Boris FX Optics 2022

Boris FX is a respected developer of visual effects tools for video. With the introduction of Optics in 2020, Boris FX further extended that expertise into the photography market. Optics installs as a plug-in for Adobe Photoshop, Lightroom, and Bridge. Optics is also installed as a standalone app that supports a variety of still image formats, including camera RAW. So, if you’ve avoided an Adobe subscription, you are still in luck. Before you go any further, I would encourage you to read my 2020 review of Optics (linked here) for an overview of how it works and how to use it.

How has Optics 2022 changed? 

Since that introduction in late 2020, Optics has gone through several free updates, but the 2022 version requires a small upgrade fee for existing users. If you are new to Optics, it’s available though subscription or perpetual licensing and includes a trial period to test the waters.

At first glance, Optics 2022 looks and operates much like the previous versions. Key changes and improvements for Optics 2022 include Mac M1 native support, Metal acceleration of most Sapphire filters, UI enhancements, and mask exchange with Photoshop. However, the big new features include the introduction of a Particle Illusion category with over 1700 emitters, more Sapphire filters, and the Beauty Studio filter set from Continuum. The addition of Particle Illusion might seem a bit odd for a photography application, but by doing so, Boris FX has enhanced Optics as a graphic design tool.

Taking those point-and-shoot photos into Optics 

I’ve used Optics since its introduction and was eager to review Optics 2022 when Boris FX contacted me. There was a local British car show this past Saturday – a superb opportunity to take some photos of vintage Jags, MGs, Minis, Bentleys, Triumphs, and Morgans on a sunny Florida weekend. To make this more real, I decided to shoot the stills with my plain vanilla iPhone SE 2020 using FiLMiC Pro’s FirstLight still photo app. Somewhere along the line, iOS and FirstLight have been updated to allow camera RAW photography. This wasn’t initially available and technically the SE doesn’t support Apple’s ProRAW codec. However, FirstLight now enables RAW recording of DNG files, which are kissing cousins of ProRAW. In the RAW mode, you get the full 4:3, 12MP sensor image. Alternate aspect ratios or in-app film emulations will be disabled.

After a morning of checking out classic cars, I returned home, AirDropped the stills to my iMac and started testing Optics. As RAW photos, the first step in Photoshop is to make any adjustment in the Adobe Camera RAW module before the photo opens in Photoshop. Next, send the layer to Optics, which launches the Optics 2022 application and opens that image in the Optics interface. When you’ve completed your Optics adjustments, click Apply to send the image back to Photoshop as a flat, rasterized image layer or a smart filter.

Working with layers and filters

As I discussed in my 2020 post, Optics itself is a layer-based system, similar to Photoshop. Each layer has separate blend and masking controls. Typically you add one effect per layer and stack more layers as you build up the look. The interface permits you to enable/disable individual layers, compare before and after versions, and adjust the display size and resolution.

Effects are organized into categories (FilmLab, Particle Illusion, Color, Light, etc) and then groups of filters within each category. For example, the Stylize category includes the various Sapphire paint filters. Each filter selection includes a set of presets. When you apply a filter preset, the parameters panel allows you to fine-tune the look and the adjustment of that effect, so you aren’t locked into the preset.

In addition to the parameters panel, many of the effects include on-screen overlay controls for visual adjustment. This is especially helpful with the Particle Illusion effects. For instance, you can change or modify the path of a lightning bolt by moving the on-screen points of the emitter.

Handling file formats

Optics supports TIFF, JPEG, PNG, and RAW formats, so you can open those straight into Optics without Photoshop. In the case of my DNG files, the first effect to be applied is a Develop filter. You can tweak the image values much like in the Adobe Camera RAW module. The operation for creating your look is the same as when you come from Photoshop, except that there is no Apply function. You will need to Save or Save As to export a flat, rasterized TIFF, PNG, or JPEG file. 

Unlike Photoshop, Optics does not have its own layered image format. You can save and recall a set-up. So if you’ve built up a series of filter layers for a specific look, simply save that set-up as a file (minus the image itself). This can be recalled and applied to any other image and modified to adapt that set-up for the new image. If you save the file in the TIFF format, then you have the option to save it with the set-up embedded. These files can be opened back up in Optics along with the various filter layers for further editing.

Performance

As I worked through my files on my iMac, Optics 2022 performed well, but I did experience a number of application crashes of just Optics. When Optics crashes, you lose any adjustments made to the image in Optics. However, when I tested Optics 2022 on my mid-2014 15″ MacBook Pro using the same RAW images, the application was perfectly stable. So it could be some sort of hardware difference between the two Macs.

