My Graphics Toolkit (2023)

For quite a while I would blog about my quest for replacements for Adobe Creative Suite. I’m long past that and have no interest in using such bloated software. At the same time, there’s a core set of graphics-related tasks I still need to do from time to time, and they span the entire range of capabilities offered by Adobe’s products, and then some.

  • Photo Processing
  • Image Editing
  • Vector Graphics
  • Page Layout
  • Video Editing
  • 2D Animation
  • 3D Modeling & Animation

Generally, I do not need the deep functionality and integration offered by Adobe’s products because I’m not a professional specialist graphics person these days. If I were, I think Adobe’s tools would likely more than justify their price. Right now, this isn’t the case for me nor, I think, for the vast majority of folks with Adobe licenses.

Photo Processing

FastRAWViewer does what it says on the tin while providing customizable shortcuts for rating images, sorting them into folders, and launching dedicated processing tools like RAWPower and Acorn with a single keystroke.

FastRAWViewer is a highly-focused tool for managing photo collections within the standard file system rather than by requiring you to keep your photos in a proprietary “library” the way Aperture and Lightroom do. It’s also, as suggested by its name, really fast.

RAWPower is basically most of what made Aperture great without needing to keep your images in a giant, annoying catalog.

RAW Power is a non-destructive photo processing tool developed by one of the former Aperture developers. These days its photo browsing tools are pretty good, but what I chiefly use it for is RAW processing.

Image Editing

I used to divide image editing into two categories: working on bitmap UI elements vs. working on illustrations and photographs. These days, all my UI elements are vector so all I care about is working with RGBA images, and my go-to program for this is Acorn. The one thing Acorn doesn’t do at all is handle HDR images, which Photoshop and Photoline both do.

Acorn does most of the things I need from Photoshop and typically does them more gracefully, runs faster, and is non-destructive.

Acorn is also a remarkably good SVG editor (its bezier tools have a better “feel” than most dedicated vector tools) and has powerful automation capabilities (up there with Photoshop) while being, basically, just a really, really slick piece of software.

Vector Graphics

Graphic was able to punch out the boolean with a single operation. It's amazing how many vector tools fail at a task like this.

My goto vector editor is—perhaps unfortunately—Graphic. I say unfortunate because it seems to be abandonware. I used to use Sketch a lot, but its developers fired a bunch of people and then tried to move over to a subscription model so that’s over. Vectornator is free and seems to keep getting updates, but I find it a pain to use. Affinity Designer is incredibly powerful but also kind of bloated and clunky—so I keep it around in case I need its capabilities, but I never seem to.

Page Layout

Pages is a crazy capable page layout program that also happens to be easy to use, lightweight, and free. It’s not as capable for dealing with long, complex documents (like role-playing game rulebooks) as my true love: FrameMaker, but it has the advantage of running on late model Macs and the only game rules I’m writing these days are much more pared down than the stuff I used to work on.

Video Editing

On my phone or iPad, iMovie is an incredibly capable tool for simple edits, while on a Mac, Apple Motion is my go to option. If I had to deal with anything longer than a few minutes, I’d certainly go back to Final Cut Pro X (the new iPad version also sounds intriguing) but I haven’t edited anything of significant length in over fifteen years and—AFAIK—Motion is more capable than FCPX for anything except managing long-form content.

And Apple keeps improving it.

The one thing that’s a little bit disappointing is that while Apple has added major new features to Motion over the years (e.g. USDZ support and 3D Motion Tracking) its template and presents haven’t really been updated.

2D Animation

This is an area I just haven’t been paying attention to. In fact, I just deleted what I had originally written after discovering that there’s a “new” (v13.5!) player in this space I didn’t know about called Moho.

The most important 2d animation format for my current line of work is Lottie Animation (BodyMovin) which is intimately tied to Adobe After Effects. If you’re trying to avoid paying the Adobe Tax, then right now there aren’t many great options: Haiku is out of business, and LottieLab isn’t out yet.

3D Modeling & Animation

This is a scene that was exported from Cheetah 3D to Blender and re-rendered using EeVee (Blender's GPU-powered real-time renderer) using most of the materials, the camera, and lighting positions from the original while adding SSS and volumetrics.

For a long time, I used Cheetah 3D as my main 3D tool, using Blender for a few things Cheetah couldn’t handle like motion blur. As of v2.8 the situation reversed and now Blender is my goto tool and I only use Cheetah for the things it is still better at than Blender. I’ll think of an example in a moment… um caustics! In fact, the main reason I started using Cheetah in the first place—seamless integration with Unity—seems to be busted, while Blender now has that covered.

How much does all this cost?

The total cost of all these programs is crazy low!

Blender and Pages are free.

Graphic cost $15 I think, while Apple Motion cost me $50 about 12 years ago (while receiving continuous updates). Acorn has probably cost me a total of $100 since I first got it somewhere around 2010. FastRAWViewer has cost me slightly under $30 total since 2015, and I think RAWPower cost me $15.

Even if you include all the software I’ve bought and seldom or never (e.g. Affinity’s products and Art Rage) in my quest for a full set of tools, the total cost is probably under $500 since 2010—i.e. less than the cost of upgrading, say, Photoshop from v5 to v6 back before Adobe went to a subscription model. And, without exception, these tools are faster to launch and easier to use than the products they replace. And virtually all of them thrive on non-proprietary file formats or have non-destructive workflows.

So, let’s say under $30/year over the last 15 years.