Editing Photos on Your Mac Without Breaking the Bank

Dr. Mac’s Rants & Raves
Episode #106

For years I’ve been telling you that Adobe Photoshop (now called, “Adobe Photoshop CC” with the CC standing for Creative Cloud) is one of the most amazing applications ever written and it just keeps getting better and more powerful with each new release. That’s probably why the graphic arts industry has considered it the gold standard for image manipulation for well over a decade.

Alas, the cost of such power is high in more ways than one. First, you can’t buy Photoshop CC these days—it’s only available by subscription with the least expensive option (Creative Cloud Photography Annual Plan) priced at $119.88 a year.

And, of course, it can take years to become proficient with Photoshop, which is probably why there are more books about it than any other application I know of.

My point is that if you don’t have the time, money, or inclination to master Photoshop CC, you’re not out of luck. I know of at least two less-expensive yet full-featured Mac applications that do much of what Photoshop CC can do but cost significantly less.

The first is Photoshop CC’s consumer-oriented sibling, known as Photoshop Elements, Recently updated to version 13 with numerous improvements and a sweet new feature called Elements Live, which provides tips, tricks, tutorials, inspiration, and much more right in the app, so you won’t waste time searching for guidance.

Photoshop Elements Live offers inspiration, tips, and tutorials before you even start editing

And Elements' Guided Edit mode helps you get good results quickly and easily:

The Guided Edit for removing a color cast is almost idiot-proof

Finally, after you’ve gotten some experience with manipulating images you can switch to Expert mode, which offers almost the same tool set as Photoshop CC.

Next: The Mighty Acorn

Page 2 - The Mighty Acorn


The other full-featured image editor I recommend is Flying Meat Inc.’s Acorn. If you work with graphics much, you need something more powerful than iPhoto (or even Aperture) to fine-tune and touch up images. The big dogs of image editing are Adobe’s Photoshop CC and Photoshop Elements and I’ve used both since version 1. Until recently, nothing else came close in terms of tools, polish, and power. Then Flying Meat released version 4 of Acorn, its popular, easy-to-use image editor, and changed everything.

I’d played with previous versions of Acorn and found them to be decent enough, but I never wrote about it or considered using it regularly. Acorn 4 changes that. Developer Gus Mueller told me there are over 150 new features, tools, and performance improvements in this version, and I think he’s being modest at that.

The user interface is much improved. The single monolithic panel that used to contain everything — tools, palettes, adjustments, feedback, and everything else — has been replaced by a thin tool palette, floating palettes, and an inspector panel. The new arrangement is more intuitive and somewhat easier to understand and use.

Acorn’s user interface is streamlined and intuitive

Also new are non-destructive filters, which let you add or remove filters at will (even after saving), experiment with filters with no risk, and even chain together multiple filters, which remain editable and removable. And many filters are interactive, with controls that let you click and drag directly on the image itself to change filter parameters while seeing the results in real time.  

There’s a new Curves adjustment tool, an improved Levels adjustment tool, and a new live histogram, which look and feel more like the tools in Photoshop.

Level adjustments have never been easier

The upshot is that adjusting tonal imperfections, fixing over or under-exposed images, and correcting colors has never been easier with Acorn.

There’s also a cool feature I’ve never seen on other Mac apps: Acorn saves your current selection automatically when you save the file. While other programs can save a selection, none that I know of do it automatically when you save the file.

If you’re not already familiar with image editing, you’ll be happy to hear that Acorn 4 includes excellent and comprehensive online help that covers pretty much everything, plus dozens of easy-to-understand tutorials to help you get the most out of almost every feature in the program.

Flying Meat calls Acorn 4 “the Image Editor for Humans,” and I agree. It’s clean, well-organized interface and extensive help and tutorial options make it perfect for the fledgling image editor. So check out the 14-day trial version and see what you think.

Unlike Photoshop (subscription-only; $119.88 a year and up), Photoshop Elements and Acorn are still old-school purchases. Buy ‘em once and they’re yours forever (or at least until it stops working after some future Mac OS X upgrade). 

And that’s all he wrote…


Adobe Photoshop Elements. Adobe Systems, Inc. $99.99. 

Acorn. Flying Meat, Inc. $29.99.