Pixelmator 3.5 Canyon review: better editing, new Apple Photos extension

Jeff Carlson
20 July, 2016
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As you start moving beyond the basics of editing images – past general exposure and colour adjustments – you’ll discover a semi-secret truth: a lot of your time is spent selecting specific areas for editing. Making a foreground object brighter, for instance, can reveal a telltale halo if the selection doesn’t match well with the object.

Selections have traditionally been a strength of Adobe Photoshop, but the granddaddy editor is overkill for many people who don’t need its extensive feature set, or don’t want to pay a Creative Cloud subscription fee (which starts at $11.99 a month with an annual plan, and can cost up to $93.98 a month for the full CC suite).

Instead, Pixelmator 3.5 Canyon (Mac App Store link) has been a popular and inexpensive ($46.99) Photoshop alternative. The main improvements in version 3.5 make it easier and less time-consuming to create good selections. This version also brings selective editing to Apple’s Photos app by introducing a new Photos Editing Extension, Pixelmator Retouch, that brings many of its retouching tools to images in your Photos library.

Selective service

The challenge when making selections is that there isn’t always a clean line you can follow by drawing with the Lasso tool – and even when there is, defining it by hand is painstaking. Let the software assist in a big way.

02 pixelmator quickselect barn edge

The Quick Selection tool (which replaces the Paint Selection tool) detects edges and shadows, and pays attention to the direction the mouse pointer is moving as you drag to figure out which areas to select. In general, the tool does a pretty good job of selecting only the areas I want, even when the tones are similar (like a metal barn roof against a grey cloud background) and when the tool’s brush size was larger than the item being selected. I also like how Pixelmator highlights the sections using a red swath of colour, which is immediately identifiable as you work.

Don’t expect the Quick Selection tool to work miracles, though. It will do a good first pass in difficult situations, like hair, but you’ll need to refine the selection later.

03 pixelmator initial selection

For areas where you do have well-defined lines, the Magnet Selection tool helps you avoid a lot of work and frustration. Click a starting point and then drag (without holding the mouse button) along the edge of the item you wish to select. The selection automatically clings to edges.

As you may expect, the tool can be thrown off by similar tones, and sometimes it jumps away from where your eyes think it should go. That’s why you can refine the line as you go: click to set a point, press Delete to remove a previous point and, when the line starts to stray like a puppy learning to walk, hold Option to temporarily switch to the Polygonal Lasso tool and define your own line; doing so doesn’t abandon the magnetic selection work you’ve done so far. Overall, the tool works well and provides plenty of flexibility to make a selection while the Magnetic Selection tool remains active.

04a pixelmator magnet

Ultimately, making good selections doesn’t happen with just one or two tools. As you do more, you’ll combine the program’s other tools, such as painting in Quick Mask mode and using the Refine Selection command, for better selections. But the Quick Selection and Magnetic Selection tools in Canyon make the process much easier.

It’s worth mentioning that the company has also implemented the Quick Selection and Magnetic Selection tools into Pixelmator for iOS 2.3. One of Pixelmator’s strengths is the ability to synchronise editing projects between Mac and iOS, complete with layers and adjustments. Being able to make better selections, especially in a touch interface where you can immediately see what’s being selected, is a helpful addition.

Pixelmator Retouch extension

Most of the editing tools in Apple’s Photos application apply to an entire image, so if you keep your photo library there, you may feel like your options are limited. (Although to be fair, it’s a more powerful editor than most people realise. See ‘The hidden editing power of Photos for OS X‘.)

That’s where Photos extensions come in. The new Pixelmator Retouch extension gives you several controls for editing selected portions of a photo, without having to export the image to edit it in the Pixelmator application. Lighten or darken areas, adjust colour saturation, heal imperfections or remove unwanted items, clone sections and sharpen or blur areas.

05a pixelmator retouch

All of the features worked well, although it’s important to note that applying them is additive: if you lighten an area, and then go back over it again with the brush, it will become even lighter. That’s not always a negative, but don’t expect that you can adjust the tone as if it were on its own layer (that’s when you may consider exporting to Pixelmator itself). Also, as with all Photos extensions, when you click Save Changes, the edits are burned in; you can revert the image to its original state, but can’t walk back any recent edits.

General observations

Pixelmator represents that percentage of Photoshop’s features most people actually use on a regular basis. Though it’s not without its quibbles. At the top of my list is erratic application of adjustments.

For example, let’s say I use the Brightness and Contrast control to increase brightness by 10 percent, but then later decide that was too much. When I return to that control, the sliders are set back to zero, so I need to apply a -10 percent brightness adjustment to go back to where I was (assuming I remembered that 10 percent was the amount earlier). Worse, this isn’t consistent; some controls, like Black & White, do provide the last edit values. I look forward to the day when Pixelmator implements real adjustment layers that can be independently edited.

Bottom line

For a large amount of image editing tasks, Pixelmator is an excellent, affordable alternative to Photoshop. Its enhanced selection tools work well and add to its utility, while the Pixelmator Retouch Extension for Photos is a good way to add selective edits while remaining within your Photos library.

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