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.
For those 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 Affinity Designer).
There really are a lot of alternative choices out there for professionals, so check out these great products.
Illustration, graphic and web design tools
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, and offers separated/docked UI options, as well as full screen support.
Its 2020 update gives creatives the ability to customise keyboard shortcuts, in the same way as you can on Windows and Mac.
There's also an iPad version to download. Check out the review from Tobias Hall.
Google Web Designer
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.
This drawing tool for Macs is aimed at designers of all sorts, with websites, icons or interfaces able to be created quickly within the one-window app.
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 multiple 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.
CorelDraw Graphics Suite 2019
It's almost 20 years since Corel last released a version of its CorelDraw vector graphics software for the Mac, and CorelDraw Graphics Suite 2019 certainly looks and feels like a true Mac app, right down to the inclusion of Mac-specific features such as Mojave's Dark Mode and support for the Touch Bar on the latest MacBook Pro models.
Whether on Windows or iOS, the main CorelDraw app is a genuinely attractive tool for professional-level vector graphics and illustration work, and while the menu-heavy Photo-Paint feels a little old-fashioned, it's a welcome bonus that adds extra value and could save you quite a bit of money if you don't want to sign up for Adobe's Creative Cloud subscriptions.
CorelDraw Graphics Suite is a fully featured graphics suite with plenty of apps and utilities, plus access to the online coreldraw.app, and surprisingly user-friendly advice and tutorials for newcomers.
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.
Moving onto Photoshop rivals for photo-editing and digital-painting.
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, and offers 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.
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.
Serif Affinity Photo
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, Affinity Photo is a great tool for Windows, Mac and the iPad.
The app 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 Personas.
AfterShot Pro 3
Photography apps to rival Adobe.
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).
DxO OpticsPro for Photos
DxO OpticsPro 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.
Corel Painter 2019
The best digital painting apps.
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.
Whether you're on Painter 2018 or an older version, Painter 2019 is definitely worth the upgrade price. Even if you're not interested in all the new brushes and features added in, the performance increase alone is worth it. Things that were introduced awhile back – looking at you, multi-touch and brush ghost – are now working as they should be. Brushes especially feel much more responsive.
There are a couple of issues for Windows users arriving from the 1808 update, relating to the brush search function. but these should be fixed pretty quickly.
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.
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.
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.
Graphic Design apps
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.
Avid Media Composer 7
Avid Media Composer
Alternative to: Premiere Pro for video editing
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.
Final Cut Pro 10.4
This 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 app 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.
BlackMagic DaVinci Resolve
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.
VFX & Motion Graphics
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.
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.
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.
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