December 26, 2007

Pixelmator v1.1.1 Review

There are a lot of digital photographers that just don't want to join the Photoshop Army. And why should they? It is expensive, hard to learn, often problematic technically and just way too much for the average everyday photographer that isn't a real computer enthusiast. So, I’m going to review some alternatives to Photoshop, Lightroom and Aperture for photographers that either don’t need all the complexity of those products or the cost. You will see reviews here soon of Pixelmator, Acorn, Compositor, GraphicConverter and any others I can find. Send me suggestions for others if you are interested.

I'm going to make some assumptions:
  • that on the Macintosh platform you are happy using iPhoto for cataloging and organizing but that the editing feels like too little and you'd like to experience some growth in that area.
  • that on the Windows platform you are happy using Google's Picasa for cataloging and organizing but that the editing feels like too little and you'd like to experience some growth in that area.
  • that you'd like to spend less than $100 ( nice price!)
  • that you'd like the product to create industry standard files that won't be "lost" in the future as technology progresses (necessary!)

Pixelmator, version 1.1.1

Pixelmator is a low cost application that competes with Adobe’s Photoshop, Lightroom and Apple’s Aperture for adjusting and tweaking output of photographic images. It touts itself as “Image Editing for the Rest of Us” and it is an attractive alternative that I would place in the Photoshop “Lite” category but in some ways it isn’t light at all. It does much more than I expected at first glance! I would prefer it over iPhoto’s adjustment features since it has more power but it has no cataloging support for your images. It can access your iPhoto images and bring them into the program for editing but you will have to re-import any that you save out with different names. If you save the iPhoto image directly there appears to be an issue wherein the thumbnail does not update with your saved changes.

Pixelmator is a true Mac only program written in Cocoa taking advantage of Automator and Spotlight indexing. It feels peppy on a new iMac running Leopard 10.5.1 because it is apparently running through the Graphics Processing Unit GPU rather than through the computer's processor (CPU). We will probably see more programs that deal with images written this way. The display of palettes and image windows is mostly attractive, they are all bordered by a slightly transparent charcoal gray field the encompasses the title bar as well. The interface reminds me of Lightroom and Aperture. The exceptions are the Color and Font palettes which call the built in Macintosh light gray displays and that seems a bit out of place. Palette locations are remembered over launches of the program. The tool bar is fun to use as the selected tool grows out with an attractive effect and becomes more prominent but access to the brush size, zoom level, and a few other controls seem to be more work than necessary. Help text is displayed for most buttons and the help system is built on the standard Mac format so it is easy to find answers.

The image formats supported are impressive. It will export to just about anything (read: way more than you’ll need) and open them as well. PSD, TIFF, JPG, and PNG are of course no problem. It will save as Pixelmator documents that will keep all your tweaking and adjustments from losing any quality and retain any layers you create. A user of Pixelmator should be advised that archiving images in the TIFF or PSD format would be preferable since access would be universally supported and quality would be preserved. It saves the layers in PSDs but not TIFFs. None of the camera raw formats are listed as supported though it will open my Nikon NEF files. However, there is no “camera raw” processing built in and I suspect from reading the vendor’s help forums that the NEF support is coming from Apple’s Leopard operating system and not the program itself. It should be noted that 16 bit raw files when saved out are reduced to 8 bits of color depth so using Pixelmator for JPGs would be fine but if you want to shoot raw I suggest using either the pro-level tools or the software that came with the camera.

Nevertheless, you can adjust exposure, levels, hue and saturation, brightness and contrast and do most other color and tone corrections directly from the Image menu. Curves adjustments are oddly missing as is any way to remove color casts without resorting to tedious tweaking in the Channels palette. Metadata and printing controls are minimal. The basic controls and layers give plenty of control for your photos. Cropping normally is easy but to straighten a horizon you have to find the Rotate command under Transform then crop manually. The Crop tool's display shows a nice "rule of thirds" on your image which I appreciate.

The layers feature in the images ala Photoshop include opacity control, masks, and blending modes making it fun to combine shots and effects. Photoshop files that contain adjustment layers will open but the adjustments from those layers are ignored. However, I doubt that users of Pixelmator will be jumping back and forth from Photoshop, so this is really not an issue. There are also a huge number of filters but besides the blurs and sharpens I can’t speak to their quality as I don’t find most of these filters useful for photos. A few have a really interesting interface of setting a spot in the image with a cool animated “rope” that is attached to the dialog box. It is a cool effect and fun.

I can recommend Pixelmator as an economical choice for use with photographic images. Pixelmator is useful, attractive and relatively easy to use. It has some high level features that will be educational when you explore them. It seems to be a valid choice for photographers that cannot yet justify the expense of Photoshop. I only encountered one problem in testing though it was a big one. I experienced a full freeze of the computer when initiating a blur filter. I could not duplicate it so I’m assuming it was a one time event.

A demonstration copy of Pixelmator can be downloaded from It allows full use but places a watermark on images saved before it is registered. The PDF manual is not part of the download, get it at: and as always, read it!

• Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger or later
• Core Image supported graphics card (recommended)
• Some features require Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard and/or iLife
Look for more reviews of applications of this type soon. Please let me know if you need any terms defined (what is a level anyway?) and I’ll add them to the comments for this post. I will rate the products reviewed in relation to each other after I've finished the set.

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