Monday, 13 May 2013

What would I want in a Photoshop replacement?

I'm sure that readers of Wonky Horizons will have seen elsewhere the sound and fury generated by Adobe's decision to turn Photoshop into a subscription-based service, and to drop the boxed product. Without going into the whys and wherefores, I'm sure that many photographers will either (A) take advantage of relatively moderate pricing to keep fully updated with the latest versions or (B) never update the last version of Photoshop CS-whatever they have bought.

I have to say that I find the demand for yet another monthly subscription very unattractive, even if it is comparatively low cost, and the thought of never owning what you've paid for (even when you've spent more than the historic cost of the boxed product) equally unattractive. Apart from anything else there are diminishing returns with upgrades now in terms of new features that are "must have": Photoshop CS6 offered nothing I consider essential over CS5*. Just as new versions of Microsoft Office have offered nothing new that I really need for the better part of 10 years, so Photoshop is asymptotically approaching full maturity. And for most photographers in East Kent, their broadband connections are too slow to make best use of the cloud storage and sharing features anyhow, given that a multilayer PSD master file easily hits 200+ MB these days.

There have been endless discussions about this out in inter-web land -- I think that (among others) Thom Hogan, Luminous Landscape and Drew Gardner have summed up the arguments very well. One consideration that affects my view of Photoshop is that many of the earlier functions that I would use CS3/4/5 Camera Raw for are now subsumed into Lightroom. At this point, I'm going to assume that, for the foreseeable future, Lightroom will remain as my raw converter of preference, and also as my first pass at getting a good developed image. I think I can also make the assumption that the current version of Photoshop will live on my computer for at least the next three years. So at least until the point in time where changes to the operating system etc. make the current version unworkable, I see no reason to buy into Photoshop CC.

Given all this, perhaps in three years time, I'll be looking for a Photoshop alternative. This has prompted me to come up with a list of key items that I would want any such program to be able to do. Raw conversion and the basics of producing a workable TIFF image for subsequent finishing, as well as file management are not an issue, simply because I'm assuming that Lightroom will continue to do that. These days, I use Photoshop for finishing images, or for making layouts for publication.

So, in an ideal world, what would I like the Photoshop-replacement to cover? Here is a quick list of thoughts, in no particular order.

Layers, layers and layers!
-- Layer masks, blending modes, opacity, styles, blend if..., auto-align, groups
-- Painting on layers and layer masks with user-definable brushes, changeable blending modes and opacities.
-- Adjustment layers that can be clipped to another layer for curves, HSL etc.

-- Channels to layers, channels for selection, alpha channels

Calculations (e.g. take the blue channel from an image and multiply it against itself, and write the result to an alpha channel)

Apply image

Further support for selections -- pen tool, rectangular and other shaped marquees etc. Convert path to selection. Modify selection (expand/contract/feather). Quick select tool-replacement would be brilliant, but that maybe too much to hope for.

Clone tool - and ideally a healing tool.

Simple drawing tools and text support.

16 bit and 32 bit image handling

Colour modes, including Lab and wide colour space RGB (ProPhoto RGB)

Filters: different people will have their preferences, but for me the irreducible minimum is Gaussian and surface blur,  sharpen (e.g. unsharp mask), and high pass.

Ability to save a multi-layer Master files**, and output to tiff, JPEG, PDF and PNG.

Automation similar to actions.

Grid and guides would be helpful.

Layer comps would be helpful, but not part of my irreducible minimum.

I may add to this as time goes by, but at least these are items that I regard as the irreducible minimum. Anybody know of an alternative application that already does all this?

You'll notice a bunch of stuff is missing from this: quite aside from the absence of Raw handling, I don't need HDR or panorama stitching support, since there are plenty of other alternatives, and I already have some of them. Bridge would not be required. I think dedicated B&W conversion is moot: Lightroom does it extremely well, and there are third party alternatives. The shadow/highlight tool is not required, and neither are puppet warp or liquify (I can see others disagreeing with me about liquify). No 3D either.  I haven't put anything about plug-in support, although that would be desirable. In any case, now that Google has bought Nik software, I don't know whether my plug-ins will still run in the timeframe we are talking about. Nevertheless, even if the Photoshop-replacement program does not support Nik or Topaz plug-ins, as long as I can get to them via Lightroom, it is not a big deal to make multiple Tiffs that could then be combined using layers and layer masks. Likewise, if the quick select tool is not replaced, there are already third-party applications for extracting objects from a background (Topaz has one for instance). It is probably too much to hope that something like content-aware fill is replaced, but as with many of the things that Adobe are currently introducing into Photoshop (motion blur minimisation springs to mind), that is really about a rescue of a faulty image rather than tools to complete a great image. I'm happy to pay for tools to complete a great image; I'd rather avoid making faulty images in the first place.

So, here is the challenge for developers. I reckon you've got three years or so to come up with something that will satisfy those comparatively impecunious photographers who do not wish to pay a monthly subscription, but who will be happy to pay a reasonable fee (let's say around the same price as Lightroom) for a great, compact, fast application that will replace many of the image-completing functions currently in Photoshop. In three years time (at the latest), the market really ought to begin to operate in this field. I guess the biggest fly in the ointment is going to be the extent to which the features I've listed above are bound up in patents. But I'm hopeful that something resembling my ideal will eventually appear as viable competition for Photoshop CC***.


*The only thing about losing the connection between concurrent versions of Photoshop and Lightroom that I would miss is the ability for an image as a smart object in CS5/6 to be re-edited easily and non-destructively in Camera Raw. But, how much do I really use it?

**It would be nice if it could read and edit my current PSDs, but I think that's too much to hope for. I'll content myself with using this programme for new work, and keep the old stuff as flattened Tiffs.

*** As a final sub-point, I should point out that I'm not complaining about Adobe's decision to go to a subscription service, or even about their pricing. It is their product and they can do as they wish. This is simply a plea for some competition in the market.


PS 15 May 2013. Thom Hogan points out the following: "Every--and I mean every--Adobe product user I've talked to or corresponded with has come to the same conclusion: "I need to reevaluate my product choices and my commitment to Adobe." Every last one." Count me among that number.


  1. When people ask for my recommendations I always suggest Lightroom + PS Elements. It is going to be interesting to see what Adobe do with Elements in the future.

    An alternative might be to look at the open source community and specifically GIMP (

  2. Hi Ian, Thanks for your comment. Yes, Elements and Gimp may be suitable in the future. But for now they are primarily, as I understand it, for 8 bit images. That is one of my red lines. Gimp is on the way to 16 bit support, but, looking at the current documentation, it is not fully there yet. No doubt RSN :-). I think I should keep an eye on Gimp and see how it goes over the next year. There's also Pixelmator ( which looks interesting.