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As FCPX users we are not used to subscriptions for creative software. Oliver Peters takes a look at the new $40 Pixelmator Pro and sizes it up as a candidate to replace the monthly billed Photoshop.

One reason that many Final Cut Pro X users prefer the software is precisely because it does not require an ongoing software subscription. While Apple's ProApps products largely replace the need for an Adobe Creative Cloud subscription, the exception is graphics and photography. Even the most diehard FCPX users often maintain the basic Adobe photography bundle just to have Photoshop in their toolkit.

But there are some good alternatives to consider from the Pixelmator Team and Serif/Affinity. While I like the offerings from both companies, Pixelmator Pro seems the closest match to the FCPX design ethos.

(Right click for larger images)

PixelmatorPro photoadjustment2

If you are an experienced Photoshop user, then switching to Pixelmator Pro might take a bit of relearning; but if anything, the app is faster, more fluid, and more logically designed. Not to mention a steady stream of updates through the App Store mechanism since its introduction. As a Mac-only application, Pixelmator Pro is cleanly-written with optimized code - designed to take full advantage of Metal and Core Image.

Elegant interface design

The Pixelmator Pro interface design is a perfect complement to Final Cut Pro X - using a similar approach to the workspace. It does not use the modal approach seen with Affinity Photo's Personas. As with Final Cut, the panels can be revealed or hidden, which means that you can have a very minimalist interface that focuses only on the image.

PixelmatorPro photoadjustment

Open the inspector to access the tools on the right side of the interface. When you select a tool, its specific controls are revealed. Typically this will include a smaller, default set from the total possible controls, with more available under the "add" button. Adjustments made to an image are non-destructive and generally do not require merging, flattening, or rasterizing until you are done.

PixelmatorPro photoadjustment3

The color adjustment controls offer everything you'd expect from other apps, such as Lightroom or the now-defunct Aperture. This includes color wheels, selective color, curves, levels, and so on. A series of presets is also available.

PixelmatorPro photoadjustment2

Select the effects tool and you'll find many that are familiar to an FCPX editor, including blurs, vignettes, tilt-swift effects, light leaks, etc. Pixelmator Pro isn't just for manipulating photographic images, though, but also a well-designed graphic design tool, complete with vector-based text and paint tools.

PixelmatorPro noir

Machine learning

Some of the new technology integrated into Pixelmator Pro includes machine learning - used for color adjustments, layer naming, advanced resizing, and noise reduction. The automatic (machine learning) color enhancement is more sophisticated than a simple automatic white balance. I find the results more pleasing and successful than with similar automatic adjustments in other applications.

PixelmatorPro mlenhance

It's important to remember that there isn't really any "learning" involved with machine learning. Instead, calculations are made against a defined set of parameters. For instance, the application uses machine learning to automatically name layers when you import a photo and place it on a layer.

PixelmatorPro layernaming

It makes a generic guess at the name based on shape recognition - for example, "ferris wheel" for an image of the London Eye. If you don't like that first pick, then other suggested names are also available. However, when you do rename a layer to a custom name, Pixelmator Pro does not learn that new name for future use. In other words, the available library of possible names is not dynamically updated through user input.

At the end of 2019, the version 1.4 "Avalon" update added a machine learning function called "Super Resolution" for image scaling. When you scale an image up or down, you have a choice of four algorithms, including Super Resolution.

PixelmatorPro superresolution

The benefit is that it preserves sharpness, so you won't see quite as mushy of an image after the blow-up. The result can be very dramatic or very subtle, depending on the complexity of the image itself. So it isn't necessarily the tool you will always want to use. Unfortunately, it is a very slow process on an older Mac, like my mid-2014 MacBook Pro. It's faster, although still slow on a current iMac Pro; however, its use is entirely optional and the other three algorithms are quite fast.

More of what's new

In addition to new machine learning tasks, the 1.4 update also added support for CMYK proofing, macOS "Catalina," the new Mac Pro, and raw workflows with the Pro Display XDR. As before, Pixelmator Pro saves images in a proprietary file format, but it can import and export a wide range of file types, including TIFF, JPEG, PNG, Photoshop, and others. Photoshop compatibility isn't 100% perfect, but standard layered files exported from Pixelmator Pro will usually translate into Photoshop with only minor issues.

PixelmatorPro softproof

I've been using Pixelmator Pro more these days instead of the knee-jerk reaction to head to Photoshop first. Each time I open it I discover more things that I really like about it. While you can't do some of Photoshop's more exotic functions, like video animations, Pixelmator Pro covers the bulk of what an editor needs from a graphics tool. Even advanced workflows, like batch actions, can be automated through Apple's Automator app. Furthermore, if you use Apple Photos, Pixelmator Pro is also supported as an extension and through Photos' "edit with" function.

In short, if Apple were to design a graphics application, it would undoubtedly look and feel a lot like Pixelmator Pro.

oliver petersOliver Peters is an experienced film and commercial editor/colorist. In addition, his tech writings appear in numerous industry magazines and websites. He may be contacted through his website at oliverpeters.com