Category Archives: Review

Photoshop Alternatives: On1 RAW 2019 (+Affinity and Gimp)

Adobe long ago reduced their price for the Photoshop/Lightroom bundle to $10/month but for years now no longer has a way to purchase and outright own Photoshop. The latest version of Photoshop (Photoshop CC, aka Photoshop CC 2019)… it’s a rent-for-life or get-out-of-Dodge model.  The optics of the rental model are anathema for many people.  We at StarCircleAcademy took a look at various alternatives to Photoshop in case you aren’t willing to engage the “rent for life” strategy. However we will also tell you that Photoshop is the 600 pound Gorilla. You really can not argue with its features (bloated as they are) or price ($120/year), or abundance of resources on how to use, abuse, and creatively curse at Photoshop as a tool.

The contenders are: Gimp (free, multi-platform), On1 Perfect Photo Suite (now called RAW 2019), and Affinity.  We will start with On1.

ON1 Photo RAW 2019.2

The pricing as of May, 2019 is $80 for the complete software (discounted from $100 – as is often the case). Upgrade cost is listed as $80. That price brings it under the cost of upgrading to or purchasing Photoshop CS6 (although it’s not clear you can do that anymore), and because On1 is a perpetual license, the three-year cost of ownership is $260 (one purchase, two annual upgrades) versus the best possible three year cost for Adobe Photographers subscription bundle of $360.  And much better than purchasing Photoshop CS6. But there is one wrinkle. How many copies you are allowed to use is a murky area that is not spelled out clearly on their site.  Their site says “When you purchase ON1 Photo RAW 2019.2 you receive a perpetual license“. At times ON1 has allowed 5 seats, the fact that its not spelled out on their site implies the number of seats is subject to change. I am also not clear how they enforce the number of installs allowed. If you have more than one computer or frequently upgrade computers, you may exhaust the number of installs. For the purpose of this discussion, our review was of 2019.1.

On1 is available for windows or Mac operating systems.

Installation

We didn’t get off to a good start. The trial version was a 1GB download.  Installation proceeded slowly, and it required shutdown of Photoshop CC.  Fair enough since On1 includes plugins for various Photoshop components.  For this test we installed on an aging 4 core 8Gb RAM Lenovo laptop machine with Windows 10, 64-bit.  When we started the install, we were warned to close Photoshop.

After dismissing Photoshop it ran a while (3 min 45 seconds) to install. Years ago when we installed an older version (7.5 Perfect Suite) we got a warning about incompatible display cards near the end of the long install, but that was on older hardware. Photoshop never warned us like that.

Usage

We quickly fired up On1, and after dismissing the modal (i.e. in-your-face) getting started box, we “Browsed” to a folder containing our recent work. The folder was previously browsed with Adobe Bridge and loaded VERY fast, the entire directory came up with the images and the ratings that were previously applied. This is MUCH, MUCH faster and more efficient than Lightroom, and even faster than Adobe Bridge (which doesn’t require importing either).

Unfortunately we made the mistake of “enlarging” to full screen and then could NOT find how to make the window smaller again. We tried “Escape”, looking in the various toolbars… No joy. So we killed the program with Alt-F4 and restarted. On1 came up in the same place we had left off, but MAXIMIZED again with no controls to minimize. After hunting in “View -> Maximize” (which made no sense!) we were able to restore the window to add the minimize/maximize window options on the title bar and then drag to downsize the window. Searching in the online help for “undo maximize” or even “maximize” didn’t find anything, by the way.

Our primary display has text size set to 200% so that we can easily capture readable screenshots as well as assuage our tired old eyes. However on our display at some point On1 Tools became garbled.

Next we tried loading a previously created .psd document. This was quite frustrating. The document was created in maximum compatibility mode and has layer groups and layers, but it renders in On1 as a single layer.  What is worse, is that I couldn’t FIND the Layers window. I navigated to Windows -> Layers (Ctl+2) and NOTHING happened. This was frustrating also, but it appears the reason that nothing happened is that the Layers palette is part of the “Develop” panel. If you are looking at e.g. “Lens Correction”, then unfortunately “Layers” is not visible because you have to scroll up. The same problem occurs if you are in the browse setting and click the “Layers” option at the right. The edit comes up, but it doesn’t show the Layers!

To see if we could make On1 show our layers, we thought our normal workflow of using Colorspace: ProPhoto RGB, at 16 bits may explain why the layered photo was coming up as a single layer in On1. We went back into Photoshop CC 2019, removed layer groups (in case that was confusing On1), converted to SRGB profile, 8-bit mode, merged several layers then resaved the document. The saving file almost immediately appeared in the On1 browse menu, but the image shown was flashing between gray dots and an image. It was a big image (800Mb), and it took Photoshop quite a while to write it to our Dropbox drive. Apparently that also confused On1 a bit. And we notice that On1 does have an option to work in 16 bit ProPhoto RGB by default. That’s excellent.

