First Exposure: The Pixelmator

November 19, 2015

By Stan Sholik

While there are a number of image-processing competitors for Adobe products on the Windows platform, Mac users have not been so fortunate. Now, with the demise of iPhoto and lack of future support for Aperture, other companies are stepping into the breach with interesting software. One of these programs is Pixelmator, from the Pixelmator team in Vilnius, Lithuania. While more of an Adobe Photoshop Elements alternative than a competitor for Adobe Photoshop, Pixelmator is a powerful and polished image editor.

I tested the most current version, 3.3.2, which is available for download from the Apple App Store for $29.99 and installation on five computers. There is also a version for the iPad and iPhone. The iPad version is $9.99 from the App Store, and the iPhone version is free if you own the iPad version or $4.99 on its own.

Pixelmator is packed with tools and effects. There are more than 40 tools for selecting, cropping, drawing, painting, retouching, typing, measuring and navigating, arranged in a Photoshop-style tool palette that is user-configurable. You can create layers for image composition and apply layer styles with drag-and-drop simplicity. 

And there are vector tools and shapes along with detailed controls over text options.
Along with the tools, you’ll find over 160 effects. These range from basic editing effects (such as Exposure, Sharpen and Curves) to the wacky (Kaleidoscope, Triangle, Brickwork, Hexagon, Pinwheel, Bug Eye, Shutters, Windmill, Snowflake and Funhouse). The effects occupy their own palette, which is quite extensive, on the right of the interface. You apply them by dragging and dropping the pictorial icons on the image or by double-clicking the icon. A floating dialog box opens with adjustment options. In use this works well, although the dialog boxes open over the image and you are constantly dragging them out of the way to visualize the change you’re making. 

User Friendliness

Anyone familiar with an Adobe product will feel right at home in the Pixelmator interface. New users should become comfortable quickly with the pictorial effects icons and after viewing the extensive training videos on ?the Pixelmator website, The interface floats above the Mac desktop, which I personally found disconcerting until I cleaned up my desktop clutter and closed other programs. The interface background is dead black, making it difficult to see many of the tool icons in the tool palette, but my ability to quickly choose tools improved as I became familiar with their placement. I do appreciate that many of the keyboard shortcuts in Pixelmator are identical to those in Photoshop and Photoshop Elements, adding an additional layer of comfort to users looking for an Adobe alternative.

What We Liked

For many photographers through the advanced amateur level, Pixelmator has all of the tools they will ever need, along with more effects than they will ever use. Sophisticated tools such as clone stamp, healing, warp, liquify, sharpening, layers, blending modes, selections, masking and many others are available. The Magic Wand tool in particular is nicely designed. You can change its tolerance by dragging it in the image, and you immediately see the effect in the image. Operations are fast and I never had a usability issue with the program. 

Another big plus for many users is the ability to go mobile with Pixelmator on the iPad and iPhone. These apps are not ports of the desktop app, but designed specifically for mobile devices. It results in a different look to the interface, but many of the same tools and effects from the desktop version become available in an iOS-friendly environment. And by using iCloud Drive, you can begin working non-destructively on an image on one iCloud device and continue working on any other iCloud-connected device.

What We Didn’t Like

There are a few things that I found lacking in Pixelmator that make the program unsuitable for me for serious image editing. The first is the inability to quickly set a white balance. It is the first editing program that I can recall using that didn’t have an eyedropper or similar tool that you use to click on a neutral tone to set the white balance. You must click back and forth between the image and the color-balance tool to try corrections to the RGB values until you hit on the correct combination. And you cannot read RGB values in the image if a color-correction tool is active.

Also missing is a histogram (other than the Curves effect) and associated warnings for blocked up highlights and shadows. You must make all of your color adjustments visually based on the preview on your monitor. 

Photoshop plugins aren’t supported, either. And if you are shooting in a RAW file format or work with 16-bit files, you need a current Mac Pro to open them.

How it Compares

At present there is little competition on the Mac for Pixelmator, other than more expensive Adobe programs and Gimp. Despite a significant price difference between Pixelmator and Adobe Photoshop Elements, Pixelmator gives up little in the bargain. To gain the connectivity options to iOS devices that Pixelmator offers, you would need to join the Adobe Creative Cloud photography plan for $10/month. But combining Pixelmator with Lightroom 6 would overcome the former’s shortcomings and provide a very complete image-editing workflow. 

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