Great low-cost graphics tools

Graphics superstars that cost no more than US$80 to register

You can't put a price on creativity. But with the best image-editing and graphics-design tools retailing for US$500 or more, it's easy to feel as though you can't afford to be creative. Pay attention to the download scene, however, and the picture looks a lot brighter.

We checked out a sampling of tools that ranged from graphical one-trick ponies to full-featured application suites that compare favourably with big-ticket graphics superstars. The best news: Most of these programs have a free trial period, nothing listed here costs more than US$80 to register, and a bunch of them are just plain free.

Free and easy

It's amazing what you can still get for nothing. Our freebie picks range from a small but useful tool for identifying the color of any pixel on your screen to an image-editing application that is like margarine to Adobe Photoshop's butter. We've also collected some time-saving screen-capture tools for grabbing screen shots and recording moving images.

There's also a lot to love about "lite" versions of industry-leading graphics packages intended for the home market. Take Corel Painter Essentials 3, a scaled-down version of its professional-quality parent application, Corel Painter IX.5. Billed as a "home art studio," the program lets you create original artworks by wielding tools that replicate the look of fine-art techniques, such as painting with oils or drawing with pastels. You can start with a blank canvas, or use the program to embellish an existing image, such as a photograph. Take a snapshot of your house, say, and you can transform it into what looks like a painting by Van Gogh.

Maybe you're more interested in straightforward photo editing, the kind that corrects bad exposures and eliminates unsightly blemishes. Or perhaps you'd just like help managing, storing, and sharing the thousands of digital images that pile up on every digital photographer's storage drives. For you, we've spotlighted a handful of helpful resources, including ACDSee's workhorse Photo Manager 9.

You'll also find a handful of screen-capture utilities listed below. If you're grabbing screens the old fashioned way, with the print-screen key, you should definitely download one of these newer tools and try it out. You'll wonder how you ever got by without it.

Photo editors and managers

ACDSee Photo Editor 4: This capable $70 photo editor can do everything from simple fixes (red-eye removal, poor exposure) to special effects (old-fashioned vignettes; brush, paint, and text effects; stamp tool; flaw removal) to elaborate projects that seemed geared to the mother-daughter demographic (stylized greeting cards, scrapbook pages, party invites, CD covers, even a T-shirt transfer). This program contains more effects than does Photo Manager 9 (immediately below), and the projects are unique to it. Also, ACDSee includes step-by-step tutorials right in the software.

ACDSee Photo Manager 9: For $40, Photo Manager 9 combines many of the best traits of various consumer-grade digital photo programs in one fast, good-looking package. It includes endless ways to organize your images, plus surprisingly good image-editing and special-effects tools, password-protected storage, slick tutorials, and lots more. Choose this program over Photo Editor 4 if you prefer breadth and security in your photo management options to artsy photo effects and craftsy projects.

Serif PhotoPlus 6: PhotoPlus 6 is a free program that holds its own in comparison to older versions of the venerable, category-leading Adobe Photoshop. Its appeal is probably strongest to novices and would-be graphics artists interested in learning to use photo-altering features that range from basic painting, drawing, and text manipulation to erasing, filling, and cloning regions. There's even a Layer Manager that lets you work with multiple layers and masks, and a lasso-like Freehand tool.

Photo Resizer Pro: This US$18 program makes it easy to resize individual images or whole batches of shots for displaying on the Web or e-mailing to friends. The program also lets you convert images to various popular file formats. New in this version is the capability to crop, rotate, or adjust the color balance of an original or resized image.

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Leigh Anne Jones

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