Previously with the On1 Suite 7, we ran into this problem

OnOneUnsupported

Our choices seem pretty limited. Indeed, when clicking OK what we got was a big all-white canvas.

While On1 does provide layering, it doesn’t seem to work with layers in Photoshop psb or psd documents. That is a serious shortcoming if you, like we, have a ton of .psd documents you want to work with.

Usability Quirks

There are quirks with the interface that bother us. For example, the various palettes do not appear to be movable – and that caused our problem finding the layer palette, described earlier. It also appears that On1 spent more effort “mimicking” the Lightroom layouts and contents, but the “Presets” window wastes a lot of space. Presets never struck us as a worthwhile way to improve photos, by the way. Unfortunately the tiny border you need to discover to close Presets (or re-open them) is a bad design choice. We have no clue why they don’t have a “show presets” control (or why you can hide layers).

Some operations are pretty easy to figure out, but it is not at all obvious to us how you mix masking with effects and layers.  On1 has a “Perfect mask” setting that is clever and beats the pants off of anything Photoshop currently offers in ease of use and net result.  When masking near the boundary of sky and tree the perfect mask setting figures out that you want to operate on either the sky or the tree, not both.  And On1 also has a Mask Bug which is an odd looking thing (and very odd name) that is quite functional.  It is a highly adjustable gradient mask with drag controls to control density, directionality, feathering and the area to be adjusted.  What is not immediately obvious, however, is how you can use a bug mask with a separate adjustment – for example to remove the affect of the bug in one area or increase it in another. Ultimately the Perfect Brush is nice, but we do miss the magic wand selection that Photoshop offers.

Layers are also non-intuitive – for example there is a “Local” option after selecting a layer. This appears to mean “operate on the mask”, but the word “Local” doesn’t make sense to us.

Our work often consists of opening multiple documents as layers. What On1 didn’t do is provide a simple interface for this. That is, you CAN use Browse to open documents as layers, but if you’re already in edit mode for a document and try to use the filmstrip mode to Browse for additional layers you don’t have the open/add as layer option. We hoped to be able to select multiple images and then add them as layers to our existing document. Instead, what we have to do is open one document, then use the + to find and open the additional images as layers from the layer palette.  That’s tedious. We also made the mistake of accidentally hitting merge layers (just left of the option for blending control) and watched as On1 merged layers with no confirmation and no undo! Yuck.

Not only does On1 seem to be sluggish loading multiple documents as layers, but you can not change blending options for multiple layers at once. You have to operate on each layer one-at-a-time (select layer, click options, change blend mode). That is tedious.

Another unexpected quirk: we double clicked the .onphoto file that was created by layering two documents. Instead of opening directly into edit mode, it just opened browse mode. And even more curiously, there is no “save as” and no document rename in the edit mode. It looks like On1 also created a .on1 document, but did not register this with windows, so windows didn’t know how to open it. After associating the .on1 file with On1, it STILL wouldn’t open in develop mode. The problem with the lack of rename is that it’s now not possible to use one base document as a foreground with different additional layers. On1 will only save the layers in association with the “base” document (_W9A3041 in the example shown).

Star Trails and Automation

It appears that On1 does not have any kind of automation that would allow easy creation of star trails in the way that the Advanced Stacker Plus can interact with Photoshop. And as we already noted, the Layer manipulations available in On1 require lots of manual intervention just like it used to be in Photoshop (CS5 and earlier). After Photoshop CS6 the interface allowed multiple layer selection and global blending mode changes.

By way of reminder, Advanced Stacker Plus processes incoming documents a layer at a time. This method of processing keeps the memory footprint low and greatly speeds up operation of Photoshop when loading more than 20-30 images as layers.

In Conclusion

We found some things to like about On1 – it’s perpetual license, some good masking tools, but we found it falls short of the editing experience we wish to have and therefore do not recommend it.

In the next articles we will address Affinity Photo (short answer: it seems to be quite powerful), and GIMP.

You Need a Good Head and Great Legs

Published: December 24, 2017

Me (to wife): “My head is unstable and I have ordered a new, $300 one.”
(wife): “I knew about the instability, but I didn’t realize you could buy a new one.”

Tripod and Panoramic Head in action

If you search around the internet you will find plenty of product reviews. One of the best reviews I ever read said something like this: “Save one thousand dollars by buying the right gear now instead of later”. He proceeded to describe how cheap tripod legs and cheap heads ended up costing more than had he bought the good gear from the beginning.