Here’s one workflow item to be aware of between Photoshop and Optics. If you crop an image in Photoshop, the area outside of the crop still exists, but is hidden. That full image without the crop is the layer sent to Optics. If you apply a stylized border effect, the border is applied to the edges of the full image. Therefore, some or all of the border will be cropped upon returning to Photoshop. Optics includes internal crop controls, so in that instance, you might wish to crop in Optics first, apply the border, and then match the crop for the whole image once back in Photoshop.

All in all, it’s a sweet application that really helps when stuck for ideas about what to do with an image when you want to elevate it above the mundane. Getting great results is fast and quite enjoyable – not to mention, infinitely easier than in Photoshop. Overall, Optics is a great tool for any photographer or graphic designer.

Click through the gallery images below to see further examples of looks and styles created with Boris FX Optics 2022.

©2022 Oliver Peters

Photo Phun 2021

The last time I posted one of these “just for fun” set of photography samples was in 2015. So it’s high time for another one. Earlier this year I reviewed FiLMiC Pro’s iOS movie application and put together a small demo highlighting the capabilities. At the same time I installed Firstlight – FiLMiC’s iOS still photo/camera application.

Firstlight extends the power of the iPhone camera system with extra controls and features. It also adds film-style looks, including grain, vignettes, and film stock simulations. My past Photo Phun blog posts have showcased post processes that could be applied to existing images. The examples in this article used no image manipulation in post (outside of size and crop adjustments). The “look” of all samples was done in-camera, using Firstlight’s built-in features. This is using a stock iPhone SE 2020 – no lens attachments, filters, or tripod.

I occasionally throw shade on the true quality of the best iPhone images. If image quality is the critical factor, then give me a high-end DSLR any day. But, the iPhone is “the camera you have with you” and as such is the modern digital equivalent of the Kodak Instamatic camera, albeit with a lot better image quality. We can pixel-peep all day long, but the bottom line is that iPhones and top-of-the-line Android phones create some stunning imagery in the right hands.

I’ve shot a fair amount of 35mm slide and print film over the years as an amateur photographer. I’ve also manipulated images in post for my share of motion film. Any film stock emulation LUT is suspect in my eyes. You can get close, but ultimately the look designed by a company can only be an approximation. FiLMiC positions its looks as film simulations inspired by 19th and 20th century photography. I think that’s the right approach, without claiming that a given simulation is the exact same as a specific photochemical stock from a film manufacturer or a development process at a lab.

Firstlight includes a wide range of film simulations to choose from. Bear in mind that a look will change the saturation or hue of certain colors. This will only be readily obvious if those colors are in the images that you shoot. For example, C41 Plus shifts blues towards cyan. If you have blue skies in your shot, the resulting skies will appear cyan. However, if your scene is devoid of blues, then you might not see as much effect from that simulation. Think about matching the look to the content. Shoot the right subject in B&W Noir and any shot will look like it came from a gothic tale!

Remember that your iPhone has no true viewfinder – just the screen. If you are outside in bright sunlight, you can barely see what you are shooting, let alone the color differences between film simulations. If you intend to use a film simulation, then plan the shot out ahead of time. Become familiar with what each setting is intended to do, because that look will be baked in. If you get back to the computer and realize you made a mistake, then it’s too late. Personally, I’m keen on post rather than in-camera manipulations. However, if you feel confident in the results – go for it.

The gallery below features examples using Firstlight’s simulated film looks. Each choice has been noted on most of the screens, although some will be very obvious. Other than the changes in the film simulation, the rest of the Firstlight settings are identical for all images. The camera was set to 3:2 aspect ratio, AE mode enabled, and HDR active. Both a fine grain and a vignette at the lowest setting were also applied to each during Firstlight’s image capture.

Check out my Flickr page at this link to see some of these same images and more with added Photoshop and BorisFX Optics development and effects.

Click any gallery thumbnail below to view an enlarged slideshow of these photos.

©2021 Oliver Peters

Boris FX Optics

Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom are ubiquitous digital photography processing tools that hold a place in nearly every pro and semi-pro photographer’s toolkit. From straight-up image correction and enhancement to wildly creative looks, it’s hard to beat what these tools offer. However, when you get into the stylistic filter options, Photoshop looks a bit stale. You can certainly push the artwork to new levels, but it takes talent and often a lot of work. That’s not in step with today’s mindset, where powerful, yet simple-to-use effects tools are the norm. (Click any image in this post for an enlarged view.)

