last 20 years then there's nothing disruptive in Pixelmator.
In fact, after working on a number of photos direct from our iPhone we found there wasn't a single feature we found missing, even when we deliberately attempted to push the app's potential limitations by involving the likes of layer masks. A notable feature of Pixelmator is that it uses OS X/macOS's underlying CoreImage and OpenGL technologies, meaning it's extremely fast in applying effects. If you've got an older Mac past its prime then this is extremely worthwhile, although you'll need to have a version of OS X/macOS later than 10.9.5 to initially install Pixelmator.
Elsewhere within the app there's a similar level of tight integration with the operating system. The photo browser palette offers one-click access to your Photos library, for example, and share sheet support is built in so you can export images to social media quickly. Pixelmator provides a warp plugin for the main Photos app, too. Often it feels like Pixelmator is the image editor app that OS X/macOS should include out of the box.
Alas, there are currently some notable weaknesses. Although it's compatible with the same extensive list of RAW image files as OS X/macOS, it can only open them for editing just like it would a JPEG or TIFF. In other words, Pixelmator is not a RAW image processor, like Capture One Pro reviewed later in this group test. You can't easily correct for notable camera defects, such as lens aberrations, for example, because the image has already been processed in order to render it within Pixelmator. For the same reason you don't have as much flexibility to rescue extremely badly exposed pictures, as another example. Pixelmator also lacks a history browser, so you can't see what edits you've already made and switch back to an earlier one - although you can, of course, simply keep hitting Cmd+Z to undo your recent changes. Additionally, Pixelmator might be the only third-party app in existence to support OS X/macOS's file version system, allowing you to quickly revert back to an earlier version of the image via the File menu.
Sadly, the omissions listed above nudge Pixelmator into the enthusiast rather than pro category. However, if past evidence is anything to go by we're sure that the folks behind Pixelmator will introduce these features pretty soon because this is an app that evolves rapidly.
2. GIMP 2.8.16
- Buy from GIMP Team
Here's a fun thing to do. Find just about anybody who's been editing images for more than a few years, then mention GIMP. See that frown? Try the same trick with another hoary graphics professional. There it is again!
This is because that individual has tried GIMP, and tried to like it, but then gone back to Photoshop with their tail between their legs. This retreat was undertaken in spite of all the arguments thrown at them - that GIMP is perhaps the best feature-for-feature clone of Photoshop out there, and that it's entirely free of charge. What could there be to complain about?
Oh boy. GIMP has existed for decades and the same criticism has applied all that time: GIMP was (cough) inspired by Photoshop, but it isn't a clone of Photoshop's user-interface and nor does it clone how Photoshop's tools work. Take something as elementary as selecting an area of the image and then moving it. In Photoshop you would use any of the selection tools, then switch to the Move tool and drag. Job done. In GIMP you use a selection tool and then, without switching to another tool, hold down Shift+Alt (Option)+Cmd and drag to create a floating selection layer. GIMP's help file explains a selection layer is "a type of temporary layer which is similar in function to a normal layer, except that before you can resume working on any other layers in the image, a floating selection must be anchored."
Quick! Grab a mirror! See that frown? Welcome to the club, my friend!
Many people say GIMP is unintuitive but that's not very fair. It's just resolutely not Photoshop, and despite nicking Photoshop's key features, it has no desire to be. As an open-source project GIMP hasn’t even any desire to feel like commercial software. Just a few years ago you first had to install the X11 open source software to allow GIMP to run on a Mac, although they've since fixed this and made the Mac version native to OS X (including adding a single-window mode, like Photoshop). However, this current release is blocked by OS X/macOS's Gatekeeper software, presumably because nobody at GIMP has applied for a signing certificate. This means you have to right-click GIMP the first time you use it and select Open to bypass OS X/macOS's built-in security.
All of this is a shame because GIMP has a tantalising feature set. In terms of brush tools you'll find a heal tool, for example, although this requires you to Cmd+click to define an origin point from which a sample can be taken (yes, there is also a clone tool that works in the same way). And when it comes to the likes of layers and/or masks, you're going to find everything you're used to within Photoshop - and in all likelihood, some more besides. It's just that you might have to hunt to find it, and then will probably have to train yourself when you do.
