Thoughtful, detailed coverage of the Mac, iPhone, and iPad, plus the TidBITS Content Network for Apple consultants.

Can You Replace Photoshop with Pixelmator?

In “Adobe Flies from Creative Suite into the Creative Cloud,” 8 May 2013, Josh Centers described the stunning announcement made at the Adobe MAX conference that future versions of the sun-dried brick company’s Creative Suite products, including Photoshop, would be available only on a subscription basis. Many Photoshop users — particularly hobbyists and those who don’t live and die by the program — were outraged at the announcement and its implications (see “Creative Cloud Complaints Darken Adobe’s View of the Future,” 17 May 2013). In particular, many worried about the prospect of being locked out of all of their accumulated Photoshop documents if their previously purchased version of Photoshop should stop working (because, say, of an update to the operating system) unless they gave in and subscribed.

As someone whose own purchased copy of Photoshop, an ancient CS1 release, had already met such a fate at the hands of Mac OS X 10.7 Lion, I understand their fear. In my own case, though, Photoshop CS1’s inability to run on my current Mac did not mean that I had to abandon my old Photoshop files. Thanks to Pixelmator, from the Pixelmator Team, I can open and edit all of my old Photoshop files just fine (or, at least, those that I’ve tried — some old sins are not worth remembering).

I’m not the only one who has turned away from Photoshop to embrace Pixelmator. It seems that the most recent update, version 2.2, achieved 500,000 downloads in its first week of availability in the Mac App Store (see “Adding Context to Big Number News,” 17 May 2013).

Which raises the question posed by this article’s title: Can you replace Photoshop with Pixelmator? Or, to give it the correct emphasis, can you replace Photoshop with Pixelmator?

The answer to that, I’m afraid, may disappoint those who want cut-and-dried answers to complex questions: it depends on how you use Photoshop, and what you use it for. In my case, and in the cases of other members of the TidBITS staff whom I asked, the answer seems to be “Yes.”

As writers, of course, we scribblers at TidBITS tend not to have intense or complicated image editing needs: the most common needs recounted to me by my colleagues were for cropping and sizing images, composing screenshots, putting borders and text on images, and making minor adjustments to the colors and levels of images. Add to that my own peculiar need to manipulate the truly terrible cartoons I occasionally draw (see “iPad Tools for Bad Cartoonists (and Good Ones, Too),” 29 November 2012), and you end up with a list of use cases that make the feature set of Pixelmator, let alone Photoshop, seem like overkill on the level of a thermonuclear fly-swatter.

Pixelmator has a set of image editing and manipulation tools far in excess of our needs, with some of them similar in both operation and presentation to their Photoshop counterparts. For example, it has a Tools palette similar in many ways to the Tools panel found in Photoshop, with tools arranged in a similar order and sporting icons that won’t look unfamiliar to a Photoshop user.

Pixelmator also has a rich array of vector shapes you can use and stylize for those times when bitmap graphics don’t fill the bill. It has a bunch of gradient fills and controls to customize and adjust them. It provides all sorts of effects — color adjustments, blurs, distortion, sharpening, tiling, styling, and more — presented in a browser that enables you to preview them. It has lots of brushes, from simple to complex, and offers the capability to modify and add to them. It has layers, of course, and commands to link them, group them, merge them, adjust their blending with other layers, hide them, and use them as masks. It offers a Photo Browser so you can quickly peruse and choose from images in iPhoto, Aperture, Photo Booth (yes, Photo Booth!), plus any other images in your Pictures folder hierarchy. Put all of Pixelmator’s various palettes onscreen and you’d be hard-pressed to find the image you’re working on amid their vast richness of offerings.

Even Pixelmator’s menus bear a passing resemblance to Photoshop’s, with commands like Transform, Stroke, and Fill on the Edit menu, and a Layers menu with some familiar layer manipulation commands. You’ll also find an Image menu with the basic image and canvas size commands and color adjustment commands. These are not one-to-one copies of Photoshop’s offerings, of course — that application has many more commands and options — but if you have come to Pixelmator from Photoshop you will, at least, have a reasonable chance of finding the command you want if Pixelmator offers it.

