Photoshop Alternatives, Part I

Picasa, Picnik, Gimp or Photoshop Elements: Is one of these right for you? (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

Picasa, Picnik, Gimp or Photoshop Elements: Is one of these right for you? (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

Picnik, Picasa, Gimp, Photoshop Elements: Is One of These Right For You?

I was asked by a reader of The Discerning Photographer, who had just plunked down good money on a Nikon D90 and was feeling a bit pinched, which image editing software program I would recommend, if he wasn’t going to go ahead and buy Photoshop. It is really expensive after all, and does everyone really need all of its bells and whistles right away?

The answer, of course, is no.

Photoshop is the most amazing piece of software I use on a regular basis, bar none. It makes my work possible, makes image editing fun and enjoyable. I’m a HUGE fan.  But most of what I use it for is fairly simple. If you’re not working with lots of custom actions or layers and layer masks and/or doing other advanced image toning and manipulation, you probably don’t need the full-blown Photoshop to do your work. But if not, what should you use? On a budget, what’s the best alternative to real Photoshop?

I decided to look at a handful of alternatives which span a range of options and approaches to image editing. Specifically, I have taken a quick drive around the block with Picnik (Yahoo), Picasa (Google), Gimp (Open Source) and Photoshop Elements (cheap, Photoshop Lite). What follows are my impressions of these pieces of software. I’ll tell you what  I liked and didn’t like for each software package. I’ll compare how they work and what I missed, in each case. Not full-blown, exhaustive reviews, but just my gut reactions after a bit of tinkering with each product. Hopefully you’ll find this helpful if you’re trying to make this decision. Today we’ll look at Picnik and Picasa, the offerings from Yahoo and Google, respectively.

Picnik, from Yahoo.

Picnik is designed to look inviting and easy, 'Photo editing made fun.'

Picnik is designed to look inviting and easy, 'Photo editing made fun.'

Picnik is part of Yahoo’s group of photo-related products. I came to learn of its existence while using their related and immensely successful Flickr photo sharing software. (As many of you are aware, The Discerning Photographer has a Flickr group pool.) Picnik reminds me a little bit of Picassa, which I’ll talk about next; but it’s different in a few distinct ways as well.

First of all: Picnik is truly web-only. To edit photos, you first sign up for a free Picnik account, then upload the images you want to edit to the Picnik site. This is straightforward and easy to do, but if you try to upload more than five images at a time, this message pops up: “We’re uploading 5 of your selected photos. Go Premium to upload up to 100 photos at a time (for as little as $2.08 a month!)”   While it’s cheap at a starting price of just 2 bucks, I really don’t like the idea that to edit images, I have to be online before I can start…what if I’m out of range of a high-speed internet connection?

Buttons on the main tools window take you into different aspects of image editng.

Buttons on the main tools window take you into different aspects of image editng.

Once uploaded, the controls for image editing are basic but work nicely. You can crop your photos, adjust color, sharpen, then save back to your own computer or send from within Picnik right to your email,  Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Photobucket  or  Flickr account.  On the negative side, there’s no way to write real caption information to travel with your photos as metadata. This is something that I would find to be a real limitation, since I like to make notes about my images and frequently include full captions and keywords embedded with the images….more on this later.

My grade for this product: C+. It’s attractively packaged but too limited to be of much use to anyone but the most casual of photographers. AND I really don’t like the fact that it’s web-only with no module for editing while offline.

Next: Picasa, the Google flavor of free.

Picasa's main start window. Folders of images on the left; clicking on one opens it in the main window. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

Picasa's main start window. Folders of images appear on the left; clicking on one opens it in the main window. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

Now let’s consider Picasa, Google’s image editing program. This is different in several fundamental ways from Picnik, both in terms of how it works and what you can do with your results.

First of all, Picasa is editing software that downloads and installs on your computer. So right away I see something I like: the ability to work on photos without the need for an internet connection.

When you first launch Picasa, it begins to scan and catalog all of the images on your computer, without ever asking you if this is okay! Seems very ‘Big Brother’ to me, and knowing what we all know about how much Google likes to gather data on all of our tastes, likes and dislikes, this leaves me….less than happy.

Anyway, once the scan is done, a Windows folder tree structure is displayed. The main contact sheet is in the middle with the navigation structure on the left and and a range of action options  at the bottom(‘email,’ ‘print,’ etc.)  Picasa calls this the main ‘Library’ view. By clicking on different folders in the left folder tree, different groups of related photos will appear. Double-click on any image and you’ll be taken into the image toning module.

Basic sliders allow you to make major toning changes in Picasa. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

Basic sliders allow you to make major toning changes in Picasa. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

The range of things you can do to a photo is actually similar to Picnik’s:  crop, lighten and darken, sharpen, make some global changes to color temperature. You also have the option of writing some basic caption information directly under the photo. You can add tags to images to help organize them by any criteria you choose as well.

Once you have your image toned and captioned, you can save it back to your computer, email it, send it to a service for printing, send to your Blogger-based blog (run by Google, of course) or upload it to a related Picasa web album. (Web albums are cool. You can save your images in online albums, which you then can share with specific people you choose, who can go online to view them.)