A notable and laughably long-in-the-tooth omission is CMYK colour space support. Those outputting for print require it. So many people have complained about this that we could construct an entirely new Internet from the various forum postings over the years. However, the developers behind GIMP appear not to care. Compare and contrast with a project like Pixelmator, which is extremely responsive to user demands - and, for the record, does include CMYK support. (Incidentally, when using GIMP it’s possible to hack together makeshift CMYK support using plugins - just Google to learn how, if you dare.)
For some reason performance was dire on our top-of-the-range MacBook Pro, and we couldn't understand why. It might be that GIMP isn't optimised for Retina displays. For example, adjusting brightness or saturation is done live as you drag the sliders each dialog box, and we could watch the image slowly being redrawn with each click we made. Cutting out a section of the image and moving it, as described earlier, was essentially unusably laggy. This might be caused by some kind of bug that might be easily fixed with a quick tweak here or there but, ah, welcome to the world of open-source software, where part of the fun is fixing your own problems. Anticipate a few hours googling and tweaking config file settings.
Despite all this, you'll find people who swear by GIMP. Aggressively so. They typically have a few characteristics. Firstly, prior to the GIMP they'd rarely if ever used an image editing application, so were essentially blank slates unaffected by the world of Adobe (lucky sods!). Secondly, there's often a bit of open-source Kool Aid gulping, in that criticising any open-source project is considered below the belt. Thirdly, and most importantly, these individuals put in the hard work to learn how to use GIMP. We reckon it'll take about a week to become competent and relaxed enough to actually enjoy using GIMP. And if you can do that then GIMP becomes an incredibly powerful bit of software (once you somehow fix the slowness, of course). But as for the rest of us? Well, we'll just sit here in the corner, frowning.
3. CyberLink PhotoDirector
- Buy from CyberLink
PhotoDirector 7 Suite is something of a dark horse because, initially, you might notice only its organizing and sharing features. However, dig a little deeper and you'll find powerful tools for editing images, despite the app avoiding a toobar-style approach and mostly eschewing the use of Photoshop-style pen/brush tools.
Launch the program and you'll find it's split into six sections. "Library" is where you import, view, rate, tag and generally organise your photos. There are plenty of time-saving tools on hand (face tagging, the ability to exclude duplicates when importing), but it's all very straightforward and easy to use.
The "Adjustment" section provides manual and fully automatic tweaks for colour, white balance, tone, sharpness and more, as well as crop and rotate tools, various healing brushes and a red-eye remover. The Manual section offers slider-based control, while the Presets selection lets you click to apply readymade filters.
The "Edit" tab ramps up the creative possibilities with a range of more powerful tools. The People Beautifier provides options to whiten teeth, remove wrinkles, perhaps reshape your subjects for a more slimline look. The program can remove unwanted objects from pictures, automatically filling in the background. There's a bracket HDR tool, panorama creator, filters, frames, a watermarking tool, and more. A lot of power is on offer but it can get very "clicky" as you work through each of the options, which are arranged as a menu-like list on the side of the screen, and we longed for a more intuitive toolbar-approach.
The "Layers" tab, new to version 7 of the app, supports up to 100 layers per photo, which you can manipulate with various tools (Pen/ Eraser/ Add Shape/ Text/ Selection/ Fill/ Gradient) and 14 blending modes.
When you're finished your work, the "Slideshow" section helps turn your photos into a video file, or a slideshow you can share directly on YouTube. The "Print" tab provides a great deal of control over any printouts you might want to make, and your projects can freely be saved and shared online via CyberLink's Cloud Services (you get 20GB free for one year).
PhotoDirector 7 Suite further extends the package with ColorDirector, a versatile colour grading tool which delivers a stack of video editing features: noise reduction, sharpening, RGB curve adjustments, video colour replacements, a live histogram, intelligent object motion tracking, split toning and more.
As mentioned, PhotoDirector 7 Suite's most significant new feature is the layer editor, a powerful tool which opens a whole new world of creative possibilities.
