Best Photoshop alternatives: six we recommend
8th Feb 2013 | 12:45
The six best alternatives to spending full whack on full-fat Photoshop
Best Photoshop alternatives
Photoshop CS has long been considered the world's best image editor, and it's now the standard by which all image-editing programs are judged. But it's not without flaws - it's both complicated and expensive.
So we've taken a look at six cheaper alternatives to Photoshop. Our round-up of Photoshop alternatives doesn't just list programs that offer the same or similar tools as Photoshop, but for less, though. It also has programs that approach photography in a different way.
So don't imagine that Photoshop CS is still the only serious choice photographers, because any one of the six applications on test could change your mind.
So what are the best Photoshop CS alternatives? Let's find out...
Adobe Photoshop Elements 11
Photoshop Elements takes some of the core tools from Photoshop and wraps them up in a novice-friendly interface so new users won't be daunted but more experienced photographers can still apply advanced image manipulation techniques. In fact, Elements is not one program but two.
As well as the Elements Editor, there's an Organiser application with some powerful tools of its own. Adobe Bridge, which comes with Photoshop, is a fairly basic browsing tool for viewing the contents of your folders, but the Elements Organiser is a more sophisticated database application that allows faster searches and the ability to bring photos together into themed Albums, without changing their location on your computer.
The Editor itself works in three modes: Simple, Guided and Expert. In Simple mode you can carry out basic adjustments in a semi-automatic fashion with the minimum of jargon. Guided mode introduces more ambitious effects by explaining specific tools and helping you apply them step by step.
These Simple and Guided modes are great for novice and intermediate users, but they could easily give the impression that Elements is a seriously dumbed-down version of Photoshop. It's not - and the Expert mode shows just what it can do.
From a photographic point of view, there's not much that Photoshop can do that Elements can't. You can create layers and selections in just the same way, and apply the same effects and adjustments.
There are exceptions - Elements offers only basic curves adjustments, for example - but most techniques you would use in Photoshop can be applied in Elements too. The Photomerge Panorama, Scene Cleaner and Exposure options are clever and effective, and Elements 11 has Adobe's latest 'content-aware' technology that can be used to remove objects and filling gaps.
Lightroom and Aperture can both be set up to use Photoshop as an external editor, but you could just as easily use Elements instead. And the combined cost would still be less than half what you'd pay for CS.
Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 4
Lightroom takes care of all your photographic needs, from importing your photos to organising them, enhancing them and sharing them with other people as books slideshows, prints or web galleries.
It's arranged as a series of modules, displayed horizontally along the top of the window. It's in the first Library module that most of the work is done. Here, you import your photos then browse them in their original folders, or organise them into Collections for specific jobs or projects.
You can also create Smart Collections, which use search criteria to automatically pick out shots taken within a certain time period or with keywords, for example.
You enhance your photos in the Develop module, and the editing tools here are based around those in Adobe Camera Raw, the same raw-conversion software that comes with Photoshop. The tools are arranged in a more accessible and logical format though, using collapsible panels at the side of the screen. Lightroom makes no distinction between raw files, JPEGs, TIFF images or Photoshop files - it works on them all in the same way.
Finally, all the adjustments you make are non-destructive - the original images remain unaltered, and you can modify or remove any of your adjustments at any time.
Lightroom's editing tools don't match Photoshop's. It can't layer images, for example, and while it can carry out localised adjustments to colours, tones, clarity and more, it doesn't offer precise selections as such. Its tonal and colour enhancement tools are quick to apply, effective and easy to undo.
It's very good at enhancing specific colours or colour ranges, carrying out black-and-white conversions and curves adjustments. It incorporates Adobe's automatic lens correction profile, and the Adjustment Brush and Graduated Filter tools are very quick and useful.
If your main interest is making the most of your photographs, rather than combining images in montages and applying special effects, you won't mind that its editing tools are more limited. This makes Lightroom a genuine alternative to Photoshop, but you can't rule out the possibility that you might still need Photoshop (or Elements) for certain jobs.
Apple Aperture 3.4.3
Aperture is Apple's equivalent to Lightroom. It works on exactly the same principle, importing your photos into a database for rapid, flexible organising and searching, and applying non-destructive editing processes that preserve the original images untouched. These are your Masters, and they can be stored either in their original folders on your hard disk, or copied into the Aperture library.
What you see and work on are Versions of these Masters - though you can export new files with all the adjustments applied when you need them. Aperture is especially fast and efficient at organising all your images, more so than Lightroom in fact, but its editing tools are not quite as good.