So my grade: B. More useful and versatile than Picnik, free, with software that allows you to work without being online. But the image toning choices are still extremely limited and of a basic nature. Beginner’s tools but not much more. (The Picasa web albums, mentioned above, deserve their own post, they are very powerful.)

Next time:  we’ll look at the open-source Gimp software and Photoshop’s own Elements version.

selfport1aHi, I’m Andrew Boyd, a.k.a. The Discerning Photographer, and I hope this post has been interesting and informative. Please leave me a comment about it, let me know what you’d like to see more of on the site! You can also sign up for email delivery of all future articles or my RSS feed. Thanks!–DiscerningPhotog

Related articles on the web:

Picnik instructions at Flickr

Video tutorials for Picnik

How to use Picasa at The New York Times’ Personal Tech

Picasa instructions at

Posted in: Software

About the Author:

Photographer, videographer and photo editor. Host and creator of The Discerning Photographer web site. Currently a Canon shooter.

28 Comments on "Photoshop Alternatives, Part I"

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  1. Beatriz says:


    I use Picasa and Paint .Net for working with my photos. I would definitely recommend you to try this last one, it’s really powerful and has a lot of user created plugins and add-ons which allow you to do amazing stuff. If we talk about Picasa, well, I mostly use it for straighten, organizing and uploading pictures, at the begining I didn’t like the idea that it only allowed me to upload pictures to Picasa web albums, but I’ve found a couple of buttons to upload directly into Flickr (it imports also the added tags!) and Facebook, and it makes things a lot more easier.

  2. I use both Picassa and Flickr for sharing photos over the internet but i use Flickr more often than Picassa.:,’

  3. Esme Fisher says:

    Picassa and Flickr are both great tools for sharing photo online*`:

  4. Anthony says:

    FYI, upon running Picasa for the first time, it immediately asks you if it should catalog your entire computer, just “my documents / desktop / My pictures” or nothing at all.

    But even if it did scan your whole computer w/o asking, it only becomes big brother if Google actually sent that information back to itself, which has been verified as being not the case (and explicitly says so in the terms and privacy policy)

  5. safegaard says:

    Youre absolutely right abaut that there are alternative software to Photoshop. I use Xara and Gimp mostly now, and i have Photoshop but almost newer use it anymore. I think Xara is more artistik in many ways.
    Great article´s you make 🙂

  6. Eduardo says:

    One of my colleagues mentioned Picnik. I currently use photoshop only because it was recommended from one of my nephews. Thanks for all the info. i might even start using Flickr.


  7. Thanks Eduardo. Glad you like the post!

  8. DrTeeth says:

    To all the hobbyists/non pros out there, don’t forget you could get Photoshop with an academic licence.

    This is what we can get in the UK

    Still too rich for my needs at present…though I knew I had children for some reason.

    I hope buy Zoner 13 Pro at 50% discount soon from



  9. Taylor says:

    Thanks for providing the information as I was searching around for photoshop alternatives when I found your post

    Because I have multiple computers, I only have photoshop license on my main machine, so being able to utilize some of these free programs is very helpful.

    I have downloaded gimp, but the site that I got the download link from had a virus so I have been a bit gun shy to use it further.

    Looks like Picasa is something I should give a try to next.

  10. If you have PS on your main machine, you’ll find Picassa very limited….but free.

  11. racheal says:

    I have the fully set up adobe cs4 master collection for work! Needless to say it’s far to rich for what I am used to or even need. I still dont konw how to use half the features and tools within it. I’m getting there.

  12. chay32 says:

    You’re absolutely right about that there are alternative software to Photoshop.

  13. I really am enjoying this photographer’s blog. Posts are very useful and I am learning a lot from them.

  14. T. Charles says:

    Thanks for sharing that Picnik (Yahoo), Picasa (Google), Gimp (Open Source) and Photoshop Elements are great alternatives to Photoshop! I like Gimp.

  15. Excellent review although I am surprised that you have not included SumoPaint which is in my opinion a quite fantastic web based imaging suite. I am a keen fan of web based products because it is one less thing to clutter up my hard drive. I would be interested by your views on SumoPaint. Cheers

  16. Not familiar with it. I’ll have to check it out, thanks!

  17. Keni says:

    Picnik is not part of yahoo, it was acquired by Google.

  18. As Google continues to gobble up the world…when I wrote the piece, it was a Yahoo! product…

  19. Rich says:

    I’ve used GIMP a lot. I cannot recommend it highly enough. It perhaps doesn’t have all the functionality of Photoshop, but its free!

  20. Katy Wheeling says:

    Picasa is one of the easiest and simplest photo editing softwares I have ever encountered. I like this program because it is user friendly.

  21. Imagebot says:

    Imagebot is a cool alternative. It’s easy to edit photos, apply filters, load/upload photos from/to facebook, draw SVG, use logos, and more. Try it out!

  22. Farzana says:

    I’m enjoying this photographer’s blog – great way to find out about other free photo editing software! I have been enjoying Picnik especially it’s pencil sketch application …now Picnik is closing down I would love to know if any other site has a similar application!

  23. Lyla Reecee says:

    I’m not familiar with Gimp.Is this a free tool too?

    Lyla Reecee

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