New Beautifier Tools like the Face Shaper, Eye Bag Remover, Eye Enlarger and Skin Shine Remover help you produce the perfect portrait.
There are smart new blur tools to create localised blurred regions, apply zoom or motion effects - with radial or focal zoom - as well as new Bokeh blur options.
Enhanced RAW support means the program can handle more file formats than ever, and 100+ lens profiles allows it to automatically fix a host of common lens flaws.
PhotoDirector 7 is also available in an Ultra version, which leaves out ColorDirector but otherwise has all the image editing features we've described.
All in all, this is a competitively priced alternative to Adobe Photoshop Lightroom that will appeal to home enthusiasts looking for a decent blend of powerful features and usability. We find it hard to recommend for professionals, though.
4. Acorn 5
- Buy from Flying Meat
There's a theory that most popular apps used today, such as Microsoft Word or Adobe Photoshop, reached their zenith a decade or two ago. Since then the folks behind them have been packing in new features but ultimately it's a game of diminishing returns and, for most users, the apps simply haven’t got better.
In many ways Acorn feels and even looks like a snapshot of Photoshop all that time ago. You get all the tools that made Photoshop so damned useful, such as levels and curves to adjust an image's brightness/contrast, as well masking and layers, and various filters - not to mention a toolbar with standard brush and selection options.
All of these are indispensable when editing images. However, while you avoid the modern-day cruft, you also miss out on the rare useful innovations that have come along, like the heal and patch tools, or advanced selection tools that let you select by colour range, amongst other things. If you make heavy use of these then their absence in Acorn can be frustrating.
However, for the basic tricks and tweaks typically applied by most of us, Acorn does the job. As you might expect some tools are not where you'd expect if switching from Photoshop. To adjust the colour saturation and vibrancy of an image, for example, you'll need to use an entry on the Filters > Color Adjustment menu. Additionally, effects and filters are applied as soon as you select and adjust them, without the need for an intermediate stage wherein you click the Apply or Cancel buttons. However, within 5 or 10 sessions using Acorn you'll get used to this.
Acorn is also a capable drawing tool should you want to create artwork from scratch. There's a brush designer tool, as well as the ability to import brushes designed for Photoshop. The shape generator tool does exactly what it says on the tin.
Despite Acorn's somewhat retro feel there's support for RAW images in that the app uses OS X's own import filters, which are actually pretty comprehensive in their inclusion of most makes and models. Images are opened in a special RAW import window that lets you adjust things like exposure and colour temperature, although notably missing are any tools to correct for lens distortions, as you'll find with most RAW processing apps. Once you click OK the image is then opened in the main Acorn editing area, after which you can save it out in the usual file formats - but not, alas, as a RAW image.
If you're one of those people who long for the days when software was simple and kept out of the way then Acorn is for you. The price is pretty competitive too. However, it's hard for us to commend Acorn when something like Affinity Photo - also reviewed here - offers substantially more image editing flexibility and power, yet is also still within the budget of professional or enthusiast users.
5. Affinity Photo
- Buy from Serif
Despite being in no way connected with Adobe there's a strong whiff of Photoshop about Affinity Photo. This is, of course, no bad thing - especially considering that Affinity Photo's one-off price of £39.99 is massively cheaper than anything Adobe offers. In fact, Affinity Photo can be forever yours for the equivalent of just four months' subscription to the Adobe Creative Cloud Photography package.
Although Affinity Photo might be priced at a level where amateurs can snap it up, its makers are keen to stress a professional feature set. You get CMYK and Lab colour space support, for example, which is a necessity when working accurately in the print design industry. RAW image support is built in, with support for all modern cameras, and the app claims the best support for Photoshop's ubiquitous .psd file format outside of Photoshop itself.
If anything it feels as if Affinity Photo is a cousin of Adobe Photoshop, in that it looks kinda similar, and you'll find the everyday useful functions found in Photoshop. However, Affinity Photo occupies its own branch of the family tree, with its own idiosyncrasies and useful features that might cause its Adobe relative to look on enviously.
