Miscellaneous Ramblings

5 Sub-$100 Apps for When iPhoto Isn't Quite Enough

Charles Moore - 2009.09.21 - Tip Jar

iPhoto is a great place to download, park, and organize your digital photos, but its image editing and correction toolbox is rudimentary, to say the least, leaving much to be desired if you really want to get the best out of your photos.

If you're serious about that at all, you need at least one additional "helper" application for working with photos, and happily, there is a good selection of photo graphics applications available for Mac OS X, with the price of entry ranging from free on upward to take-out-a-second-mortgage Adobe Photoshop CS

A while back Bambi Brennon over at Mac 360 posted a profile of her favorite iPhoto helpers. It's a good overview, well worth checking out for her perspective. However, while there's some crossover with my own preferred image editing tools, Bambi passed over several I find indispensable.

ToyViewer - Free

Interestingly, this least-expensive program in my image editing suite (it's freeware) is the one I use more than any other. ToyViewer is not a full-fledged image editor by any means, but it does the things it's good at extremely well - in particular, resizing images and file format conversions, although it also supports some image correction and enhancement functions that can be extremely handy when you need to spruce up an image quickly and don't want to wait for Photoshop Elements to lumber into action.

It doesn't hurt either that ToyViewer, despite its whimsical name (it's Japanese - perhaps something is lost in translation) has user interface elegance and program stability that puts a lot of commercial software to shame. The elegance element has even been enhanced with the release of ToyViewer 5.0 last week, the most substantial upgrade the program has had in years.

Version 5 is primarily a Snow Leopard compatibility build, and indeed, some "limitations" Apple's WebKit APIs have, according to ToyViewer's developer Mr. Takeshi Ogihara, imposed some issues for the OS X 10.4 "Tiger" and 10.5 "Leopard" versions, with certain functions no longer "working as expected." One biggie I've discovered is that ToyViewer 5's rendering of PICT images from direct-to-clipboard screen shots or clipboard cuts from ancient but still useful Color It! 4.5 is simply unacceptable. There are several other caveats that I would encourage current Tiger and Leopard users to check out in the release notes before upgrading.

Happily, version 4.92 remains an excellent performer in these older OS X versions, and I suggest continuing to use it unless you just can't live without one or m ore of the new features listed immediately below.

New in Version 5.0

Some new functions are added and software itself is refined greatly. The following is the outlines of new functions.

  • Color profiles embedded in image files can be replaced. Exif and GPS information are also displayed.
  • You can save image files with/without Exif and GPS information.
  • Images with CMYK color space can be dealt easily.
  • SVG image files can be displayed. Note that, however, all kinds of SVG cannot be displayed correctly (it depends on WebKit).
  • TIFF Stacks, that is, TIFF image files with multi-frame can be displayed. Moreover, ToyViewer can show animation of TIFF and GIF files with multi-frame.
  • Displayed images can be easily enlarged / shrunk by new mouse operation.
  • The interface to see files in a directory sequentially by using full-screen is greatly changed. You can see two images at the same time as an opened book, and two or more pieces be seen in fast-forwarding.
  • The effect of obtaining the contour from an image is updated.
  • New effect called "Cartoon" is added. You can add the contour to cartoon and posterize effects.
  • Blur effect has variations: Gaussian filter, Median filter, and Kuwahara filter.

I expect that Version 5.0 works just fine in Snow Leopard, but I haven't had the opportunity to check that out yet. Note that OS X 10.3 "Panther" is no longer supported in ToyViewer 5.

Among its many capabilities, ToyViewer will rotate images in single degree increments, convert images to monochrome, and has a pretty good basic brightness/contrast/gamma levels tool that makes decent guesses in automatic mode with manual fine-tuning supported via sliders.

ToyViewer supports and converts between most popular image formats, including PDF, and also has a PDF control palette for navigating multipage PDF documents.

ToyViewer can display each image file in a folder one by one in full-screen mode. You can also mark images to move - or to delete. With this feature, ToyViewer can be used as a comic viewer and can also can display images in full-screen and in front of all other windows. If you like a displayed image, you can make it your desktop picture.

Color It! 4.5 - $60

As I mentioned above, another mainstay of my image-editing toolkit is Color It! 4.5, an image-editing editing application almost as venerable as Photoshop, dating back to early days of the classic Mac OS.

Color It! is currently a Carbon port to OS X and retains its much-appreciated virtues of speed, an extremely user-friendly interface (similar in many ways to Photoshop, but with more speed and less angularity), and a relatively modest price. For most editing tasks that ToyViewer can't handle, Color It! Is usually my first alternative, partly out of familiarity, partly because the program starts up almost instantly, and I just like the "feel" of it and the way it works.

Color It! Is showing it's age. It doesn't support either layers or the PDF file format, and I can't confirm how it will work with Snow Leopard, but if those points aren't deal-breakers, it's still worth checking out if you want a fast, nimble, reasonably priced ($49.95) but still powerful image editor.

