So you want to write a Photoshop killer

Posted on 24 January, 2009 at 3:28pm

The Macintosh platform is well-known for quality independent software, a fact that attracts an increasing amount of professionals looking to get away from overpriced and bloated enterprise software. Indie Mac software is usually well-tailored to a particular audience, has a streamlined interface with native controls, and comes at a bargain for the price. What’s not to love?

And yet, there is still one large (and vocal) market segment waiting for rescue from their corporate overlords. I’m talking about professional designers, photographers and artists, who continue to be slaves to Adobe and its golden goose, Photoshop.

Now, there are several independent apps out there that offer some of the functionality of Photoshop. Many of these are quite good: Acorn, Vector Designer, Pixelmator. But no graphics professional is going to use any of these apps instead of Photoshop, despite the much lower price tag. The problem is not that the apps don’t have useful features. It’s that they haven’t managed to target a segment of the population that uses Adobe software to do their job and present them an alternative with the feature set they need.

Well, I’m here to help. I’m presenting four professional user archetypes of Photoshop along with what features they would need to switch to another application. Note that they rarely overlap. Hopefully this illustrates the futility of appealing to all of these people at once. Pick one segment of users and fine-tune towards their needs.

 

Pierre the Painter

Pierre and others like him use Photoshop for something we call digital painting. Their typical workflow involves scanning a sketch or sketching onscreen with a tablet, then inking and painting the sketch with different kinds of brushes. They rarely if ever use vectors because they don’t have the same organic qualities as natural media, so they usually work at a very high resolution to allow for printing and exporting at a variety of sizes.

Essential features:

Brush editor: Size, shape, opacity, blending, pen pressure. The more options the better. Brushes are the crux of everything they do.

Peripheral support:
Must work seamlessly with their pen tablets and scanners.

Color tools: A fully featured and prominent color palette as well as an eyedropper tool that they can easily swap to from the brush. Color proofing tools are important for artists who want to print their work.

Smudge: Aids blending, should ideally have similar options to the brush tool.

Layers: Pierre uses layers and layer blending to build up a painting from bottom to top. Changes to layers should be in the form of layer properties – in other words, you can go back later at any time and add/remove effects. (We call this non-destructive editing.)

Wish list:

Canvas texture: Natural media textures that affect brush dynamics on the “canvas.”

Line correction: Automatic line smoothing, perhaps as a brush option, would help correct a shaky hand when inking bold lines.

Where others have done it right:

Take a look at the oekaki phenomenon. Oekaki typically uses a simple web-based illustration tool and enjoys massive popularity in Japan and all over the world. Even though the feature set is relatively small, a creative artist can achieve a wide range of visual effects.

Corel Painter is also quite good, but much more complex and just as crufty as Photoshop in some ways.

 

Dana the Designer

Dana uses Photoshop primarily to create mock-ups and layouts, usually involving a fair amount of text. She uses vector tools to draw shapes and embellishments, typographic tools for text layout and headings, and bitmap tools to add images to her design. Assembling all the various pieces of a design into a cohesive whole means she needs to be able to work easily with many different kinds of graphic elements.

Essential features:

Robust typography tools:
Design is 90% typography, so the more options here, the better. Kerning, anti-aliasing, conversion to paths – all the usual suspects.

Layers: The ability to move, group, lock, name and otherwise manipulate layers of all kinds is critical.

Layer effects: You should be able to add basic effects like stroke, drop shadow, transparency, etc. to any kind of layer. Same for blending effects. But keep it non-destructive! Anything you add should be removable later.

Basic vector tools: A pen tool, simple shapes and lines with the option for stroke/fill on any of them. Basic pathfinding tools (join, union, add/subtract) are a bonus.

Image masking:
Designers often don’t require extensive bitmap manipulation (level correction, etc) but do need to fit these images into shapes in their design.

Wish list:

Grid tool: Rules and guides are a given, but additional tools to help you set on a grid with pleasing proportions would be great.

System anti-aliasing: For web designers. A text tool that emulates the system anti-aliasing you’d see on various kinds of computers.

Where others have done it right:

Fireworks (originally Macromedia, now Adobe) is a good example of an app with a boiled-down feature set for designers. It includes “lite” versions of many tools you can find in Photoshop or Illustrator. Despite not being as powerful, many designers prefer it for its relative simplicity.

 

Patrick the Photographer

Patrick uses Photoshop primarily for post-production work on his photographs. He imports an image from his camera, opens it at a high resolution and does level/color tweaks on the image. He may also use some limited drawing tools for clean-up.