But among some of the things that Photoshop offers that you won’t find in Pixelmator are the following: layer styles, adjustment layers, saved masks, editing in the CMYK color space, non-destructive editing, and channel chops. There are many other lacunae in Pixelmator’s capabilities as compared to Photoshop’s, as well, and if you regularly need any of those capabilities, Pixelmator is obviously not the right Photoshop replacement for you.

Here’s the possibly inconvenient truth: if you are a graphics or pre-press professional, Photoshop remains the best tool for your job, and whether you like the new Creative Cloud subscription-only model or not, you will eventually need to subscribe.

But if you’re not sure, investigating Pixelmator is hardly a wallet-buster. As I write, Pixelmator is available in the Mac App Store at a special half-price “introductory” cost of $14.99. Putting it in perspective, that’s half the $29.99 cost of a single month’s subscription to just Photoshop in Creative Cloud.

When you compare the two programs, it’s clear that Pixelmator is not the best choice for fully employed illustrators and graphic designers who must interact with others in the Photoshop-driven community of creative professionals. Instead, it is well positioned to meet the needs of users who Adobe’s new strategy has largely abandoned: hobbyists, people doing occasional photo touch-ups, and students and starving artists who can’t afford the overall cost of the Creative Cloud and who don’t need all of Photoshop’s professional (and sometimes arcane) features. If you’re trying to get your head out of the cloud, the combination of Pixelmator’s low cost and rich feature set may be just what you need to brighten your day.


Try productivity tools from Smile that will make your job easier!
PDFpen: PDF toolkit for busy pros on Mac, iPhone, and iPad.
TextExpander: Your shortcut to accurate writing on Mac, Windows,
and iOS. Free trials and friendly support. <>

Comments about Can You Replace Photoshop with Pixelmator?
(Comments are closed.)

Michael Curtis  2013-05-18 02:29
This article could not have been more timely as this is a question I have been asking myself. I only really crop, resize images for the web.

My question was more Pixelmator or Acorn? Any thoughts on that question?
Jeff Shapiro  2013-05-18 05:21
Often I put my Photoshop or Lightroom images through GraphicConverter before uploading them to my web sites. It does a much better job compressing JPEGs. GC does have some editing and manipulating features as well. Hmmm...maybe TidBits needs and article on this often forgotten app. (GC was the first application I ever purchased for a Mac back in 1995.)
Matt Weaver  2013-05-18 09:45
If you only need crop & resize, Preview on Lion or later can do that easily enough. There's a button next to the search box to show the edit tool bar.
Michael E. Cohen  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2013-05-18 10:00
I haven't used Acorn 4, so I can't honestly speak about it. Before I bought Pixelmator, though, I used Acorn 3. It did what I needed, but I didn't ever feel comfortable with its UI. However, that is a matter of personal taste; others seem to like the app a great deal. And the name of the company that makes it is more memorable and amusing than Pixelmator's. ☺
Oliver B. Habicht  An apple icon for a Friend of TidBITS 2013-05-18 16:03
I need to crop, resize, and change resolution for the web. I work in multiple OSes so this web-based solution has been ideal for my work:

Also, service allows you to export the image as a JPG, PNG, or GIF.
Andreas Frick  2013-05-21 06:17
Xee crops and turns jpeg images without recompression! It's also a very nice image viewer.
Bocaphotog  2013-05-18 05:15
I use content-aware in Photoshop 6 every day. My very first test in Pixelmator tried that feature, and I have to give the edge here to Photoshop. Their content-aware appears to do a much better job with fewer artifacts left behind.

There is also the issue of plug-ins. If users have made an investment in add-ons like Portrait Professional, from what I can see they won't be able to use them.

Having said all that, I am blown away at the price of $14.99 for a product that has this much functionality. I'm going to buy a copy just to have on my computer in order to encourage on-going development by them.

One thing that would really differentiate Pixelmator from almost any other program would be a simple viewer. For the moment, I use ViewIt, but there are so many problems with that program that I can't go into it here, one of the biggest being that the thumbnail size can't be adjusted. That simple add on would make Pixelmator an addition to my dock (!) and be a game changer.
Burkhard  2013-05-18 08:25
Have you tried content-aware refill (called object removal) in PhotoLine ( It even has a brush which does content-aware refill, and it's become my favourite when it comes to retouching.