Enter Optics for Photoshop

Last September Boris FX acquired the award-winning effects developers Digital Film Tools and Silhouette. Optics is a new tool developed since this acquisition, specifically designed for the photography market. It features a plug-in for Photoshop and Lightroom (as well as Bridge), which is paired with its own standalone application. Optics shares design similarities with DFT, but also integrates other BorisFX products, such as 75 of the Sapphire filters – a first for Photoshop users. According to Marco Paolini, Optics product designer for Boris FX (and co-founder of DFT and Silhouette), “Optics is the only Photoshop plug-in that specifically simulates optical camera filters with presets based on real-world diffusion filters, as well as realistic simulations of film stocks and motion picture lab processes.”

To use Optics from within Photoshop, simply apply the Optics filter effect to a layer, which opens the Optics Photoshop plug-in. If you first converted that layer into a Smart Object in Photoshop, then the final Optics result will be applied as a Smart Filter and can be toggled on and off in Photoshop. Otherwise, that layer will appear with the “baked in” result once you exit Optics. From Lightroom or Bridge, use the “edit with” command to route the image to the Optics application. Lightroom will send either the original version of the image or with any Lightroom effects applied. When done, a processed copy of the “sent” image appears in Lightroom. The Optics Standalone application supports an extensive set of camera raw file formats in addition to JPEG, TIFF, DPX and Kodak CIN files.

Filters and looks galore

Optics offers 160 filters with thousands of customizable presets. The filters are grouped into nine categories, including color, diffusion, stylize, and more. The user interface is designed with tools and controls bordering around the image. Top – tool bar for masking and view control. Left side – the layers stack. Bottom – filter groups and selection. Right side – two tabs for presets and parameter adjustments. You can show or hide these panels as you like, depending on what you need to see at the time. Resolution choices for the image viewer include 1K, 2K, 4K, 5K, 6K, 8K, and Full resolution. The available choices in the resolution menu are dynamic depending on the size of your image. A lower resolution helps to speed up processing results on lower-powered machines, but you’ll want Full to correctly judge some effects, like sharpening.

If you are comfortable in Photoshop, then you already know how to use Optics. You can build up complex effects using a combination of different filters by using layers. Each layer can be masked and includes all of the usual composite modes. Optics uses floating point processing. This means you can blow out highlights or exposure in one layer, but then bring it down again without information loss in a higher layer. Test out different looks simply by building them onto different layers. Then toggle a layer on or off to see one look versus another. For instance, maybe you’re not sure if you want a sepia look. Just make one layer sepia, disable it, and add a new layer for a different style. Then enable or disable layers to compare.

The EZ Mask is a super-cool function. Let’s say you want to separate a fashion model from the background. First draw rough mask lines for the interior (the model), then rough lines for the exterior or background. Optics will then calculate a very accurate mask. Trim/adjust the mask and re-calculate as needed to better refine the edge. Masks may be inverted as well as copied between layers, which enables you to apply separate effects inside and outside of the mask area. In the example of the model, this means you can create one look or set of effects for the background and a completely different style for the model.

Optics includes a number of stylized render elements that can be added to images, like the moon or lightning zaps. This also includes a ton of lens flare effects, thanks to the included Sapphire filters. In addition to the variety of presets, you can further customize the flares by launching the separate Lens Flare Designer, which is integrated into Optics.

Working with Optics

Optics runs on Macs (macOS 10.13 or higher) and PCs (Windows 10 or higher) with fairly basic hardware requirements. I was able to test Optics on both an iMac Pro and my mid-2014 MacBook Pro. There was a minor license activation issue with the laptop, which was quickly sorted out by Boris FX’s customer service technician. Otherwise, the installations were very smooth. No hiccups with the iMac Pro. Optics responds well on less powerful computers; however, processing-intense effects as well as workflows with a stack of complex layers will perform better on a faster machine. For example, effects that were instantly responsive on the iMac Pro took a bit more time on the older MacBook Pro. If you are only photo developing/color correcting, then you probably won’t notice much difference.

The Optics Standalone application may also be used to process single stills without coming in through Photoshop. The new files can be left in their original size or optionally resized. You can save custom presets, which may be used for single images or to batch process a folder of stills. For example, if I wanted all my vacation stills to be processed with a certain Kodak film stock preset.

Batch processing offers another interesting possibility. Optics will batch process any image sequence, whether from a camera (such as drones) or from a video file exported/rendered out of After Effects. As long as they are JPEG, TIFF, DPX, CIN, or camera raw files, you are good to go. This is a cool way to apply a custom look that you may not have access to as a video filter or plug-in effect, even though Optics is a still photography application.

