For many a Photoshop need, Corel’s photo-software competitor, Paintshop Pro, will fill the bill just fine. It does, however, lack many of the Adobe flagship’s most advanced tools, such as 3D modeling, typography, camera shake reduction, and face liquefy. And though PaintShop’s interface has improved over the years, it still can’t quite match that of Photoshop for slickness. Photoshop Elements, Adobe’s consumer-level photo editing software, is also simpler and slicker. But if you’re not commited to team Adobe, and don’t want to pay Photoshop’s required monthly subscription, PaintShop Pro is powerful and affordable tool that’s well worth considering.
Pricing and Starting Up
PaintShop Pro X9 is available directly from Corel for $79.99 (or $59.99 as an upgrade from any previous version). The Ultimate edition ($99.99/$79.99) throws in more software—AfterShot (Corel’s photo workflow app), Perfectly Clear (an excellent automatic photo corrector), and Live Screen Capture (for screen recording). The one-shot pricing model may be a good fit for those who resent Adobe’s subscription-only model for Photoshop. Lightroom, however, is still available for a one-time payment, though that option is hard to find on Adobe’s site, and for the subscription price of $9.99 per month, you get both Photoshop and Lightroom. Photoshop Elements still carries a one-time purchase price of $99, so the base PaintShop Pro is even cheaper than that.
PaintShop runs on Windows 7 through Windows 10. You first install a small downloader program that completes installation. When you install the application, it asks if you want 32-bit, 64-bit, or both—choosing the last means you’ll be compatible with both 32-bit and 64-bit plug-ins. After this, I had to install an update immediately. Corel offers downloadable effect packs, too, such as ParticleShop brushes and ColorScript color effects ($14.99 and $4.99, respectively). I installed PaintShop Pro on my test PC, a 4K touch-screen Asus Zen AiO Pro Z240IC all-in-one PC. Most of the program is adapted just fine to 4K monitors, but I still found some dialogs, such as the Effect Browser, that use tiny icons.
From the moment you first run Corel PaintShop Pro 2018, the Welcome screen shows its new Workspace options: Essentials and Complete. The Workspace option joins the Welcome dialog’s project templates, tutorials, and user image gallery. You can always get back to the Wecome screen from any other mode by tapping the big home icon. Paintshop’s templates are similar to the new Create dialog that appears when you first run Photoshop CC. Like Photoshop’s, Paintshop’s templates offer a smorgasbord of document types, including print sizes, mobile screens, and custom presets.
One thing I didn’t see, which Photoshop has, is a Clipboard choice, that sizes your new project to an image you’ve copied. A first-run wizard helps familiarize you with the workspaces. Even after you dismiss the tutorial window, as in Lightroom, a series of dialog boxes take you through the interface components in a Guided Tour. That’s also a great help in getting you started.
The interface is now very customizable as to color and the sized of elements such as icons and scroll bars. These options get their own main menu option, User Interface. The main window’s side panels can be undocked or dismissed. The Essentials workspace is better suited to touch input, like that on my test machine, but it’s not quite as tuned to touch as Photoshop, which supports gestures like two-finger twisting to rotate.
When editing a photo, a slider lets you zoom in or out to any magnification you choose, unlike Lightroom, which restricts you to set ratios like 1:2, 1:3, and 1:1. There is a 1:1 button in PaintShop, however, and you can zoom in and out simply by spinning the mouse wheel.
In the Complete workspace, there are just two modes: Manage and Edit. Corel dropped Adjust, since that term isn’t widely understood by photo hobbyists. Unlike Adobe Photoshop Elements, which has a separate Organizer app, you do everything in PaintShop in the same window, but you switch among the two modes for different functions.
Within Manage you have subviews, like Maps and People Finder, and the first time you switch to a new mode, you get another tour. The program includes sample images, so you’re not starting from zero. And if all that’s not enough, the Edit mode still includes the right-panel Learning Center, which helps with lots of image-editing procedures.
As its name suggests, this is where you organize your photo collection. Like Photoshop, PaintShop is not a photo workflow application, even though it includes tools for organizing and outputting. It’s especially evident when importing photos because you don’t get to preview or tag images on import. There’s no big Import button as you find in workflow apps such as Adobe Lightroom. I had no trouble importing raw camera files, though the newest models’ raw file format is usually supported earlier in Adobe Camera Raw than in PaintShop.
After importing images, you can add star ratings, as well as tags for keywords, people, and places. You can also create collections, including Smart Collections of photos that meet specified criteria, such as date, name, or tags. Smart Collections let you specify criteria, such as text in the file name or image size to automatically create a Collection.
On the left panel is source navigation, with folders and collections. In the center is your main content view—thumbnails, full image, or a map showing photo locations based on GPS data. You can double tap a thumb for a quick full-screen preview with options for rating, rotating, deleting, or launching the image in the editor. Images aren’t overwritten when you save edits, but saved in PaintShop’s own PSP format. You can also save in Adobe PSD format, along with dozens of other standard image formats.