Essential features:

Level/color correction:
All the usual suspects for photograph enhancement. Non-destructive please! If you add a correction, you should be able to edit or remove it later.

Heal and clone: Used for cleaning up artifacts and photo manipulation.

Basic drawing tools: Airbrush-like drawing tools with blending options are helpful for enhancing a subject. Used often on pictures of models.

Quick mask: Easily isolate a subject or portion of the photograph for editing. The ability to have alpha properties on a selection further enhances this tool’s usefulness.

Wish list:

Automatic depth-of-field blur: Detect elements in the foreground and blur elements in the background. Useful for when you are working with low-quality photographs.

Photo browser: Interface seamlessly with the user’s library of photographs.

Where others have done it right:

Of the four archetypes, this one enjoys the best coverage on the Mac. Both Aperture and Pixelmator do a nice elegant job of working with photographs. Both of these are reasonable alternatives to Photoshop for professionals.

 

Ian the Illustrator

Illustrators and icon designers fall into the same group and generally need the same tools. They rely almost exclusively on vector tools to do their work, and the more powerful the better. They may work from initial sketches but otherwise rarely do hand-drawn work with a tablet.

Essential features:

Powerful vector tools: A well-designed pen tool, point/handle editors and pathfinding tools are all absolutely essential. Any path, once placed, should always be fully editable.

Gradients:
Standard gradient fills are a must have, but many will also want mesh gradients or gradients that follow a path.

Export to standard file formats: One of the reasons illustrators work in vectors is so the final output can be resolution-independent. You should be able to export to a variety of standards like EPS, SVG and PDF. Bonus if you can export to AI as well.

Bitmap layer for tracing: Your canvas should be able to support bitmap layers so you can easily trace over photographs with the pen tool.

Wish list:

Icon preview: Automatically generate a view that lets you preview your icon at a number of different sizes on various backgrounds.

Hand-drawing tools: Tools that convert input from a pen tablet to paths are great, but even better when you can use different kinds of brushes that respond to pen pressure.

Where others have done it right:

Sadly, I can think of no professional-grade vector illustration tool. Some swear by the open-source app Inkscape, but I’ve never seen it used in professional circles and don’t have much personal experience with it myself.

 

Say what you will about Photoshop, it’s pretty amazing that one single app services all four of these archetypes. However, the flip side of that is that for any one of them, 75% of the app’s features are totally useless. Specialization and customer service is where independent software is strongest. If you can align yourself with your users, and if you listen to their needs, you will find yourself with a very willing audience. We all hate paying $1k+ to Adobe for a bunch of features we never use. We’d much rather pay $50 to an indie developer for exactly what we need.

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The Discussion

29 Comments on “So you want to write a Photoshop killer”
  • You make some very good points, and while I disagree with some (charging $50 for a PS competitor? Acorn itself is $50, and Pixelmator $60, and neither fill any single one of these archetypes very well), you really did nail it on the head with this comprehensive list. Personally, a graphics application has always been on my list of dream applications that I would do if given the time. (Unfortunately, for me at least, that won’t happen until at least 2010 when I’ve already won an ADA and my current top-secret communications project is on the desktops of the vast majority of Mac users). Again, I’m quite amazed at the level of comprehension you put into this post, and if this amount of effort is what you generally put forth in your blog, count me in as a subscriber!

  • Don’t forget LightRoom for Patrick. Even though it’s an Adobe product, It has a more approachable UI, and does a majority of image tweaks that you’d ordinarily do in photochop.

  • Pierre the Painter would probably be best served by Corel Painter, it does all that you identify as important (including line smoothing, if you play with the brush settings).

    The problem with Painter is its age: over the years, so many features have been added that it looks, as you put it, “as crufty as Photoshop in some ways” (I agree). If you take a feature out, some people will complain very vocally because people use about 20% of the program, not just the same 20% for everyone…

    What you need to do is re-invent Painter into a new product: keep the core, what’s really important, and rebuild it with Pierre in mind…

  • Have you seen VectorDesigner? It seems pretty neat for vector work, check out their video tutorials for an idea of what it can do.

    http://www.tweakersoft.com/vectordesigner/ (and http://www.tweakersoft.com/vectordesigner/vectordesignervideos.html for the videos)

    It has Flickr integration (but I’ve never really played with it enough to get what I want, but it can filter out by license, i.e. Creative Commons etc) and also scanning support (scans and converts to vector as best it can)

    I got it with MacHeist last year, and haven’t actually used it for a project yet :)

    - Davey

  • Davey: I’ve tried Vector Designer and found it fun to play around with but frustrating to get anything real done in. It’s coming along though and so far has a lot of potential.

