In a perfect world, a firm of hip, twenty-something art-school grads handles all of your company's graphics design and image-editing work. Reality, however, dictates that you either have an employee who's adept at handling the graphics needs of your business, or you handle it along with all your other responsibilities.
The Adobe Bridge component of Adobe Creative Suite 5 lets you visually browse for images and drop them into Photoshop or InDesign projects.
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And so in the real world, you have to know somewhere between a little and a lot about graphics software to make the right purchase decision for your needs, budget and level of expertise. Here's what you need to consider before you commit time and resources to a solution, along with a sampling of our favorite programs in a range of categories and prices.
Image Editing, Illustration or Layout?
There are three main types of graphics packages: Image editing software, illustration software and layout software. Image editing software lets you work with photos or other digital files at the pixel level to crop, enhance, alter and otherwise modify the image. In technical circles, this type of digital file is referred to as a raster graphics image or bitmap.
Illustration software, on the other hand, lets you create original artwork -- logos, icons, electronic drawings and so on -- using points, lines, curves, polygons and color. These are referred to as vector graphics.
But unless you're getting a degree in computer graphics in your spare time, you dont need to stray too far into the weeds with the technical jargon. Just know that, generally speaking, if you want to work with photos you need an image editor, and if you want to create any other type of artwork you need an illustration package.
We say generally speaking, because there is overlap between the categories: Leading image editors (such as Adobe Photoshop) also contain drawing tools that let you incorporate illustrated elements with the photos youre working with, and leading illustration packaged (Corels CorelDRAW, for example) give you the tools to also work with bitmap images.
Layout software lets you assemble text, images and illustrations into a single document that will likely be printed or distributed electronically, most often as a PDF file. (We would call it desktop publishing software, but that would be showing our age.)
While often considered its own category separate from graphics software, weve included layout software here for one simple reason: The packages often include ready-made clip-art and basic tools to crop, resize and clean-up images -- and hence may be all you need.
Web Graphics or Print Graphics
Most businesses need to create content that will be viewed both on the Web and in print. The problem, however, is that the requirements for the final files produced by a graphics program are wildly different depending on how you plan to use the image.
Corel Photo-Paint is a full-featured yet easy-to-use image editor that complements the CorelDraw layout and illustration package.
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For print, you need high-resolution files that will reproduce flawlessly on a printer or digital press. You or your graphics designer will also need to work with the printshop to ensure that the files you deliver meet their pre-press requirements.
Of course, if you try to post a high-res file intended for print on the Web, the size will be way off. Perhaps the most common task performed in graphics software, in fact, is resizing an image for Web presentation. Fortunately, most graphics packages let you produce output for both print and the Web, so you can work with one file and select the desired output destination and size.
Check Your Hardware
Along with 3D modeling and video editing, graphics image processing is among the most demanding chores you can ask of a PC. So before you select a graphics package, take seriously the recommended hardware requirements (not the "minimum requirements") listed on the side of the box or on the developers Web site. If your computer has a Pentium IVera processor and 512MB of RAM and you expect to load Photoshop, think again.
Ideally, the machine youll use will have at least a dual-core processor, such as an Intel Core 2 Duo (found in both Windows and Mac computers), an AMD Athlon X2 or one of the newer (and faster) Intel Core i7 or AMD Phenom chips. Unlike the typical office productivity applications, most advanced graphics software is multi-threaded, meaning the program can execute two discrete tasks at once to speed up operations -- as long as theres a second CPU core to handle the load.
Depending on the program you pick, your PC should also have at least 4GB of RAM, and high-end applications will work best with a dedicated ATI or Nvidia graphics engine on board. And since graphics files tend to be large, plan on having plenty of hard drive space.
A 250GB drive is the minimum to start, and 500GB of disk space will fill up surprisingly fast if you tend to create a lot of projects. Plan to have a secondary storage option -- external hard drives or a DVD or Blu-ray burner -- to archive older projects so they dont occupy valuable disk space on your primary drive.
Know Your Abilities
The beauty of todays advanced graphics software is the seemingly limitless control they give you over an image or piece of artwork. If youre working with a photo, you can do much more than simply crop it, tweak the brightness and change its size.
You can perform pixel-by-pixel retouching to remove unwanted items, blend two images, apply special effects and much more. Similarly with illustration packages, you can start with a blank on-screen canvas and create anything your brain can dream up.
The opportunity for such unfettered creativity can be a curse, however, when you launch a program and are greeted by a large blank area surrounded by floating toolbars containing dozens of inscrutable icons. So be sure the program you choose matches your abilities.