The new Essentials Workspace addresses one of my major beefs about PaintShop—its cluttered interface. Not only is it drastically simplified while maintaining tools frequently needed, but you can also add or remove tools to suit your needs. There are still quite a number of menu choices along the top, 14 compared with Photoshop’s 11 and Photoshop Elements’ 10. Photoshop even lets you create custom workspaces and offers six options by default to PaintShop’s two. Elements has Quick, Guided, and Expert modes, which can be thought of as workspaces.
New Crop Tool
The most commonly used photo editing tool by far is the crop tool. It may seem that there’s nothing to it, but Adobe supercharged Photoshop’s crop tool, even adding AI-powered auto-suggested cropping (now also found in Photoshop Elements). Corel has finally given attention to its own crop tool. Now it gives you a better idea of your final result by darkening the rest of the image. It also offers overlays for composition guides, including golden spiral, golden ratio, and rule of thirds. When you rotate with the tool, the crop box stays put while the image rotates, so you can see the result without tilting your head.
These overlays are more than Elements offers, and that program rotates the crop box instead of the image. But Elements adds some cool “cookie cutter” crops like hearts and animal shapes, and Adobe’s editors feel more responsive and precisely controllable than Corel’s, probably thanks to graphics hardware acceleration.
Basic Photo Correction
Though Adjust mode is gone, there’s still an Adjust menu, which offers auto-correction along with tools like a histogram with lighting and color controls. The One Step Photo Fix from this menu corrected lighting problems in many of my test photos. The Smart Photo Fix dialog gives you a lot more control. You can click a neutral spot to correct the white balance and use a Levels slider to balance a lopsided histogram.
Smart Photo Fix also shows before and after views so you can see the results of your adjustments and edits. There’s also a Revert button at the bottom of the corrections panel: There are certainly times when you’ve adjusted a photo excessively and just want to start over. Back and Forward buttons also help with this.
PaintShop’s Effects menu goes leagues past the familiar Instagram choices, but it does offer Instant Effects that mimic those. The Time Machine tool lets you see how your photo would look if taken in 1839 through 1960. There are lots and lots of effects—Artistic, Film, B&W, scene lighting. Clicking on an effect, shows a preview of the selected effect side by side with your original image. If the slew of effects isn’t enough for you, you can download even more. One thing I didn’t see, however, was Prisma style AI filters that turn your photos into Picassos.
Another gap is the lack of control over the effects. Sometimes you want to tone it down a bit, as I found with the Instant Film effect. Photoshop Elements’ instant effects are indeed adjustable, but PaintShop’s aren’t.
Of course, you could fuss with the image using the app’s other adjustments for lighting and color, but it’s nice to have a slider that simply controls the effect’s strength, as even Instagram does. Luckily, there are also Undo and Redo buttons, since applying effects can get messy. Another help is the big Revert button, in case things have gotten completely out of hand and you want to start over.
Advanced Photo Editing
Once you move into Edit mode, the full assortment of tools comes into play. Just as in Photoshop, you can add layers, manipulate grouped objects, and adjust curves and levels. The Curves tool is particularly powerful, allowing up to 16 control points, which let me create some pretty crazy effects by itself. The Retro lab makes up for Instant Effects’ lack of adjustability in a big way. It lets you adjust blur, diffuse, glow, color, and more.
Two selection tools, Smart Selection and Auto Selection, are similar to Photoshop’s magic wand. The first did a decent job of letting me brush to create an edge-detected selection. But the Auto Selection is more impressive. You draw a box, and the tool selects an object inside it. In my testing, this only worked with very uniform backgrounds (a clear sky, for example) and objects with well-defined edges. Still, it’s a useful tool for plucking a head off and using it against a different background. In the right circumstances, it works quite well.
Content-aware object removal and moving is a fairly recent addition. This lets you improve composition by moving or removing an object within a photo, often a human, while maintaining the background. For removal, you have to select some background to replace the object with, so it’s not as automatic as the equivalent tool in Adobe Photoshop Elements. The clone stamp tool now shows a preview over where you’re about to apply it, and like all the tools and brushes, the size slider is based on your image size, which helps prevent you from getting a tiny brush when you need to make big changes, for example.
New Palettes, Brushes, and Gradients
For creative types, PaintShop Pro 2018 adds more reasons not to pay Adobe monthly tributes, by adding new art tools, including 30 new palettes, 30 brushes, 30 new gradients, and 15 new textures. These are accessible from the Materials panel, and editable in the Materials Properties dialog. You get patterns and textures as well as gradients. And you can download more from Corel. It’s at least as good as what you get with Elements, but not quite as infinitely tweakable as Photoshop.
