Introduction to Pixelmator: Part I

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Light leak effect in Pixelmator

This is the first in a series of articles looking at alternatives to Photoshop CS and CC.

The recent announcement of Adobe regarding the move to a subscription licensing system for Photoshop CS (now called Photoshop CC) and other Creative Suite applications has caused quite a stir. While the new system might be beneficial for new users and for businesses, there is no doubt that photographers who purchased Photoshop some time ago and upgraded every new release (or every other release) are going to lose out financially.

Only Adobe itself knows the rationale behind the move (there’s a plausible theory here). But for me it’s been bit of a non-event. I haven’t upgraded Photoshop since CS4, nor do I have any desire to do so. I do most of my processing in Lightroom, with the occasional foray into Photoshop for the few times I want to do something that Lightroom can’t handle. My version handles those new tasks fine, and if the day comes that the advance of computer hardware and operating systems means that I can’t use Photoshop CS 4, I’m sure there will be other software available that will handle the tasks I want. Or, I might just subscribe to both InDesign and Photoshop CS as I use both. It depends on the subscription price and my business needs at the time.

That said, I thought it would be interesting to spend some time looking at alternatives to Photoshop CS/CC. With apologies to PC users (most of the software that I’m going to look at over the next few weeks works on PCs, so stay tuned) I’m going to start with a program that has some Mac owners very excited – Pixelmator.

Pixelmator website


I’ve only been using Pixelmator for a short while, so this is more of a first impressions article than a full review.

Briefly, these are the main benefits of Pixelmator:

Value for money: It’s cheap. Pixelmator is currently selling for £10.49 in the UK Apple app store and $14.99 in the US Apple app store. You can’t get much better value for money. This is advertised as an introductory price, so presumably will go up at some point. Upgrades to future versions are currently free.

Designed for Mac: As Pixelmator is designed for the Mac OS X only, the designers can take full advantage of the operating system. There are no compromises in the design. The user interface is beautiful.

Light Leak and Vintage effects: If you’re into adding vintage or light leak effects then Pixelmator has got enough here to keep you happy for a while. The process is much easier than trying to achieve something similar in Photoshop.

Light leak effect in PixelmatorLight leak effect in action. There are several effects to choose from and you can alter the size, strength and opacity.

Also in brief, these are the limitations that I have found:

Eight bit image processing only: One of the reasons that some photographers are upset about Adobe’s new pricing strategy is that Photoshop CS/CC supports 16 bit processing, essential for preventing or minimising pixelation when making changes to contrast, brightness, colour balance and so on. No other image editing software that I know of does so.

The lack of 16-bit support in Pixelmator will be a deal-breaker for some, although how much you’re bothered by it depends on your workflow. If you process your photos in Lightroom (or an alternative Raw processor), which handles 16 bit files, you can adjust brightness and contrast etc. here before exporting as an eight bit file for final editing.

No Raw processing: If you use Photoshop CS/CC to process your Raw files as well as editing JPEG or TIFF files then you will need to find an alternative Raw processor.

You can open a Raw file in Pixelmator and edit it as if it were a JPEG or TIFF. But it’s not a true Raw processor.

Slower than Photoshop: Pixelmator slows down sometimes and is definitely not as fast as Photoshop. That might be down to me using it on a machine that’s a few years old with just 2GB of RAM. If you have more memory it should run faster.

Strange layers system: It may be that I’m just not used to way layers work in Pixelmator, but they are definitely not as easy to use as Photoshop. You also don’t get true non-destructive editing in Pixelmator.

Doesn’t faithfully open PSD files: If you’ve created files containing layers and saved as Photoshop files, you can open them with Pixelmator.

However, as the layers system works differently in Pixelmator in practice you will find that it doesn’t recognise a lot of the layer adjustments you made in Photoshop. In fact, when I tried it, it didn’t recognise any. So, while it will open your PSD files don’t expect them to look anything like the final version you created in Photoshop.