The approach is the same as Lightroom's. The tools are all arranged as a series of expanding panels down the side of the screen, and they're stored in the Aperture Library rather than being applied directly to your images, or Masters. These adjustments can be reversed, modified or removed at any time.
You can carry out basic adjustments such as cropping, Levels adjustments, Curves and sophisticated hue, saturation and tonal adjustments, but while Aperture can correct chromatic aberration, it doesn't fix lens distortions, either with automatic lens correction profiles or even manually.
It does offer localised adjustments via Quick Brushes, for tone and colour enhancement, sharpening and noise reduction, for example, but they're not as straightforward to apply as Lightroom's Adjustment Brushes. This makes it all the more likely that you're going to need a separate image-editing application for anything other than routine image enhancements.
You can save adjustments as preset effects, just as you can in Photoshop Lightroom, but where Lightroom could conceivably replace Photoshop, it's unlikely that Aperture ever would.
Aperture does have other strengths, including its efficient photo management, its photo book design tools, web galleries and web journals, which combine photos and text in the form of a blog-style website. It also has a unique Light Table feature for combining and comparing pictures on a virtual table to arrive at a cohesive and complementary collection for a portfolio or publication.
However, while it's a very strong Photoshop complement for Mac owners - especially at just £55 - it's not a Photoshop replacement.
Three more Photoshop alternatives reviewed
Corel PaintShop Pro X5
PaintShop Pro has gone through many incarnations since its early days as a shareware image-editing package. Now owned by Corel, it's a powerful and relatively inexpensive program available in Standard and Ultimate editions.
The Ultimate version adds a Creative Collection of images, brush packs and textures, Facefilter 2 makeover and sculpting tools and Nik Color Efex Pro 3. It's not the latest version of Nik's effects suite, but it still boasts over 250 filter effects.
PaintShop Pro combines image organising and editing tools into a single window with three tabs: Manage, Adjust and Edit. The Manage tab combines folder-browsing tools with Collections and Smart Collections, while the Adjust tab is for carrying out routine image enhancements like cropping, tonal and colour adjustments.
The real editing work is done in the Edit tab. Here, PaintShop Pro offers almost all the tools you'd see in Photoshop, from layers, Layer Masks and Blending Modes, to sophisticated options like HDR (high dynamic range) image merging tools and a Photo Blend tool for blending parts of diff erent objects - for example, you could combine two or more examples of the same group shot to produce a single image where everyone is smiling at once.
You get a good range of special effects too, including a Retro Lab, which enables you to simulate the look of old lo-fi cameras like the Lomo and Holga.
PaintShop Pro can also be used to add text to your photos and, interestingly, vector objects. These are shapes you can create and modify individually and merge with your photographic images. You can create simple shapes and custom curves and outlines you can reshape using nodes. You also get Picture Tubes, which helps you to paint repeating objects on your images.
PaintShop Pro is a very powerful and interesting alternative to Photoshop, but it doesn't feel as responsive to use. Instant Effects take a few moments to apply, for example, and while the effects of Adjustment Layers are previewed in the adjustment panel, they're not applied live to the image as you move the sliders.
DxO Optics Pro 8
DxO Optics Pro is more of an image-enhancer than an image-manipulator. It's designed to take the imperfect images captured by your camera and your lenses, correct their faults and make them as technically perfect as possible.
It's all based on hard science, using custom-made correction profiles for thousands of camera lens combinations. These are tested by parent company DxO Labs, which also makes its testing processes and equipment available to other companies - Digital Camera uses DxO equipment for its camera and lens tests, for example.
DxO Optics Pro identifies the camera and lens using the EXIF shooting information embedded in the file, then loads the appropriate correction profile automatically, or prompts you to download one.
It doesn't support every possible camera and lens combination, but it's rare to find a mainstream camera-lens combination that's not on the list. The software then automatically corrects a range of lens faults, including chromatic aberration (colour fringing), distortion (barrel and pincushion), corner shading (vignetting) and edge softness. You can also manually correct perspective distortion and anamorphous distortion, where objects are distorted at the edges of wide-angle shots.
DxO works on both raw and JPEG files, but these must be unedited. The raw conversions are of a very high standard, and are particularly good at reducing noise in high ISO shots. It also uses advanced lighting controls to maximise the dynamic range of raw files and balance the lighting in high-contrast scenes.
But it's not an image editor as such, because although it offers various preset 'looks', it doesn't support layers, or any kind of manual, localised adjustments. This means DxO Optics Pro is a tool you'd use right at the start of your image editing workflow to maximise the quality of your original images.