First amongst these, and vital for any Photoshop switcher to learn, is the concept of Personas. Essentially, these switch Affinity Photo between various operating modes, which means a different toolbar, menu options and side panels. Arguably the two you'll spend most time using are the Photo persona, which offers access to the main toolkit, and the Develop persona, which is designed for the pre-processing and trivial adjustment of RAW images (although it can also be used for any image file format). The two other personas of Liquify and Export are self-explanatory.
Affinity Photo's layers feature is also different compared to Photoshop because just about any adjustment or filter can exist as its own layer. You might add a curves adjustment on its own layer, for example, and a denoise filter as another. The benefit is that you can then edit any of what Affinity Photo calls "pixel" layers containing the actual image data without having to abandon these edits.
When browsing through Affinity Photo's toolbar and menu options it's easy to feel like a child in a sweet shop. Particularly impressive is the Inpainting brush tool. Just draw over an object you want to remove from a picture - an irritating tourist, for example, or a telegraph line - and Affinity Photo will magically remove it. This works extremely well, to the extent that it might actually be some kind of voodoo. Then there's the stacks tool that lets you combine several shots of the same subject or scene, automatically aligning them and letting you merge them into one composite photo in interesting ways.
To get an idea of what you'll find in Affinity Photo, we recommend you take a look at the video tutorials, all of which last just a few minutes. Some hugely impressive stuff is possible.
Indeed, it's almost impossible to criticise Affinity Photo but, if forced, we'd suggest that it's a little too biased towards creating new images, or making significant adjustments to existing ones. It really is a power tool. Although Affinity Photo can indeed make subtle tweaks, just like any image editor, doing so feels like you're using a Bugatti Veyron to go to Sainsbury's. Competitor image editors like Photoshop or Pixelmator somehow manage to hide away all their power unless you specifically seek it out, which is curiously user-friendly.
With an asking price of just £39.99, Affinity Photo is a bona fide bargain. We feel we should order you to buy it now before the people behind it come to their senses and switch the price up to the £100-£200 typically charged for this kind of thing.
6. Capture One Pro 9
- Buy from PhaseOne
The price of Capture One Pro 9 - €279 - indicates we're in professional territory, an assumption backed up by the all-black user interface (somebody somewhere clearly decided that grey or white just weren't serious enough for pro-level Mac apps). Capture One Pro’s professional chops are also emphasised by the fact it's made by Phase One, a company that manufactures seriously high-end camera systems - although it's important to note that Capture One Pro is designed to work with images produced by the majority of DSLRs regardless of manufacturer.
The app describes itself as an asset manager and RAW converter and, in translation, this means it can catalogue your images á la Photos or the older Aperture, and also specialises in readying RAW images for consumption by other apps like layout software or even rival image editors. RAW images are the large files optionally outputted by some digital cameras in preference to the more typical JPEGs or TIFFs outputted by consumer-grade cameras or phones. RAW files contain just the image data recorded by the camera's sensor. Prior to their import into an app like Capture One Pro, RAW images are - as their name suggests - entirely unprocessed. For example, there's no white balance setting, so you have the freedom to apply your own choice. Capture One Pro boasts that it's compatible with the RAW image output of more than 400 cameras (notably the iPhone and iPad can't output RAW images).
There are two ways to import images into Capture One Pro. The first is to create a session. This is intended to be a quick and dynamic way of dealing with images straight from a camera. You can prune out the duds, for example, and apply tweaks to those you'd like to keep. Notably, a session lets you create several different file types in addition to an original. You might decide to output some high-res TIFFs for emailing to a client, for example, and a lower-res set for uploading to Facebook. Once you've settled on the images you want to keep, you can move them into Capture One Pro's second type of image library, which is referred to as a catalogue. This is intended to be a more permanent home for your images, although you can still do things like edit images if you wish - and indeed, you can entirely ignore the session function if you wish and import straight from the camera into a catalogue.