No CMYK editing: Admittedly I’m hardly comparing like for like as you can’t expect an inexpensive app like Pixelmator to have the same high-end pre-press features as Photoshop, but if you need to convert images to CMYK then Pixelmator can’t help you.

Designed for graphic designers as well as photographers: Whether this is a benefit or a disadvantage is subjective. If you’re a graphic designer then I’m sure you will love Pixelmator. There are a lot of features for you, including a vector graphics editor. From my point of view I feel that perhaps the makers of Pixelmator have neglected the photography side a little in favour of the graphics functions.

Paint selection tool isn’t up to much: Pixelmator mention this feature on their website as an easy way to make a selection. It seems to act a bit like the Quick selection tool in Photoshop. That’s the theory – it didn’t work for me, although I may have chosen subjects that were too challenging. Bottom line: the selection tools in Photoshop are better.


Here’s what you really want to know: is Pixelmator any good for photographers?

So far this review probably comes across as being a bit negative, but that’s really only in the context of comparing Pixelmator to Photoshop. Pixelmator does have some features that are useful to photographers, and I will explore some of them in my next article.

For now I’ll leave you with this image to whet your appetite:

Portrait processed in Pixelmator

In short, there’s no doubt Pixelmator is a very good image editing application. It has a place in a workflow that starts with Raw processing in a program like Lightroom and finishes with applying finishing touches, special effects or retouching in an image editing program like Pixelmator. At the moment it’s dirt cheap and gives fantastic value for money – you can’t get a better program without paying more.

If you’re wondering whether Pixelmator is a viable replacement for Photoshop, the answer is no, nor is it realistic to expect it to be one considering the price difference. If, however, you only use Photoshop a little, or you are attracted to some of Pixelmator’s special effects, or it just happens that the only tools you use in Photoshop are ones that Pixelmator has, it may work as a replacement for you.


You can learn more about Pixelmator at these links:

Official Pixelmator website. The site includes a free trial (the App store doesn’t support trials) and lots of tutorials.

PXM Tuts. Aimed mainly at designers but also contains some photography tutorials.



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6 Responses to “Introduction to Pixelmator: Part I”

  1. Andreas Stockinger says:

    Have you heard of PhotoLine? It’s a German program that has unlimited 16 bit processing and is a fully functional alternative to Photohop. It’s available for PC and Mac for no more than 59 Euros (ca. 78$).

  2. No, I hadn’t heard of PhotoLine until now, Andreas. I’m going to download the trial and test it out. It certainly looks like it has potential.

  3. Mike says:

    Interesting post. As an enthusiast photographer who has never owned Photoshop and never plans to, Adobe’s announcement was a none event for me too.

    The question it raised for me though is whether Lightroom will go the same way eventually. If that does happen it won’t be a big deal for me either, whilst Lightroom is a great application there are alternatives out there. I use DPP as well as Lightroom and think it is much underrated. Before Lightroom I used Pixmantec’s “Raw Shooter Premium” with the Colour Engine, which at the time out performed Adobe’s Camera Raw software in every respect. I only switched when Adobe acquired Pixmantec and incorporated RSP into version 1 of Lightroom.

    I look forward to more posts on this series.

    • Mike says:

      Have you tried Photo Ninja? It has very positive reviews on a number of forums. I downloaded the trial today and got a two week full access license from the developer.

  4. ashok says:

    hi, i agree with you that there are alternative options to CS. u may want to check out Pixbuilder studio 2.2 which is a free software available on it looks and functions very similar to cs in many ways. no raw conversion though.

    i recently got a fuji X1 Pro and found the bundled software Silkypix to combersome to use. looking at options i came across Raw Photo Processor – its simple to learn, does a great job of any RAW file and works on a Mac.. unfortunately there is no PC option. but do check it out. its excellent. best of all both RPP and Pix Builder are free to use..

    i am interested in hearing what other users hav to say. you may also like to do a review of Pixbuilder.

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