Select “batch process” and load the image sequence. Then load a saved Optics setup that you have created. Batch processing will save these files as a new image sequence complete with the custom look applied. Finally, reconstruct the processed image sequence back into a video file using After Effects, Resolve, or any other application that supports image sequences.

If you work with a lot of stills and hate going through the gymnastics that Photoshop requires in order to create truly unique looks, then Boris FX Optics will be a game changer. It’s very addictive, but more importantly, Optics offers a huge improvement in efficiency. Plus you’ll have filter options at your fingertips not normally available in Photoshop alone. You might quickly find yourself doing all of your image processing strictly in Optics.

As with other Boris FX products, Optics is available as a perpetual license or subscription. Click this link for Optics video tutorials.

Click through the gallery images below to see further examples of looks and styles created with Boris FX Optics.

©2020 Oliver Peters

Pixelmator Pro Revisited

Many Final Cut Pro X users prefer the software precisely because it does not require an ongoing subscription. If you bought all of Apple’s ProApps products, then you have largely replaced the need for an Adobe Creative Cloud subscription. The exception to that is graphics and photography design and manipulation. Even the most diehard FCPX users often maintain the basic Adobe photography bundle just to have Photoshop in their toolset, since Apple doesn’t make such as application.

There are alternatives, which I have reviewed in the past. Principal replacements come from either Pixelmator or Serif. If you want the most direct alternative to the Photoshop/Illustrator/InDesign trifecta then your best bet would be to buy Affinity Photo, Designer, and Publisher. On the other hand, if you only want an alternative to Photoshop, then Affinity Photo or Pixelmator Pro might be your best option. While I like them both, Pixelmator Pro seems the closest to the FCPX design ethos.

I reviewed Pixelmator Pro after its initial release a bit over two years ago and have recently started to use it on a more full-time basis. Like others who have the Creative Cloud apps installed alongside FCPX, I tend to go where muscle memory takes me. So if you have Photoshop installed, then you’ll probably just continue to use Photoshop as the line of least resistance. However, if you want to stay strictly within the macOS, FCPX-centric ecosystem, then you owe it to yourself to move over to something new.

Pixelmator Pro is a clean app written with newer code, designed to take advantage of Metal. Its interface design is a perfect complement to Final Cut – using a similar approach to tool/layer/inspector panels. These panels can be revealed or hidden, which means that you can have a very minimalist interface that focuses only on the image, if that’s how you like to work.

Another new technology integrated into Pixelmator Pro is machine learning. It’s important to remember that there isn’t really any “learning” involved with machine learning. Instead, calculations are made against a defined set of parameters. For instance, the application uses machine learning to automatically name layers when you import a photo and place it on a layer. It makes a generic guess at the name, like “building” for an image of a building, tower, or other similar image, which is based on shape recognition. In addition, alternative suggested names are also available. If you change it to a custom name, Pixelmator Pro does not “learn” that new name for future use. The available library of possible names is not increased or improved.

Machine learning can also be used for an image’s color/level adjustments. This is more sophisticated than a simple automatic white balance. I find the results more pleasing and successful than similar automatic adjustments in other applications. At the end of 2019, an update added machine learning to image scaling. If you want to blow up a lower resolution image for a higher resolution result, you can employ Pixelmator Pro’s Super Resolution function. This will give you the cleanest edges around complex images and textures as opposed to the other available algorithms. Unfortunately, it is a very slow process on my older MacBook Pro; however, its use it entirely optional. Expect faster results on the newer Macs.

As I’ve been using Pixelmator Pro more these days – instead of the knee-jerk reaction to head to Photoshop first – I’m rediscovering things that I like and that I find to be more fluid and intuitive than in Photoshop. While you can’t do some of Photoshop’s more exotic functions, like video animations, Pixelmator Pro covers the bulk of what an editor needs to do with a graphics tool. Furthermore, if you use Apple Photos, Pixelmator Pro is also supported as an extension and through Photos’ “edit with” functions. In short, Pixelmator Pro is a perfect match for Final Cut Pro X. If Apple were to design a graphics app, it would undoubtedly look and feel a lot like Pixelmator Pro.

Check out an enhanced version of the article at FCPco.

©2020 Oliver Peters

Pixelmator Pro

Pixelmator made a big splash among Apple’s Mac App Store offerings when it was first launched. To close out 2017, the developers are back with Pixelmator Pro, a next generation version of the original. Although both products co-exist, future development is now directed to the Pixelmator Pro product with an iPad version to come. Like its predecessor, Pixelmator Pro is only for macOS and, in fact, this version requires High Sierra or newer.

