Thursday, 19 June 2014

All souled out - Which photographic manipulation software to use

Long gone are the days when taking a photo ended with the shutter being pressed. Now that is just half the job, the rest being taken up with tweaking and manipulating the photo via photo manipulation software. The question is however, for a photographer on a budget, what software do we use use?

There is no doubt the king of hill, top of the heap is Photoshop. No other photograph manipulation package comes close in terms of popularity by professional photographers, nor do any others touch it in terms of the number of extensions, tutorials and other resources associated with it.

One slight problem however.

You cannot actually buy Photoshop. Instead the makers, Adobe, have moved to a model where you "lease" it. Basically you pay Adobe £9 a month in perpetuity and they very kindly let you use their software. Also don't think you can pay for a few months then stop. Once those cheques stop hitting the Adobe server the software will stop working and any files saved in the propriety Photoshop format will be inaccessible(I read one review that indicated that because renting Photoshop cost the same as a netflix subscription it was a good deal. This is the kind of review that makes you want to point out the reviewers faults by banging their head repeatedly against a brick wall).

Now to be fair to Adobe (and I really, really don't want to), for that price you do get a version of their RAW editing package, Lightroom, included with that subscription, and free upgrades for as long as you continue paying. But you have to balance this with the fact you have just made a lifetime contract to give Adobe cash, compared with the old model where you paid them once and probably never again because the old product did basically what you wanted. There is also the issue that if your software does not phone home on a certain date, it will stop working. Not great if you want to take your laptop to some remote location and do some photo editing on the move.

To be honest, if your profession is photography, this may not be the worst deal in the world, but for the rest of us, it sucks big time. Such is the state of the photograph manipulation software it is unlikely there will be any major changes and you will be locked into paying money that could go more usefully somewhere else.

Of course the reason that Adobe can do this, is that the photographic world is so addicted to Photoshop, it is almost impossible for a competitor to get a look in. In a normal situation such a power grab would result in a plethora of competing products and customers voting with their feet. The fact this has not happened shows that the market is so skewed, that Adobe could request the 1st child of all purchasers and would probably get away with it.

OK, so we cannot purchase Photoshop and we don't want to sell our soul to Adobe for life. What can we do?

Well there are alternatives.

For a start, Adobe would counter my criticism by pointing out that you can purchase Photoshop elements for £70 and that does most of what the full blown Photoshop does. However if you believe that Adobe is selling an almost complete Photoshop replacement for £70, compared to an annual subscription of £110, I have a bridge you might be interested in buying. Yes, Elements has a lot of the same features and the same look and feel, but it is also missing a number of important tools (See here is a quick comparison) . Now it is possible that you do not need any of those features and admittedly many only apply to high end print shops. If so, buy a copy,  but it is likely that some tools some like curve adjustment layer will be needed  in the long term.

There are similar priced alternatives to Photoshop elements such as Corel Paint Shop Pro or Serif Photoplus and while they are perfectly good products which provide a number of advanced features without the large price tag, you will eventually find a problem. The issue is that getting good at any photo manipulation task beyond cropping and resizing is a big learning curve. There is tons of good learning material out there, but they all assume you are using Photoshop. Translating these to other packages can be very difficult.

For a long time I used Paint Shop Pro. The truth is I had tried Photoshop and compared to the slick features of the Corel product I struggled to see it's Photoshop's advantages. However this was before YouTube(yes younger readers, there really was a time before YouTube) and I watched professionals use Photoshop to the enhance photographs to the maximum. It was  through sites like phlearn that I learnt the real power of Photoshop is hidden out of view and until you learn the short cuts and hidden features it is not possible to fully understand the process of getting the best of your photos.

Another even cheaper alternative is Gimp. Gimp is an open source, multi-platform software which costs the very reasonable price of £0. I love the idea of Gimp, I love it's potential power, unfortunately however hard I try I can never get the hang of it. Part of the problem was the user interface used to be idiosyncratic and difficult to get your head around. That has improved now, but it is still a difficult beast to get the best out of unless you know exactly what you want to do. If you look up a task the internet will almost certainly result in sending you to a Photoshop tutorial, which is not a lot of help. Still at the Gimp's price there is no risk in installing it and giving it a go.

There are other free alternatives. Programs like Paint.Net provide some Photoshop functionality, but quickly runs out of power. One I always forget about is Google's Picassa. I use Picassa as a very good photo managing tool. Being from Google it is good at search and ties in nicely with the cloud. However it also has some very powerful, easy to use photo manipulation tools. Things like adding a vignette to a photo is a one click affair. Ok, it is only suitable for basic manipulation but it is free, so what's to lose?

One intriguing alternative and maybe the way of the future is . This is a purely online tool, but has some advanced features and a Photoshop look and feel. It is certainly worth keeping in mind if nothing else is available.

But all these suffer from the fact they are not Photoshop. So what to do? Well there is a alternative to Photoshop which has 90% of the power of the latest version and is totally free. Strangely enough it is called Photoshop.

Some months ago Adobe announced that due to registration server changes, Photoshop CS2 would be installable without the need for a product key. In effect, it was saying that Photoshop CS2 is open to all. Now legally this is only really supposed to be for people who bought CS2 in the first place. But in practice there is nothing to stop anyone downloading it and installing it.

But how does a 9 year old piece of software help us here? Surely it would be like running Windows 3.1 when you want Windows 7.

Actually no.

If you follow the tutorials you will find 90% of the functionality just the same between CS2 and CS6. There are a few missing items, but the majority of the good stuff is there. OK, there have been some major user interface tweaks in that time, but these only make the job slightly easier. It is a great way to make use of the mass of tutorial material on photo manipulation using a familiar interface. Hopefully once mastered, these can be easily applied to other packages such as Gimp.

There are 2 caveats however. Firstly if you have a modern camera it is unlikely you will be able to edit the RAW files. This is because the version of the code that Photoshop uses to handle RAW files has not been updated to include the more modern formats.  So you will need to convert your RAW files to jpeg's or TIFF's first. Secondly the more modern 3rd party extensions are not likely to work either.

If you shoot in RAW format(and you really should) you may think this is a pain. However there is a solution. Unfortunately it may involve giving Adobe money(but not as much as a subscription).

There are a number of good packages out there for editing RAW files. Unlike Photoshop there is more competition in this area. I have Zoner Photo Version 15 which I got free as an offer. Dx0 similarly is an excellent package to do the same. However because Adobe is so big in the photo manipulation area, it is difficult to look past their RAW editing package, Lightroom.

Lightroom cost about £100, which is not pocket change, but affordable. Like Photoshop, it takes a while to get the best out of it, but like Photoshop there are a lot of tutorials to help you. Additionally there are a lot of great extensions. The Nik collection is especially good and integrates nicely into Lightroom. OK, it adds another £100 to the bill, but the result is that you get a set of state of the art set of tools that you can do the majority of your photo correction work in. If you need to do any more, you can convert them to a file format of your choice and continue in Photoshop CS2.

All without paying Adobe another cent, which sounds like a good deal to me. As a bonus you also get to keep your soul.

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