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8 graphics applications for your Apple Mac

Most people need a graphics application of some sort on their Mac and they have a wide range of uses from fun projects to serious business. iPhoto will have been bundled with your Mac, but it is more of a photo manager than a true graphics application. It only has simple, basic photo editing capabilities.

There are many differences between a graphics application and iPhoto, but a really obvious one and an important one is that iPhoto cannot be used to create artwork from scratch. It's a photo manager that has a few photo enhancement tools built in. If you need to create artwork from scratch starting with a blank canvas or if you want to modify ready-made images then you need a true graphics editing application.

Without a doubt, Adobe Photoshop is one of the best and perhaps the best graphics editor for the Mac and it stands head and shoulders above everything else that is available. It has an incredible range of features and is an impressive piece of software. It is hardly surprising that professional artists and designers use it.

Whole books have been written about Photoshop and its features, so there's not sufficient space here to describe all of its functions. Suffice it to say that whatever your image editing needs, Photoshop is probably up to the task. However, it costs $699 which puts it out of reach of most people and you have to either be a lottery winner or get your company to purchase it for you. It's simply the best though.

A much more affordable alternative to Photoshop is Photoshop Elements. This is priced at $99, which puts it firmly into the home user market. It is a sort of cross between Photoshop and iPhoto, so it has a good collection of powerful image editing tools that are similar and sometimes identical to those in the professional Photoshop, but also some useful features for organising and managing your photo library too.

For example, you can download photos from a digital camera, tag photos with keywords, stack photos from the same event, fix common photo flaws, add text and graphics, create composit images, create print layouts and more. It is a great program that is recommended.

Looking beyond the obvious Photoshop and Photoshop Elements, what else is available for Mac users?

GIMPThe best known image editing application for Linux is GIMP, which is a free program that has been developed over many years. There is a Mac version (OS X and Linux have many similarities) and it runs under X11, which makes it a bit weird because you get a menu bar at the top of the screen that has nothing to do with GIMP and GIMP has it's own menus in its own windows like Microsoft Windows applications. It's a minor irritation and it's worth putting up with because GIMP is such a powerful image editing tool.

The developers' aim is clearly to produce a free program that rivals the power of Photoshop and the range of tools and features is very impressive. It is not easy for novices to learn and there are no photo management features, but you do get used to its quirky interface with practice and you can't complain when the software is free. This is an essential graphics tool to have on your Mac.

Drawberry is a vector drawing application that is simple and only offers basic tools, but as it is free then it is worth considering. Vector drawings are not like photos and fundamentally they are actually a list of instructions for drawing an image, such as draw a circle of radius 25 at coordinates 83,67. Scaling vector images up or down doesn't result in the fuzziness and blocky pixels you get with bitmapped images like digital camera photos because drawing a bigger or smaller circle just changes the radius in the instruction and the circle is always drawn at the optimum resolution.

InkscapeDrawberry is a bit strange and a much more powerful vector drawing application is Inkscape. This is a fantastic freebie and you hve to pay a lot of money to find a drawing application that is significantly better than it. It can draw lines, curves, regular shapes like rectangles, circles, stars and so on, and irregular shapes too. It handles text, fills, multiple layers and much more. It's an excellent program, although it does run under X11 like GIMP, which produces the odd double menu effect that takes a bit of getting used to.

Many years ago the Mac used to come with a simple, but useful paint program and Paintbrush is a modern version. It's free and it has a useful array of tools for creating artwork from scratch or for touching up other images. You can draw freehand with the paintbrush or spray can, draw straight lines and curves, rectangles and circles, and add text. It is great for those opccasions when you don't need a huge and complicated application.

LiveQuartz is another useful utility for manipulating and enhancing bitmap images like digital camera photos. It has a limited range of functions compared to GIMP, but sometimes less is more. Where GIMP is powerful, but complicated, LiveQuartz is simpler and you might find it easier to use and this means that it gets the job done faster. It has a few useful tools like lines, freehand, rectangles, circles, fills and so on, but probably most interesting are the filters. You can apply lots of effects to images and produce weird and wonderful images. It's fun to play around with images. It used to be free, but now it is in the Mac App Store and there is a small charge (1.49). Older, free, versions are still available on the website.

Image editing programs like GIMP are able to handle photos that are 10 megapixels or more and it's designed for big images. Pixen, however, is designed for editing very small images. The default size for a new image is just 64 x 64 pixels! It's clearly aimed at people that want to create icons, images for games and animations, avatars (the image associated with your name in an online forum), and so on. It has some useful drawing tools and it handles multiple layers. It's pretty good and it's free.