Wait, “heads?”, “legs?”

There are four parts to a tripod that are important to get right: legs, head, release, mounting plate.

 

But First… A Short Commercial

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays! Harold Davis and I will be conducting a workshop that you may want to attend. Registration is through Harold’s web site.

Tripod Anatomy

  1. Legs – The part that touches the ground, and yes the bottom of the legs is called the feet.
  2. Head – The part that is attached to the top of the legs and provides the ability to rotate and tilt the camera at various angles.
  3. (Quick) Release system – The method by which the Head can attach to the camera via…
  4. Quick Release plate – the part that you attach to the camera and mate to the release system. You can directly screw your camera on to many different heads, but you do not want to do that because it is really, really inconvenient.

If any bit of those is wrong, you have an unstable or even equipment-hazardous situation. Trust me, I started with “K-Mart” tripods (had 3 – each of which didn’t last long), 2 Manfrotto aluminum tripods (one is broken), and ONE Gitzo carbon fiber tripod. I have also owned at least 9 different heads including a pan-tilt head, SunFoto, Manfroto, Acratech, and a gaggle of off brands. The ball heads were bought for various purposes. I have also dealt with 3 different kinds of attachment systems: direct screw-in to the camera (really inconvenient), Manfroto style plate clamp (better), and Arca Swiss clamp (best of the bunch). I have also used a gaggle of different “quick release” plates from cheap off-the shelf, to custom made for my camera(s), including L-Brackets.

Trial By Fire

Trust me when I tell you I have discovered a lot of what not to buy, and can say confidently that if you want a stable, good quality camera support system you need to get all four components right. And doubly so for night photography where long exposures REQUIRE a tripod or other solid support system. My tripods have been to the top of Half Dome, Mount Whitney and Clouds Rest. I have used the “legs” as a walking stick to keep me from falling into rivers and ravines, to test stability of the ground before taking a step.

Many Paths to Failure – Plate and Clamps

Let me provide some examples of the myriad of ways things can go wrong: all of them have happened to me, by the way.

If the quick release plate is attached with a low quality screw or bolt… the bolt could snap and your camera and lens will tumble to the ground.

If the quick release plate is difficult to get a snug fit (or requires a special tool that you do not have with you), your camera will wobble or twist in the breeze no matter how stable everything else is.

If the plate is difficult to get into the latch (release clamp), you may think you have it ready to go, only to see your camera fall off the tripod onto the ground or down a granite staircase.

If the plate you have on the camera does not mate with the clamp on your tripod… oops. You’ve lugged your equipment for nothing.

If everything is solid except the clamp does not snug down well, you have wobble and ruined photos.

… and we have not even gotten to the head or the legs yet!

More Failure: Head and Legs

If your head requires superhuman strength to keep it from creeping under the weight of your camera and lens (or super human strength to undo it)… you get either painful fingers or a “sinking” camera angle.

If the tensioning on the head is either locked-like-super-glue or floppy-as-a-wet-rag, you may either have to give up aiming the shot as you want, miss the shot, or have the rig flop over when the camera does. And the flopping camera may pinch your hand, or mash your fingers or smack you in the face (Reminder: All these have happened to me!)

Even if the leg locks seem to be working well, unusually cold (or hot) weather may render the locks ineffective and your tripod may slowly – or suddenly – fall over.

If the legs cannot be adjusted wide-enough or accurately-enough or low-enough, a breeze or strong gust of wind may blow your rig over.

If the fully extended legs are so short that you fully extend the center column to keep from hunching over and hurting your back – you have turned your tripod into a wide-stance monopod that may not be able to bear the load.

If your center column has a tightening collar or wing nut directly below the weight of your camera, you may accidentally over loosen the column causing the camera to slide down and pinch the living daylights out of your hand.

If your legs are spindly, they may induce vibration, or just snap when you accidentally bump them.

… I could go on … but I am hoping you understand how hard knocks, broken lenses, and broken tripod components all add up to a severe lack of enthusiasm for all but the best built of components.

Recommendations?

So here is where you might expect me to make recommendations, right? I usually avoid making recommendations because gear changes, and people have different reasons for choosing what they do. My criteria are pretty simple: I want stability, versatility, durability, and light-weight – in about that order.  While the first three seem to be pretty obvious criteria, the light-weight aspect was something I learned over time, too. It was a chore to lug my > 8 pound aluminum leg Manfrotto with a Manfrotto head to the top of Half Dome. By comparison my < 4.5 pound Gitzo plus Acratech head seemed like a feather. Manfrotto made a smart move when they bought Gitzo.

