As we stroll into 2021 I want to take a peek into the current state-of-the-art of photo editing software. What I won't be looking at is any software that is a subscription only based solution. I've already written about my thoughts on that here. What I will address is the current crop of options for those looking to escape the subscription model and what are the new tools, and are they worth it? The above image was edited in Exposure X5 which I won't cover here but you can get a brief look at how I use X5 here. The reason I'm not including Exposure is I don't consider it a very good RAW processing tool compared to other choices, but it has many great tools for editing images after you use your RAW editor of choice.
First up is Capture One Pro 21. For five years after Apple's Aperture was shelved I was a Capture One user, and thought I liked what it offered. I wrote about why that ended for me last year. Suffice to say the upgrade price to new features ratio was less and less appealing. From looking at forums, blogs and YouTube comments, I'm not alone. That said, Capture One Pro 21 offers both subscription and perpetual licenses. I'm not sure how long the above subscription pricing will last, but the usual difference between subscribing and owning is not much. Now this pricing above is the current rate for me to upgrade from my version 11. I really feel that compared to many other offerings, and even though C1P has some powerful tools, it really is in a state of catching up with more advanced options, and currently lacks a lot of features that even Aperture had years ago! *One added note: I find the Styles offered by Capture One to be way overpriced. If you are looking for well designed Styles at a very reasonable price, go to 1Styles Pro, you'll thank me later!
Next we have DXO PhotoLab 4. DXO is the current owner of the classic NIK Collection of plugins that used to be in Google's hands and were at one time offered for free. Now that DXO has them they have incorporated them into their DXO Labs RAW imaging package. In the time that DXO has had the NIK Collection, they have only added one new tool to the set, which is Perspective Efex. It appears to be a fairly limited, one-trick-pony module, but at least they are adding to the standard set. They do advertise new presets to some of the standard NIK tools to make the cost of upgrading sound more appealing, but really all they are is someone else's playing with the built in tools to give you presets/recipes you could create yourself.
Now one caveat I discovered while researching for this post is I'm not able to download and test DXO PhotoLab 4 because my system is not supported (I'm maxed out on Apple's High Sierra OS) and DXO only supports Mac OS from three latest versions. Oh well! There was a lot of outcry on forums from loyal customers who couldn't get/upgrade to the latest version because their system didn't meet the requirements, and they couldn't afford to or didn't want to upgrade their hardware/OS which otherwise worked perfectly well and has many more years of life to go. Such is the very fickle nature of our modern tech world: The war of obsolescence between hardware and software and the relentless pursuit of the new shiny thing. It'll drive a customer crazy!
That said, and looking into the DXO website and many YouTube videos on the features, I find that while a powerful tool with many unique features (like the NIK Collection) DXO PhotoLab 4 suffers from the same thing most of the current software does: what I call Over Design Syndrome. In trying to be everything for everyone and capture the most of an ever shrinking, competitive market, they clutter their interface with too many tools and choices. Like walking into a fast-food place and being so overwhelmed by the sheer number of choices on the menu board you end up unable to decide what you want. Many of these new software applications feel more like a 50-in-1 Tool, or the biggest sized Swiss Army knife. I wish photo editing software designers would learn principles of good design, take classes in Japanese & Zen aesthetics and study the principles of elegance. In an upcoming post I will show what that looks like and how the K.I.S.S. method really goes a long way in making photo editing more enjoyable. Good interface design really does matter.
Now Skylum's Luminar is an interesting product, although I wasn't sure what product they are offering. They have Luminar 4, and Luminar AI, but the purchase page shows Luminar AI. The AI is for Artificial Intelligence and is supposed to be the latest tech to help you get your images to WOW! faster and easier than ever before. I suspect they are transitioning everything to the AI version. Skylum does not offer a free 30-day (or less) trial of the software, but they do offer a 30-day money-back guarantee. I'm a bit dubious on the money-back model, so opted not to purchase for testing. Instead a deep dive on their very, uhm, animated website and perusal of YouTube feature videos will give you a good feel for what it offers.
Like all of Skylum's software, Luminar is big on preset filters which you can thankfully hide in the interface and use the controls you want. Luminar, like the other software here suffers from an embarrassment of riches feature wise, and seems geared more for those familiar with Instagram filters and quick and easy compositing tools. There are a lot of tools, sections and features, more than most users would likely make use of. Being able to hide features you aren't interested in and may never use would go a long way to streamline the interface.
Perhaps I'm too old-school analog trained, but I'm dubious of Artificial Intelligence being the center of artistic choices. Is it the future? Perhaps. It's definitely a different photo editing paradigm, I'm just not sold on it. My previous use of Skylum (formerly MacPhun) software like Noiseless CK and Aurora HDR left me feeling that I simply didn't like working within the interface.
Now I've saved the best for last! Of all the current state-of-the-art image editing software that handle RAW files, I like OnOne Photo RAW 21 better than the others. That's not to say I prefer it to my current photo editor of choice (see the next blog post, it'll ROCK!), but of those here it is the one I would recommend to someone wanting to get off the Adobe subscription hamster wheel. Now, to be transparent here and offer a caveat, I was very sadly not able to to download and try the free 14-day trial of OnOne Photo RAW 21 due to (I think) the fact that my graphics card did not meet the system specs. I downloaded the trial, but when I opened it it got all the way to the splash screen and crashed. Every time. But that's ok, we both tried valiantly, I don't fault OnOne, they're a great company!
Two things I like most about OnOne is it is a small company that has steadily improved its product for many years and was built by photographers for photographers. The second thing it is the only product here that offers both a powerful desktop version and a mobile platform with integration. That later part I think is very important for the future, as mobile becomes more and more powerful. Currently only Affinity (by Serif), Adobe and now OnOne are building for the mobile platform. I don't see Capture One Pro ever going in that direction.
While the interface has been greatly updated from my (still working) version of OnOne Perfect PhotoSuite 9, I still feel the interface could be better designed. There is a rich set of tools and OnOne like many of the most recent software eschews the image import paradigm for a folder browser model that many people prefer. Only Capture One Pro and Lightroom still use the import image feature. It seems old-fashioned now.
OnOne offers both a subscription and a perpetual license. The subscription comes with cloud storage for facilitating file sharing across platforms.
So what is the difference and what do you get for subscribing? You have to download the mobile version which is "free" but you will have to pay a monthly/yearly subscription ($4.99/month) on the mobile platform, presumably to access the cloud storage feature, in addition to your subscription with cloud storage on the desktop. That alone can get a bit expensive when you think about it, plus the idea of this review is to avoid subscriptions. I would rather have the perpetual license, decide if I want to upgrade or skip versions, and use my own system of sharing image files across platforms. If OnOne lets their fully featured mobile app work in a stand alone way free from being tied to a subscription cloud paradigm, I would heartily recommend this software.
At least OnOne looks like they are trying to do right by customers, and from what I hear from those who use it, they listen to their customer base.
So it may look as though I think the state-of-the-art in image editing is pretty poor, and I do have a bias for well designed and functional tools. It is against that recognized bias that I measure the tools I'll use and invest in. It must be incredibly hard for imaging software companies to keep up, innovate, and turn a profit. I don't envy them the struggle, but from the user side I have to assess if there is true value for me in the short and long term. Just remember: at one point that camera, that version of software you used was state-of-the-art. If it functions well for you and you enjoy working with it, it can still be the state-of-your-art.