Alternative Graphics Utilities for the Mac (print version)

By Graham K. Rogers

One of the strengths of Macs is graphics. A wide range of programs is available for OS X installations over and above what users commonly consider. Many think that they cannot exist without Adobe Photoshop, but (like the full-featured Microsoft Office) this is overkill for most of us.

Photoshop is a Carbon application so does not run on OS X as a native application. The 64-bit version for Windows will be available first, as parts of the code for the Mac version need a complete rewrite. There are several alternatives for users who do not need industrial strength software. The alphabetical suggestions here are not exhaustive.

A is for Acorn. I recently came across this useful and compact graphics utility and rate it quite highly. The wonderfully-named Flying Meat company cite this as a simple image editing application (now at version 1.1.1). Despite its economical size it has a lot of muscle and includes a wide selection of filters. Many of the commands are activated instantly just by pressing a single character.

It can handle quite large images in several formats and has a small selection of tools that allow drawing and manipulation. Thai text can be used. Like some other programs it can capture an image (or layer) directly from the inbuilt iSight camera. The cost is $49.85 and the full-featured trial version has unlimited use but there is a watermark.

Aperture is professional workflow software from Apple. As such it handles input from cameras and is especially good with RAW images. It has several ways to deal with output too. Although not strictly a manipulation program, there are several ways that images may be adjusted. Recently it was updated and plugins may be used (Apple provided one for dodge and burn).

It is not cheap at $199 online, but if handling a lot of photographs, this is an aid to efficiency. Like much Apple software, it integrates well, including with iPods. I downloaded the trial version, then bought a licence via the Apple online shop in Hong Kong.

Art Rage 2 is a delightful drawing program out of New Zealand. As well as Art Rage at $25, there is a trimmed down "Starter" version as a free download. Particularly impressive are the brush effects: with oils selected, the brush strokes and colours bleed into each other giving a realistic textured appearance. JPEG images can be imported and painted over.

ColorSync Utility is an application installed with a Mac. It is used for colour accuracy: scanners, digital cameras or printers may produce different color profiles. ColorSync helps with colour matching automatically. However, if you open an image, you can resize (using percentage) and make other adjustments to the image.

Comic Life was one of the nicest specialised graphics applications to appear in recent years and was bundled with some Macs. As its name suggests, it is for creating comics, or graphics with a comic-like appearance. The text boxes, balloons or lettering may be resized on the fly and each, as well as outlines (and the pictures themselves), can be fine-tuned with additional effects. This application handles Thai.

Input is from the Finder, the iPhoto Library (Aperture is coming soon) or direct from an iSight camera. Page sizes can be adjusted to fit regular paper or video sizes. Outputs include JPG, TIFF and QuickTime as well as web formats. The standard version is $24.95 (just under 800 baht) with a Deluxe version at $29.95. A 30-day trial version can be downloaded from the Plasq site.

Digital Color Meter is a utility that comes with the Mac. By putting the cursor over a pixel, we are shown the value of that pixel in 13 different ways, from RGB as Percentage, to Tristimulus with RGB as 8-bit Hex value (for web work) on the way.

Photoshop Elements 6, a trimmed down version of Photoshop was released a few weeks ago. I have no experience of this but include it as some users may want to consider Elements as an alternative.

The software is available for $89.99 (2800 baht) and there is a free trial. This has a nice clean interface, like that in Lightroom, and has many of the features of Photoshop making it a good alternative.

Early reports suggest this may only run in an Administrator account which is not very helpful if, like me, you work in an ordinary user account or if there are several users with accounts on the Mac.

Recently Adobe created an online site called Express. There are some editing features, but it is mainly a storage and display site: it is not possible, for example, to resize a picture. The original agreement that users signed meant that Adobe basically owned any uploaded materials, although this was later softened.

GIMP (Gnu Image Manipulation Program) was developed because there was no Photoshop for Linux. A disadvantage of this Open Source application is that because of this it needs the X11 window (Unix) as its operating environment. That may be found on Mac install disks. When we start GIMP, X11 also starts automatically.

I find two specific features highly useful (among several others, of course): the ability to straighten an image perspective (like a building); and lettering: there are no jagged edges with large fonts. GIMP has a full range of filters and effects.

Although most of us do not need the full features of Adobe Photoshop, GIMP does provide many similar bells and whistles and we may be able to get by with this.

Graphic Converter is not quite in the same league as GIMP or Photoshop but for most users, if they are going to purchase one application, this is the one to buy and will be all we need. It can handle scores of file formats, has an excellent range of filters and effects, and can be set up to do certain tasks quickly. I find that larger lettering has jagged edges.

One of the many excellent Apple utilities that comes out of Germany, Thorsten Lemke, the writer, maintains a useful website where he also has links to his CADintosh application: a high performance 2D CAD program. Downloads of Graphic Converter are sometimes a bit slow. We can try a full version; while buying this (online) costs $34.95.

Media Browser Panels

iMedia Browser is a recent product from Karelia, who make the excellent website creation tool, Sandvox. This free download has an appearance that anyone who uses Mac software like iPhoto or Comic Life will have seen as part of those applications, though here it is a standalone and therefore will work with programs that may not have a full set of OS X features.