Pixelmator Pro is intended to appeal to users who want the power of Adobe Photoshop, but without the subscription and at a more attractive price. By being designed only for the Mac platform, the Pixelmator developers can optimize their applications for Apple-specific technologies. Pixelmator Pro taps into some features available through macOS High Sierra (10.13), like Apple’s Metal 2 GPU image processing and machine learning via Core ML. This excludes legacy Mac Pro towers, because they aren’t capable of Metal 2, in spite of being able to install and run High Sierra.

Much like Apple’s own software, Pixelmator Pro features a pleasing user interface with a streamlined layout. The original Pixelmator interface was colorful with floating windows and tool palettes, but Pro takes on a more integrated and flatter design. You can quickly show/hide controls and bounce between a windowed and full screen display of the image to maintain the best focus on what you are doing. Layers are shown on the left edge of the interface with tools down the right edge. Additional tools and controls can be accessed from the main menu, as well as from a pulldown at the “+” sign in the upper left corner of the interface window. Whenever you select a tool like “Adjust Colors”, specific control parameters appear, along with thumbnails of your image using one of the built-in presets. Click “Add” at the top to expose more possible modifiers for that tool. This keeps the starting point simple, with an easy way to add more tools, much like Aperture did in the past.

Pixelmator Pro operation is very fluid. Little impedes your interaction with the interface. Camera raw images are processed in their native state, without the need for an image development step before you can work with them. Multiple raw files can be placed onto separate layers. Most camera raw formats, including DNG, can be imported; however, compressed raw formats aren’t recognized. For example, I was able to import images from a DJI image sequence, but not a Blackmagic Design URSA camera. With raw files, color adjustment tools continue to be available even as other manipulation is done.

Machine learning drives automatic layer naming. When you import a photo to a layer, Pixelmator Pro takes a best guess at what the image contains and names the layer accordingly. I imported an image of a large metal artwork and it was named “sculpture”. An image of the sanctuary in the Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal was named “stained glass”. Most of the time, the automatic naming was close enough, but you can always change it yourself. The background layer and layers with camera raw images are not renamed. Another tie into macOS is the integration with photo libraries from Photos and/or Aperture. When selecting an image for importing onto a new layer, one option is to pick from collections that you’ve curated in one of these two applications.

If you come from graphics applications like Photoshop, then Pixelmator Pro takes a bit of readjustment in your workflow. For instance, the hierarchical order of applied processes is fixed. I can adjust color and then apply an effect, like a Gaussian blur. But then I can’t add grain from the color menu on top, because that’s part of the color adjustment options. Instead, I have to apply a separate grain modifier from the effects menu. Likewise, there are no adjustment layers to apply non-destructive effects to all the layers below. However, I can group layers together and then apply effects to the entire group, which is a viable alternative. You can rotate on image on the z-axis, but there’s no x- or y-rotation. Instead, you have to use the “Perspective Transform” effect and corner-pin an image to produce the look that horizontal or vertical rotation would provide.

Pixelmator and Pixelmator Pro both use their own proprietary file formats. Pro will open Pixelmator’s PXM files, but Pro’s PXD files can’t be opened in the original Pixelmator application. Of course, you can export in various standard formats, like JPEG, TIFF, and Photoshop. Pixelmator Pro also utilizes Apple’s Share menu, in order to send an image to Mail, Airdrop, Flickr, and also to your Photos and/or Aperture libraries. Importing layered Photoshop files with effects is a mixed bag. Standard items come across, but some layer effects are merged. Other effects, like texture effects on text, are dropped. The competing Affinity Photo gave me a more complete translation of the effects when I imported these same Photoshop test files. Nevertheless, the Pixelmator development team is committed to improving Photoshop compatibility.

There are certainly pros and cons with any application. Pixelmator Pro’s strengths are in image adjustment/retouching/correction, tasteful graphic design, and digital painting. Thanks to tapping into GPU power, painting with various brushes or deforming an image is fast and responsive, even on standard Macs. Paired with a tablet, Pixelmator Pro feels like the best digital paint product available on the Mac to date. The interface tends to hide its complexity, so if you don’t think Pro does something, make sure to check out its online help offerings. Odds are that the function or capability is indeed there. If you are looking for an alternative to Photoshop that’s also a great Mac design and image application in its own right, then Pixelmator Pro hits a home run.

Originally written for RedShark News.

©2017 Oliver Peters