There’s a new image processor on my computers. Recently the chief developer of one of my favorite image editors, Picture Window Pro (PWP), sent out a sad email letting all PWP users know that he is stopping PWP development. He thanked us for over twenty years of support and as a last gift converted the final version of PWP to freeware. You can now download and run Picture Window Pro without a key. PWP is a superb program! It’s still the fastest and meanest image editor I have ever used and I am constantly trying image editors. If you’re interested in getting a free copy of PWP download the program before the distribution website shuts down.
I was saddened by this news but all good things eventually end. With PWP going away I decided, for the nth time, to look for alternatives. I reconsidered Photoshop. I’ve used full-blown Photoshop but frankly, I’ve never been impressed. It’s expensive and slow! I use an old copy of Photoshop Elements, mainly to remove blemishes on film scans, but in my opinion, the only Adobe image processing product worth paying for is Lightroom. Adobe is the evil image processing empire. They squeeze you with sluggish performance and abusive subscription payment models and then act like they’re doing you a favor. It didn’t take me very long to abandon Photoshop (again) and keep looking for PWP alternatives. Lucky for me there’s this thing called DuckDuckGo that quickly led me to Affinity Photo.
Affinity Photo is a relatively new image editor that got started in the Mac world and, as of November 2016, is also available for 64 bit Windows systems. Affinity has snagged dozens of positive reviews and, unlike Photoshop, is reasonably priced. I decided to give myself a little Christmas present and bought Affinity Photo.
The Affinity Windows download file is large: over 200 megabytes. Affinity Windows depends on .Net 4.6.2 which is also installed if it’s not on your machine. It took a few minutes to suck down and install all the required bytes but things went smoothly and I eagerly started the program.
Before relating my impressions of Affinity Photo I will describe my binary image format philosophy. Image editors typically create and manipulate vendor specific proprietary binary image files. Binary image files like PSDs, NEFs, DNGs, and now Affinity’s AFPHOTOs, have a nasty tendency to evolve on vendor whim. This poses fundamental long-term image storage problems. Even if you conscientiously backup and archive your original image files you may discover, a decade hence, that you can no longer load them with current software. I hate this! Photography is for the ages, not the marketing cycles of software and camera companies! If you have ever wondered why the lowly JPG image format still reigns supreme despite its abundant technical deficiencies stop wondering. The JPG format is an open and well described eight-bit channel format. Any competent programmer can write software to read and write JPGs. The same holds for TIFs, PNGs and a few other open formats. This is not true for vendor dominated formats. The specifications, even if disclosed, can change on a moment’s notice.
How can photographers deal with transient binary image formats? There are two basic approaches. You can convert all your images to an open image format. Some photographers convert camera RAW files to high bit TIFs. Converting large numbers of image files is a tedious and resource hungry process but it’s probably the best bet for long-term storage. I use the second lazier approach: maintain at least two independent image programs that can read and write the binary image formats you work with. I use Nikon cameras; they crank out proprietary NEF binaries. Currently, I have four programs on this machine that can read NEFs: PWP, Lightroom, Affinity and ThumbsPlus. I will tolerate proprietary binaries if and only if I have options. Don’t let software and camera companies box you in.
I started using image editors about fifteen years ago. My first editor came with my first digital camera: a one megapixel HP. I cannot remember the name of this program; I only used it long enough to discover its appalling deficiencies. Within a week I had purchased my first version of Photoshop Elements (PE). I was happy with PE until I encountered posterization (read the link for the gory technical details). Posterization wreaks prints and it’s easy to posterize eight-bit channel images. The answer then, as it is now, is to increase your working bit depth. Adobe recommended upgrading from PE to full Photoshop. Why fork over $70 bucks when you can fork over $500? Photoshop Elements has a long history of half-assed support for sixteen-bit channel images and the reason is painfully obvious. If Photoshop Elements fully embraced sixteen-bit channel images there would be very little need for full Photoshop. You could save yourself hundreds of dollars. Adobe decided not to compete with themselves and adopted the time-tested pseudo-monopolistic practice of sodomizing the customer. I did not embrace the butthurt! I started looking for low-cost programs that properly handled sixteen-bit images. It didn’t take me long to find PWP.
