Free alternatives to Photoshop

Designing jewellery that looks good and feels great to wear is already a challenge; photographing your jewellery in a way that looks fetching and shows off your piece spectacularly is even more so!

We all know that photographing your jewellery to display online and in print is one of the best ways to self-publicise and sell your work, but editing these photographs and preparing them for print can sometimes be a daunting task for a beginner.

Luckily for you, help is at hand! I always intended for a major feature of this blog to be the tutorials I create, and decided to create a series explaining all the best ways to edit and refine your photographs before revealing them to the world at large.

One problem with this plan, however, is that photo editing requires software which can sometimes be rather expensive; I myself use and plan to teach Photoshop CS6, but what about those of you who can’t afford the several hundred pounds it takes to purchase such software?

(C)ThreeSistersEmporium

This particular photograph was edited in Photoshop; but what can you use if you can’t afford this high-end suite?

I therefore scoured the internet and tested literally dozens of image editing applications to find the best free alternatives to Photoshop, which you can download and begin playing with right away. What I was looking for, specifically, was software which could compete with Photoshop in terms of features and functionality, but also software which would allow you to follow a tutorial written specifically for Photoshop (as nearly every photo-editing tutorial out there is) and still be able to easily recreate the same steps without too much fuss or extra research. So, without further ado, let us begin with…

PHOTOSHOP!!!

That’s right folks, Adobe now offers a free version of Photoshop which you can download right here. What better software to use to follow a PS tutorial than Photoshop itself? The version adobe are offering for free is CS2, which now about ten years old and comes with Bridge (hurrah!) and heaps of options and functionality. You will find it a little different to the modern PS (well, okay, a lot different), but for the most part the tools and layer options are basically the same, and you’ll be able to create most of the same effects. It isn’t anywhere near as sleek or pretty as CS6, but then it also uses less RAM. It does, however, still take a little while to learn; photoshop is known for being a monster piece of software, but with so many online tutorials and classes, learning PS these days should be easy peasy.

The main difference between CS2 and more recent versions, however, is that CS2 does not support any kind of content-aware tools. Now, when it comes to editing pictures of pretty jewellery, you won’t really use the content aware feature a whole lot anyway, but it is worth noting that if a PS tutorial mentions content-aware, you won’t be able to create the same effects in your version; sorry!

GIMP

2.8 is the latest version of GIMP

2.8 is the latest version of GIMP

GIMP (which stands for GNU Image Manipulation Program) is probably the most well known competitor to Photoshop, and also one of the most widely used. It is available on both Windows and Linux, and if you have a fairly good connection, it can be download and installed in literally just a few minutes.

GIMP has always been a main rival of Photoshop due to it’s wide range of features and tools, as well the plethora of plugins available for download from the community website. It is, however, also rather difficult for a beginner to learn, with lots (and lots) of options and settings for all the different tools and effects. It should also be noted that GIMP will not read RAW files (I’ll be writing another post very soon about what RAW is and why you should be using it), and doesn’t ‘save’ to jpeg; you’ll need to ‘export’ your files instead.

If you do intend to follow a tutorial written specifically for Photoshop, you’ll find that most of the tools and adjustments within GIMP are named similarly to those in PS and, for the most part, work the same way; the same goes for the layer options and menu styles. If you’re a complete beginner, however, the extra customization options may confuse you, so for the most part I’d recommend this software to those with previous experience of photo-editing only.

Pixlr

Check out Pixlr for a near perfect online editing suite

Check out Pixlr for a near perfect online editing suite

Pixlr is an online photo-editing application, and I have to admit that when I first checked it out I didn’t have high hopes; how could any online-only software possibly hope to compete with the big boys? I saw it recommended on several other sites however, and felt it was my duty to take a look none-the-less.

So, first off, the main features: Pixlr lets you open and edit images by either uploading them from your computer or importing them directly from a website such as flickr or facebook. You can save your images to either their online cloud, or to your computer, and whilst it doesn’t open RAW files, it does have several output options for saving, including JPEG and their own non-destructive format which lets you keep your layers intact for further editing (see a future post for information on layers and non-destructive editing).

I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised by just how good Pixlr actually is. Firstly, it has almost all the same features and tools as PS, and is laid out in much the same way. The tools don’t, unfortunately, display their name when you hover over them, but they do at least have similar icons to those used in PS, and you’ll find your way around them quick enough. The layer, history and adjustment features all work the same way as well, so if you intend to follow a PS tutorial to do some editing you’ll find yourself fairly comfortable with this software, and should be able to recreate the steps almost exactly without any confusion.

The only real negative thing I have to say about this software is that I found it slow to save, and also a bit laggy when using the brush and healing tools. That may just be my connection however, and I personally still intend to keep Pixlr in mind for my editing when I’m away from my own laptop, so I’d say check out this neat little site and see how it works for you 🙂

Photo Plus from Serif

Again, this is another piece of software which I didn’t think I’d like, this time because it’s a little bit of a pain to download. Firstly, you need to provide an email address and create an account (it is at least free), then you need to verify your email through an activation link (grr) and then you need to keep the download page open so that you don’t lose your activation code (which you’ll need to set-up the software). All that being said, however, in the end the whole process (including installation) only took about fifteen minutes, and whilst I was determined to hate the software simply because they forced me to sign up for it… I actually really liked it. I mean, really liked it. As in, I’m not even going to bother un-unistalling it once I’ve finished writing this post. I may even use it again.

The first thing I like about this software is that it can read RAW files. Even Gimp can’t read RAW files, man. And this thing can? I admit I was impressed. The second thing I liked is that, upon opening, you’ll find the set-up is fairly similar to that of PS (and since PS is literally the most popular imaging software in the world, this can’t be a bad thing). Photo Plus has a Layers and Adjustments palette on the right hand side of the screen, with a handy history tab on the same palette as adjustments. It has a spectacularly large variety of tools, all of which have a little pop-up describing their use when you hover over the icon, and there’s a little ‘getting started’ tool bar on the left which I largely ignored but which may be useful to some.

PhotoPlus comes with it's own in-program tutorial

PhotoPlus comes with it’s own in-program tutorial

Not all of the features of PhotoPlus (like some of the more advanced filters) are free, so you’ll find a few options unavailable, but I promise that the functionality offered in the free version is more than enough. I don’t think you’ll have any trouble at all following along with a PS tutorial in this software; unbelievably it’s the only piece of software I tried that included my all time favourite effect – High Pass (a sharpening tool which I will write a tutorial on later in the series).

It is slightly annoying that the software has a little pop-up which will ask you if you want to upgrade to the paid version every now and again, but other than that I’d highly recommend you check this out.

I did also try a variety of other image-editing programs, including Photo Pos Pro, Paint.net and Splashup, but I didn’t feel like any of the other software would be suitable for those wanting to follow along with a PS tutorial. Paint.net is a nice little program in and of itself; it has a fairly intuitive interface, easy to use tools and layer functionality, but personally I felt like using it along side a PS tutorial would be next to impossible. Splashup is a very simple online program which doesn’t have enough functionality for my tastes, but if you are looking for an extremely simple program to do some basic editing, this will suit your needs. Photo Pos Pro I found to be rather outdated and unattractive, but if you didn’t like any of the other programs mentioned it may be worth taking a look at.

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