Photoshop has never been inexpensive, but historically casual users could simply stick with a version and not spend money on updates. With the advent of Raw processing – that needs to be updated when new cameras are released – and Adobe’s move to a subscription model, many long-time users pushed back and started to look for alternatives. Adobe largely addressed those concerns by coming up with its Photography plan. At $120/year for Lightroom CC and Photoshop CC, it’s certainly a good deal. But not everyone wants to spend even that much. Perhaps more importantly, Photoshop carries with it the baggage of decades of features added for many different creative disciplines, which can make it hard for photographers to learn it. Many have moved to Lightroom, and gained support for image cataloging in the process, but others are still looking for something that moves Photoshop forward, but doesn’t break the bank.
That’s where Affinity Photo comes in. It’s been available for the Mac for over a year, but only now has become available for Windows. The new release not only supports Windows, but adds a host of important new features that help bring Affinity Photo close enough to parity with Photoshop (at least for photographers) that it is now a very worthy alternative. The new features include lens profiles, 32-bit editing, 360-degree image editing, focus stacking, macros, HDR, and more. At $40, it is a pretty-compelling value.
All the tools a photographer needs
Currently, most of us use several tools in our workflow, often with specialized versions for HDR processing, noise removal, 360-degree image editing, focus merging, and RAW processing. Affinity Photo wraps all of these capabilities together in a unified interface. You move between toolsets by switching from one Persona to another. Affinity has five personas — Photo for photo editing, Liquify for fancy morphing, Develop for RAW processing, Tone Mapping for HDR, and Export. Taken altogether they offer an amazing array of capabilities. That’s mostly a good thing, but it does mean a learning curve to use the tool effectively.
To use some of the more esoteric tools, you specify the type of task at File Open time (e.g. Tone Map, Panorama, HDR, etc.). That’s different, and perhaps more intuitive, than Photoshop’s approach of selecting the task and then the images you want to use. As of the latest version, Photo also supports both Macro recording and Batch processing of multiple images. It even has a stock photo library integrated — although it uses Shutterstock instead of Adobe Stock.
Almost, but not quite, like using Photoshop
Whenever a new product aims to upset a dominant incumbent there is tension between mimicking its design to provide familiarity to its users, and revamping pieces that could be improved. Affinity Photo takes a middle road. The overall UI is very similar to Photoshop, as is most of the terminology. But, for the sake of a more-modern and streamlined interface, many commands have been moved around, and functionality tweaked to fit Affinity’s model of its users. For the most part that results in some pleasant surprises as you notice how well thought out the interface is, but often after some frustration at not being able to do things “the old way” when you first try them. As a really-simple example, when you set the Crop tool to an absolute size, Photoshop lets you resize the crop area and then scales the image. Affinity Photo changes your size settings — which I personally don’t like.
Fortunately Affinity provides an excellent set of video tutorials. They’ll walk you through just about any task, but make sure you allow enough time for your initial use of the product to watch some of them. Otherwise if you’re in a rush and expect it to “just work like Photoshop” you’ll be frustrated.
From my initial use, the tools provided by Affinity generally provide image quality very similar to those from Adobe. With tricky capabilities like RAW processing, I’ve found that every tool has strengths and weaknesses, so many of us have several and may use more than one on a hard-to-process image.
Excellent file format support
Affinity photo not only supports a very-wide range of industry-standard formats — including some for HDR and 360-degree images — but works with Adobe’s proprietary PSD format. As of version 1.5 it can both read and write PSD files. However, I found the UI for Save and Export inconvenient. In particular, Save and Save As only allow saving in Affinity’s own .afphoto format. Frankly, the last thing I want is another proprietary format, so I’d rather save as a TIFF. But to save as JPEG, PSD, TIFF, or any other format, you need to go through the Export process.
The big advantage of using Photo’s native format is an impressive degree of flexibility in editing. It combines Lightroom’s non-destructive editing with Photoshop’s powerful tools. You can process your RAW image in the Develop persona (module), then make edits to it in the Photo persona, and still easily switch back to Develop to make additional RAW corrections. You can do this up to a point in Photoshop by using Smart Objects, but Affinity has made it a more-integrated and streamlined process. If you save an Affinity Photo image back to PSD format, it will rasterize its live filters (which are similar to Photoshop’s Smart Objects).
Areas where Affinity Photo falls short
Part of why Affinity can sell photo for such a low price is its reliance on open source projects and third parties for key pieces of technology, including its color management and lens profiles. The color management seems to work very well, and you can even activate full support for OpenColorIO. However, the lens profiles from lensfun are not as well implemented as Adobe’s. In some cases, they don’t activate with specific camera models, and in others they are too picky about specific lens revisions, and will fail if lens information isn’t a perfect match. I’m sure this will improve over time, and since Affinity Photo includes free updates, users will see improvements over time.
Similarly, plug-in support is patchy. Most of my plug-ins worked (including the ones from nik that I tested), but others refused to launch. Here too I expect compatibility to continue to improve. There doesn’t seem to be an equivalent to Adobe’s DeHaze command, or some of its powerful “AI-based” context-aware tools. Affinity Photo does seem to have a much more modular architecture, which is cool. You can see that with its OpenColorIO integration, for example. There is also a drop down that suggests there could be room for alternate RAW processing engines. It’d be interesting to see DxO’s OpticsPro or Phase One’s Capture One be able to slot their technology in there.
Should you use Affinity Photo?
Frankly, for $40 including free updates, Affinity Photo is a unique value (enough of one that I bought a copy so I could always have it, rather than even bothering to ask for a special review copy). You’re getting not just almost all of Photoshop, but the features of several separately-priced tools for focus stacking and HDR processing. If nothing else, it will give you a backup application that will be able to read and edit your PSD files if you wind up without an Adobe subscription. That said, switching simply to save on the $120/year for Adobe CC for Photographers is going to cost you a lot of time re-learning.
Affinity Photo also doesn’t offer any image management or cataloging. So if you currently rely on Lightroom (or even Bridge) for organizing your images, you’ll still need a license from Adobe. If you’d like to take a smaller step away from Photoshop, the newest version of Photoshop Elements is another excellent alternative. If you really need free, or Linux, Gimp is an alternative — but not as user friendly. Personally, I’m excited about how quickly Affinity is pushing the boundaries with new capabilities, so I expect I’ll use it in parallel with Photoshop, and see over time which of its capabilities I want to make a regular part of my workflow.