Funtastic Photos - $35

Here is one on which Bambi Brennon and I concur. Funtastic Photos, another application from the Orient, offers an amazingly comprehensive range of tools and filters in an intuitive and convenient interface, mostly controlled by sliders, that pretty much anyone should find easy to learn. It will do many of the things most amateur, hobbyist digital photographers would use Photoshop for, with a lot less complexity and resources overhead - and for far less money.

Funtastic Photos leverages OS X's powerful built-in graphics technologies like the Quartz 2D graphics engine, Spotlight, and ImageIO Kit, and comes packed with advanced photo editing features, such as nondestructive photo editing, which allows non-permanent adjustments that can then be altered or removed at any time. Such changes can include exposure, shadows and highlights, blurring, captions, color manipulations, borders & frames, matte effects, blending, rotation, levels, digital flash, shadows, highlights, contrast, saturation, one-click styles, water drops, reflections, grayscale, sepia and many more. The edited photo can also be easily "rewound" to its original state, no matter how many editing changes have been applied.

The Funtastic Photos main interface window is a file browser that can display photo archives stored in iPhoto, in folders on your hard drive, or on other connected volumes. You select archive in a sidebar and display its contents in the standard icon/list/columns troika of view options. A tool bar at the top of the browser window has a button to access OS X Leopard's Quick Look feature, as well as buttons for various other navigation and organization tasks. There are also a thumbnail size adjustment slider and a search field at the bottom of the main window .

Another Funtastic Photos feature, "Finishing Touches", can be employed to add borders, a matte, vignette effects, glosses, or 36 different provided border styles. You can also add your own borders to the "Finishing Touches" library.

Pixelmator - $59

This is another one Bambi and I both included. Pixelmator, of which Version 1.5 ($60 via electronic download from Smith Micro) was released a couple of weeks ago, is a superb and powerful image editing program with professional-level adjustment and correction features at a price a fraction of what Adobe charges for Photoshop CS, and with what I think is the most strikingly attractive user interface in the category.

Like Funtastic Photos, Pixelmator is engineered to tap into OS X's powerful native graphics technologies like Core Image, which uses your Mac's hardware video muscle for image processing, as well as OpenGL and ColorSync. The relative power and sophistication of your Mac's graphics support will determine Pixelmator's performance somewhat. If you have a high-performance graphics accelerator with lots of video RAM, you should find real-time responsiveness across a wide variety of Pixelmator operations very lively. It flies on my Core 2 Duo MacBook, but I found the program quite usable even on a 1.33 GHz PowerBook.

What grabs you when you start up Pixelmator the first time is its user interface with windows bordered in translucent black - document windows, black tool palette backgrounds, and colorfully styled tool icons that magnify and show tool tips OS X Dock-style on mouseover. I found the spectacular appearance a bit distracting initially, but I have gotten used to it and now quite like it.

Like Photoshop, Pixelmator is a layers-based image editor that supports linking and blending layers, changing opacity, and creating clipping masks or layer masks to hide some layer portions. You can quickly create layers from photos, other pictures, selections, or even from iSight input.

Pixelmator is not, at least yet, a serious challenger to Photoshop or Photoshop Elements for professional and advanced amateur photographers and graphic artists, lacking such features as PSE 6's automated panorama merges, group shot merge, cutouts, redeye correction, advanced Black & White conversions, the new Quick Selection Tool, and camera lens distortion correction, and I also miss Elements' Lighting and Shadows adjustment panel, although Pixelmator's Exposure adjustment compensates somewhat. However, Pixelmator should do pretty much anything the average non-professional user would ask of it - and a lot more besides.

Some of Pixelmator's correction tools deserve particular honorable mention, especially its Curves and Exposure adjustment tools, which I prefer to their respective counterparts in Photoshop.

Note that Pixelmator 1.5 requires at least OS X version 10.5.7 and supports Snow Leopard.

Photoshop Elements 6 - $90

You don't have to cough up $900 for Photoshop CS to get most of Photoshop's features - perhaps all that the average nonprofessional photographer would ever use. Photoshop Elements 6 has to be one of the biggest commercial software bargains ever, selling for $89.95. (Currently available from Amazon.com for $59.99 with free ground shipping.)

If I were limited to just one image editing application, it would have to be Photoshop Elements, because there are still things Elements does - or does better than any of the other applications mentioned here, some examples being its lighting correction tools, its sophisticated redeye correction, its monochrome support, and stuff like its ability to stick together panorama shots and cut/add people in images, the new Quick Selection Tool, and camera lens distortion correction - and those examples barely scratch the proverbial surface.

As a bonus, the Mac version of Elements also includes Adobe's Bridge photo cataloging and organizing application, which some users may discover they like better than iPhoto.

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Charles Moore has been a freelance journalist since 1987 and began writing for Mac websites in May 1998. His The Road Warrior column was a regular feature on MacOpinion, he is news editor at Applelinks.com and a columnist at MacPrices.net. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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