Serif Affinity Photo and Affinity Designer


Photoshop users who are looking for an alternative to Adobe may find a refuge in Affinity Photo and Affinity Designer. Both are being developed for the Mac platform by British software developer Serif. This is a separate line from their Windows products and is their first collection built from the ground up to take advantage of the newest Mac and OS X capabilities. Affinity Photo, which was released on July 9 after an extended public beta period, competes with Adobe Photoshop. Affinity Designer is aimed at Adobe Illustrator. Both applications are available through the Mac App Store. They share a common file format. Affinity Designer just won the Apple Design Award at WWDC 2015. Due later this year will be Affinity Publisher – a desktop publishing application.

df3315_affinity_3I’ve been testing both Affinity Photo and Affinity Designer for a few months and have been very impressed. Most of it has initially been with the public beta of Photo. Since I’m not a big Illustrator user, I really can’t adequately compare Illustrator and Designer, except to say that it’s a very capable vector-based drawing and design application. The application will import .ai files, but roundtrip compatibility is largely through certain common standards: PNG, TIFF, JPEG, GIF, SVG, EPS, PSD or PDF. The layout is built around three modes called “personas”. Start in the Draw Persona to create your document. Switch to the Pixel Persona for paint and adjustment functions. Finally, export through the Export Persona.

I spent more time with Affinity Photo, to see how viable it is as a Photoshop replacement. Its four modes includes the Photo, Liquify, Develop, and Export Personas. Photo is the closest to Photoshop in style and toolset, while Develop is more like the Lightroom toolkit. Liquify is designed for image distortion based on a mesh. Most of the image adjustment tools in the Photo Persona are adjustments layers.

df3315_affinity_2In general, Affinity Photo feels a lot like Adobe Photoshop, but as with any of these tools, things are in enough different places that experienced Photoshop users will be counteracting years of muscle memory in making the switch. Nevertheless, you’d have a great comfort factor with Affinity Photo, since the toolset, adjustment layers and layer styles working in a similar fashion. One powerful set of effects is Live Filter layers. These are similar to Adjustment Layers in that they are editable and don’t bake an effect into the layer. The difference is that a Live Filter can be added to that layer only and doesn’t affect everything beneath it, like a standard adjustment layer. Live Filters can be re-arranged, disabled or edited at any time without relying on undo.

Compatibility between Affinity Photo and Adobe Photoshop is good and Serif states that they are aiming for the best compatibility on the market. In this current version, I had better luck going from Photo into Photoshop using a layered .psd file, than I did bringing a file created in Photoshop into Photo. The usual culprits are layer effects and vector based objects. In Photoshop, the Photo-created adjustment layer effects came across, but text with layer effects was merged into a rasterized layer with the layer effects baked in. When I went from Photoshop to Photo, layer effects were simply dropped. Affinity Photo is supposed to use third-party Photoshop plug-ins, but my attempts to use Magic Bullet Looks crashed Photo. Unlike Pixelmator (another Mac-based Photoshop alternative), Affinity Photo cannot use Quartz Composer-based filters, such as those from FxFactory. According to Serif, they will be working with plug-in manufacturers to improve the app-side support for 64-bit plug-ins.

If you aren’t completely locked into compatibility with Adobe Photoshop files sent to and from clients – and you are interested in an alternative solution – then the Affinity applications from Serif are a very strong alternative for Mac users. They are fun, fast and yield great results.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetworks.

©2015 Oliver Peters

Apple Photos


Unless you’ve been in a cave, you know that Apple replaced iPhoto and Aperture with Photos, a free photo organizing and processing tool that comes with current versions of the Mac operating system. Its biggest strength is the tie-in with Apple’s iCloud services. Since I don’t own an iPhone, that aspect has no value to me, so this overview is from the point-of-view of a desktop application. In other words, how does it stack up against Apple Aperture or Adobe Lightroom?

If your need is to create slideshows and books, it’s extremely easy. Simply import the photos you want, group them into a project and then create a book or slideshow from that project. Any of these items is based on templates with preset designs that can be modified. They include editable placeholder text. Printed photo books can be purchased through the application.

Double-clicking any photo opens it into the image editor, which is the closest to Aperture’s adjustment or Lightroom’s develop mode. When you edit the image, a series of tools opens on the right. These can be used to crop, add stylizing filters, heal blemishes, or fix red-eye. The Adjustments tool opens a set of sliders for various color adjustments, but the “add” pulldown enables quite a few more controls than the default. In total, this makes the level of control fairly sophisticated.

