Hands on with PhotoDirector 3: A limited but quality PhotoShop alternative

PhotoDirector-3If you have even a passing interest in photography, than you likely have also given various image editors a try. The obvious choice is PhotoShop; the Adobe product has long dominated the market and is regarded as arguably the top choice among photographers of varying skill levels.

The next-gen version of the software was recently release, and for a magical 30 days we all are able to use it for free, no strings attached. But when those 30 days are up, we’ll face a price tag of $699-$999. That’s why PhotoShop is so often relegated to office use for many of us. So what about personal photos and at-home editing?

There are plenty of free options out there, and for truly simple, quick adjustments, they’ll do the trick. But what about the in-between? What about some mid-priced, capable editing clients? They don’t tend to talked about much because they aren’t PhotoShop and they aren’t free. But they might just fall in the perfect space where your budget constraints and editing needs intersect.

One of those options is the recently released PhotoDirector 3. I had the chance to go hands-on with the new software – which at $119.95, is a fraction of the cost of PhotoShop. Here’s a rundown on how it stacks up, what you’ll miss out on (how much that matters), and whether or not you need it or can stick to using free downloads.


Unsurprisingly, PhotoDirector’s interface falls somewhere between professional level stuff and the built-in options that come with your computer. The gray-on-black tab interface is reminiscent of the latest iteration of PhotoShop and you can generally find all navigation starts from the top and left hand panels. As you might imagine, those panels are not quite as full as they are in top of the line applications and easily outdo those in simpler options.

interface compareNavigating the software is quite simple – you have a mere five categories under which lie all of your tools. You’ll spend most of your editing time existing within “Adjustments” and “Edits.” The client isn’t text heavy, but it doesn’t rely on icons like PhotoShop does. 

Overall, however, there’s enough here to work with but not so much that beginners will feel overwhelmed. There’s also quick access to customizing the display, whether you want to see all imported items below the image your editing, prefer a fullscreen mode, or something in between, this function is surfaced so you can toggle between options easily.


magenta object maskPhotoDirector 3 has an impressive array of filter presets with quick descriptors that indicate in which situations they’re best applied (people, scenery, color, etc). You can also quickly and easy use the Manual toggle to make your own presets.

The regional adjustment tools are also worth noting. Without being overwhelming you can adjust angle, use a clone and heal stamp, and find masking effects. The latest version also adds a “people beautifier” features as well. 

Under edits, you’ll find a standard set of photo effects and then a few tools like object removal, background removal, photo composer (allows you to place another image on top of the one you’re editing), and watermark creators.

You’ll exist primarily in these two tabs.

preset filters

What does PhotoShop do that PhotoDirector 3 doesn’t?

Simply put, a lot of things. When you pay for $600+ photo editing software you’re going to get a much heftier toolbox. But let’s identify some of the specific tools that you might find yourself wishing were at your disposal.

For one, PhotoDirector doesn’t lend itself to image creation like more capable clients do. There’s no way to start with a blank canvas and go from there. You also can’t snip something to layer onto another image or throw in a text layer – in fact just throw layers out the window: this is an image editing and adjustment tool. It’s an important clarification to make, and what really differentiates itself from higher-end products. There are ways to place outside images onto the one you’re editing but it isn’t as intuitive and natural of a process nor do you have as much control. 

There are lots of other little tools that PhotoDirector 3 also doesn’t have, but that distinction is really the most noteworthy. There are adjustment and editing mechanisms that will, for the most part, accomplish the same goal.

What does PhotoDirector 3 do that free software doesn’t?

Again – a lot of things. I decided to compare PhotoDirector 3 to two different free editors: entirely Web-based PicMonkey (my new favorite free option) and free download Gimp (an old standby).

compared to picmonkeyIt’s a little unfair to pitch this against PicMonkey, which is as simple as it gets, but it’s important to do so for anyone unsure of what they get with this upgrade. Basically, editors like PicMonkey are a one-stop shop where you can slightly put your stamp on photos, but you’re still working within presets. There is no sense of content-aware anything.

PhotoDirector, simply put, offers a lot more flexibility. You can select pieces of an image to manipulate, and tools that they both have – like the clone stamp or built in filters – are much more refined in the pay-for software.

But what about Gimp and other PhotoShop-mimics that you can download for free? For starters, PhotoDirector’s navigation and UI blows theirs out of the water. You get what  you pay for, and Gimp is a great alternative to someone who already knows exactly where to find the tools or is content to spend some time getting re-familiar with a platform. It’s also slower – again, it’s a free download, so what can you expect? And Gimp and options like it don’t have slideshow creators or customized gallery views. It’s the little things that count, and if you’re spending a significant amount of time editing photos, they add up.

Should I buy it?

I recently got a new computer which hasn’t had PhotoShop installed on it, and before I downloaded the trial version of the latest iteration, I’ve been a little lost. I’m not a graphic designer nor do I toil in photo editing all day, but I do enough that being without a better-than-free client has been frustrating to say that least.

If you’re anything like me, than you haven’t given much thought to “in-between” editing software. But PhotoDirector 3 has been an encouraging introduction. There were a handful of instances where I found myself frustrated by the process – it didn’t feel like the given work flow correlated to the most obvious steps a user would take. And of course it can’t be held up to the PhotoShops or Apertures of the world.

But all in all PhotoDirector 3 has filled the void between high-end and low-end software. I’d rather the software were around the $99 mark, but if you can’t imagine obsessing over an image for more than 30 minutes but want to be able to use an adequate clone tool and watermark your photos, than it’s an application you should consider.  And once that PhotoShop free trial runs out, you’re going to need to do something. Take stock of how many functions you actually used – reliant on shape warping or insert text? Then this isn’t for you. Simply want good exposure control, levels, and content aware masking? Then you may have found your $120 match.