Is Pixelmator a viable alternative to Photoshop?

Jürgen Heiss

When it comes to image editing, a lot of designers head straight for Adobe Photoshop — it’s a great program and a creative industry standard. But it’s also a professional program, and has got a professional price tag attached, one that not every new designer can afford straight away.

Alternatives have been around for ages, but recently there’s one that’s been gaining a bit more attention. Pixelmator is an Apple-only raster graphics application that goes for about $30 in the App store. For a long time it has been considered a choice only for amateurs, but has this year released an update that brings it closer than ever to a professional-quality choice. Let’s take a look into it and see what it offers, as well as its limitations.

The features

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Pixelmator’s interface

Pixelmator is formatted with a stylish black interface with clean floating windows. The canvas itself can also be displayed either as a floating window, or set to fullscreen.

1. Tool Palette

Pixelmator comes with all the editing tools you should need, and which you may know already from other applications. You can group the tools found in the palette in the following five groups:

  • Basic: Move, Zoom, Hand, Eyedropper, Type, Crop, Slice
  • Selecting: Elliptical/Rectangular/Column/Row Marquees, Lasso/Polygon Lasso, Magic Wand
  • Painting: Brush, Pencil, Pixel, Eraser, Paint Bucket, Gradient
  • Retouching: Smudge, Clone Stamp, Healing, Sponge; Blur/Sharpen, Burn/Dodge
  • Drawing: Pen/Freeform Pen, Shapes (Rectangle, Rounded Rectangle, Ellipse, Polygon, Star, Line)
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Above is how the tool palette looks per default, but can be also personalized on the Preferences menu, where buttons can be added, delete or rearranged.

2. Layers Palette

One of the must-have features which every photo editing software needs is Layers. Pixelmator’s Layer Palette which includes the following actions:

  • Add/Remove/Group Layers
  • Blending Modes
  • Layer/Clipping Masks
  • Layer Styles
  • Preserve Transparency
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In this image you can see the layer styles, where you can apply effects such as drop shadows, reflections, strokes and so on in a non-destructive way.

3. Effects Browser

Pixelmator glows when it comes to effects — it’s loaded with them, and they can be easy and quickly applied to your images. There are over 160 effects from which you can choose, conveniently arranged in eight groups:

  • Blur
  • Distortion
  • Group Sharpen
  • Tile
  • Stylize
  • Halftone
  • Generator
  • Others

It’s also possible to add the most used effects to a “favorites” so that you can even more quickly find and apply them. For a closer look at effects, check out our mini-tutorial below.

4. Liquify Tool

For a long time, this feature was missing in Pixelmator, but it has finally found its way to the program. With the Liquify Tool you can Warp, Bump, Pinch or Twirl Pixels in your images. Beyond just being fun to work with, this tool is a major step forward for the program. Whether you want to make small correction in retouching, or create cartoons out of your photos, this is a not-to-miss tool.

5. Vector Shapes

Pixelmator is a Pixel-based application, but it has built in some limited vector functionality. The new Smart Shapes have easy controls to adjust shape outlines and apply styles into a vector shape.

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Pixelmator also has a hidden feature called Vectormator, which pulls up all the toolbars required to create unique vector objects, switching them out for the default Pixelmator tools. Press CMD/CTRL + SHIFT + V to access it, and again to leave it.

The Limitations

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The major downfall to Pixelmator at this time is that it doesn’t support exporting in CMYK, an essential feature necessary for any work that’s going to be printed out. There is a Color Profile to allow you to see an emulation of what the colors would look like printed, but that doesn’t quite cut it in a professional context.

A test in using the effects

To see how powerful the effects are and how easy they are to work with, we’ll go step by step through to giving a vintage look to a photo.

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The stock image I used is from Adela Manea and can be found here.

Open your photo in Pixelmator. From the Effects Browser, drag and drop the Vintage Effect on your photo. This effect can be found in the Stylize category, or you can use the search field in the effect browser to find the effect quickly.

Once the overall Vintage Effect is placed on your photo, you can choose from 7 different sub-effects. I decided to go with the Carnation, which I personally love. I leave the setting at the default values. Press OK when you are done.

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To give the photo a more vintage look, we will apply one more filter. This time we will use the Light Leak filter from the Stylize category, and the sub-filter Nebula Effect (from the Light Leak dialog). You can play a little bit around with the setting until you are happy with the outcome.

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Overall I’m pretty happy with what I have, but I still want to add a bokeh effect. So again I select the Light Leak effect on the photo, but this time I choose Orion.

Here’s my final result:

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An animation showing the effects we got from applying these 3 effects to our photo.

Summary

While Pixelmator isn’t still a fully capable Photoshop competitor, it’s a great editing tool. It offers an amazing user interface, gives you plenty of useful tools, and everything works as you would imagine it should.

I find myself more and more using Pixelmator, especially when it comes to filters and effects. It also continues to update with new features and I’m sure that the gap with Photoshop will continue get smaller and smaller in the next couple of years. For now, it is definitely worth it to buy if you’re working in a web-only format or know how to find roundabout ways to convert the imagery to CMYK when necessary.

Pixelmator has a free 30-day trial. Download here and give it a try.

Have you tried out Pixelmator? Let us know your thoughts!

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