With the release of OS X 10.11 (“El Capitan”) Photos now gains the ability to use ExtensionsThese are hooks that allow developers to connect to other mini-applications, which can add functionality to an application – in this case Photos. It would appear that Apple is taking a similar direction with Photos as they did with Final Cut Pro X. That is, to provide hooks so that the growth of the application comes from third-party developers. The first developer to add effects and adjustment tools for Photos is Macphun. I haven’t tested these, but they appear to add a lot of power to Photos. Another recent update is Pixelmator, whose Distort tool is now available within Photos thanks to Extensions. These new tools are available through the Mac App Store.

Exports are handled through a share menu, as in Final Cut Pro X. Unfortunately it doesn’t have the sort of batch processing control that Aperture or Lightroom offers. While I consider this a functional new tool that many will like, it really isn’t for photography power users who need an industrial strength application. Nevertheless, it’s fast and a good organizing tool. On a recent project with about 1,000 old photographs and 35mm slides, I used Lightroom for all the image correction, but then exported adjusted, final images. I am now using Photos to handle the subsequent management of these newly-corrected shots. If you are a video editor who has to prep a ton of photos for use in an NLE, then Apple Photos offers little or nothing over the tools you’ve been using thus far, unless you just want to go with a newer, simpler tool.

Although Photos uses a similar Album and Project organizing structure as Aperture, I find its tabbed implementation too simplistic and actually more confusing than the sidebar panel used in Aperture. I personally prefer the folder and subfolder structure of Lightroom, but either works for me. My honest advice is that if you want the best tool, get Lightroom or find a (now defunct) version of Aperture and use that. However, for basic corrections and fast organization of a lot of files, Photos is definitely a viable option.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetworks.

©2015 Oliver Peters

Photo Phun 2014


I’m back again this year with another post about stylizing photography. Thanks to Adobe’s Creative Cloud subscription model, the interest in alternatives to Photoshop has increased.

One application I ran across this year was Pixlr, which has been picked up by Autodesk. Free PC and Mac versions are available at their website and through the Mac App Store. You may then opt to extend it with a subscription. However, there’s plenty of power in the free version if your main interest is basic image correction (color adjustments, cropping, reframing). Of course, given the interest in stylizing photos with filters – the “Instagram” look – Pixlr features a number of menu options for effects, overlays and image styles. These are based on in-app downloads, so as you pick a category, the necessary files are downloaded and installed in the background to populate the selection, thus creating a library of elements to work with.

Below are a set of images processed with the free version of Pixlr. I’ve used many of these photo examples before, so if you check out the previous Photo Phun posts, you’ll be able to compare some of the same photos, but with different looks and styles. Click on any image below for a slideshow.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays! See you in the new year!

©2014 Oliver Peters

Photo phun II

Time to come back with a look at photography – just for the fun of it. Earlier this year I talked about using Pixelmator as an alternative to Photoshop. When I work with photos, I prefer to use Lightroom, Aperture and/or Photoshop (in that order). For extra effects, a touch of Tiffen Dfx, DFT Film Stocks or Magic Bullet Looks also gives you more pizzazz. While Pixelmator is pretty “lite” compared with Photoshop, it still gives most casual photographers more than enough control to enhance their images. Since it is based on Apple’s Core Image technology, it can also serendipitously take advantage of some of the FxFactory effects plug-ins.

Below is a set of images processed strictly with Pixelmator. I did use some of the FxFactory filters just because they were there, but understand that most of these effects also have native equivalents within Pixelmator. So, FxFactory filters are not an essential part in using Pixelemator as your image processing application. Click on any image below for a slideshow.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays! See you in the new year!

Red Giant Software Arsenal

Thanks to the growth of the internet, laptops and now tablets, the use of physical portfolios and demo reels to show your wares has been increasingly replaced by digital alternatives. The newest of these is Red Giant Software’s Arsenal application for the Apple iPad. This is a mobile presentation application designed to present your creative work to clients using an iPad.

Arsenal is easy to use and supports the presentation of both still images and video. You can import images by syncing folders with your iPad, via FTP and Dropbox. Multiple presentations can be organized in the Light Table display. Arsenal uses a series of Collections, each of which can hold several Strips. Once you pick the Collection to load, the available Strips are displayed. For a Strip of photographs, simply swipe the Strip with your finger in a standard iPad gesture and you can scroll through the images to see what is available in that Strip. Tap any image to display it full screen. From the full screen mode, you can swipe left or right to change images, set up a slideshow with automatic advance (three, five or eight seconds) or access any image from a small film strip at the bottom.

Arsenal offers a set of editing controls to add, move or delete images, name Collections and Strips (with choices of font style and size and theme colors), as well as add your logo at the top. Syncing is a big part of the application. You can e-mail a customer an Arsenal file that’s synced via Dropbox. The customer can run this file on their iPad using a free Arsenal Reader application and the images stay updated via Dropbox. In addition, you can also e-mail any image to another person from within Arsenal as a standard e-mail attachment.