Camera Raw Lab
When you start Edit mode with a raw camera file loaded, PaintShop opens the Lab interface, which is a lot like Photoshop’s equivalent window. Here you can change the white balance and recover highlights, but also apply Lens-profile-based corrections for chromatic aberration and vignetting. I find it a little strange that this doesn’t open when you go to Adjust mode, since what it offers are basically adjustments.
Another, more significant dig is that the adjustments in this part of the program are quite slow, especially compared with their more-effective equivalents in Lightroom. In the new release, Corel has made an effort to speed up a lot of the program’s most common functions and in its startup time, but I still found that it lagged in several operations in testing.
The Lab recognized raw files from my Canon 6D with a 24-105 zoom lens, but the newer 6D Mark II’s raw photos displayed with a magenta tint. But for both, when I chose to fix the chromatic aberration, I didn’t see any improvement in purple and green fringing. You’re much better off with Lightroom or DxO Optics Pro for this kind of fix. I tried again with a Canon Rebel T3i, a well-established model, and though the camera was recognized, the automatic fixes actually made the edges of the image geometry worse, warping objects.
One thing I do prefer about PaintShop’s raw processor is that it opens multiple shots in one dialog with a filmstrip along the bottom; Adobe makes you open each in a separate new window.
Extra Goodies and Imaging Tools
Project Templates. PaintShop’s templates are a boon to non-artistic folk who just need to create a card, collage, or brochure. They’re really just predesigned layer groups, into which you drag your own images. The downside is that many cost a few bucks, though others are free.
Screen Capture. I usually use Snagit 10 for my screen capturing, but I’m open to options, since that program’s recent versions have gone off track. Corel’s does let you use a hotkey and a timer delay, which I consider essential, but unlike SnagIt’s, it doesn’t work in the background: You have to open the program and tell it to prepare to take the screenshot. It does offer several capture styles, including one that lets you select the rectangular area you want to shoot with the mouse. I prefer a separate screenshot tool, but if you want to start editing right away, PaintShop’s feature does the job.
Depth-Aware Photo Support. I used sample photos with XDM depth information from Intel’s Developer Zone site. PaintShop’s Adjust mode includes a Depth Selection section that lets you specify the depth you want visible. This is equivalent to getting a green-screen mask without needing a green screen. You get a slider labeled from Near to Far. If the selected area doesn’t suit your needs, a manual selection tool is right below the auto-distance-based selection slider. I actually needed this, because the automatic selection was (surprisingly) off in places.
Text Tools. New text capabilities for the 2018 version include superscript, subscript, and new justification options. The nifty Paste-to-Fit option lets your text match a shape in your image. It’s not quite as cool as Photoshop Elements’ ability to wrap text around a curved shape in your image, however. You can hollow out text and create raster cutouts, which is a neat effect. But for really impressive font work, PaintShop can’t compete with Photoshop, which lets you mess with the actual character shapes using glyphs and apply gee-whiz effects like 3D extrusion.
Windows Stylus. The new version of PaintShop Pro supports Windows Real-Time Stylus (WinRTS) devices, such as the pen that comes with the Surface line of convertible PCs. I tested this on a Surface Book, and indeed I was able to draw, complete with pressure sensitivity. You can also use the pen for any menus and settings. As mentioned, though, the interface isn’t well-adapted to touchscreen input, with some pretty small controls.
Output and Sharing
From Edit mode’s File menu, you can export to all the expected formats; JPEG, GIF, and PNG optimizers and an image slicer are useful extras for Web producers. Printing options abound, too, with CMYK separations, and standard layout presets. It even offers soft-proofing with a wide variety of printer profiles in the Color Management settings.
For Web sharing, it can open your email client and attach your image, or upload directly to Flickr and Facebook. A couple more choices like Twitter and Tumblr would be nice (Instagram, too, but that service only allows mobile uploading). One cool thing about the app’s Web sharing dialog is that you can select more than one of these sites for multiple uploading. You can also choose whether to upload the full-size originals or reduced-size versions for easier transmission. A downside is that I couldn’t just share to my Facebook wall or Flickr photo stream. Instead, I had to choose or create an album. And forget about syncing edits with the online album versions or viewing online comments, as you can with Photoshop Elements.
A Fully Stocked Shop
Corel PaintShop Pro is a high-bang-for-the-buck Photoshop substitute. The app gets points for the sheer number of tools it throws at you, many of which acceptably mimic their Photoshop counterparts—that even goes for advanced tools like content-aware move, gradients, and effect filters. For photographers less interested in visual arts and crafts, the $149 Lightroom is a better choice, making the workflow from memory card to output smoother. And the $99 Adobe Photoshop Elements, our Editors’ Choice for enthusiast photo software, still offers a more intuitive interface, better performance, and Adobe’s unmatched photo-manipulation tools. Pros who need Photoshop’s more common tools should be perfectly satisfied with this budget option, however.