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Photoshop Alternatives: Image-Editing Software Options

Ron Eggers, July, 2004

Several of the leading image-editing packages include simulated art plug-ins. This outdoor scene was modified using a pastel filter to create an artistic appearance.

You don't need expensive software to enhance contrast, sharpness and saturation.

One of the features of Adobe Photoshop CS is its very versatile new image browser. This is how it appears in the Mac version.

PhotoImpact Pro 8.5 features an easy-to-use color replacement tool. A step-by-step correction wizard guides you along the way.

Digital imaging applications make it easy for you to add luster and snap to dull original images, as in this before (top) and after (bottom) example.

Most alternative image-editing programs make it very easy to improve the impact of mediocre originals, as in this before (above) and after (bottom) example of a color tapestry.

StudioLine Photo 2.0 includes a variety of useful tools for archiving your photographs.

Digital imaging has exploded over the last four or five years. Camera prices are continuing to drop, and it's now possible to get a 2- or 3-megapixel camera for $200–$300. The cost of higher-end prosumer cameras and digital SLRs has also dropped dramatically. As a result, many photographers who have been uncertain about "going digital" are now taking the leap.

The explosion of consumer digital imaging has resulted in an increased demand for imaging software. Adobe Photoshop dominates the high end of this market. It became available for Macs in the late 1980s, the PC version didn't arrive until a few years later. At one point, before the advent of consumer digital imaging, more than 95% of all imaging was being done in Photoshop. According to recent estimates, Photoshop is currently used by more than 70% of digital imaging professionals.

The newest release, Photoshop CS, is loaded with new features and expanded capabilities. Just about anything that you need to do with an image on a computer, from simple image optimization to advanced image manipulation, can be handled in Photoshop.

But there are also some negatives. First, Photoshop is expensive; even at a discounted price, it can still run more than $500. That's more than many consumers pay for their digital cameras, let alone what they are willing to spend for software. Even if cost isn't a major consideration, Photoshop is a very complex software package, and it can be difficult for the professional—let alone the novice user—to master.

Casual photographers are increasingly looking for less-expensive, easy-to-use digital imaging applications, and software developers have responded to the demand. One option, of course, is Adobe's Photoshop Elements 2.0—a capable but simplified version of Photoshop for only $99.99. There are numerous other image-editing programs available; priced anywhere from $40–$200. Many of these applications are quite powerful. Some offer many of the capabilities of Adobe Photoshop, at a fraction of the price. But not all inexpensive image-editing programs are the same, and not all of them are right for everyone.

The first thing you should do when selecting an image-editing program is to determine what you ultimately want to do, and how much time you want to spend doing it. The more you want to accomplish and the faster you want to do it, the more complex your software package needs to be.

Before purchasing new software, take a close look at what came bundled with your digital camera or scanner. All digital cameras come with some software. Most bundled packages include modules to organize and optimize images once they're on the computer. Many also include print modules that make it easy to generate individual prints, enlargements, even complete photo packages with multiple sizes. Other common functions include the the capability for creating emails and simple Web pages.

If you want more functionality than what the bundled software offers, then it's time to take a close look at the options available. Price alone shouldn't be the primary factor in selecting an alternative image-editing program. Some of the expensive programs might not deliver the feature set you are looking for, or they might be too difficult for you to use.

Consumer imaging packages can be used to work on individual images or on complete projects. Photoshop, and most other high-end image-editing programs, work on individual or multiple images. Images are opened, modifications are made, and the photos are saved back to disk. These programs provide considerable creative control, right down to the pixel level.

Project-oriented programs work somewhat differently. Images are worked on as parts of a project. These programs take users through the process, step by step. Many of the tasks that can be accomplished in an image-based program can also be done in a project-based program, but the level of control may not be quite as precise. The finished product can simply be a photograph or it could be a completed project, such as a photo birthday card, display print, series of wallet-sized reprints, or an iron-on photo transfer.

One of the most popular consumer-oriented image-editing programs is JASC's Paint Shop Pro, now in version 8.0. Paint Shop Pro has most of the capabilities required by serious photographers. New to version 8.0 are Automated Productivity Scripts and Dynamic Personalization; two features that deliver flexibility and workflow automation. Dynamic Personalization makes it possible to move favorite or frequently used commands to the forefront to create unique menus, toolbars, keyboard shortcuts and workspaces. Users can create specialized work environments based on the tasks that they want to accomplish.

Automated Productivity Scripts automate production work by letting users record, edit and replay commonly used commands and brush strokes. That makes it possible to enhance single photos or complete sets of photos automatically, through batch processing commands. Additionally, a new "paint" engine enhances the program's natural media capabilities.