This early experience shaped my entire image processing approach. Instead of adopting a single monolithic “industry standard” program and joining the nerd herd I decided to go my way and use many small programs. Instead of a Goliath, I went with many Davids.1 When you take the David approach interoperability moves to the top of the stack. The output of one program must effortlessly become the input of another. How programs play together matters. Additionally, when you apply the David approach, you never look to completely replace your tool set. General purpose tools like Affinity may be able to do all the things more specialized tools can do but probably not as efficiently or as well.
So, before adding Affinity to my trusted tools I asked:
- Does Affinity play nice with others?
- Is Affinity’s user interface (UI) tolerable?
- Does Affinity streamline common tedious tasks?
- What new capabilities does Affinity offer?
With these points in mind let’s look at Affinity Photo.
Does Affinity play nice with others?
One of the first things I look for in image processors is tolerable loading times. Part the reason I’ve never been able to stick with full Photoshop is because it takes forever to get the damn thing up. Affinity on Windows easily beats full Photoshop but it’s still slower than good old C coded PWP. PWP comes up in a flash. It’s one of the many reasons I stuck with it for over a decade. Affinity’s loading speed is comparable to GIMP, Photoshop Elements and Lightroom: fast enough to not drive me crazy.
After loading Affinity, I immediately started testing the program’s ability to read and write sixteen-bit TIF files. The basic single layer sixteen-bit TIF file format is one of the best supported lossless image formats. It’s often the only way to move information from one program to another without trashing bits. JPGs are universal, but every time you write a JPG you lose data: that’s the lossy part of JPG compression. Lossy image formats are fine for the web and final presentation but are a total disaster for image editing. Affinity can read and write sixteen-bit TIFs. It can also read and write a number of other important formats like Photoshop Elements PSDs. Affinity converts PSD layers to AFPHOTO layers. It also handles JPGs, PNGs and many RAW formats like Nikon’s NEFs. Affinity plays well with others.
Is Affinity’s user interface UI tolerable?
Once I had satisfied myself that I could slosh bits through Affinity I started evaluating the program’s user interface. UIs have ruined many editors. I’m immediately suspicious when reviewers start lauding a program’s UI before spending a few hundred hours using it. UIs either help or hinder. Affinity’s UI is decent. If you have ever used a layer oriented image editor you will quickly adjust to how Affinity works. I strongly recommend watching the Affinity tutorial videos; they are among the best video tutorials I’ve seen and quickly show what the program can do.
Once Affinity is loaded it’s pretty zippy. Common image handling operations are fast enough to fly under my annoyance radar. Image processing can be very demanding. Don’t expect to stitch 500-megabyte panoramas from original RAW files instantly. With current hardware and software, some things will take time. It’s fair to say that Affinity’s performance compares favorably to other image processors. I can put up with Affinity’s user interface.
Does Affinity streamline common tedious tasks?
After playing with Affinity for a few days I used the program to help restore some old scanned slides. Old pictures are always damaged; they all need a bit, or a lot, of retouching. The problems most people associate with old pictures, tears, color changes, and loss of tone are usually easily fixed in most editors. The biggest job is removing thousands of scratches, spots, and stains. Most restorers give up and crop or blur away such defects but I’m with Lady Macbeth: “out, out damn spots.” Any tool that helps me hunt down and exterminate spotty pests will be lovingly embraced.