As well as allowing me access to the Aperture and iPhoto Libraries, I could use music not only from iTunes but from GarageBand plus the iLife and iMovie sound effects. Movies on the disk, including video podcasts were likewise available and so were any bookmarks I had in the three browsers installed on my computer. All were just a click and drag into a suitable application, like TextEdit or Mail. I could not get this to work with Microsoft Word nor with NeoOffice.

iPhoto, one of the components of iLife, is one of the many applications that comes pre-installed on all Macs. This has evolved into a useful utility that not only organises and stores images, but allows limited editing and image manipulation: perhaps enough for some. It does handle RAW format. There are also several useful output media, like QuickTime slideshows, books, cards and calendars, as well as the pictures themselves. It is not always easy to resize an image to the exact dimensions required and when an image is adjusted, a second version is created taking up a certain amount of disk space. Like other iLife applications, it integrates fully with the rest of OS X.

iWatermark is a small application that is useful for those who distribute images, especially on the web. With the ease of access now possible, even someone like me finds that photographs I put on my website find their way onto other pages and rarely with any acknowledgement. For a professional photographer, this could affect income. While it is possible to add a watermark using several graphics applications, this enables the user to fine-tune both the message and the method to be put on to images so that their true provenance may be displayed. This utility can handle Thai text.

Lightroom, like Aperture, is really workflow software although both do have the ability, like iPhoto, to allow some editing of images. The setup and nature of these two applications means that if you favour one, you are highly unlikely to work with the other. The current version is 1.4.1 and is priced at $299. There is also a 2.0 beta available for download.

Photomechanic, a photo browser that is aimed more at press photographers has a number of special features that this group finds useful: particularly batch commands and export formats. There are some editing tools, but the most important attribute of this program is the handling of images and their metadata.

Photoshop is essential for professional photographers. I have not used it for several years and do not miss it at all with all the other graphics utilities available for the Mac. According to online information the price here in Thailand is about 26,000 baht to just over 41,500 for the Extended version.

There are several applications that Mac users can work with instead of expensive, professional-level software. This is the final section of my look at some alternatives.

Picturesque is a 2.1 MB download and won an Apple Designer Award in 2007 as a Best OS X Student Product.

While there are some limited editing features, it applies effects to an image, so that we have more than just a simple rectangle to display. The cost is $24.95. The demo version leaves a pretty large watermark across the center of the new image.

I dropped a small PhotoBooth image into the working panel, quickly added effects using the "Beautify" menu, including reflections, curved corners, then resized (this allows either a percentage or a pixel value). The resultant image was some 600Kb. A really nice program to work with, feedback from users is positive: for some, this is a must-have. [This has just been updated to version 2.0. - GKR]

Photobooth itself is a utility that comes with the Mac installation. It uses the iSight camera to take snapshots or videos. As well as effects that can be added to the shots, there are a number of backgrounds. The best way to create these is to have a light, well-lit background and to wear a dark shirt, which may be why Steve Jobs can always do this.

Photon, a digital workflow application has just been updated to version 1.1. It is cheaper than Aperture or Lightroom at $69, but has fewer features. The developer suggests it could be used first for a quick cull of images before sending them to those programs. It is considerably lighter, with a download of 1.2Mb. When in demo mode, some features are disabled It handles RAW images but export functions are not available with the demo.

Pixelmator is a delightful image editor that claims it is "Image editing for the rest of us": not an idle boast. It has a good range of tools -- both editing and painting -- and the black interface makes it look effective when working with images. This utility takes full advantage of the OS X Core Image technology and was the first such application to do so. It integrates well with other parts of the installation and browses photographs directly from the iPhoto library. There is a trial download and the full version is not expensive at some $59 (1,871 baht).

Posterino, winner of an Apple Design Award, arrived some months ago. After 30 minutes of working with it I bought the licence online. Like many Mac applications, it has one job and does that well. It creates posters plus postcards in portrait or landscape, using images that are either dropped into the template or imported from iPhoto or Aperture libraries. Templates allow single or multi-image creations and imports can be randomised: creating a poster can be the work of just a few seconds.

Blank templates are available and users can also save their own. Posters may be created in default sizes from A6 up to A1, plus a "not defined" setting. If the default sizes are not enough, we can add our own paper size.

Posters have a resolution of 200 dpi while postcards are at 72dpi. These settings may also be changed depending on output requirements. A friend also found this useful for creating multi-image backgrounds for a Hi5 web page. It is now at version 1.3.5. A licence costs $24.95 and includes postage for three postcards via the Swiss Postal Service. More coupons for this are available online (e.g 10 cards for 750 baht, including printing).

Preview is an installed Apple program and handles PDF files and graphics. It is the default application for screen shots. There are some extra effects, in particular the way it allows parts of images to be cut out (Instant Alpha) using the "select" tool: a feature now in Keynote.

Seashore is like a simplified GIMP and has several of the tools of that application, but works as a native OS X installation. It is useful for resizing images quickly, although it only works with pixels and percentages instead of measurement units.

The basic tools include lasso and erase, while lettering works with the installed Thai fonts. The application allows creation of a new image, including an image from the clipboard, or an already-existing picture. Seashore also works with layers.

As a demonstration of the fluidity of computer media, just after I wrote the first section on alternative graphics software for OS X, Comic Life released a new version of their excellent software: Comic Life Magiq. It is priced at $39.95 for a short time, with an upgrade for current users at $19.95. It takes advantage of new features in OS X Leopard, particularly Core Graphics and has several more features than the original which is still available and it is a little less easy to use at first because there are more tools.

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Even More Graphics Applications (3)
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