You might have noticed that I did not list price as important. It used to be, but too many failed choices made me realize that choices that are less than great become costlier in the long run.  In a similar vein I bought half a dozen sleeping bags hoping to get something lightweight and WARM until I finally spent almost $300 on a bag (Big Agnes Lost Ranger) and pad that provided the most comfortable, warm sleep – and was also lightweight. I’ve spent more for a single night in a hotel than for the sleeping bag, but that bag has kept me snoozing on many chilly nights in the wilderness. Indeed one night I had TWO cheap sleeping bags nested inside one another while in a tent in Grandview Campground at 8,600 feet on White Mountain and I was still shivering. The next time I went with my Big Agnes. The night was even colder, but I was snug as a bug in a rug.

I had similar experiences with camera backpacks. I liked the design of a Tamron bag. It lasted about a year until the zipper broke. The second bag lasted less than a year. By contrast, my F-stop Tilopa bag has been all over the world over 4 years now – sometimes as my primary and only luggage. To say I’m happy with its durability would be an understatement – and that it cost me 4 times as much as one Tamron bag ($320 vs $95), means I’ve broken even so far – without the inconvenience of dealing with broken gear.

What About A Ball Head And Tripod Legs?

Acratech GPS-s

  • Acratech Head (pretty much any one), but the GP-s is a nicely designed lightweight capable head unless you have a huge camera.
  • Gitzo carbon fiber legs, but NOT the Traveler series which is too flimsy and too short.
    I specifically recommend the Mountaineer Series 2. It is the best trade-off between weight, stability and usable height.  If you’re willing to pay a penalty in extra pounds, the Systematic series (3, 4, or 5) are good except for two things: The Systematic doesn’t have a center column and sometimes that column is useful – like when trying to shoot straight up since the camera may end up hanging partially below the level of the head. The other thing about a series 5 Systemic that bothered me was that I was shocked to discover that the leg locks must be untightened in a specific order to fold it all up because if an upper leg is not tight, the lock on the lower leg will just spin. The mountaineer doesn’t require that silliness.
  • Really Right Stuff with carbon fiber legs. Pretty much all of them are well done, light and sturdy.  The RRS ball heads are good too, it’s just that they are all heavy, heavy, heavy.

But, but those are expensive choices! Yes. I suppose paying $430 USD for a good head and $950 USD for good legs sounds like an excessive amount of money. But: how much did your camera and lens cost? How much will your back thank you for carrying a smaller load?  And finally, how much are you willing to risk watching your camera and lens flop over in a gust of wind?

Disclaimer

I write what I know – not what people or manufacturers or merchants ASK me to write. I paid retail price to purchase all the gear I’ve discussed. In other words, these are honest, unbiased, hard won evaluations of various gear. If you can purchase this gear at a local store, I recommend that you do so. You may spend a little more, but there is serious value to talking to real people, testing out gear in person, and in keeping a local business viable.

One Reason To Consider the Alabama Hills Workshop... The awesome landscapes

Cruising

Publish Date: 29-November-2016

I, Steven, have recently completed one of my bucket list items… capturing stars and astro landscapes aboard a cruise ship. My interest in the idea is based on several observations:

  1. Night photography can be about movement – like star trails, for example – and cruise ships move.
  2. Cruise ships go to and through some of the darkest spots on earth – far away from any land producing artificial light
  3. Being aboard a ship means NOT having to drive anywhere or fly anywhere. Bed, food, drink and entertainment are never farther away than the length of a football field.
  4. I can still spend time with my family rather than alone in the wilderness because… we are all in the same “wilderness” at the same time.

brillianceoftheseas

My particular cruise was aboard the Brilliance of the Seas by Royal Carribbean. The ship departed from Tampa, Florida to Key West, then to Cozumel and back to Tampa. The good news is the things I feared most did not happen: I only gained 1.5 pounds and none of my equipment fell into the sea. I also had no motion sickness – though some I traveled with were uncomfortable in what were relatively light seas.

Sunrises, Sunsets and TimeStacks

It does not have to be all about night photography, right?  My travel from the West Coast to the East Coast for the cruise made it a lot easier for me to be awake at sunset and near impossible to greet a sunrise.
Sunset Reversal

Location Is Important

These two trails were taken on different days (one when the ship was cruising south, another two nights later when cruising north). Both were taken from Deck 5 with no moon. The first trail was from near the bow (front of the ship), the other from off the stern (back).

South Bound

South bound star trails from near the bow of the ship** Please read below for how I got here… it is an important detail.

