Adobe is an innovative developer and its Creative Cloud applications are often the best tool for what professionals require, but the subscription-only model isn't for everyone.
who are holding out from joining Adobe’s Creative Cloud, the Digital Arts team have chosen a selection of art, design, photography, video and VFX tools for professional creatives.
There are a million free and cheap creative tools out there, and a small number provide a welcome alternative for students and hobbyists. However being
Digital Arts, we focus on tools that are suitable for professional designers, artists and editors. That dramatically reduces the number of such tools we'd consider.
Some pro-level tools are also available for free, and we’re certainly not going to turn our noses up at them. Some are open source and developed for the love, but mostly they’re free because their developers are getting paid somewhere else, such as Google's banner ad design tool.
If you're making a living from digital content creation you’d probably rather pay for an up to date tool that lets you create amazing works in an efficient manner, offers good support terms and won't let you down on a critical job. It's these tools that form the main focus for our feature.
Some of these applications are by long-standing rivals to Adobe (such as Autodesk and Avid), some are by independent developers who created a tool for a specific purpose because offerings by Adobe were too broad (Sketch), and a few are by companies who you might have previously associated with parish newsletter preparation, but have actually created a top notch, professional-level app (we're looking at you Serif for Affinity Designer).
There really are a lot of alternative choices out there for professionals, so check out these great products.
Adobe Creative Cloud apps rivals
Illustration, graphic and web design tools Affinity Designer
Alternative to: Illustrator and Photoshop for graphic and vector art and design Price: £34.99 from the Mac App Store Platform: Mac OS X 10.7/8/9/10
Affinity Designer is the first of a high-end range of creative apps from SerifLabs, a vector design app with a PSD import engine and support for PDF, SVG, AI, FH and EPS files.
Built for the Mac, it offers professional colour models, full 16-bit per channel editing, real-time pixel preview, image slices, masks, adjustment layers and tablet support.
The app takes full advantage of core Mac technologies including Grand Central Dispatch, Core Graphics and OpenGL hardware acceleration to offer live 60fps panning and zooming, live gradients, transforms, effects and adjustments.
Affinity Designer has been optimised for regular and retina screens (including the new 27-inch 5k retina iMac), and offers separated/docked UI options, as well as full screen support.
Read more about Affinity Designer
Google Web Designer
Alternative to: Photoshop and Edge Animate for web graphics and design. Price: Free Platform: Mac OS X 10.7 or later, Windows 7/8
Google’s free banner ad-design tool can output directly to the company’s money-spinning ad service DFP, where better-designed and less-buggy ads means more ad dollars.
With an integrated visual and code interface it allows designers to create interactive HTML5 ads and other HTML5 content, offering design tools such as a Text tool that integrates with Google Web Fonts, a Shapes tool, a Pen tool, and 3D tools, as well as the ability to animate objects and events on a timeline.
GWD provides a library of components that lets you add image galleries, videos, maps and other kinds of functions to web sites and advertisements, as well as to automatically include tracking code events for DoubleClick and AdMob.
Download Google Web Designer
Alternative to: Illustrator and Photoshop for graphic and vector art and design Price: £69.99 on Mac App Store Platform: Mac OS X 10.9/10
This drawing tool for Macs is aimed at designers of all sorts, with websites, icons or interfaces able to be created quickly within the
On top of its vector editing and text rendering capabilities, developer
Bohemian Coding has also added support for basic bitmap styles, such as blur and colour corrections in Sketch3. Other features include m ultiple fills per layer, extensive text styles and an infinite canvas.
The canvas can be worked on in a
resolution-independent view for precision, or users can turn on Pixel Preview to see exactly how every pixel will look on export.
Read a review of Sketch
CorelDRAW Graphics Suite X7
Alternative to: Illustrator for graphic and vector design Price: £374.17 plus VAT Platform: Windows 7/8/8.1
The latest version of this venerable workhorse for Windows users offers a redesigned Welcome Screen, a variety of alternate workspaces, total customisation options, and wealth of project-ready content.
Even at a currently reduced price of £450 inc VAT the suite isn't cheap, but you get a lot for your money, including six Corel applications and utilities, such as CorelDRAW X7 (
pictured), Photo-Paint X7, PowerTrace X7 and Website Creator.
Throw in a host of supporting applications for font control, printing and colloboration, as well as over 10,000 clip art images, 2,000 photos and 600 templates, and you have a real rival to Creative Cloud in your hands.
Read a review of CorelDRAW Graphics Suite
Alternative to: Dreamweaver and Edge Animate for web design Price: $179 Platform: Mac OS X 10.6.8, Windows XP and above
Macaw is a professional web design tool aimed at both designers and developers, with the boast of being the first web design tool to blend the fluid and intuitive interface of an image editor with a powerful design-to-code engine.
