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Posted on September 13th, 2012
Windows XP

Adobe are taking their time coming up with a Retina-display compatible version of their premier CS6 suite of applications. In the lag, start-up Pixelmator have optimised their graphic design software for the new display, and it's gaining traction fast. For photographers, what does this mean? What are the image manipulations like, side-by-side? In this article, we'll take a sample image through the same steps in each program, print them, and check the result.

We'll be printing both of these with inkjet printers, which are great for colour photography. Of course, in each case we'll be using the same ink - Dell Inkjet Ink - to ensure maximum comparative value between the two. Inkjets are traditionally better for high-resolution printing, which will work really well when we compare it with the Retina display on the new Macs.

Of course, if you’re serious about designing for print you’ll be using InDesign, or a related product, to plot layouts and so on. But what we’re checking here is how well each program deals with images. For photographers on-the-run, it’s important that the computer can guess at good tone/colour/brightness adjustments automatically - so it’s that functionality we’ll be checking in each program.


First up, here’s our sample image:

The Original Image


I’ve chosen this as I know from experience that image manipulation programs struggle most with reconciling wide differences in tone and contrast. Our image has areas of over-exposure (the sky) and under-exposure (the foreground). The midground is nicely illuminated, and the background is a mixture of the two. If I were to manually adjust colouring (assuming I was aiming for homogeneity in the photo rather that any more subtle or artistic effect) I would begin by raising the brightness of the foreground, lowering the brightness of the sky and leaving the midground intact. I would probably gently lower contrast on the image, raise the shadow/black level, and lower the hite/highlights level. Let’s see how our programs did.


Photoshop Image

OK, first up we have very subtle re-contrasting. Photoshop has opted to decrease contrast a little, which I feel is a good idea - it lessens the gap between the white-ended sky and the black-ended foreground. Interestingly, the program has decided to lower the brightness of the image overall, muting the tone somewhat. I imagine it’s done this because it’s summed over the image and decided that, on balance, it’s too white. Finally, Photoshop has elected to shift the foreground towards the red end of the colour spectrum, which is not altogether a pleasant effect. Again, it may have done this to try to balance out the overabundance of green in the image - but the result is not intuitively a good one.


Pixelmator Image

Pixelmator has taken a radically different direction to Photoshop’s, and once again it’s a little heavy-handed to produce pleasant results. Contrast has been lowered and the brightness muted overall. It looks like the black level’s come up a bit, and the white level down too, which has acted to mute, or ‘grey out’ the image a bit. It also looks as though the midtones have been pushed slightly towards the white end, which has made the greying more prominent. Ironically, these steps are all ones I would take were I managing the image manually, but all to much less vicious degrees. So, Pixelmator - right idea, but a tad overenthusiastic.

So how do the two compare in print? It may not surprise you to find out that Photoshop far outstrips its retina-ready rival in this test. Its image was less washed-out, and shadows and highlights both crisper and more details. Pixelmator’s image was washed-out.

This test is hardly conclusive, but it is interesting to see the different approaches that the programs take to automatic adjusting. Despite the fact that Pixelmator produced a less seductive image than Photoshop, it went about it in an arguably more technically correct way.


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