Acorn: A Photoshop Alternative for Mac

For almost two decades now, Adobe’s Photoshop has ruled as the ultimate image editing tool on the Mac and PC. It offers a comprehensive toolset that is difficult to challenge, and doing so would be a major undertaking for any company. However, over the years, Photoshop has become increasingly bloated with unnecessary features. So why pay $600 for something, when you can find cheaper (and in some cases, better) alternatives?

Acorn from Flying Meat Software is one such Photoshop alternative that encompasses simplicity and power in a very intuitive user interface. It can handle most of your image editing work, right from the simple tasks to those involving some levels of complexity.

Breathing in the User Interface

To get started with Acorn, either create a new blank file or open up something from your hard drive. The user interface is divided into your main document window which shows you document size and zoom level, and the floating toolbox, which is basically your gateway to using Acorn.

The User Interface

The User Interface

The toolbox is clearly divided into different aspects of image editing: Move, Select, Draw, Erase, Fill, Gradient, Text, and Shape. The text labels will help out any novice user who doesn’t understand the icon based toolbox of Photoshop-esque image editors.

The toolbox also displays the layers, so you never get lost. Right at the bottom alongside the add/remove layer buttons, is a full screen button which projects your document against a completely white background.

Acorn also has a lot of tools and options tucked in under the menubar, containing a healthy dose of image controls and filters.

Basic editing

The basic editing workflow would involve changing colour, cropping the image, resizing it, and then exporting it for web. Acorn does all this with ease, although it’s a little lacking in muscle.

To adjust colour you can use the “Adjust Color…” or “Levels” dialog under the Image menu. Both these tools are fairly basic and allow only broad adjustments to your image.

Working with Color

Working with Color

Whilst you can straight crop an image using the Crop tool, you can use the selection tools to pick out certain areas of your image. There’s even a Magic Wand tool under the selection tools to quickly grab similar pixels. It however isn’t as robust as the Instant Alpha tool found in iWork and Preview.

The Toolbox

The Toolbox

Finally, to export the image Acorn has a ‘Web Export’ feature which gives you a preview of what your final image will look like in different quality settings. Again, it’s nothing to write home about, but it works.

Stepping on the Pedal

Acorn has been constantly improving since version 1.0, with the latest release adding a spiffy Brush Designer. To create a new brush go the Draw menu and click the brush selector, and select “Create New Brush”. Using the very easy to understand Brush Designer you can create unique special effect brushes for use with your graphics.

Brush Designer

Brush Designer

The Acorn Filters system is something to behold. To add a new filter, select it from the Filters menu. This will bring up the Apply Filters palette with an Automator-style workflow. You can then add new filters by clicking the green plus button under each filter stack, and move them around in order of preference. There is also a whole range of pre-set filters so you’ll never run out of fun things to do with your images.



Acorn also has basic scripting support, which allows you to generate your own filters (providing you have some programming knowledge). Check out this script written by the developer himself, which allows you to quickly generate a drop shadow poster effect for your images. However, as it goes right now there’s no community support for this application so it’s very hard to come by any good Acorn scripts.


At the end of the day, Acorn is no Photoshop, but it gets the job done. At $50 for a license, Acorn is more than ten times cheaper than Photoshop. The app is extremely stable, fast, and can be used to quickly process a batch of images. If you find yourself looking for something easy to understand, Acorn will serve you well.

If you haven’t purchased a copy of Acorn yet (or got it along with the MacHeist Bundle), you might also want to check out:

  • Pixelmator ($59): Slick interface with a great toolset. More like Photoshop than any other app.
  • Seashore, a free tool with a limited toolset.
  • Iris ($80): A one-window Photoshop alternative.
  • Paintbrush: A free MS paint alternative for the Mac. Very limited toolset.
  • Preview: The excellent tool which comes built in with Mac OS X. Yes, it can do more than just view images.


Add Yours
  • There’s also Sumo Paint as an online option

  • Beautiful user interface. Inspiration for Apple? *hint-hint*

  • Great Application, I’ve loved it so far, but I have to say it doesn’t match up to PixelMator but If your on a budge it’s a great app.

  • I don’t really think it’s a Photoshop alternative. It compliments Photoshop, and should be used for those small edits that you don’t want to take the time or the memory to fire up Photoshop. Pixelmator is more of a replacement than acorn, but acorn is better for said small jobs.

  • As Erik said, this is hardly an alternative for Photoshop, since it’s only got a really small set of features when compared to Photoshop. I could say it is a nice app to have around when you need to do very simple editing and don’t want to/can’t launch/buy Photoshop.

    In any case, there is something just plain wrong about this review, which is the fact that you guys are using a “theme” on OS X which makes it look like MobileMe, and would lead a user such as Remy (2nd comment) to think this is custom UI work when it’s not.

    • I know it’s not a custom UI, but it still works and looks better than the “standard” OS X theme. I was hinting that perhaps Apple should go in that direction with their UI updates. ;-)

      • What for a Theme it is?

      • In any case, the theme may be even hiding some custom UI work made by the developer that would make more sense in its original design too

  • I Have Acorn and Pixelmator, and use both for different things. Pixelmator is better for image correction jobs, but for good out put for the web, Acorn fills the gap well. For a user experience, they both leave Photoshop Elements well behind for me. Great apps.

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  • I also think, that Acorn is no alternative to Photoshop.

    But you have to decide for yourself. If you are a private user and just want to edit some photos, Acorn may be a good solution. It offers many filters and delivers the basic functionalities.

    So, I think Acorn is good for basic image editing.

  • I’ve been using this for a few months, and i give it two thumbs up. It’s a good alternative to Photoshop… especially for me since I’m not a design guy. Someone in design may differ and prefer Photoshop.

  • It’s a good entry level application for basic image editing and graphic creation. But calling it a “Photoshop Alternative” is very dangerous wording IMO.

  • I don’t feel like this is a Photoshop alternative, it has some good features, but I will definitely chose something like Pixelmator over this any day. The price is too much for a product like this.

  • There is no doubt that Acorn is a great application. The one Photoshop feature is really miss though is a proper Channel support (the way it is in Photoshop).
    Few applications offer that unfortunately :-\

  • Acorn looks great for somebody who is interesting in doing a little photo editing but I wouldn’t call it an alternative to Photoshop. If you really want to get into image manipulation I would recommend that you download a trial of Photoshop, save your pennies & then by it when you have enough cash. Photoshop is an expensive program but worth it and there are many reasons why.

  • In hindsight, it probably isn’t a “Photoshop Alternative” – We didn’t meant to mislead! :-)

  • Agreed. Doesn’t have one sixteenth of Photoshop’s features, and the features it does have are lacking, IMO.

  • What for a Theme is used on the Screenshots?

  • what about GIMP? Open source and powerful.

  • GIMP? I am surprised you’ve left out GIMP!

  • Another free alternative to is LiveQuartz. It has non destructive filters applied to the layers :

  • Another free alternative is LiveQuartz. It has non destructive filters applied to the layers :