If youre a graphics pro, by all means invest in the most powerful program with the most dizzying array of features budget allows. But for most small business buyers, an entry-level package that delivers a judiciously chosen subset of features -- plus a wealth of templates and canned clipart and images to get you started -- is the better bet.
And as with so many software categories these days, dont think you necessarily have to load a program on a local PC to get the desired functionality. There are a host of very good online tools -- many of them free -- where you can upload an image, work in the cloud with the tools provided, then save your tweaked image locally without installing a thing.
To help point you in the right direction, here are some of our favorite graphics packages for people of every skill level and buyers in every budget range.
CorelDraw Graphics Suite X5
Now in its fifteenth incarnation, CorelDraw Graphics Suite X5 is the just right graphics solution for small businesses. It delivers plenty of advanced tools for people who want them, but also a wealth of templates and ready-to-go artwork for folks who need a helping hand.
The suite bundles an image editor (Corel Photo-Paint X5), an illustration and page-layout application (CorelDraw X5), a bitmap-to-vector file conversion tool (Corel PowerTrace X5) and a content organizer (Corel Connect) in a surprisingly affordable package: $489, or just $189 if you're upgrading from a previous suite.
The suite includes a particularly impressive array of templates and images. You get 350 professionally designed layout templates that you can use as is or tweak as desired, plus 1,000 fonts, 1,000 high-res, royalty-free stock photos, plus 10,000 clip-art images that cover every industry imaginable.
Adobe Creative Suite 5 Design Premium
One look at the impressive roster of features and breathtaking price -- $1,899, or $599 to upgrade from the previous suite -- tells you that Adobe Creative Suite 5 is for professionals only. But for that price you get the class-leading Adobe Photoshop CS5 Extended image editing package (the one by which all others are judged), the Adobe Illustrator CS5 vector-graphics program, Adobe InDesign CS5 page-layout program, Acrobat 9 Pro PDF creation utility and the Adobe Bridge media-management utility.
The suite lets designers create and produce content for any platform: print, the Web, interactive platforms and even mobile devices. Along with the most advanced tools in their respective categories, all of the components offer a consistent user interface to flatten the learning curve and help you move seamlessly from one to the other as workflow dictates.
If Adobe Creative Suite or Adobe Photoshop a la carte is beyond your budget, consider GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program). Available in Windows, Mac and Linux versions, GIMP is an open-source, freely downloadable image editor that delivers a powerful array of tools.
You can fix common imperfections in digital photos, such as perspective and barrel distortion, and perform image touch-ups with the handy clone tool. Like Photoshop, GIMP supports layers, and it lets you open a range of image formats (including Photoshop .PSD files) and convert them to other formats.
Paint.Net features a slick, tabbed-document interface that shows a thumbnail of your open images.
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Not to be confused with the similarly named (but woefully underpowered) Paint utility hiding in Windows Accessories folder, Paint.Net is a free Windows image editing application designed to be used by novices with no previous experience or instruction needed. The interface is extremely intuitive, and the tabbed document browser makes working with multiple images a snap.
Unlike most graphics programs, Paint.Net is not a resource hog, so it can run on older PCs and even Atom-powered netbooks. And, surprisingly for a free software graphics program thats aimed at newbies, Paint.Net includes more advanced tools, most notably support for layers (so you can create one image from a collection of separate images) and neat special effects.
If your imaging needs are relatively simple, Picasa, the free photo-editing and sharing service from Google, may be all you need. The editing tools are literally one-click simple, with fixes for common problems like red-eye, color and lighting. Picasa will also scour your hard drive and automatically pull in all image files, helping you get organized, and the handy tagging feature will help you stay organized. And if you work with others remotely, you can use Picasas online sharing service to easily exchange photos.
For the Mac crowd, Pixelmator is an affordable ($59) image-editing and digital-painting application that is easy to use and beautifully designed. Precise selection tools go well beyond other entry-level packages rectangular select options, letting you precisely crop or apply effects to just a part of an image. Pixelmator also includes a wide selection of painting tools, including brushes of different sizes, shapes and hardness so you can achieve results just as you might in the real world.
The programs retouching tools let you remove unwanted objects in images, blur hard edges, sharpen fuzzy areas and more. It also has everything you need for adding text onto your images, so you dont need to use a separate program to produce final results.
Jamie Bsales is an award-winning technology writer and editor with more than 15 years of experience covering the latest hardware, software and Internet products and services.
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