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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.