Macaw’s design environment is powered by a real-time layout engine called Stream, which allows elements to be manipulated in a manner similar to image editors like Adobe’s Photoshop. The application offers a list of browser-safe fonts and a curated list of Google Web Fonts, but you can add Typekit fonts and enable System Fonts.
Behind the scenes, Stream calculates all of the properties necessary to place the elements into a static document flow. Using the Alchemy design to code engine, Macaw analyses your design to generate smart, usable HTML and CSS with the click of a button.
Read more about Macaw
Tumult Hype 2.5
Alternative to: Photoshop and Edge Animate for responsive web graphics and animated ads. Price: £34.99 inc VAT Platform: Mac OS X 10.6
This HTML5 creation app for Mac OS X creates animated and interactive content that runs on desktops, smartphones and iPads.
No coding is required as Hype uses a keyframe-based animation system that records the changes you make to content.Built-in support for HTML5 audio and video allows for multimedia projects.
Hype users can add natural curves using bezier handles and add effects such as blur, hue shift, shadows, reflections and 3D transforms.
Multiple simultaneous timelines can run animations based on user events, such as swipe and touch actions, with projects able to be previewed instantly on an iOS device using the free Hype Reflect app.
Read more about Hype
Photoshop rivals for photo-editing and digital-painting Pixelmator 3.3
Alternative to: Photoshop Price: £20.99 from Mac App Store Platform: Mac OS X 10.9.5/10.10
Pixelmator has built a reputation as a great Mac imaging app, slick, up to date and great value. It's a very good editing, RAW handling and compositing tool, though it might suffer in comparison to Photoshop due to a lack of pro features such as CMYK support .
It does offer an array of many of the tools and layering capabilities that Photoshop users require, as well as a palette of 160 drag and drop effects and a collection of vector shapes. Layer Styles and Layer Effects add to its considerable compositing power.
Pixelmator supports Core Image or Quartz Composer compositions, so you can drop custom-made filters in. It also plays nicely with Apple's Aperture and iPhoto, supporting their libraries.
Read a review of Pixelmator
Alternative to: Photoshop Price: free Platform: Mac OS X 10.9, Windows XP/Vista, GNU/Linux
The venerable GNU Image Manipulation Program feels like it's been around as long as Photoshop, but it is developed as open source software and thus constantly updated and freely available (
donations are welcome however).
GIMP offers many useful and some unique tools, such as the new cage transform and rotatable brushes in the latest version, while utilities such as layer groups and text editing should be familiar to most ex-Photoshop users.
The tradeoff is a slow, rather clunky workflow, but one that is perfectly adequate when you consider what you pay for it.
Alternative to: Photoshop Price: free Platform: Mac OS X 10.7.5
Currently available as a free download for public beta testing, Affinity Photo is aimed at professional photographers.
Boasting true end-to-end CMYK, 16-bits per channel editing, LAB colour, RAW processing, ICC colour management, and Photoshop PSD and 64-bit plug-in compatibility, it's a Mac only tool.
The beta version offers pro photography adjustments like Frequency Separation editing, live blend modes, painting, and advanced retouching, as well as task-focused, uncluttered workspaces.
The lossless editing workflow offers scaling, cropping, blurs and other popular edit, as well as guided approaches to image editing through the use of
Get Affinity Photo
Photography Corel AfterShot Pro 2
Alternative to: Lightroom and Photoshop Price: £32.87 plus VAT Platform: Mac OS X 10.7.3 and later, Windows 7/8.1/Vista/XP
The latest version of this non-destructive photo editor and high-speed photo manager offers
advanced image adjustments and rapid RAW conversion and handling capabilities.
The 64-bit application can handle much larger images than before, with 250 RAW camera profiles and a new batch processing workflow. OpenCL support lets you tap into GPU-based power boosts.
Imaging adjustments include versioning, selective adjustments, local contrast,
Athentech Imaging Noise Removal, lens correction and a complete set of HDR tools (Windows only).
Read a review of After Shot Pro
DxO OpticsPro 10
Alternative to: Lightroom and Photoshop Price: £79 plus VAT Platform: Mac OS X 10.8/9/10, Windows 7/8/8.1
This is primarily a photographers correction tool with the power to instantly fix optical defects of your equipment, remove digital noise even at high sensitivities, recover fine details and textures in dark or burnt areas, and bring out all the nuances of colour in your images.
The basic Essentials edition includes automatic RAW and JPEG image-processing tools, with numerous presets that allow you to adapt the processing to suit your workflow. The Elite edition includes more advanced image-processing features as denoising technology, colour management, and multiple output formats.