  • Icon designers should definitely check out Opacity. It brings together vector art, Core Image filter layers, and multiple-resolution support, and has some unique features of its own, such as the ability to create “factories” that automatically export the image (including variations of it) to formats such as PNG, TIFF, PDF, and SVG for inclusion in your app.

  • What a cool article!

  • http://www.gimp.org

    It’s open-sourced, and it is made just for the image manipulation crowd. Plus it’s just as powerfull as Photoshop, if not more.

  • Leave it to the macTard to be completely unaware of gimp. I suppose you also think that a mac’s screen can “display more colors” than a pc also?

  • redundancy FTW.

  • That Xara vector program is supposed to be good but its Windows only so useless by default

  • Gimp on OSX? You forgot the sarcasm tags.

  • Hint: Until GIMP receives a complete interface overhaul, real CMYK and 16-bits-per-channel support, history brush, and something more sophisticated than its basic brushes, it’s nowhere in the same league as Photoshop.

  • Seriously, we all know about GIMP. There’s a reason it’s not mentioned. It’s just not up to the job.

  • > Hint: Until GIMP receives a complete interface overhaul, real CMYK and 16-bits-per-channel support, history brush, and something more sophisticated than its basic brushes, it’s nowhere in the same league as Photoshop.

    Despite I hate using it, I really think Gimp as what it takes to be a professional grade image editing software. In fact in term of capabilities, it’s probably one of the most advanced free software available for this particular task.

    Unfortunately at the moment, the interface feels awkward and unintuitive and, as you outlined, is missing some crucial features.

    That said, FOSS is about incremental improvements, so it *will* get better and people can actually do something about it and contribute to make it better. Unlike Photoshop where you’re at the complete mercy of a single corporation.

    > Gimp on OSX? You forgot the sarcasm tags.

    http://www.gimp.org/macintosh/

  • > Hint: Until GIMP receives a complete interface overhaul, real CMYK and 16-bits-per-channel support, history brush, and something more sophisticated than its basic brushes, it’s nowhere in the same league as Photoshop.

    Despite I hate using it, I really think Gimp as what it takes to be a professional grade image editing software. In fact in term of capabilities, it’s probably one of the most advanced free software available for this particular task.

    Unfortunately at the moment, the interface feels awkward and unintuitive and, as you outlined, is missing some crucial features.

    That said, FOSS is about incremental improvements, so it *will* get better and people can actually do something about it and contribute to make it better. Unlike Photoshop where you’re at the complete mercy of a single corporation.

    > Gimp on OSX? You forgot the sarcasm tags.

    http://www.gimp.org/macintosh/

    > Seriously, we all know about GIMP. There’s a reason it’s not mentioned. It’s just not up to the job.

    Seriously, just because you don’t know how to use a software it doesn’t mean that it’s not up to the job.

    Also, many have said the same about Blender not so long ago, now it’s used by professionals to makes awesome artworks;

    http://www.blender.org/features-gallery/gallery/art-gallery/

    And it’s still completely *free*.

    Likewise, The Gimp has a lot of capacities and unexploited potential and time will fix that.

  • The lead designer in my web dev company exclusively uses Inkscape, and has produced award-winning work with it. That’s certainly a professional circle, and it has real advantages over Illustrator: having svg as a native format is a big win for when you want to compare versions of files or make tweaks below the visual level. Also licensing is extremely simple, and speed is pretty great relative to Illustrator on Macbook hardware.

  • Tom: Interesting. I’ll admit it’s been over a year since I tried Inkscape, and last I used it it was still lacking in features. I’ll have to try it out again and see what it’s like.

    GIMP fans: Cloning PhotoShop is not really what I’m talking about here. The GIMP has made great steps towards that end, but building a free PhotoShop is an immensely challenging task that will take (and has taken) years to see its full realization. My point is that you can access the market of professional designers and artists without taking on PhotoShop in its full monstrosity. Some people are already starting to do this, and I think in a year or two you’ll see much higher adoption of those apps in professional circles than the GIMP.

  • > Seriously, just because you don’t know how to use a software it doesn’t mean that it’s not up to the job.

    And that’s exactly the attitude that will keep holding GIMP back from being a viable alternative to Photoshop. Obviously, if I have a complaint about it, it MUST be my fault. After all, GIMP is perfect already. If it doesn’t have a feature, I must just not have realized that I don’t actually need it!

  • It’s hard to walk away from a tool that you have been using for years. As much as I don’t like the price tag on photoshop, it still does a good job of combining a bunch of editing tools into one program.