Stern Seas

Looking south from the stern of a north bound cruise – with unfortunate clouds – but look at all the motion!  That bright  streak (and the cloud illuminated above it) are another passing cruise ship.

The ship was steadier when southbound – thus the first star trail looks pretty normal. The second one from the stern of the ship looks like a seismograph! Want to get a feel for the motion from the stern? Watch the video.

Tips and Insights

I did not meet any resistance or complaints from the crew or passengers using my tripod on deck. That is in part because I was mostly using it at night and had already scouted out areas to place it. My first recommendation is to …

Scout!

First scout your vessel thoroughly… do this before embarking (using deck plans available on the internet), then during the first day, and at night.  I discovered that a passageway open during the day, was gated at night. Unfortunately, that passage led to the darkest part of the ship. More about this in a minute.

Too Little Darkness on Board

Cruise ships are floating cities, and like cities, lights are everywhere and unavoidable. Onboard the Brilliance there were 2 darkish places to go and one dark place where I could not go*. One darkish spot was the top deck toward the bow. There are lights everywhere, but if you shield your eyes and moved deck chairs to cover over some of the bulkhead lights you could make out stars. What I could see, however, was nowhere near the glory that I’ve seen in even moderately rural areas. A darkish spot – mentioned by guest relations, was the starboard (right hand) side of deck 5 near the stern (back of the boat). Again, lots of lights everywhere, but that area was dark enough that with some eye shielding I could easily make out Orion.

See the next photo to see just how much light a ship casts about… the moon illuminated the sky as well – but you wouldn’t be able to see even this many stars by eye in a dark clear sky in any normal area of the ship.

Over the Railing

The light from the ship illuminates the water around it, while the moon illuminates the sky (Cuba is glowing in the distance). Notice how the ship’s pitching and rolling turned stars into squiggles.

Getting Where it Is Really Dark

You may be wondering how I pulled off the photography on the bow given that the passageway was barred at night. It happened innocently. I took advantage of a quirk on the Brilliance of the Seas. In the theater on the ship on the upper level there are what are best described as “box” seats adjacent to the wings of the stage. That area has nearby doors, one marked “Exit” the others are marked crew only. I took the “Exit” and it put me out by the passage to the Helicopter landing pad on the bow of the ship.  There was then another “gate” barring access to the helicopter landing area itself – but it was plenty dark up front. I swung my tripod up on the helopad area and controlled it with my intervalometer being careful to create as little light as possible. That’s how I got images for the first of two star trails above. I then stood at the outer rail of the helipad and took a panorama of the bridge area. Straight up and forward were MUCH darker.

Much of the crew area and the wheel house spanning the entire front of the ship is kept dark with little extra light.

Much of the crew area and the wheel house spanning the entire front of the ship is kept dark with minimal extra light. Note how much light there is on the top deck where you can see silhouettes of passengers through the glass. This is a stitched 4-shot panorama.

Packing for the Cruise

For a 5 day cruise, I took one camera, two smaller lenses batteries and a tripod. I packed almost all of my clothing for the trip inside a single large (carry-on size) bag with some extras in a small carry on “personal item”. That packing arrangement works great for short trips. To accommodate “Formal Night” I stole some space in my wife’s luggage for dress shoes and a suit.

Would You Like To See Celestial Delights On a Cruise?

Knowing that many travelers have never seen a properly dark night sky, I contacted Royal Caribbean and let them know I thought a potentially great ship resource was untapped. If you had a chance to view incredibly dark skies on board your cruise ship, would you relish that opportunity?  Please let us know in a comment below or on our Facebook Page. Perhaps the cruise line will contract SCA to teach night photography in addition to the many other courses on board. I, for one, would love to get on a dark deck and stare up into the Geminid meteor shower – or view the Milky Way at its finest.!

We Are Always Tweaking

Original Publish Date: 12-November-2015
Last Revision: 12-November-2015

When we get questions on our older columns, we often answer them directly and update the articles to reflect new information. For example, when we originally published our three part series on Finding and Photographing the Milky Way we had no clue they would be our most read articles. Over time we added more charts, and tables, including a table listing when the best time is to spot the Milky Way – alas, not October through February.

The Milky Way Series

Pointy Land
The articles in the Milky Way series are:


Meteors and Meteor Showers

Celestial Slasher [C_224-9234]

We have also made periodic updates to our articles on photographing meteors and meteor showers.  We point this out because the best shower of the year is the Geminids and that shower occurs December 12-14.  Start planning right now!

To help you out, we have begun adding “Original Publish Dates” and “Last Revised” dates to our articles.  Of course most of the principles we have written about are timeless.