Both editions allow interaction with Adobe Lightroom, numerous colour and imaging correction tools and customisable workspaces
Read a review of OpticsPro
Digital Painting Corel Painter 2015
Alternative to: Photoshop Price: £282.99 inc. VAT Platform: Mac OS X 10.7/8/9, Windows 7/8.1
This natural media painting application has a lot of fans and rightly so – our expert reviewers consider it the best tool for digitally replicating traditional techniques.
As well as a host of texture tools and brush sets, including new Particle-based effects for painting fire, fur and smoke, users benefit from jitter settings that introduce randomness to brush strokes and highly responsive user interfaces.
The latest version offers 64-bit optimisation and performance enhancements to increase artistic control.
Read a review of Corel Painter 2015.
Ambient Design ArtRage 4.5
Alternative to: Photoshop Price: £32.03 plus VAT Platform: Mac OS X 10.6/7/8, Windows Vista/7/8
ArtRage offers a set of natural painting and drawing tools that simulates a familiar, real world paintbox, for a bargain price.
A rather unique interface minimises the toolset to the essentials for the task at hand, while the rest of work area is given over to the paint simulation. You can dismiss the entire interface with a single mouse tap if you want even more room.
Users paint with tools like thick oils that smear and blend naturally, draw with pencil and chalk that reacts to the texture of the canvas, and get realistic results without needing to resort to post-processing techniques.
Read a review of ArtRage 4
Escape Motions Rebelle
Alternative to: Photoshop Price: $39.99 (pre-purchase price) Platform: Mac OS X 10.9/10, 64-bit Windows 7/8
New app on the block Rebelle offers a set of water colour and acrylic simulation tools based on real-world colour mixing, blending, wet-diffusion, and drying.
Available for Mac and Windows, the fluid simulation physics behind Rapelle have been created by Peter Blaškovic, with the help of Michal Fapšo.
Users can paint, smear, re-wet dried colours, blow wet washes across the paper, tilt the paper to create water drops and runs and create many watercolour effects.
Wet tools, such as watercolours, acrylics or ink pen, can be seamlessly combined with pastels, pencils, airbrush many other dry-media tools and effects. The application supports Wacom tablet input.
Visit Escape Motions to purchase Rapelle.
MARI 2.6 by The Foundry
Alternative to: Photoshop for 3D texture painting Price: £1,221 plus VAT Platform: Mac OS X 10.8.5, Windows 7 (64-bit), Linux 64-bit
Originally created to handle the ambitious look development and texture requirements on ‘Avatar’, this 3D paint tool offers a fluid and flexible way to paint directly onto 3D models which
The Foundry claims allows more time to spend painting and less time managing technical issues.
Supported by an layer-based workflow that comes complete with adjustments, procedurals and advanced masking, MARI is capable of handling high-resolution textures and millions of polygons without compromising on speed or efficiency, claims the company.
It also provides a fully customisable user interface, takes advantage of GPU rendering and data processing engines and allows powerful lighting, texturing and shading capabilities.
Read more about Mari
Graphic Design QuarkXpress 10
Alternative to: InDesign Price: £799 plus VAT Platform: Mac OS X 10.7.5/8/9, Windows 7/8/8.1
With full support for high-res Retina displays on the Mac, extensive PDF capabilities and the Xenon Graphics Engine for enhanced image rendering, QuarkXPress gives precise control over text, images, shapes, colour, and opacity for a broad range of output, including print, web and digital publishing.
As a pre-press tool, QuarkXPress provides print previews, soft proofing features, comprehensive colour management, support for international colour standards and a built-in preflighting feature.
Coming later this year, QuarkXPress 2015 promises to deliver increased performance with a new 64-bit architecture, efficient print and digital production and many of the most user-requested features.
Quark said the new version of QuarkXPress will continue to be sold as a perpetual license.
Read a review of QuarkXPress
Video Editing Avid Media Composer
Alternative to: Premiere Pro for video editing Price: £939 plus VAT for perpetual licence, from £39 monthly subscription Platform: Mac OS X 10.9/10, Windows 7/8
A couple of years ago, Avid's video editing stalwart was forced to take an agressive price drop to win back some ground lost to Final Cut Pro and Premiere who threatened its industry-standard profile.
The price is creeping back up again but the application has managed to retain its standing thanks to a massive installed base in the film and TV industry and a reputation for reliability.The company still offers perpetual licences for Media Composer, but has recently introduced a subscription model too.
Currently at version 8.3, Media Composer can handle high volumes of disparate file-based media, delivering accelerated high-res and HD workflows, real-time collaboration, and powerful media management. Users can edit 4K media natively in real-time, work in any resolution and in professional colour spaces and use background processes for effects rendering and transcoding.