Paint Shop Pro 8.0 also solves keystoning and other perspective distortions with the new Perspective Correction tool. That's a very handy capability. Paint Shop Pro 8.0 is priced at $109, and is available as a download at $99.

Ulead has just released PhotoImpact Pro 8.5 which is being marketed by Nova Development, a worldwide developer and publisher of consumer graphics and personal productivity software. Nova will handle publishing and marketing while Ulead will concentrate on software development. PhotoImpact includes a complete tool set for image optimization and manipulation, graphic design and Web page development. It includes a step-by-step intelligent photo correction wizard that suggests how to fix common photo problems including improper exposure, incorrect color balance, and improper focus photos. It's also possible to add artistic flare to photos with a variety of new digital photography effects. A module called COOL 360 can be used to generate 360° panoramas, while an eBay photo macro automatically resizes graphics to fit within eBay ad specifications

This application also provides a wide range of graphic design options including painting, drawing and cloning tools. Particle, texture, lighting effects and unique tools to create 2D/3D vector graphics are all included. PhotoImpact ships with Photo Explorer 8, which can be used to organize and manage image libraries. The program also includes a variety of learning materials, including a 13-chapter video tutorial and seven hands-on project lessons. That's a lot of software for $99.95, especially when you consider that this price includes Alien Skin's Xenofex 2 filters, 250 free Corbis images, more than 5000 photo objects, and a free book on mastering digital photography.

Another program you might want to consider is Roxio's Photosuite 5 Platinum Suite, which offers a nice feature set for organizing, enhancing, creating, sharing, and preserving photos on CD. It has powerful, professional-level editing tools, comes with an easy to use interface and includes Easy CD Creator to help you burn CDs. The release has been completely redesigned to enhance speed and facilitate productivity. Being project oriented, it makes photo editing simple by anticipating your needs and automating complex editing tasks.

This package supports batch processing to fix exposure, saturation, sharpness and red-eye with a single click of the mouse. This enables novice users to achieve professional looking results with minimal effort. It also includes numerous tools for advanced imaging requirements for more experienced users. It's priced at $49.95.

ScanSoft PhotoFactory lets users collect photos in one place on the computer, view them in different ways, sort them, edit them, generate prints and share them on the Web. It combines three photo-editing modules, Power Show, Super Goo and PhotoSoap2. Power Show lets you create slick presentations complete with sound, animation and special effects. Super Goo can be used to liquefy, twist and stretch photos, while PhotoSoap2 includes professional retouching tools for restoring old or damaged photographs, adding special effects, generating prints, and creating Web pages ready for export to the Internet.

Picture Window Pro 3.5 from Digital Light and Color is another program that's worth a look. It includes a comprehensive set of image-editing and optimization tools. It can be used to create high-quality prints, page layouts, multimedia electronic slide shows and other forms of output. New to this release are advanced sharpening with noise reduction, auto de-specking and Moire pattern reduction. Special effect options include posterize, tint, emboss, kaleidoscope, spiral, tile, text, calendar and more.

The program includes an advanced image library and browse function which simplifies organizing large image libraries. It supports color-managed printing for high-quality production output. It's priced at $89.99.

Photographers who are serious about digital imaging frequently own multiple image-editing programs. They may use Photoshop for routine work, and an alternate program to handle special tasks, or tasks that Photoshop doesn't handle all that well. One such program is Ron Scott QFX, which first came out as a DOS a program, before Windows was being used widely. Developed by a Texas-based professional photographer, it was one of the first programs on the market to effectively integrate both raster (paint) and vector (draw) capabilities.

While it takes some time to learn, once mastered it is a serious productivity tool. The original version provided one of the quickest ways to handle the process of combining multiple images, text and graphics into one composition. Now in version 8, QFX is still a powerful program that long-time users wouldn't want to give up, even if they're using Photoshop for some tasks. It is available online at $399.

Another alternative to Photoshop is StudioLine Photo 2.0 from H&M Systems Software. While offering a complete set of loss-less image-editing tools, it includes a variety of additional features, such as image archiving and management, the ability to share images by email, Web galleries and slide show, and a nifty CD/DVD writing utility.

StudioLine Photo 2.0 is especially good at using CDs and DVDs for file management. It not only backs-up original images onto CDs and DVDs, it conserves hard disk space by offloading images while keeping a proxy image. For general distribution, the export function is used to create CDs and DVDs that store images in traditional file formats. StudioLine Photo 2.0 has a $49 list price.

There are other image-editing programs on the market that also work well depending upon your needs. For beginning users, the best way to judge them is their ease of use. For experienced users, functionality is the prime consideration. In either case, it takes a little research to find the program that's best for you.

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