Arsenal currently supports all three iPad models, JPEG and PNG images, plus MOV and MP-4 video files. There’s full support for the new iPad’s Retina display with images up to 5,000 pixels (3,000 for the original iPad model). I tested Arsenal on my first generation iPad, using still photos from my Olympus point-and-shoot camera as well as older 35mm slide scans. A few of these exceeded 3,000 pixels, but didn’t present any problems.

I prefer manual sync for my iPad and have an “iPad Transfer” folder on my desktop computer where I copy files headed for the iPad. Stills or movies that I’ve synced are accessible by Arsenal to be organized into Collections and Strips. 720p/23.98 H.264 MOV files at 5Mbps play nicely on the iPad and look great full screen on this first generation device. My only complaint is that videos don’t offer a thumbnail for quick visual recognition. Remember that productions use stills in lots of ways, including casting photos, location scouting stills and behind-the-scenes shots. All of these uses can find a home with Arsenal.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine (NewBay Media, LLC).

©2012 Oliver Peters

Magic Bullet PhotoLooks 2

Red Giant Software launched the preset-based “looks” market, when it originally released the browser version of Magic Bullet Looks. Visual effects director and software designer Stu Maschwitz overhauled the original product to create a self-contained color correction and “looks creation” interface, where tools were grouped according to how they fit into the flow from in-front of the camera to post. Magic Bullet Looks ships with tools and a number of presets, which can quickly be previewed on an image. The software is built as a separate application that is linked into most standard NLEs and compositors as a plug-in. This design spawned a still photography version, called PhotoLooks, which uses the same basic engine. For still photography, PhotoLooks installs as a plug-in to Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom and Apple Aperture.

Last year Red Giant Software brought out Magic Bullet Looks 2.0, which is also sold as part of the Magic Bullet Looks Suite 11. This featured a more streamlined Looks interface and additional tools, like Cosmo (a skin smoothing tool), but the PhotoLooks version was stuck with the old skin. Now the two have parity, with the recent update of the suite and PhotoLooks 2.0. Purchase PhotoLooks separately or get it included with the suite. Once again, both Magic Bullet Looks (for video) and PhotoLooks (for stills) feature a consistent appearance and a common set of tools and presets.

Magic Bullet PhotoLooks 2.0 is available as a plug-in to Photoshop, Aperture or Lightroom, but may also be accessed by launching the PhotoLooks application. When you use it as a plug-in, you gain the benefits of round-tripping between the applications. In Aperture and Lightroom, both before and after version are saved, to guarantee that the process is non-destructive. If you open PhotoLooks separately, you can import JPEGs, PNGs and TIFFs, but the adjusted image can only be saved as a JPEG. Custom looks can also be exported for use elsewhere.

Along with the new interface and Cosmo, other new features include four new scopes, faster GPU-enabled processing and 3-way color correction tools based on Magic Bullet’s popular Colorista filter. Creating an original look is as simple as dragging a tool into one of the categories (subject, matte, lens, camera, post) and then tweaking the setting to your liking. A tool isn’t limited to a specific category, so “post” tools can be applied in the “subject” position, as well as the other way around. You are simply creating a chain of filter effects, much like audio engineers do with audio filters. Once you get the desired result either save that as a new preset or exit back to the host program, where the image will appear with that look applied to it.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine (NewBay Media, LLC).

©2012 Oliver Peters

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 4

For the fourth iteration of Lightroom, Adobe has enhanced the processing capabilities and added features to aid photographers with handling modern photographic challenges, such as the integration of video. Although Lightroom is primarily a photographer’s tool, it is also indispensable for video producers and editors who have to deal with a large volume of photographs, such as when producing documentaries that are based on archival images. Lightroom is the ideal application to store, organize, adjust, crop and prepare stills for video editing. Adobe Photoshop Lightroom competes directly with Apple Aperture and each has its loyal proponents among photographers. Both are powerful tools and each new version tends to leapfrog that of the competitor. For now, Lightroom offers the more advanced video features and, of course, is a cross-platform application.

Photo features

Let’s first look at the improvements for photography. Image processing and color science have been changed in Lightroom 4. If you open existing photos that have been processed and catalogued in previous versions of Lightroom, you have the option of sticking with the old correction or update the file. Naturally, all changes are non-destructive, so your original photo is always unaltered. The biggest changes have been made in highlight/shadow recovery and noise reduction.

Highlight/shadow recovery is critical in digging out detail in bright skies and dark areas in an image. If you work with camera raw images, Lightroom uses the same raw processing engine as Photoshop. There’s also advanced black-and-white conversion. This lets you use eight color channels to control the tonal qualities of the black-and-white image. In other words, you have more control than merely desaturating the image. Finally, there are new selective brushes to control such options as white balance within areas of the picture.

