There can be few Adobe Photoshop CC subscribers who don’t look at that steep fee leaving their account every month and wonder if there’s a cheaper alternative out there. Until recently, the search for competent alternatives would have drawn a blank. But the arrival of the $80 Affinity Photo on Windows changes everything.
If you’re thinking $80 per month still sounds teeth-suckingly steep, relax. This isn’t a monthly subscription but a one-off fee: cheaper than a mere three months’ worth of Photoshop. Can something so inexpensive really compete with Adobe’s industry standard? Yes, yes it can.
Pick a persona
At first tilt, Affinity Photo appears to be something of a crossbreed of Lightroom and Photoshop, offering different stages of workflow (Develop, Photo, Export etc) as “personas”, whilst offering the full editing capability of Photoshop.
Open a raw photo in Affinity and you’ll be thrust into the Develop persona, where you can make a series of adjustments to your file. There are sliders for tweaking exposure, saturation, vibrancy and other tonal parameters; tools for applying lens correction and vignettes; plus options to boost the sharpness of the image and apply noise reduction. Largely, the same tools you’ll be used to from Adobe’s Camera Raw importer.
Once the raw photo has been “developed” it moves into the Photo persona, which is roughly akin to Photoshop’s default editing workspace. Immediately, you’ll notice that the strip of available editing tools down the left-hand side of the screen is populated with familiar names from Adobe’s behemoth: crop, selection tools, healing brushes, dodge and burn, mesh warp. So far, so familiar.
There, are, however many subtle differences in the way tools and filters are applied in Affinity Photo versus the way they are in Photoshop. Take the dodge and burn tools. To burn some extra fury into dark clouds, for example, Affinity Photo provides a live preview of the burn effect when you hover the brush over the affected area, giving you a chance to adjust the strength of the effect without having to apply and undo an edit. The same is true of most brushes.
Then there’s the live filter layers. Instead of applying filters to the whole image, filters can be added as layers. This means you can apply a depth of field filter (mimicking the effect of using a wide aperture in-camera) and switch that layer on or off, making it a totally non-destructive edit.
Talking of which, I’m a big fan of the way Affinity Photo lets you scroll back and forth through the history of your edits. As with Photoshop, there’s a History window that lets you jump back to any previous step of the edit. However, Affinity also includes a History slider that you can drag back and forth and return the image to a previous state, whilst watching a live preview of the changes in the editing window. It’s extraordinarily slick.
Affinity’s not short of power tools, either. Photoshop’s Content-Aware Fill, for instance, is a great tool for photographers who want to remove a stray object or interlopers. Affinity has an equally powerful alternative called the Inpainting Brush Tool, where you simply brush over the item you wish to remove and it attempts to heal the background.
It performed admirably in several tests, including quite a tricky job of removing a painting from a brick wall background (see below left). There was some distortion on the brickwork, but nothing a little work with the clone brush wouldn’t fix – and it didn’t warp the shape of the bricks in the same way Photoshop did. As with Photoshop, the Inpainting tool is also available to stitch gaps in panoramas.
Other power tools include a superb HDR merge facility, which opens one of Affinity Photo’s other personas – Tone Mapping. This provides fine control over the various tonal qualities and allows you to prevent that HDR effect from becoming too overblown. The Tone Mapping persona can even be used to give a convincing HDR quality to single exposures, adding punch in the highlights and shadows.
Many of these tools are difficult to master if you just wade in, but Serif has published a large Vimeo library of video tutorials, which diligently walk you through all manner of advanced techniques.
The final step in Affinity Photo’s workflow is the Export persona, which offers a wide selection of formats to save your photos in. These include the usual suspects of JPEG, PNG and TIFF, plus PSD for continuing to work in Photoshop and other Adobe applications, and esoteric options such as 32-bit Radiance for HDR photography. However, we were a little bemused by the Save dialog itself. Even when exporting as JPEG, this describes the file type as “Affinity Files” – fear not, the image is saved to disk in the correct format.
If there’s one fly in the ointment, it’s performance. Affinity Photo seems to lean much more heavily on the graphics chip than Photoshop, so if you’re relying on integrated graphics, as I was on my test laptop, you’re going to suffer significant lag.
It’s far from unusable, but even on my Core i7-6600U ThinkPad with 16GB of RAM, I found myself waiting ten seconds or so for a raw file to open in the editor and over a minute for HDR merge to complete with three raw images.
Photoshop CC 2017 is, by comparison, a gazelle on the same system, with the same photos ready for editing in a second or so, and no significant wait when processing or exporting single images, as there was with Affinity. Given that many photographers tote around a laptop for on-the-job editing, that’s a significant black mark for the usurper.
Even still, when you consider the range of features you’re getting for less than $80, many photographers may well conclude that it’s a compromise worth making. For photography enthusiasts who crave Photoshop-like power but can’t justify the subscription fee, Affinity Photo is a no-brainer. It will even give professionals some serious pause for thought.