Pixelmator 3.5 Canyon review: Better selective editing and a new Apple Photos extension

The improvements cement Pixelmator's position as the top affordable alternative to Photoshop.

01 pixelmator quick selection tool
At a Glance
  • Pixelmator Team Pixelmator 3.5 Canyon

    Macworld Rating

    Pixelmator 3.5 Canyon improves its selection tools and adds an editing extension for the Photos app, further positioning it as a top affordable Photoshop alternative.

As you start moving beyond the basics of editing images—past general exposure and color 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 $10 a month with an annual plan, and can cost up to $80 a month for the full CC suite).

Instead, Pixelmator 3.5 Canyon (Mac App Store link) has been a popular and inexpensive ($30) 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 accurately selected only the edge of this barn roof as I made the selection (in red), even when the brush was a comparatively large size.

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 gray 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 color, 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

This initial selection—sandy hair against a similarly colored and textured background—was made in a single pass using the Quick Selection tool.

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 might 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

The Magnetic Selection tool hews to clear lines, sometimes with a little help. Below: The Magnetic Selection tool in action.

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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 synchronize 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 realize; 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 color saturation, heal imperfections or remove unwanted items, clone sections, and sharpen or blur areas.

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05b pixelmator heal remove 01
05c pixelmator heal remove 02

The Pixelmator Retouch extension is great for healing or removing unwanted objects in a shot without making a full trip to the Pixelmator application.

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 might 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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At a Glance
  • Macworld Rating

    Pixelmator 3.5 Canyon improves its selection tools and adds an editing extension for the Photos app, further positioning it as a top affordable Photoshop alternative.

    Pros

    • Improved selection tools
    • Pixelmator Retouch extension adds selective editing to Photos
    • Inexpensive

    Cons

    • Control settings aren’t retained between edits
    • Modal control windows appear on top of image you’re editing (but can be moved, and the position is remembered)
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