  • … four professional user archetypes of Photoshop … Note that they rarely overlap. Hopefully this illustrates the futility of appealing to all of these people at once. Pick one segment of users and fine-tune towards their needs.

    The problem here is that there are people like me in the world who are professionally “all of these people at once”. (students, also)
    I do digital painting, photography, illustration, AND graphic design.
    Photoshop allows me to do all of this in one program, although I do use the rest of the Suite to help.

    I NEED and LIKE Photoshop in it’s full monstrosity.
    Perhaps I am a small percentage, but, because of the versatility/compatibility/etc. of it’s programs, our percentage will continue to be Adobe’s slaves.
    Is there any hope for our wallets?

  • > And that’s exactly the attitude that will keep holding GIMP back from being
    > a viable alternative to Photoshop. Obviously, if I have a complaint about
    > it, it MUST be my fault. After all, GIMP is perfect already. If it doesn’t
    > have a feature, I must just not have realized that I don’t actually need it!

    I’ve never used photoshop for serious work because it just doesn’t run on the platforms I use, so I honestly don’t know what about the Photoshop UI is so great compared to GIMP (what I’ve been using for years, because it seems to be the best option). I can’t find my way around Photoshop for anything, but having never (really) used it, I’m not at all surprised by that. Maybe it is substantially better. The thing is, I haven’t been able to see any major differences aside from personal preference.

    Now, I frequently see GIMP dismissed in the manner of the comments above (“There’s a reason it’s not mentioned. It’s not up to the job”, “Until GIMP receives a complete interface overhaul….”) but I’ve never seen a constructive criticism of the GIMP UI. I think it would be pretty interesting to read, since a lot of people obviously feel it has failings (including the GIMP dev team, 2.6 is moving to a different UI, and 2.8 should have CMYK and 16-bit support as well as additional steps towards that new UI).

    Anyhow, if anyone knows of a constructive discussion of the GIMP UI’s failings, I would really like to know about it.

    Thanks!

  • I am a big proponent of foss but after several years of on off trying I have still never managed to replace photoshop with gimp,

    simple problems like, not being able to edit text on canvas, a flat layer structure, having to use modifiers to move the layer you have selected (click dragging will move the layer of the object you have moused over, alt dragging will move the layer) its insistence in using 20 windows, and probably most annoyingly, have ui element fly around the screen as I mouseover things.

    (plus the layer panel highlight (with a black border) what you dont have selected…?)

    to be honest I might give it another shot now because I really dont like booting into vbox to get ubuntu, but gimp is far and away nowhere being as usable as photoshop, in terms of saying its “just as powerful”, features are pointless if noone knows how to use them.

    Inkscape is a much more comparitavely powerful tool, it doesnt have as hard a ui problem because inherently vectors are somewhat easier to manage, but they have done a pretty good job.

  • *just to get photoshop

    I usually post first, edit later :)

  • Here’s an excellent review of GIMP by a professional photo editor. GIMP is close, but it’s just not up to the task quite yet. http://arstechnica.com/media/news/2009/01/gimp-2-6-review.ars

    Really though, the problem with GIMP is that it’s trying to clone a program that sucks (OpenOffice has this same problem). I wish that Linux folks would spend more time trying to figure out what users actually want, rather than just mindlessly aping popular Windows apps.

  • [...] Random Non Sequitur » Blog Archive » So you want to write a Photoshop killer [...]

  • Xara LX works for Linux, Gimp is gradually getting better, Inkscape is gaining better effects and is already pretty solid. Blender is a 3D-application, but can also be used for drawing 2D-images, sculpting and video editing.

    I wish Gimp could be skinned, including shortcuts and placement of buttons. That way, a photographer could have a photography-oriented skin, with the relevant functions.

  • I’m not so sure that Photoshop would be a good (well, not an ideal choice anyway) choice for Pierre the painter. Maybe in versions > 7.0 it improved, but it still seemed light in painting related features the last time I used photoshop, when compared to Corel Painter, or heck, Dabbler for that matter.

    It would be a good choice for someone who wants all of these archetypes in one program, and is able to adjust their workflow. (and probably unparalleled for the photographer and text manipulator)

    I don’t get what the author meant in saying there were no “professional” alternatives for the vector graphics professional. I think that Illustrator (or if Adobe isn’t allowed, Corel Draw or Xara would easily fit the bill…)

  • I’m impressed, I have to say. Really hardly ever do I encounter a weblog that’s both educative and entertaining, and let me let you know, you’ve hit the nail on the head. Your thought is excellent; the problem is something that not enough individuals are talking intelligently about. I am very happy that I stumbled throughout this in my seek for one thing relating to this.

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