When it comes to choosing a photo tool, one product usually comes to mind: Photoshop. There is no question that Photoshop is the industry standard for digital photographers and graphic designers. For the beginner, Photoshop’s $600 price tag is a bit steep. So how does one get their feet wet in the graphics world without breaking the bank? I wish I could tell you there was a plethora of low cost solutions out there. Having tried many of the low end tools, they simply don’t stack up against more commercial products.

A big name in the free image editing sofware world is GIMP. GIMP is an open source product that mimics the look, feel and functionality of Photoshop. In my opinion it still has a long way to go in basic user friendliness before it is ready for prime time. I personally found it a little clunky to use and it would often spawn various errors. I know GIMP has a strong following, but the beginner would be better off leaving the frustrations of GIMP behind and choosing another tool.

Any other free options out there? Serif Software offers a complete line of imaging products. To increase the marketing of their current line of products they offer their past versions either for free or for the low cost of shipping and handling. For the beginner, this may not be a bad way to go. The free version is usually at least couple of years old, but will give you the experience of playing around with graphics without spending too much out of pocket.

If you happen to have an old version of Windows, Microsoft’s Image Composer is a great little tool for creating web graphics. It is now defunct and you can’t download it anywhere. Track down an old Win 98 or NT CD and it will be on there.

There are three image tools that take the spotlight for middle market image tools. Adobe’s Photoshop Elements, Paint Shop Pro by JASC and Ulead’s PhotoImpact. All three are in the approximate price range of $80-$120. They all offer a 30 day trial. The links in the sentence above will lead you to their respective free trial download pages. It is worthwhile to give each a try before plunking down the cash.

Photoshop Elements is a cut down version of Photoshop. If you aspire to be a Photoshop pro one day then starting with Elements is the way to go.

Paint Shop Pro seems to have the second largest following behind Photoshop. It is a very vibrant program and is fun to use and definitely recommended.

However, since this site focuses on the beginner, my main recommendation is reserved for Ulead’s PhotoImpact. Ulead tends to produce very easy to use imaging software. I have had nothing but good experiences so far in using their software. Professionals may not find all the power they need in PhotoImpact but the beginner will have everything they need to produce quality images and photo manipulation. PhotoImpact is labeled as “a complete image-editing suite for enthusiasts who want professional results without the steep learning curve.” I would once have to agree with the marketing. PhotoImpact retails for $90 but I’m sure you can find it cheaper elsewhere. Plus don’t forget to check out Ulead’s PhotoImpact tutorial which will help you get started.

A Note to Template Users:

More will be written about this under the Templates section but it is worthwhile to note here. A lot of templates sold for web page degisn come with a .PSD file. PSD is the extension for Photoshop files. The PSD is included so that the user can modify the graphics as they choose. The question often arises if PSD files can be used in the other image programs. The answer is yes and no. The three middle tier programs mentioned above with all open PSD files. However, depending on the complexity of the PSD file, not all functionality/colors/effects will be available in the middle tier programs. I had a PSD template that looked whitewashed in all of the three programs and would only look correct if opened in Photoshop. So buyer beware, though having the PSD file is handy, its only good to you if you either have Photoshop or its not very complex and your lower end tool can handle it.