Read a review of Media Composer
Final Cut Pro X
Alternative to: Premiere Pro for video editing Price: £199.99 Platform: Mac OS X 10.9.2
Mac-only NLE has managed to weather the storm of re-engineering and accusations of dumbing down to become a serious choice for professionals once more.
Although the workflow was revolutionary for video editing software when
FCP X first appeared, Apple got it in the neck from unimpressed broadcast video editors and has since responded to user demands from this quarter with almost every release. As a result some pro editors now swear by the magnetic timeline approach, rather than at it.
The latest 64-bit version offers native MXF import, edit, and export, as well as support for
import and editing with Panasonic AVC-LongG media and the option to export AVC-Intra MXF files, while recent updates include the ability to apply a standard (Rec. 709) look in real time to high dynamic range and wide colour gamut video from ARRI, Blackmagic Design, Canon, and Sony cameras.
Read a review of Final Cut Pro X
Alternative to: Speedgrade for colour grading and Premiere Pro for video editing Price: Free/£635 plus VAT Platform: Mac OS X 10.8.5, Windows 7
Resolve is an advanced 64-bit video finishing tool, multitrack editor and colour correction software, offering a collaborative workflow.It offers 32 bit floating point image processing and uses a unique YRGB colour space for grading.
Resolve uses node based processing where each node can have colour correction, power windows and effects applied.Editing tools are context sensitive and multiple people can work together on the same timeline at the same time.
Resolve is highly scalable and supports up to eight GPUs working together and offers powerful delivery options for versioning, finishing and delivery at any resolution. It can share sequences and round trip projects with Final Cut Pro X, Media Composer and Premiere Pro CC, while VFX shots from Fusion and After Effects CC can be dropped directly into the timeline for final grading and finishing.
Read more about Resolve
VFX & Motion Graphics Blackmagic Fusion
Alternative to: After Effects for VFX Price: Free Platform: Windows 7/8
Fusion 7 is a 64-bit visual effects and motion graphics suite that was recently released as a free product by new owner Blackmagic Design. Originally developed by Eyeon, the software has been a mainstay of
VFX studios worldwide for many years.
Fusion 7 features an infinite 3D workspace and node-based workflow for quickly building unlimited effects, as well as advanced 3D compositing, paint, rotoscope, retiming, stabilisation and titling tool
It also includes a 3D particle generator and multiple keyers, including Primatte. Fusion 7 lets customers import and render 3D geometry and scenes from other applications as well as create their own elements from scratch.
Also available is Fusion 7 Studio, a complete bundle of VFX and motion graphics solutions with collaborative tools and unlimited network rendering for creative teams and larger facilities, available for £635.
Though both the free version of Fusion 7 and Fusion 7 Studio are Windows only, a Mac release is thought to be in the pipeline
Read more about Fusion 7
Autodesk Smoke 2015
Alternative to: After Effects for VFX and motion graphics Price: £1,280 plus VAT Platform: Mac OS X 10.8.5/9/10 (for Smoke Extension 1)
This professional editing and effects system has made a big impact in post production environments, with dedicated support for the Mac Pro and XML interoperability with Final Cut Pro X adding to its appeal for Mac-based facilities.
Effects tools are integrated within a standard timeline editing environment, where you can integrate lighting effects, work with 3D geometry from Maya in scenes, mix multi-resolution video layers and make changes interactively.
The node-based compositing environment is accessible directly from the timeline and a 3D Tracker lets you duplicate real-world camera movement for compositing elements into shots. Smoke 2015 Extension 1 further allows you to apply LUTs and colour transforms and more.
Read more about Smoke 2015
The Foundry Nuke 9
Alternative to: After Effects for VFX Price: £2,534 plus VAT Platform: Mac OS X 10.8/9, Windows 7/8 64-bit
The Foundry's award-winning compositor is an industry standard in film post production. The price is steep compared to the Adobe tools, but Nuke is a powerhouse for visual effects.
It has the power to combine live action 2D and 3D elements in an integrated 3D environment and offers a resolution-independent, multi-channel pipeline. It uses a node-based workflow to apply industry standard keyers (Ultimatte, Primatte, Keylight), together with rotoscope and vector paint tools, time manipulators and multiple colour correction approaches, as well as the ability to relight renders in the comp environment.
GPU-acceleration makes it possible to speed up interactive processing for tasks such as motion blur, denoise, retiming and defocus, while Deep Compositing tools allow artists to work with 'deep images' containing multiple opacity and colour samples per pixel. It also offers stereoscopic tools and full support for HDRI formats.
Read more about NUKE