Programs like Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator are powerful graphic tools which are justifiably considered industry standards. They're essential to professional graphics specialists, but can often be considered be overkill for the rest of us. Not only can they cost several hundred dollars, but the learning curve can be steep for average users who only need a few basic features.
Fortunately, there are several options which are under $100 (or even free) and designed for the more casual user.
It is important to know what kind of graphics functionality you need before investing time in any package. Graphics software is traditionally divided into photo editors and painters which edit pixels and illustration or diagramming packages which edit vector shapes.
A talented graphic artist can create beautiful digital art in almost any graphics software, but for everyday use two types are associated with the following functions
|Software Type||Examples||Common Functions|
Two powerful free open source programs are Gimp (http://www.gimp.org/windows/) and Paint.Net (http://www.getpaint.net/index.html). Both run on the Windows platform and feature many of the common Photoshop features including special effect filters, and both are stable enough to have been installed on the CLC Student Computing Labs.
The interfaces are similar to Photoshop although there are some key differences. For instance, neither program uses the standard Photoshop crop icon, but the function is still available. The download sites do come with documentation or tutorials, but if they do not have the information you need, you can always search on Google for information on the task you need, and it’s likely someone has a free tutorial posted. I was able to install both Paint.Net and Gimp on my mid-level Windows machine and they work as advertised. In terms of interface, I have a slight preference for Paint.Net, but many of my colleagues are satisfied Gimp users. If you want to experiment, feel free to stop by one of the Windows labs and see how they work for yourself.
Note for Mac Users: There is currently no native Mac version for either program. However, if you are comfortable using the X11 Unix system, you can download Gimp for X11 at http://gimp.lisanet.de/Website/Download.html.
Recently Adobe created an online Web 2.0 service, Photoshop Express (http://www.photoshop.com/express) in which users can upload their photos to a server and edit them online. Once you upload and select a photo, you can Edit or Decorate them. Edit options include color touchups, red eye fix, cropping and special effects. The Decorate tab (currently in Beta) allows you to insert text, cartoon bubbles and even costumes. I found the interface different from Photoshop, but more intuitive.
In addition to the edit features, a Photoshop Express account holder can organize photos into albums, e-mail them to friends and family, and post them to Flickr, Facebook or your mobile phone. Photos can be made public or private as needed. A free account includes 2G of space, but more space is available for a fee.
Some Macintosh alternatives are Preview and iPhoto, which are also both installed on the CLC labs. Mac users may be familiar with the preinstalled software Preview as an alternate PDF document reader, but it actually has many common photo editing functions such as photo rotation, cropping, resizing for the Web, saving in other formats, color adjustment and creating a slideshow. Most editing functions are under the Tools menu. The main gap I found was that there was no way to add any text or arrows to an image, which is helpful for educational photos.
Another package you may already have is iPhoto which is a part of the iLife suite from Apple which also includes GarageBand, iMovie, iDVD and iWeb. If you've made a podcast or edited a movie on your Mac, you may already own iLife. The iPhoto package is primarily meant to organize sets of photos, but if you open a photo and click the Edit button beneath, the edit tools appear. As with Preview, you can crop, rotate, adjust colors and resize , but you can also fix red eye, remove blemishes and add common Photoshop effects like Sepia tone. Use the Export options (under the File menu) to resize photos or save them in alternate formats. As with Preview. iPhoto does not allow you to add text or arrows nor does it allow you to save in alternate formats. The current cost for iLife 09 is $79 for all 4 packages from Apple or just $39 from the Computer Store.
A final option is "lite" photo editors which are designed more for the home user and are generally under $100, especially with the Computer Store discount. Although they feature many of the popular tools of Photoshop, including special effect filter and adding text and arrows, the interface is generally targeted more for beginners. One option from Adobe is Photoshop Elements (Mac and Windows); another is Paint Shop Pro (Windows only) from Corel. Both are available at a discount from the Penn State Computer Store. Having had Photoshop Elements installed on my home computer, I can attest that it was very satisfactory.
Also, it is always worth browsing the Computer Store for the real products. In some cases, such as Photoshop, you may be able to receive a steep discount for the professional level program, especially if you are willing to purchase one version back. Both staff and students receive the same discount from Adobe.