With the increased use of smart phone cameras and online social media and photo services, like Flickr and Facebook, Lightroom 4 now lets you organize images based on location information embedded in the image metadata. This is aided by a new Map module accessible at the top of the interface. There is also enhanced sharing integration with some social media sites.

The big new selling point for photographers is photo book creation. This was a feature that previously had some Lightroom users jumping over to Aperture just to use, but no longer. Photo book creation lets photographers design coffee table book layouts, complete with proofing and ready to send to the printer. To enter the Book module, click the title button at the top (like Slideshow or Web) to access the book layout controls.

Plug-in integration

As a video editor, plug-ins are something I use a lot. A video plug-in is typically applied as a filter within the editing application, but photo plug-ins work differently. Lightroom sends your image to an external application launched from the Develop module’s Photo/Edit In pulldown menu command. This architecture has been available since version 1.0 and developers have steadily been creating photo-compatible versions of their tools. Adobe Photoshop, Magic Bullet Looks, Tiffen Dfx, DFT Film Stocks and DFT Photo Copy are all available as external “plug-ins”.

When you send a photo to an application like Magic Bullet Looks, Lightroom gives you the option to send a copy with or without the Lightroom correction “baked in” for further processing. When you are done, the external application returns you to Lightroom, where you then have two versions of the photo – the “before image” and the “after image” with the look added.

I like using Lightroom for processing photos, but I also find these plug-in options quite enticing. For example, adding selective focus filters, stylized effects, textures or painterly effects can be best achieved using an application like Photoshop or Tiffen Dfx. By starting and ending in Lightroom, you maintain the ability to organize these images in a central environment.


Photographers have increasingly had to deal with video as part of their workflows, so photo organizing/processing applications have added video features. This includes Adobe Photoshop, Bridge and Lightroom. First, in version 3 and now more so in Lightroom 4. Videos are accessed in the Library module, but you only have limited processing control. You can’t open video files in the Develop module for full color correction. Individual videos can be opened in a viewer by double-clicking the file in the browser. You can trim the in and out points of the clip and set a reference frame for the browser thumbnail.

The Library module does allow limited adjustments, as well as the application of custom and built-in presets. With video clips you can adjust white balance, exposure, contrast, black and white points and vibrance. A variety of video formats are supported, which on my Mac Pro included ProRes HQ and 4444 files from an ARRI ALEXA and RED files from both RED One M-X and EPIC cameras. Although the RED images are a raw format, Lightroom still only sees these as video, even when using an EPIC to shoot stills. If you do nothing to the RED files, then Lightroom applies the in-camera metadata settings created by the videographer. If you adjust the color metadata settings of the .R3D files using RED’s free REDCINE-X PRO application, then these updated settings will be recognized by Lightroom.

To test the custom presets, I exported a TIFF from an EPIC file out of REDCINE-X PRO using the flatter RedLogFilm gamma curve. This was imported into Lightroom as a photo, so I was able to bring it into the Develop module and make detailed image corrections. These parameters were then saved as a custom preset. Doing this enabled me to open my RED files in their native .R3D raw format (using the same RedLogFilm metadata setting) and apply the custom preset as a batch to all of the files. Although it’s possible to work with RED files inside Lightroom 4, frankly it’s a slow process. REDCINE-X PRO is the better tool if you are a RED photographer/videographer; however, there’s no reason you can’t use the two applications in conjunction with each other. This is especially true if you are using an EPIC camera for still photography, such as fashion shoots, since Lightroom 4 is far better as a tool for adjusting and organizing still images.

Another new video feature is the ability to export color corrected and trimmed video clips. Lightroom 4 offers three options: original, H.264 and DPX.  If you export as “original” then no color adjustments are applied and the existing clip is merely copied in its original size and length. DPX image sequences and H.264 files accept the color changes and are exported between the trimmed in and out point (if set). The maximum video output size is 1920×1080 for H.264 and DPX, but I was unsuccessful in exporting RED files as anything other than the original format. The ProRes files from the ALEXA, however, exported in all three variations and included the baked-in settings I’d used to offset the camera’s Log-C gamma profile.

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 4 continues to improve as the best, cross-platform photography application. It sports a new, lower price ($149), plus will be available through the Adobe Creative Cloud subscription service. The new processing features bump its power up a notch, but if you need to create photo books, then this upgrade is essential. If you are a video professional, then it’s not the most ideal tool for dealing with video, but obviously that’s merely a secondary feature, rather than the primary intent of the software. Nevertheless, photographers who want a limited ability to make color adjustments and to organize their video clips in a familiar environment will welcome the new video features.

Originally written for DV magazine / Creative Planet / NewBay Media, LLC

© 2012 Oliver Peters