When it comes to image editing, Capture One Pro is about polishing the diamond. It expects you, as a professional photographer, to be importing images that you're already broadly happy with because you spent time thinking about the likes of composition, focussing and lighting out in the real word. In other words, you won't find in Capture One Pro tools like clone or heal brushes because the app isn't interested in helping you turn a mundane image into something interesting, or creating an entirely new image via compositing several imaged together. For that kind of thing you'll need a tool like Adobe Photoshop. However, if your image isn't perfectly exposed, or features chromatic aberration (distortions created by the lens), or has some other annoying fault, then Capture One Pro can help. The folks behind it describe it as the most precise tool you'll find but this won't really mean much unless you've had your screen and output devices properly calibrated. However, Capture One Pro's tools are unique in design and function to reflect this accuracy. As just one example of many, Capture One Pro is massively more advanced than simply swiping a slider to boost saturation. Here you get a pie chart of the colour spectrum and can click within it, and then adjust smoothness, hue, saturation and lightness of just that individual colour. You can really dig down into details to get the image perfect, although if you're switching from a competitor product then there will certainly be a learning curve.
Again, some of the editing tools anticipate working with RAW images. It's not possible to use the lens correction tools on a JPEG file, for example. These let you fix the likes of distortion and chromatic aberration caused by certain lenses. However, in addition to tweaks, Capture One Pro also includes high-dynamic range adjustment and vignetting, that can be used to add viewer focus to an image.
Rather usefully, Capture One Pro lets you connect your Mac directly to your camera to capture images, which studio photographers will appreciate.
Capture One Pro exists to help those serious about photography create workflows that let them quickly eke the most from professional-grade images, as well as provide a permanent home for them. It has the feel of a reliable and sturdy tool - a kind of De Walt of the image editing world - and we doubt you'll find anything more powerful.
7. Movavi Photo Editor 3
- Buy from Movavi
Adobe Lightroom along with the now-deceased Aperture app showed that there's space in the pro-grade image-editing marketplace for apps that offer quick fix solutions, whether that's to correct trivial errors like less-than-perfect exposure, or to do things like subtly adjust an image's overall histogram plot.
Of course, there are many Mac apps of a one-click nature out there, but typically they're aimed at the lower-end of the market. Movavi Photo Editor has one foot in this camp but has some tools that could make it a useful installation for professionals.
Chief amongst them is Object Removal, which lets you define an area of the image that will then be magically removed. Everything from facial blemishes to telegraph wires to photobombing seagulls can be eradicated by using the provided brush tool to draw over the object, although there's also lasso and magic wand selection tools for this purpose. The end results are impressive provided you make good use of the Variation slider to avoid the tool becoming too aggressive (or tame). There's also a standard clone brush tool to fix any mistakes, or indeed remove objects manually if you wish.
Alas, the second big hitter within the app - Background Removal - was less impressive in our tests. This supposedly isolates a subject from its background, and requires you do define not only the object you want to keep, but also the background you wish to remove. Results in our tests were akin to somebody who's new to Photoshop using the lasso selection tool to cut something out - messy and frankly unusable. We're sure if you spend time zooming in and finely defining the object and its background then you might have better results but if we have that kind of time and energy available for editing then we'd fire up a "proper" image editor like Photoshop instead. Everything else in Movavi is one click (or at most a few clicks), so why not this?
Other tools provided with Movavi Photo Editor include the usual sliders to adjust brightness, exposure, sharpness, and so on, as well as the ability to rotate, crop, and resize. There's a number of filters but these are no better (or worse) than you'll find in most Instagram-style apps, and it's hard to imagine a professional ever using them.
A massive irritation with Movavi Photo Editor is that dragging a single finger up or down on a Magic Mouse causes the image to zoom wildly. Similarly, dragging even accidentally with two fingers on a trackpad has the same effect. There's no way of turning off this feature and, to be blunt, it comes close to making the app entirely unusable. We're not sticking our neck out if we suggest that the developers of the app use traditional mice and perhaps don't test sufficiently on real-life Macs. And that's just dumb.
We experienced a fair amount of colour-wheel cursor pauses during which the app became too busy to respond, which is also unacceptable. For what it's worth, our testbed Mac was a top of the range model with 16GB RAM and 2.8GHz i7 CPU and discrete GPU.
There's promise in this Movavi Photo Editor but it's not quite sure what it is and doesn't appear to be fully aware of how Mac apps typically operate. One to keep an eye on, perhaps.