If you never manipulate your images anyway, that could be enough, but you're almost certainly going to need some other image-editor to go with it.
The Standard version isn't that expensive, but if you have an advanced SLR you may need the Elite version, which is twice the price. The tools are the same, and it all depends on what camera you use. If you have a Nikon D7000, for example, the Standard edition is fine, but if you have a D800, you'll need Elite.
Serif PhotoPlus X6
PhotoPlus X6 is a program in two parts. There's PhotoPlus X6 itself, and a separate PhotoPlus Organiser to take care of all your image filing needs. This is basic but effective, displaying the content of the folders on your hard disk, or Albums of images drawn together from different places.
Like rival programs, it can also display Smart Albums based on image search criteria. It takes the Organiser a while to display thumbnails in newly added folders though, and while it can display raw files directly, the colours look oddly flat.
Once your images are opened in PhotoPlus, you're presented with a set of tools that are remarkably similar to those in Photoshop. It's like being transported to a parallel universe where everything is superficially the same, yet oddly different.
PhotoPlus X6 has an all-new Raw Studio, Serif's equivalent of Adobe's Camera Raw plug-in. It can apply localised image adjustments and you can manually correct lens aberrations such as chromatic aberration, vignetting and distortion. It's a step ahead of Photoshop Elements in this respect, but not up to the standards of Photoshop's automated lens correction profiles and adjustment brushes.
It's not easy to get good results from raw files either. Colours need a strong boost, and our raw images had a narrow bar of solid colour down one side, which suggested some compatibility issues. Serif's clearly working hard to keep pace with Photoshop, including a non-destructive (reversible) Crop tool, just like the one in Photoshop CS6.
When you apply adjustments, they're created on new Adjustment Layers, just like you can in Photoshop. The similarities between the two are so strong it's easy to imagine that any effect you can create in Photoshop can be replicated in PhotoPlus.
Yet by comparison it actually feels quite crude and unfinished. It ticks all the boxes, but it lacks the speed, clarity and precision of the program it's trying to emulate.
Serif PhotoPlus X6 is an interesting choice if you're keen to get the most bang for your buck, but it's not easy for beginners to get to grips with, and nor is it fast, polished and reliable enough to compete with Photoshop. It can deliver very good results in the right hands, but you'll need good technical know-how and a willingness to turn a blind eye to its rough edges.
The best Photoshop CS alternative is...
If you can't afford to stump up a whole load of cash for Photoshop, which of these six alternative programs can step in to fill the gap?
Each of these programs brings something unique to the table, and their scores reflect how well their featureset and performance compare with Photoshop CS6. Lightroom offers an effective way of working with your photos, and Aperture does the same for Mac owners.
PaintShop Pro X5 is cheap, straightforward and effective, while PhotoPlus X6 tackles Photoshop head-on. DxO Optics Pro concentrates on image enhancement, beating the limitations of your camera and lenses.
But the winner is Photoshop Elements 11. It's simple enough for novices, yet powerful enough for experts. It does almost everything Photoshop can, but using language, tools and processes designed for everyday photographers rather than jargon-savvy professionals.
Our test results
Our top three Photoshop alternatives in a nutshell
Adobe Photoshop Elements 11
What's good: it does almost everything you'd need an image editor to do.
What's bad: the novice-orientated approach could get on your nerves.
Our verdict: Elements 11 is great at both organising and editing your photos, whatever your level of photographic experience.
Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 4
What's good: Combines organising and editing.
What's bad: lacks more advanced tools, like layers.
Our verdict: does lots of things Photoshop doesn't.
Corel Paintshop Pro X5
What's good: more powerful than elements in some ways…
What's bad: dated and awkward to use in others.
Our verdict: good if you want to try new tools.
How we tested the photos
All of the programs featured here were tested on a dual-core computer with 8Gb RAM in order to achieve a level playing field for speed and performance comparisons.
Lightroom 4, Aperture 3.4.3 and DxO Optics Pro were run under Mac OS X 10.8, while Elements 11, PaintShop Pro X5 and PhotoPlus X6 were tested with Windows 7. The applications were evaluated using a range of criteria:
- Range of tools compared to Photoshop
- Additional options that are missing or less advanced in Photoshop
- Ease of use and interface design
- Range of effects and quality of results
- Suitability for users of different levels
The brief was principally to find which program(s) are genuine alternatives to Photoshop, but also to highlight new advances or ideas in image-editing that Photoshop users may not have considered.
We use reviewers with long-standing experience in their respective fields, both with the products being tested and their previous versions. Our reviews also allow for the latest trends and developments in the marketplace.