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Dave Collerton

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Dave Collerton

Photo Editing Software? It's not all just about Photoshop!!

Photo Editing Software? It's not all just about Photoshop!!

In many of the editing groups I tend to frequent the discussion often turns to why on earth do we try out all these "up and coming" image editors if Light Room and Photoshop are so damned good. There's no one response I've seen that explains this but in the vast majority of responses, cost always features. Adobe's subscription model is, it seems universally disliked even though in reality it is just £130 or so a year, cheaper on a deal.

Don't get me wrong, Photoshop is one heck of an editor. Combined with Camera RAW or Lightroom you've got everythig you need to create stunning images and art from any starting position. The only downside for me, and for many others, price and compexity. For many, Photoshop is one heck of a large, expensive hammer if you simply want to refine a portrait or touch up a landscape. Given that in such circumstances many photographers probably never use more than a fraction of its capabilities, any good RAW editor would most likely do. Of course there will be times when you want to combine a couple of layers to make a composite or indeed, go a lot further but in truth, that can be done in any layer based editing system. The fact is, in 2020 you simply don't need Photoshop to achieve great results and there are many options you could and should consider before giving in to the dreaded subscription model.

My own personal perspective is pretty much along these lines, hence the reason I have spent a lot more than £130 this year trying to find something that does everything. The truth is though, that magic bullet doesn't yet fully exist. Every editor I have used, excluding Photoshop as I won't pay the subscription fee, has it's merits, and its weaknesses. Of the four I want to discuss here, Affinity Photo is a wolf in sheeps clothing. It's Photoshop in all but name and price. Sure the look and feel is different, the UI is different and the menus are different. But the way it works, and the way you interact with it, looks exactly like Photoshop. Even the majority of the keyboard shortcuts are the same. My biggest concern when anyone tells me they are looking at moving away from Photoshop to any other edior is that they won't give a new editor the chance to shine. I wish I had a pound for everyone that tells me "I tried it but I couldn't get on with it" or "it doesn't do what I want". Nonesense. ON1 for example does practically everything Photoshop can do just quicker and often easier. My own personal approach to learning a new piece of software is to put aside all the software I feel comfortable with. Not being able to fall back to your "comfort blanket" is by far the best way of learning anything. I also give it a month and I use it for everything. That what I have been doing with Affinity and that approach is paying dividends.

With regards workflow, every edit starts with a good RAW editor. Doing away one the need to use two or even three editing tools must therefore constitute a benefit. I actually think that most edits could stop at the RAW editing stage. I certainly see this in my own workflow as I rarely use layers on a straight edit so unless I am using Affinity Photo, I can do pretty much anything I want in just the RAW editor. Why would I need then to bother with something like Photoshop or even Affinity? There's no doubt that layers are great for complex edits, composites for example. Layers are also great for creating non-destructive edits allowing you to go back and re-do something. They are also great  and particularly for labelling your edits so that if and when you revisit, you can see exactly what you've done. They are also great in teaching as it helps crate a structure to the edit which in turn helps you explain the overall process to others. However, in order to use layers properly you really need to be able to add adjustment and image layers. One without the other is pointless for the most part.

So, what are the options? Well, there are many but for the sake of this article, I have chosen just four to talk about. These are:

  • ON1 Photo RAW 2020
  • Luminar 4.2
  • Affinity Photo 1.8
  • Photoscape X Pro

ON1 Photo RAW 2020

This hugeley competent editor from OnOne is a full featured editor available for both Windows and MAC. It combines comprehensive RAW editing with the ability to use a huge number of Presets and LUT's with a fully integrated layer management system. It also includes a rudimentary Digital Asset Management system (DAM) for those that want to apply keywords to their images and to manage locations, virtual copies etc.

ON1 offers a single user interface and recent improvements include the ability to work on an improve your portraits without having to leave ON1 to go to something like PortraitPro.  The interface is relatively simple to get to grips with with various panels providing information to the left and right of the main editing panel. The left-hand panel can be minimised to provide additional real-estate to allow you to focus on your editing in the centre panel. The right-hand panel contains all the features you need to create amazing post-processed results, often in just a few minutes.

If you need to add layers, ON1 has all of the features you need access to plus as mentioned, you can create a virtual copy at any time to branch into a different editing approach if needed. The results from ON1 are exceptional thanks in part to the ability to use a vast number of presets and LUT's which take out the heavy lifting and help you create a particual look, for example an analogue film look, black and white images etc etc.

What I like particularly about ON1 is the Effects Panel. This gives you instant access to a number of features including B&W converison, Vignette, Colour and Tone Controls, Contrast Controls and much more. Each these controls in turn have a number of presets you can choose from or, if you prefer, you can edit manually using the sliders. This makes editing RAW files effortless for the most part, especially if you are doing a straight edit.

In addition to Basic adjustments and Effects, ON1 provides two other very useful features. The first of these is a set of Portraiture tools which can be used to effect the eyes, skin and mouth. These can be applied together or independently. For male portraits I tend to just work on the eyes bit for female portraits, it's not unusual to use all three. This feature, although releatively new but has a lot of potential. At present it does exclude a lot of the functionaly you will find in products such as PortraitPro but nonetheless, it is very usable and the results can be great.

The final option availble during editing is Local Adjustments which is basically where you do the your fine tuning of your image. This provides you with a huge range of possibilities including the creation of complex masks. When using local adjustments the tool set on the LHS of the screen has several additional tools that can be used to help in the creation and refining of masks. Depending on the complexity of the object being masked, this process can take anything from a few seconds to a few minutes. The quality of your mask ultimately controls the quality of the resulting images so time taken on mask creation is time well spent.

As mentioned earlier, ON1 allows you to work with images to create composites such a changing a sky on one image for another or adding a texture or background image. Each layer can have it's own adjustments and effects so it's possible to create quite complex composite images using this technique. Here, I've simply removed the backround of the main portrait and substituted this for a textured background to give more dynamic appeal.

PROS

  • Comprehensive image editing
  • Perpetual licence - buy once and only upgrade if you feel you need to
  • Reasonable cost - less than £80 (often lower with special offers and vouchers)
  • Relatively quick learning curve
  • Create virtual copies to work on
  • Layer based editing system with the ability to add effects and do local adjustments
  • Portraiture Features
  • A huge number of LUTS and Presets are available to help you create stunning images
  • Comprehensive print and print layout options

CONS

  • Can be slow to load and export images
  • Some lag noticable when masking / adjusting images
  • Mask refinement while good is not perfect
  • Layers are limted to image layers (although you can duplicate layers)
  • UI is busy but well layed out and easy to navigate

Useful ON1 Resources:

ON1: This helpful and complete guide to using ON1 PhotoRaw 2020 is a great reference document for anyone using, or thinking about using ON1 as their primary editor. Find it here.

Luminar 4

Another competent editor this tiime from Skylum (originally Macfun). As for ON1, Luminar 4 is a full featured editor available for both Windows and MAC and as for ON1 it combines comprehensive RAW editing with the ability to use a huge number of Presets and LUT's within a fully integrated layer management system. It also includes a rudimentary Digital Asset Management system (DAM) for those that want to track the edits done to their images. Unlike ON1 it doesn't currently (in Luminar 4.2) allow you to create virtual copies which is somewhat annoying.

The interface associated with Luminar 4 is really simple to get to grips with and in fact quite different to earlier versions of the software. For me I felt the interface was somewhat "dumbed down" almost as if Skylum were hoping to appeal to a much wider audience, for example smart phone users. It wouldn't surprise me if Skylum didn't release an IOS / Android App fairly soon.

Again as with ON1 there are various panels proviing information to the left, bottom and right of the main editing panel. All panels can be minimised to provide additional real-estate (as with ON1) for editing. The right-hand panel contains all the features you need to create good quality post-processed results. Because of the ultra simplistic interface, creating a masterpiece is really easy.

Like ON1, Luminar 4 offers a single user interface and recent improvements include the ability to work on an improve your portraits without having to leave Luminar. This is actually better than that provided by ON1 in that there are many more options available to help you perfect your portrait.

In addition to the basic RAW editing tools, Luminar, like ON1, gives you access to a myriad of LUT's and Presets which can be applied to your images at any point in the editing process. My own workflow is to perform the RAW edit, then add a layer fot the artistic edits. As with ON1, all your edits are non-destructive so you can go back to them at any time to effect changes. Because of this, the results from Luminar can be exceptional plus you have the added benefit that you spent a fraction of the time you would have done on PS to achieve a similar look.

What I like particularly about Luminar since version 4 is the sky replacement tools and an increasing number od AI options. This opens up a number of doors to being able to create dgital art as well as giving you the ability to completely change your image. The downside with sky replacement is that you need to reconsider the lighting in the image as a whole so the best approach is always to select a sky with a similar light source. If using the supplied sky's is a no no for you, you can add your own to the database and use these. Either way, you can create some amazing effects if you take a little time to blend the sky with the existing scene.

I would tend to recommend Luminar to any photographer who doens't want to get bogged down in heavy editing, complex screens and difficult to understand functionality. You really won't find anything much easier to use than Luminr 4. It there is a downside, performance is very much associated with your system specification and some users do experience stability issues with earlier versions of Luminar. I have found that Luminar 4.2 addresses these concerns for me and on my setup at least, I have a very useable, feature rich editor that does everything I want in super-quick time.

PROS

  • Comprehensive image editing
  • Inbuilt Image Management System (DAM)
  • Perpetual licence - buy once and only upgrade if you feel you need to
  • Reasonable cost - less than £70 (often lower with special offers and vouchers)
  • Very quick learning curve - you'll be editing like an expert within a few days
  • Layer based editing system with the ability to add images, effects and do local adjustments
  • Replace sky's in a single click
  • Very useable portraiture features
  • A huge number of LUTS and Presets are available to help you create unique looks and stunning images

CONS

  • Versions below Luminar 4.2 can suffer from instability problems (seemingly hardware dependent)
  • Not well optimised to use dedicated graphics cards
  • Can be slow to load and export images
  • Some lag noticable during some operations
  • DAM is basically a file manager - no ability to add keywords or change metadate
  • Mask refinement while good is not perfect

Useful Luminar Resources:

Affinity Photo 1.8.3

Affinity Photo is cut from the same cloth as PS in that it comprises of practically every tool, function and feature you could ever want or need in order to be able to build the most amazing pieces of graphics art. It is also a very competent editor for those of us who perhaps want to push the boundaries in our editing but don’t want to model the insides of a camera in amazing detail and clarity. For this reason, Affinity Photo appears to appeal to two very different camps, the first being the graphic designer and the second being the photographer.

If you look at Affinity from the perspective of a photographer, it is almost as complete as PS so for many reading this, it offers a cheaper but no less competent editor. With pricing today at just £23.99 for a perpetual licence, there is every reason, even if you are a die hard PS user, to take a long, hard look at Affinity Photo. This is especially true if you have a long-standing relationship with PS because much of what exists in Affinity would appear to come from PS. The keyboard shortcuts for the most part are the same, the way Affinity works is the same, the overall functionality of Affinity is the same. Even the layout looks suspiciously PS like.  I’m not telling you this because I have experienced both, I am simply relaying the comments of PS experts who tell me they are remarkably similar in so many ways.

The primary difference for non PS users such as myself is that unlike for ON1 and Luminar, the learning curve for Affinity is practically vertical. This is not the type of editor you can drift in and out of and hope to master. You need to push aside any other editors you may use and go for it. It won’t be fun at first, and it certainly won’t be easy but the benefits are huge. Of course if you are a PS user, you will benefit substantially from that experience and knowledge.

The first noticeable difference from say ON1 and Luminar is the main UI. On loading a RAW image you will see that the screen looks pretty busy with painting and drawing icons to the left, various Personas to the top left, a comprehensive top menu system and to the right, a busy array of editing and visualisation tools. The centre panel though contains your image as for any other editor.

If the image you have loaded is a RAW image, the RHS side panel will default to RAW editing tools and before you can move on, you should first develop your RAW image into something that the system can then edit further. I must tell you that I don’t feel that the RAW editor provided is as good as say those in ON1 or Luminar but everything you need is there including Tone Curves, Details, Exposure, Clarity, Contrast, Shadows and Highlights and more.  Spending time here will be well spent as the results will be the start point for everything that is to come. Once your RAW file is edited and developed, you can start the more advanced aspects of your edit.

Once developed, your image is now in the Photos Persona and all of the tools to the left become available for you to use. The basic premise of Affinity is to create a serious of layers to which you can attribute various functions such as Curves, HSL etc using masks to help refine their usage. You can also group functions within a layer, for example if you want to use a single mask for say Curves and HSL. An example of this is where you perhaps want to brighten and re-colour the eyes in a portrait or lift the shadows and add selective colour to a landscape.

Another nice feature for portraiture is the use of Frequency Separation which basically splits the image into high and low frequency images. The low frequency image contains the colour whereas the high frequency retains the detail. By working in these two layers you can smooth out skin while removing blemishes and colour correcting the skin. The effect can be subtle or it can be extreme although of course the more care you take the better the overall effect. Done properly, Frequency Separation can produce stunning effects and negate the need to use a proprietary portrait editor such as PortraitPro.

As for PS, you can use macros (actions in PS) and some PS plugins will also work. For example, I use Luminar and Topaz Studio as plugins to Affinity. I find Luminar particularly valuable because of it’s access to 100’s of plugins and LUT’s which allow me to stylise my image with minimal effort. A good example of use is to use Affinity to do all of the heavy editing and then to pass this to Luminar to finish the edit. For example this could be to create a B&W film effect with grain, a stylised effect using cross colour or a moody portrait with a 1960’s feel . I haven’t yet gotten Affinity to work with ON1 but I believe it can.

My general and honest opinion of Affinity Photo is that if you want access to the advanced functionality it provides in so many areas, you really should consider this as a viable alternative to PS. Not only will you save a considerable amount of money, I have yet find anything in any other editing software that Affinity can’t do with relative ease.

PROS

  • Comparable to Photoshop in terms of functionality
  • Very comprehensive image editing functions
  • Good stability, fast to load and export
  • Advanced masking functionality
  • One click Frequency Seperation for portraiture
  • Perpetual licence - buy once and only upgrade if you feel you need to
  • Incredibly low cost - less than £25 at the moment
  • Comprehensive layer based editing system with the ability to add images, effects and do local adjustments
  • Can use .cube LUTS to help you create unique looks for your images
  • Macros can automate many processing steps

CONS

  • Vertical learning curve unless you know Photoshop already
  • UI is busy and can be confusing to new users
  • Layer system is so comprehensive as to be daunting at first
  • No DAM (but you could use Adobe Bridge or better still XNwinMP)

Useful Affinity Resources:

Photoscape X Pro

Somewhat the joker in the pack, this is an often overlooked editor that could offer you the perfect solution if you are looking for a simple to use editor that has comperhensive editing functions and a relatively simple user interface.

Photoscape X Pro is available on both Windows 10 and MAC platforms and there are two versions, Photoscape X is a FREE version while Photoscape X Pro is provided at a low initial cost on a perpetual licence. At the time I bought my version, some 2 years ago now, it cost just £25 so hardly expensive. The system auto updates so I am now using the latest version, without additional cost.

The first thing to say is that Photoscape X Pro does not use layers. It combines comprehensive RAW editing with access to lot's of in-built features. You can apply overlays, combine images, change backgrounds, create composities etc but don't run away with thinking that this is an editor built along the same lines as the other three.

With regards the UI, the left hand panel allows you to select various file types, including JPEG, RAW, TIFF etc. There is no Digital Asset Management system (DAM) as such but you can edit the metadata. You can also browse your files and see / load your images.

If you want a DAM you'll need to use Adobe Bridge or XNviewMP to manage your images for metatags, keywords etc. This is not too much of an issue as both of these products are FREE and both do a great job at tagging and grouping your images. If you want to avoid going anywhere near Creative Cloud, then look to XNviewMP for your DAM system. I use XNviewMP extensively, even though I have both Luminar and ON1 as I like to have access to all of my digital assets from a single source.

The interface associated with Photoscape X Pro is really simple to get to grips with. As with the other editors, there are various panels providing information to the left, bottom, top and right of the main central editing panel. The left hand panels can be minimised to provide additional real-estate for editing while the right-hand panel changes as you move through the various options available for editing your images. As with all of the other editors it contains pretty much all of the features you need to create good quality post-processed results albeit the approach adopted by Photscape is somewhat different. One thing I will say, some of the panels can be intimidating as they are often jam-packed with tools. Most of these you'll never use but the option is there should you need to do more than a basic edit.

In addition to the basic RAW editing tools, LPhotoscape X Pro gives you access to a myriad of presets to help lift your image from mundane to outstanding. Firstly you can combine images, using masks to add / remove parts of one image to include in another. Unlike the other editors, all your edits are destructive in that they modify the original image as you go through the editing process. You do have an undo facility which will take you back through all of your changes or to revert all the way back to the original but there's no history to allow you to straight to a point in your edits that you'd like to modify. There are also no layers so again, you can't branch into a new editing session or apply adjustments to different layers.

Like Luminar, Photoscape X Pro does include an increasing number of AI options. This opens up a number of doors to being able to fast tune your image with minimal effort. Of course, having used the AI features, you are at liberty to modify the results as much as you wish.

I would tend to recommend Photoscape X Pro to any photographer who is a minamalist or straight editor. If you don't want to get bogged down in complex editingand don't want to pay more than £30 for the privelidge, Photoscape X Pro mught be just what you are looking for. It's not that it is easier to use than Luminr 4, it isn't, the sheer number of tools provided will take some time to get used to. However, I found Photoscape X Pro to be pretty speedy at doing things and the results were a way more than acceptable.

PROS

  • Comprehensive image editing
  • Select files from a list of folders
  • Perpetual licence - choose FREE or Pro versions
  • Runs fast and is stable
  • Huge feature set
  • Reasonable cost - less than £30 for the Pro version
  • Very quick learning curve - you'll be editing like an expert within a few days
  • Non layer based editing system but you can combine images, add effects and do local adjustments
  • Easily apply overlays, backgrounds, light leaks, textures etc to help you create unique, arty images
  • You can add text, shapes, borders etc to your images

CONS

  • Clunky, over-bloated UI which makes life difficult when trying to find and select tools
  • No DAM but there is a file manager and image selector
  • Mask refinement tricky but does work with effort
  • Don't expect this to be a photshop replacement!!

Useful Photoscape X Pro Resources:

Visit http://x.photoscape.org/ to lern more and http://x.photoscape.org/help.php to see a number of videos asssociated with usage.

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