2D and 3D Graphics Tools
Photo and 3D editing tools are the most expensive applications on the market, with some costing many thousands of dollars. Several alternatives, however, do a very good job and cost you nothing.
Photoshop's popularity is as high as its list price, a stunning $999. (That's "stunning" as in Taser.) You can, of course, find that package for less, even for free if you are willing to prowl the Internet's dark alleys looking for a literal steal. PhotoFiltre, on the other hand, will make you an honest artist/designer/photographer, and you don't have to hock your grandmother's wedding ring--or your soul--to enjoy it.
The important difference between PhotoFiltre and the more elaborate Photoshop is PhotoFiltre's simplicity--in use, not in what it can accomplish. Its tools and menus, for one thing, are more evenly distributed, reducing the need to plow deep into the program's interface just to flip an image 90 degrees.
PhotoFiltre lacks some of Photoshop's professional abilities, such as handling layers, as well as more arcane features, such as stitching photos into a panorama and altering perspective. But PhotoFiltre does have an arsenal of plug-ins that provide some tricks of their own, such as a filter that emphasizes shadows, highlights, or both, without your having to select the areas of dark and light.
A beautiful rippling water reflection is only three clicks away. Most effects, in fact, take only a couple of clicks. PhotoFiltre doesn't have Photoshop's jam-packed dialog boxes that permit the fatally fastidious to fiddle with a photo for hours. It's fast. It's simple. It's powerful. It works. And it's free.
Download PhotoFiltre (Free)
So you can't do everything in PhotoFiltre that you can in Photoshop. That's just more proof that one-stop shopping is overrated. Take, for example, Photoshop's autostitching, which Adobe prefers to call "photomerge." By either name, the feature attempts to piece and blend together two or more photographs to create a panorama. Photoshop does a decent job of it, although inevitably you must tell the application what photos should go together and in what order, and you have to make sure that up is the same direction in each picture. If you give Photoshop that many hints, it can handle the rest, creating a seamless expanse of photography.
But whether Photoshop is too rich for your pocketbook or you can pay for it from petty cash, you should get to know Autostitch, a free tool dedicated to panoramas. In addition to producing a panorama with the same perfection found in Photoshop, Autostitch can look at a PC folder packed with pictures and select photos that are screaming to be joined in panoramic splendor.
Created by Matthew Brown and David Lowe of the University of British Columbia, Autostitch comes with a screen full of settings for controlling how the final product should look, but most of them are so esoteric that fiddling with them, trying to unravel their purpose, is the sort of thing that can lead only to madness. Ignore the controls. Just print panoramas with panache, and thumb your nose at Photoshop.
Download Autostitch (Free)
Maya Personal Learning Edition
Today's programs for creating animation are amazing. They can turn the most klutsy artist into a Walt Disney or Chuck Jones by automating the intricate, finger-busting work of turning thousands of drawings into a few seconds of animation. Just as incredible are such programs' prices: Autodesk 3ds Max 2008 costs $3495 retail, and Autodesk Maya Unlimited 2008 can be yours for a trifling $6995. Or, you can pay nothing. Zilch. Nada. That'll get you a sizable chunk of what goes into the latest version of Autodesk Maya.
Autodesk must be selling enough of those high-priced programs to feel good about giving away free copies of Maya Personal Learning Edition. The program doesn't include all the goodies found in its professional counterparts. It lacks the speed with which the other applications render complicated images, and it also omits the newest innovations, such as the latest shaders and skin editors. It does, however, give you the rigging and animation technologies that let characters move with both soft and rigid body dynamics, Maya paint effects, a complete particle system, toon shading, and four renderers. Though you have no tech support to rely on, you can find oodles of documentation, demonstrations, and online discussion groups.
If Maya PLE doesn't seem robust enough, take a look at another animation program, Blender 3D. It's a sterling example of what can be accomplished within the GNU free-software movement, and it can definitely hold its head high when compared with commercial animation programs. The work it turns out is vividly detailed--check out the screen shots--and movements are convincingly smooth.
Folks frequently use it to build complex avatars and environments on sites such as the IMVU.com 3D chat system. The reason is pretty simple: Blender has all the features you need to produce interactive 3D graphics and games that are compatible across platforms. Its suite of features allows modeling, rendering, and postproduction polishing.
Download Blender3D (Free)