Illustration drawing programs like Adobe Illustrator are fantastic for creating elegant logos, detailed maps and realistic drawings, but can be overwhelming to a user who only wants to create a simple organization chart. Some alternatives which may be both cheaper and user include the following.
Dia (http://live.gnome.org/Dia) is a freeware diagram creator designed for engineers and other non-artists who need diagrams quickly. It does the basics including shapes, arrows and text labels, plus it has palettes of special symbols in different technical areas such as chemical engineering, computer architecture and other fields. What's also important is that it can export images to other formats such as .png.
One quirk I found was that it tricky to draw lines. As soon as you select the line tool, it starts a line (instead of you selecting a starting point). Fortunately, you can easily move the line. The other was that you had to right-click the line to find the arrows feature.
Another freeware option closer to the Adobe Illustrator interface and functionality is Inkscape (http://www.inkscape.org/download/?lang=en). Since I am familiar with Illustrator, I found the interface and toolset satisfactory, and I actually liked the color picker at the bottom (and you can select among multiple palettes quickly). I also enjoyed the polygon tool where you can spin a handle to create interesting star shapes with multiple spokes (not so different from Spirograph) – this is not in Illustrator. However, with added power comes extra complexity. Inkscape is a program in which understanding terms like "Bézier" is an advantage.
Note for Mac Users: There is currently no native Mac version for Inkscape. However, if you are comfortable using the X11 Unix system, you can download Inkscape for X11.
Gliffy (http://www.gliffy.com/) is a Web 2.0 graphics package in which users create an online account to create online images with a set of diagramming tools. Gliffy is similar to Dia in that its focus is more on flowcharts and diagrams. Gliffy does a fine job, but it should be noted that you have to have a paid account in order to keep images private; all images in the free account are viewable by anyone.
A popular product in the educational field is Inspiration. Although called a "concept mapper," it really is a graphics program designed again for flowcharts and diagrams. It also comes at a substantial discount from the Penn State Computer Store. Because it's designed for the classroom, the symbol palettes include a wide range of options such as flags of the world, animals and people that might not be readily available in other programs. A nice feature of Inspiration is that each shape comes with a built-in slot for text labels. For instance, if you insert a diamond shape into a flowchart, you can start typing and the text will appear in the center of the diamond. One drawback is that the results can be cartoonish, but is easy enough to set preferences to something more to your taste.
Note: Inspiration is installed in the CLC Computer labs, but classified as "Assistive Technology."
A similar program just for the Macintosh is OmniGraffle (http://www.omnigroup.com/applications/OmniGraffle/), which is more expensive, but still at the $100 level for the Standard package, OmniGraffle has unique options such as Smart Guides and easy creation custom symbol palettes or "stencils." The Smart Guide automatically alerts you when one object becomes aligned to a neighboring object, which is very helpful for some repetitive diagrams. Another nice feature are custom "stencils" which are shapes and chunks of text adapted for different disciplines. You can search for and download extra stencils for free, and it is a fairly simple process to create and export your own. I also find the interface for some operations such as adding custom arrows and labels easier than in Illustrator. OmniGraffle is currently not available on the Computer Store, but is installed in the Student Computing Labs.
In addition to Illustrator, Adobe supports a graphics package Fireworks (originally Macromedia Fireworks), and with the Computer Store discount is just under $100. Fireworks combines both vector illustration capabilities and basic painting/photo editing functions. Originally designed for Web professionals, Fireworks offers the basic tools of both Photoshop and Illustrator but with a simpler interface. Some Web professionals appreciate Fireworks for its all-in-one package, but users accustomed to either Photoshop or Illustrator may become frustrated. Also Fireworks does not support the features of the diagramming packages.
As you can see, there are lots of alternates to Photoshop and Illustrator ranging from $0 to $100. Some are near replacements of the original and some include extra features aimed for the non-graphics specialist. Depending on your needs you may use one or more of these…even if you already use Photoshop/Illustrator.
There are a few points to keep in mind. One is that you should pay attention to file formats. Some programs create custom file formats which cannot be opened with other packages, so make sure your program can export files to an alternate format such as JPG (Photos), GIF, PNG, SVG, TIFF or PDF.
Another is to keep looking for new options if you still don’t have what you need. For instance, if all you need is one minor tool, you may find a free or low-cost utility that does exactly the one thing you need. An example of this is a free utility which converts an image file to a Macintosh icon. How handy is that.