Plus, PhotoLine has adjustment layers, layer styles, CMYK, Lab, 16 and 32 bits of colour depth, … at € 59. Can't compete against the GUI of Pixelmator, though.
Charlie Hartley  2013-05-18 09:09

I see it requires Lion. Guess I'll stick with GC.
On May 14, I purchased Pixelmator 2.2 on 10.6.8. It installed with no problem, and my initial tests went fine once I adjusted to the UI changes between 1.6.7 and 2.2.
Rob Russell  2013-05-18 13:08
You mentioned you had used Acorn 3, but not 4 yet. If you do get the opportunity to look at Acorn 4, take it. It really is a huge update. Layer Styles, non-destructive filters (yay) and it's terrific speed. It's scriptable, too, which is a big one for those processing large numbers of images. For me, the new, simple arrow tool turns out to be a really useful (I do a good amount of software documentation).

And it still feels pleasantly lightweight, something even Adobe's installer for their installers doesn't feel.

The Pixelmator support web site has better organised video tutorials, I think, but there is a lot of meat (flying meat, even!) on the Acorn support web site and the support vids feel less like marketing that Pixelmator's. Also, to me, the graphic effects in the Pixelmator interface are just a bit too much.

Pixelmator and Acorn overlap in many areas, but they feel very different. Vive la différence!
Rob Russell  2013-05-18 13:39
I might take back that comment about Acorn's video tutorial page being less better organised than Pixelmator's. I hadn't seen the changes at (my bad!)
Michael E. Cohen  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2013-05-18 14:32
Thanks, Rob! Acorn does seem worth a second look, based on your remarks. Good to know.
Tommy Weir  2013-05-20 11:11
I can agree with Rob, Acorn is a marvellous tool and a worthy alternative to consider.

The other tool to look at, particularly for screen based graphics is Sketch 2.

It's an interesting structured/bitmap editor, not something you would use for photography but certainly a great tool for UI elements for web or app development.
Richard Lennox   2013-05-19 08:30
It does indeed depend... Habits are hard to break, and having used photoshop 'forever' I wonder how much I am willing to spend just to accommodate my habits. Having been in 'pro' mode... It is precisely the PS layer styles, CMYK and actions & 'save for web' that were critical to optimized workflow. Now (non-commercial)... I am using iPhoto 70% (organize & basic), Aperture 10% (advanced) and Preview 20% (amazing free quick fixes-explore it!). Acorn and Pixelmaker are just 'different' complications, Adobe's Elements Photoshop Has fully 80% of full version- but I don't even need that. As i move to mobile image editing: SnapSeed is now a favorite. I also moved from inDesign to Pages. Still searching for an illustrator replacement... but still, Bye bye Adobe.
john Whitehead  2013-05-19 12:41
I think Photoshop users have plenty of alternatives, as these comments show. But what about users of Illustrator? Corel Draw (of which I have bad memories from Windows a decade or so ago) seems to cost as much and offer less sophistication. OmniGraffle is excellent for the right project (superb org charts eg) but doesn't have Illustrator's range. Anything I've missed?
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2013-05-20 06:18
We've heard about Sketch as an alternative.

And there's also iDraw.

Comments about either are welcome!
Tommy Weir  2013-05-20 11:20
Sketch is wonderful. As in really wonderful.

it has an infinite canvas, a lovely workflow, and is quick to pick up. It's not a Photoshop replacement, being very focussed on screen-based graphics, UI elements for apps, websites etc.
Paul Howson  2013-05-19 17:06
Pixelmator and Acorn are remarkably mature for their age. They may not be viable alternatives to Photoshop today, but what about in 2 or 3 or 4 years from now when Adobe customers who have not joined Creative Cloud need to find a replacement for Photoshop? Pixelmator and Acorn (and other) can make a lot of progress in that time. That's when it will get interesting.
M. Perry  2013-05-20 07:56
Adobe seems to chosen to move in the opposite direction to Apple. The latter has angered pros by making their products more prosumer and even amateur. I suspect Adobe intends to make their pro products more appealing to pros at the expense of sales to ordinary consumers.