The Affinity inpainting brush works a lot better than the corresponding Photoshop Elements healing brush. In particular, it crosses linear backgrounds, buildings, fabric patterns, and so forth without unduly destroying detail. Removing long linear scratches that cross regular structured detail is a soul draining chore. Whenever I see such defects I typically give up and find another picture to restore; I have a big backlog of scans awaiting restoration! This slide of the southern end of Beirut Lebanon, taken by my
father in 1968, is typical of many images in my backlog. There were dozens of long linear scratches running through the buildings. It would have taken hours to fix them with PE. All it took was a few passes with Affinity’s inpainting brush to remove them. I was impressed. This single tool significantly speeds up restoring scratched and spotted images and justifies Affinity’s purchase price all by itself.
Another Affinity tool that streamlines common image processing tasks is the Affinity panorama tool. Most modern image editors have fairly decent panorama tools and building a panorama is easier than it used to be. In the image editing Dark Age, you had to manually select control points and master blend masks to build decent panoramas. It could take hours to align a single image. Current editors use effective automatic control point detection and advanced blending algorithms. In most cases, it’s a simple matter of using good capture technique followed by loading the individual images into a panorama tool to generate decent to excellent results.
We are living in a panoramic golden age but there are still problems. I shoot entirely in RAW because RAW preserves the most information and affords the greatest post processing options. Panoramas often encompass scenes of high contrast. Image tones will vary from extremely bright to very dark. It’s not uncommon for ordinary panoramas to span twelve or more stops of dynamic range. When processing high dynamic range pictures it’s extremely advantageous to do all your work on sixteen-bit or thirty-two-bit channel images. Blending eight-bit panoramas can release the posterization Kraken; trust me, you don’t want that monster savaging your scenes.
Unfortunately, the Photoshop Elements panorama tool is inherently eight-bit. This means I must do all my major tone adjustments in Lightroom before panorama stitching. Adjusting the tones of a single image is tedious, doing it for many panorama frames is cruel and unusual punishment. Adobe’s answer is always the same; give us a lot of money and we’ll release you from eight-bit Hell! Lucky for us Affinity gets us out of eight-bit panorama Hell for a lot less.
The following panorama of the mountains near the eastern entrance of Glacier National Park was directly generated from Nikon NEF RAW files. All feature detection and blending calculations were high-bit. Tone adjustments were aided by regular tone mapping. Tone mapping is like an automatic Zone System. Compared to what I used to put up with ten years ago Affinity panorama building is almost as easy as scanning scenes with an iPhone. Affinity significantly streamlines routine retouching and panorama building.
What new capabilities does Affinity offer?
So far, the features I’ve discussed are common to most image editors. Does Affinity offer anything new or special? There is one Affinity feature, the FFT (Fast Fourier Transform) Denoise filter, that greatly mitigates one of my long-standing retouching nightmares: regular patterns.
Many old portraits were printed on patterned paper. The following is a crop of an old (1935) baby picture of my mother.
As you can see the entire picture is covered with tiny regular hexagons. Patterned prints were popular in the early and mid-20th century. The pattern adds depth and luster and has the nice side effect of making prints difficult to copy. Patterns also make retouching difficult. Retouching spots and scratches on patterned backgrounds tends to make them more, not less conspicuous. If only there was some way to remove the damn pattern before retouching. Affinity’s FFT Denoise filter does just that.
I applied the FFT Denoise filter to my mother’s baby picture and then ran through my regular retouching regime: see the following before and after diptych.
Affinity, like PWP, is a great value. The first Windows version is already superior to every version of Photoshop Elements I’ve ever used. It’s not as comprehensive as full Photoshop, but if you subtract the marginal features of Photoshop and keep the essential core elements, you’ve basically described Affinity’s feature set. Affinity is a layer editor but it’s not a Photoshop clone. The UI is completely modern, RAW development is built in, sixteen-bit layers are the default, and useful stack operations like automatic alignment are a click away. Affinity also supports thirty-two-bit HDR file formats and high dynamic range composites. There’s a lot of bang for the buck: strongly recommended!
- If you remember what happened to Goliath siding with David doesn’t seem like much of a risk.↩︎