Acorn 5: Tom's Mac Software Pick

Enormously Powerful Image Editor for a Song

Acorn Image Editor
Courtesy of Flying Meat, Inc.

Acorn from Flying Meat, Inc., has long been one of our favorite alternatives to complex image-editing apps such as Photoshop. Don’t get me wrong; Photoshop has its place, but for 90 percent of the type of image editing I do, Acorn more than meets my needs, at a substantiality lower price point, and without having to buy a subscription to use the application.

Pro

  • Non-destructive filters, curves, and levels.
  • Save filter presets for later use.
  • Editable Exif data.
  • Photoshop Brush Import.
  • Shape Processor lets you create, move, and refine shapes easily.
  • Raw image import.
  • Tons of effects.
  • Clean interface.

Con

  • Must use native Acorn image format to save layers.

Acorn Installation

Acorn is available directly from Flying Meat, as well as from the Mac App Store. The price is the same no matter where you purchase Acorn from, however, there are some subtle differences between the two versions. The most notable is that the direct version can create layers directly from your computer's camera, letting you easily overlay an image on top of an existing one. You can find the rest of the differences outlined in Acorn’s FAQ.

The Mac App Store version is downloaded and installed automatically for you, while the direct version is downloaded to your Downloads folder, and must then be moved to the Applications folder.

Uninstalling Acorn is as easy as dragging the app to the trash.

Using Acorn

Acorn launches with a default welcome screen, allowing you to choose to create a new image, open an existing image, or quickly pick from recently used images. You can also disable the welcome screen and allow the app to start with no image open.

Acorn uses a central window containing the image you're working on, flanked by multiple floating palettes containing tools, inspectors, layers, and colors.

The various palettes can be open or closed, depending on what you need for the image you're working on. For most tasks, the tools and inspector palettes are the minimum floating windows you're likely to have open.

Tools Palette

The Tools palette contains the usual assortment of utilities for editing an image: cropping, magnifying, shapes, paint, pencils, brushes, gradients, text, and dodge and burn. Unlike in some other editing apps, the Tools palette doesn't contain fly-out options; instead, you'll find any tool options in the separate Inspector palette. This may take some getting used to if you’re moving from an app such as Photoshop, but it doesn't take long to learn to do things a little differently.

Inspector Palette

The Inspector palette performs multiple duties; it shows information about the currently selected tool or object, and provides information about layers, including the stacking order, how each layer interacts, and layer blending options. There are various types of layers that can be shown, including the normal image layers, in addition to shape layers, group layers, and layer masks. All in all, the layer section of the Inspector palette works about the way you would expect it to.

Shapes

One of the tools I had a great deal of fun with was the Shape processor. The Shape processor is a set of filters and tools that allow you to create various shapes, move them around, and tweak them to additional shapes, such as circles, squares, and spirals. The Shape processor is fun to use, but it can also ease the process of creating complex geometric shapes within an image.

Additional Acorn Features

For most of us, a crop tool is probably pretty boring, but Acorn's crop tool allows you to save preset shapes that can then be scaled to the image you're working with. If you need to produce images in a precise aspect ratio for your work, you'll find this a very nice feature.

Snapping allows you to line things up quickly to grid lines, guides, shapes, even layers. No more guessing when you're trying to get items to line up.

Brushes can be imported from Photoshop, or any other app that uses the Photoshop brush format. If you need a new brush type, Acorn includes a brush creation tool to allow you to quickly create the brush shape and characteristics you need.

Raw image import lets you acquire images directly from your camera in all their high-resolution glory. Acorn supports importing 32-bit, 64-bit, and 128-bit images.

Final Thoughts

I’ve used Acorn since version 3, and have always been impressed by its capabilities and very reasonable price. Acorn 5 has enough features, speed, and overall quality to possibly tempt you to use it as a replacement for Photoshop and its pay-until-the-day-you-die subscription-pricing model.

Even if you're not put off by subscription-based software, Acorn can be your primary go-to image editor, and that's saying a lot.

Acorn 5 is $29.99. A demo is available.

See other software choices from Tom's Mac Software Picks.