A year ago, I was quite hostile to Adobe's move toward subscriptions. The nasty realities of digital book publishing have changed my mind. I like the idea of continuous improvements. Getting updates to InDesign roughly monthly means I can benefit from them immediately rather than wait 12-18 months for the next major upgrade. That saves me time and money. It's also a lot easier to absorb new features if they come out a few at a time with high quality tutorials.

Don't forget that Adobe has consumer products (i.e. Elements) and can add more. By splitting their product line into pros and consumers, they can better serve both groups. And if the need arises consumers will find it easier to move to pro products.
B. Jefferson Le Blanc  2013-05-20 16:59
I think Photoshop Elements deserves at least an honorable mention here. It is still priced under $100. While it's what might be called Photoshop Lite, unlike Pixelmator and Acorn it includes Adobe Camera Raw, which can process images from your digital cameras in a nondestructive format - Raw and/or DNG, as well as JPEG - and, like Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, remains outside the Adobe Creative Cloud subscription briar patch. Elements has long been the Photoshop alternative for non-professionals.
Charlie  An apple icon for a TidBITS Benefactor 2013-05-23 14:44
I currently use Photoshop CS6 including many of its advanced features along with many purchased plugins. If I decide to abandon full blown Photoshop it will be for Photoshop Elements and not Pixelmator or Acorn. From what I can see these are fine programs but not what I need for my requirements.
Michael B  2013-05-20 15:54
At the Pixelmator Website ( can download the program and try it for free for 30 days.

Another thing Pixelmator lacks is tools for automation.

Also, Graphic Convertor can open Photoshop files (the ones I've tried). It has much of the functionality of Photoshop, too. Someone thinking of abandoning photoshop should really trip both GC & Pixelmator.
barefootguru  An apple icon for a TidBITS Contributor 2013-05-23 18:56
Pixelmator has Automator actions for automation. From the front page: Use powerful Pixelmator actions in Automator to resize, watermark, and even transform a bunch of your images at once.
Elaine  2013-05-20 16:04
I asked Thom Hogan what would be a good replacement for Photoshop and he wrote me back: Pixelmator. The only problem with it is that files edits tend to be destructive. (His words). If you don't know who Thom Hogan is, he is the number one guy I read on Nikon and now mirrorless cameras. Go to to read his reviews. He's quite intelligent and has workshops too.
barefootguru  An apple icon for a TidBITS Contributor 2013-05-23 19:02
There's very few edits *any* program can make to a JPEG without losing information--pretty much just cropping and rotation. That's the nature of a lossy format. Save in Pixelmator's native format, or something like PNG, to prevent destructive edits.
Kevin Ruiz  2013-05-20 19:50
Scott Kelby, president of the National Association of Photoshop Professionals, and Matt Kloskowski discussed the Creative Cloud matter on The Grid, episode 95 ( .

Very informative and worth watching.
Willie  2013-05-27 18:52
I love Scott and Matt, I am a member of NAPP, but unfortunately the opinions are a little biased. You have to understand that they NEED people on Adobe products in order for their businesses to succeed.

The $10 a month for Photoshop is non-sense. IT WILL GO UP once they get you! Beware! You will get stuck with making monthly payments FOREVER!!! if you want to use the Adobe Products.

Adobe needs to get their act together and stop this FORCED cloud monthly subscription model. They need to listen to the customers. A lot of people are not happy with Adobe right now. A lot of people are even taking their business elsewhere.

See NON-BIAS opinions - plain truth:
Willie  2013-05-28 08:51
I posted some comments on this Scott Kelby's blog link that you mentioned and they are being screened and deleted. This is obviously a one sided blog aimed at missinformation. I would not trust what they are saying. Its very biased and screened. Go to blogs and forums where all information is considered and valued to get the truth.
For $12 Elements+ adds many CS6 capabilities to Elements.

Snag Elements for around $50 on sale and you can get close to CS6 for around 10% of the cost (although I loathe the idea of giving Adobe any more business...)

And in this article Matt Kloskowski opines that for many photographers Elements 11 is much better than just adequate:
Willie  2013-05-27 15:56
Here is a good list I found of Adobe software alternatives: