Thursday, 20 August 2015

Some Cloud-free Photo Editing Options

Many who have followed market leader Adobe into ‘the cloud’ have found themselves in a place that wasn’t quite as perfect as some marketing hype had everyone believe.  Here I highlight some impressive photo editing software applications that still have both their feet on solid ground while offering terrific value for money.


Cloud-based image editing software has its problems: paying an ongoing usage or rental fee for the software rather than a one-off purchase fee, some real time problems signing into cloud accounts, temporary loss of access to online assets, and the underlying disquiet knowing that you, the consumer, has little or no control over costs and accessibility in the long term.  In this example, it’s a business model that works well for cloud-centric companies like Adobe but it’s been somewhat less so for its many (and loyal) clients.
  
I was quite shocked when I first unrolled Affinity – expecting a lot of hot air with not much to show for it.  How wrong can you be! Affinity was not only very easy to understand from the get go, but it’s packed full of incredibly useful and effective tools.  Everything pretty much makes sense in terms of editing images to perfection – the biggest challenge between using this and your regular software is in getting used to how efficient its tools are (I thought most were a little more aggressive than similar tools in Photoshop).  Like everything, it’s just a matter of getting used to its quirks – most of which, I suspect, will be cleaned up once the final version is published.


Interestingly these negative issues have effectively pushed other software companies to produce alternatives – and that’s been a boon for both the industry and the consumer.  This lack of a viable alternative has created a gap in the market that’s being filled with some great graphics products, some of which could even be termed Photoshop killers.

But in writing this I need to be careful – Adobe Photoshop is undoubtedly a superb product  - but it’s never been just a photo editor.  Its massive feature set puts it in the hands of a very broad user base, including video shooters, designers, pre-press professionals, publishers, colourists, illustrators and more.  In many ways it’s trying to be something to everyone, with the result that it’s a large, expensive, complex and in some cases, unwieldy beast if all you want to do with it is edit a few humble photos.

The advantage that many new photo-editing products have is that they are often simpler, faster and more specific to the job at hand: picture editing.  Then there’s the photo editing software being developed for the IOS and Android markets – this is even simpler to use because it has to be gesture-driven - but that’s another story.

To this end I never recommend Photoshop per se, far preferring to barrack for Adobe’s excellent Lightroom and Photoshop Elements, because both these products are lighter in weight (i.e. occupying less hard drive space) and are almost entirely photo-centric than their more complex heavy-hitting Adobe brother.

But how good are these Photoshop alternatives, and do they provide a good enough reason for die-hard aficionados to migrate permanently from parts of the Adobe camp?


Serif Affinity Photo


UK-based Serif has been in the software game for years, albeit as a player whose products were either available only online or were bundled with third party devices such as cameras and scanners.  When you consider the massive number of digital products sold over the past couple of decades, it wasn’t such a bad business move.   Back in 1987 its mantra was to “provide affordable graphics software for consumers”.   Then I particularly liked its panorama maker (called PanoramaPlus), though it also produced a reasonable photo editor (PhotoPlus) and an excellent page layout designer (PagePlus).

The company is now launching a new-look range of graphics tools called Affinity – Affinity Designer, Affinity Publisher and Affinity Photo – that specifically target professionals in the industry.  At present these are Mac only - although Serif states there are plans to produce a PC version down the track.  There are no sign-ins or cloud memberships required to get the best from this impressive new software.

 

As you can see in this screen shot, Affinity Photo is packed with good, familiar and powerful editing tools. It’s an excellent non-cloud based alternative to Photoshop.

Serif claim that its new pro products are faster than Adobe’s because Affinity has been designed from the ground up, whereas Adobe products have been continuously upgraded from the same original core design.   It’s a big claim but in my tests, Affinity Photo certainly operated smartly and, as a long time Adobe user, the learning curve turned out to be not quite as steep as you’d expect.  Most of its tools are similar to what I’m used to seeing in existing applications (i.e. Levels, Colour Balance, Curves, Unsharp Masking, Layers, Blend Modes, Adjustment Layers, etc) which makes moving from one application to another somewhat easier.
Part of its extensive tool set includes end-to-end CMYK editing (16-bits per channel), RAW file processing and a content aware fill tool called Inpainting (curiously similar to Photoshop’s Content Aware technology).  But there’s no browser to speak of so you have to rely on using the ubiquitous File>Open command to open files in the software, or drag and drop the file [icon] into the main edit window, or use an existing browser such as iPhoto or Aperture to do the organising and importing duties.

RAW processing is slightly different to Photoshop, but to be honest, the results, side-by-side, are the same.  Once you are familiar with the speed with which Affinity’s processing works (its tools feels a bit more aggressive than those in Photoshop) editing is seamless.  The more you use it, the more its tools become familiar: Curves, Shadow/Highlights, vibrance, sharpness, black/white point adjustment, contrast, and more) although there are some subtle differences, but I think you can put this down to 'user expectations'.  Those that have been manipulating images for years will find it hard to escape inevitable Photoshop comparisons.

There’s a very nice Undo brush which is especially useful if you need to go back into an image to refine your edits.  Expect to find Adjustment layers, all the usual selection tools, savable presets, and much more.  I was pleasantly surprised with this product – some reviewers claim it’s "not as sophisticated as Photoshop" but I disagree.  It doesn’t have video editing, video layers, a professional browser function, or 3D animation capabilities – because it’s a professional photo editing tool.  If you need design or publishing tools, I’d suggest you try Affinity Designer or Affinity Publisher.

Affinity costs in the region of US$65. 



Zoner Photo Studio

Though an oldish application (released in 2004), Zoner is no less of a Photoshop killer than Affinity – perhaps more so when you consider that this Czech-based product already has a global distribution of more than three million users.

Zoner Photo Studio is a powerhouse for photographers because it includes everything in one application – from a browser (seen here), picture manager, photo viewer, RAW processor and HDR plus the benefits of a very sophisticated image editor.


For US$80 Zoner Photo Studio 17 is quite a package – though it’s currently PC only. Unlike Affinity, it has an excellent (and fast) browser and picture management component, a terrific RAW processing engine and even more impressive, a very good HDR tone mapping and processing capability (which I find far funkier than Photoshop’s rather tame Merge to HDR Pro).

This screen shot shows that you can not only have a good range of powerful tools for editing images - but it’s combined with a timeline viewer along the base of the page. 

For a start, this program far out swings Photoshop Elements in that its’ browser operates more like Bridge than Elements’ Organizer.  It’s intuitive, with a full
(star) rating system, colour labelling, keywording, GPS, maps and batch operations, a full EXIF editor, plus filtering and sorting capabilities.  It’s the perfect tool for organising thousands of images.  But that’s just the browser.  It’s also a great-looking professional image editor. Zoner Photo Studio ships with an Import module, a Manager module (the browser), a Viewer module (for fast image reviews. This component appears very similar to Lightroom in the way it displays images consistently and quickly), an Edit module (where all the cool tools are) and a RAW file module that appears to be as sophisticated as anything Photoshop’s Camera RAW can throw at you, maybe more, if you consider all the extras that are also thrown into the mix.  The Manager module also hosts two HDR processing modules (tone mapping and exposure blending), a panorama making tool, plus 3D imaging making.  It’s a lot to digest.

The
RAW processor component is tough to improve on.  When I first used this software I couldn’t see any difference between this and Adobe’s Camera RAW editor - in its look, its operation and with the all-important results.  Considering this is only US$80 (for Zoner Photo Studio 17) it’s an awesome deal.  When I originally looked at Zoner (a couple of years ago) it began to dawn on me that perhaps there was both room and a place in the market for programs other than those from the Adobe stable.

Zoner also includes simple ways to distribute your work to Flickr, Picasa and Facebook
.  You can also upload your pictures to Zonerama (www.zonerama.com), Zoner’s own photo gallery site where you can save, store and show off your work, in unlimited quantities, across the full range of electronic devices.



Pixelmator

While Pixelmator is certainly one of the coolest photo editing applications you are ever likely to see in the 'under US$40' section of the App Store, it’s also, believe it or not, one of the best-featured applications too.  For anyone wanting a full set of edit features packaged into a relatively easy to understand bundle, this software deserves a good look.

Many equate this program with Photoshop - though clearly, a single glance at its interface would suggest otherwise.  On the surface this is a simple, even 'basic' type of photo editing application with a wide range of iPad-type quick filters and effects.  But scratch further and you’ll find a stunning array of tools and features that bring Pixelmator well into the professional editing arena.

 

Pixelmator is either one of the simplest-looking applications in this review, or one of the most complex, depending on how it’s used. Definitely one of my favourites in this review.
In Pixelmator you’ll find a full range of tone enhancement tools, selection tools, layers, blending modes, layer masks, layer styles, and effects, curves, HSL, type and advanced text effects, vector shapes, a full range of retouching tools (including a liquefy filter), transformations, painting, brushes and almost anything else you’d care to imagine.

Again comparisons are hard because Photoshop is an all-round mega-tool serving a huge range of professionals, and applications, while Pixelmator is clearly designed just for photographers.  It doesn’t come with a browser, but is designed for you to use iPhoto or Aperture (now Apple Photos) to do the browsing. Works a treat!  Amazingly you can also customise the tool bar in this program.  Open the preferences and drag your favourite tools onto the tool bar to fully customise it – then drag the ones you don’t like (or are less likely to use) off of the tool bar and they disappear in a puff of virtual smoke.  Very neat.  I wish I could do that in Photoshop.

As you can see above, Pixelmator integrates seamlessly with the Mac, to use, in this case, iPhoto as the browser to view, organise and manage your image library.  Pixelmator is a beautifully designed software app for the Mac.  I’m assuming that once Apple’s plans for an Aperture replacement are made public, it will only be a short time before Pixelmator integrates nicely with the new software’s workflow.

Unfortunately, like Affinity, Pixelmator is Mac only but, as such, takes good advantage of all that OS X Yosemite has to offer, including very smooth operation, enhanced speed, plus integration with other Mac features such as Handoff.  Start something on your Mac then finish it off on the iPad.  It’s that easy.



GIMP

Released way back in 1997, GUI Image manipulation Program or GIMP is a cross platform software application with a heck of a lot of features in it, but seriously folks, it needs a redesign, plus a name change.

Despite its very impressive feature set, GIMP is never going to be a Photoshop killer. Users might be attracted to this product on the basis that it’s been around for a long time and that it’s free – but then so is Google’s Picasa – and that’s a slicker product than GIMP even though it has a fraction of the tool set. 

Still you can’t go past a program that boasts professional retouching tools, masks, layers, channels and selection tools, not to mention all the usual paint tools (including Brush, Pencil, Airbrush, Clone, etc) a powerful gradient editor and blend tool, text editing, plus advanced features such as paths, transformable selections, a quick mask function, real scripting capabilities and much more.

Feature wise it’s an impressive read but I find the interface tough going.  It really looks like it was designed in 1987 – and that’s where so many of the harder hitting Photoshop software applications will win out.  GIMP simply doesn’t offer the seamless productivity, speed and good looks  of Affinity, Pixelmator and others.



LightZone

Somewhat mistakenly dubbed "an alternative to Lightroom" by some, LightZone is an open source professional-level digital darkroom software program aimed at semi-pro and professional users.  It features 16-bit RAW processing, a wide range of innovative editing tools and a unique workflow (called the toolstack) quite different to mainstream photo editors – but don’t let that deter you from giving it a run for its money (even though it is free!).

LightZone ships with its own photo browser permitting you to view multiple files at any one time, much as you would using Adobe Bridge.  That said its browsing features are quite inferior to those found in Bridge.  LightZone’s browser uses a (star) rating system (for quick show/hide viewing), simple batch processing capabilities and a sort engine, but not much more.   On my system this simpler browser worked slower than Adobe Bridge.

If you know anything about Ansel Adams’ Zone System, you’ll be familiar with how the Tone Curve works. Tones are split into a number of tonal areas, each of which can be brightened/darkened separately to their neighbour so it’s not only difficult to totally wreck an image (tonally), it also offers a more accurate method of improving the edit.

Choose an image thumbnail, double-click and it opens in the editor window.  In the LightZone edit environment you’ll find a comprehensive list of styles – these are the same as Lightroom presets  - editing ‘recipes’ which can be applied to the opened image just by double-clicking.   Scrolling over the styles menu previews the effect in the small Navigator window, top left of the main screen (as in Lightroom).

You can also create your own styles and save them to an existing, or a custom folder.   It’s a really nice feature that, like presets in Lightroom, makes the job of editing multiple images a breeze.  To apply one effect to other images, select that file in the browser, use the Lift button to copy the toolstack, select the images you want to apply everything to, and click the paste button to add those changes to different single, or multi-image selection.


As the name suggests, it’s possible to monitor the precise tonal areas you are editing by selecting the Zones Palette in the upper right-hand part of the main edit window – so you can see what it is you are physically sharpening/brightening/darkening, etc.
LightZone saves edited files with a JPEG-LZN extension file (this default can be changed in the preferences from JPEG to a TIFF file).  The JPEG-LZN is essentially a copy of the RAW file complete with a record of the toolstack used (i.e. the effects applied to that file).  Open it a second time and the file, complete with all the tool processes, becomes editable again – you can increase the existing edits by tweaking individual tools in the stack, re-arrange the order in which the effects are applied, add more or delete some.

Toolstacks work a bit like Adjustment Layers in Photoshop/Elements.  While many of LightZone's tools might appear familiar, they also have shared, multiple modification possibilities built in that amplify their power and flexibility.   For example, most tools operate as you’d expect them to – use a slider to make the tone/colour lighter/darker.  However to make the tool more accurate, you can apply that tool effect to a specific colour in the image only (selected using an eyedropper, colour swatch and gradient).  If you need to do a similar change to two colours, you simply add another toolstack and customise its target colour.  It’s a bit fiddly to begin with but results in more accurate colour and tone control.  Individually selected colours can also be further refined by broadening the tonal range of the colour selected, much as you might using Photoshop’s Hue/Saturation tool.  Colour range targeted is helpfully displayed in black-and-white in the Colour Mask window.

LightZone also offers some unusual tools for tonal control — meaning brightness, contrast, shadows, highlights, etc.  Some are inspired by the (Ansel Adams) Zone System, and some are inspired by HDR tone-mapping.  These tools put LightZone in a class by itself for working with black-and-white imagery especially.  They're useful for color photos, too, especially in mixed lighting situations.  LightZone doesn’t have a recognisable curves tool either – LightZone’s tone curve is displayed as a (Zone System) linear tone gradient, enabling you to adjust any of 16 tonal zones from black to white.  It’s a neat way to adjust images.  A tool stack can be copied to a batch of photos in one hit.

The combination of the individual tools' inherent flexibility, the flexibility of the toolstack, its completely non-destructive editing in a 16-bit wide gamut color space, and its intuitive GUI, make LightZone a remarkable alternative for those not entirely comfortable with other mainstream photo editing software.

______________________________________________________
LightZone
http://lightzoneproject.org/

Pixelmator
http://www.pixelmator.com/

Zoner Photo Studio
https://www.zoner.com/

Affinity Photo
https://affinity.serif.com/en-gb/photo/

GIMP
http://www.gimp.org/ 


3 comments:

  1. Incredible points. Sound arguments. Keep up the great work.Thanks for sharing in detail. Your blog is an inspiration! Apart of really useful tips, it's just really!
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