Testing ON1 Photo RAW for Astrophotography


ON1 Testing Title

Can the new version of ON1 Photo RAW match Photoshop for astrophotography? 

The short TL;DR answer: No.

But … as always, it depends. So do read on.


Released in mid-November 2018, the latest version of ON1 Photo RAW greatly improves a non-destructive workflow. Combining Browsing, Cataloging, Raw Developing, with newly improved Layers capabilities, ON1 is out to compete with Adobe’s Creative Cloud photo suite – Lightroom, Camera Raw, Bridge, and Photoshop – for those looking for a non-subscription alternative.

Many reviewers love the new ON1 – for “normal” photography.

But can it replace Adobe for night sky photos? I put ON1 Photo RAW 2019 through its paces for the demanding tasks of processing nightscapes, time-lapses, and deep-sky astrophotos.


The Conclusions

In my eBook “How to Photograph and Process Nightscapes and Time-Lapses” (linked to at right) I present dozens of processing tutorials, including several on how to use ON1 Photo RAW, but the 2018 edition. I was critical of many aspects of the old version, primarily of its destructive workflow when going from its Develop and Effects modules to the limited Layers module of the 2018 edition.

I’m glad to see many of the shortfalls have been addressed, with the 2019 edition offering a much better workflow allowing layering of raw images while maintaining access to all the original raw settings and adjustments. You no longer have to flatten and commit to image settings to layer them for composites. When working with Layers you are no longer locked out of key functions such as cropping.

I won’t detail all the changes to ON1 2019 but they are significant and welcome.

The question I had was: Are they enough for high-quality astrophotos in a non-destructive workflow, Adobe Photoshop’s forté.

While ON1 Photo RAW 2019 is much better, I concluded it still isn’t a full replacement of Adobe’s Creative Cloud suite, as least not for astrophotography.

NOTE: All images can be downloaded as high-res versions for closer inspection. 


ON1 2019 is Better, But for Astrophotography …

  1. Functions in Layers are still limited. For example, there is no stacking and averaging for noise smoothing. Affinity Photo has those.
  2. Filters, though abundant for artistic special effect “looks,” are limited in basic but essential functions. There is no Median filter, for one.
  3. Despite a proliferation of contrast controls, for deep-sky images (nebulas and galaxies) I was still not able to achieve the quality of images I’ve been used to with Photoshop.
  4. The lack of support for third-party plug-ins means ON1 cannot work with essential time-lapse programs such as Timelapse Workflow or LRTimelapse.
ON1 Final Composite
A finished nightscape composite, with stacked exposures for the ground and stacked and tracked exposures for the sky, layered and blended in ON1.

Recommendations

Nightscapes: ON1 Photo RAW 2019 works acceptably well for nightscape still images:

  1. Its improved layering and excellent masking functions are great for blending separate ground and sky images, or for applying masked adjustments to selected areas.

Time-Lapses: ON1 works is just adequate for basic time-lapse processing:

  1. Yes, you can develop one image and apply its settings to hundreds of images in a set, then export them for assembly into a movie. But there is no way to vary those settings over time, as you can by mating Lightroom to LRTimelapse.
  2. As with the 2018 edition, you still cannot copy and paste masked local adjustments from image to image, limiting their use.
  3. Exporting those images is slow.

Deep-Sky: ON1 is not a program I can recommend for deep-sky image processing:

  1. Stars inevitably end up with unsightly sharpening haloes.
  2. De-Bayering artifacts add blocky textures to the sky background.
  3. And all the contrast controls still don’t provide the “snap” and quality I’m used to with Photoshop when working with low-contrast subjects.

Library / Browse Functions

ON1 Browse Module
ON1 cannot catalog or display movie files or Photoshop’s PSB files (but then again with PSBs neither can Lightroom!).

ON1 is sold first and foremost as a replacement for Adobe Lightroom, and to that extent it can work well. Unlike Lightroom, ON1 allows browsing and working on images without having to import them formally into a catalog.

However, you can create a catalog if you wish, one that can be viewed even if the original images are not “on-line.” The mystery seems to be where ON1 puts its catalog file on your hard drive. I was not able to find it, to manually back it up. Other programs, such as Lightroom and Capture One, locate their catalogs out in the open in the Pictures folder.

For those really wanting a divorce from Adobe, ON1 now offers an intelligent AI-based function for importing Lightroom catalogs and transferring all your Lightroom settings you’ve applied to raw files to ON1’s equivalent controls.

However, while ON1 can read Photoshop PSD files, it will flatten them, so you would lose access to all the original image layers.

ON1’s Browse module is good, with many of the same functions as Lightroom, such as “smart collections.” Affinity Photo – perhaps ON1’s closest competitor as a Photoshop replacement – still lacks anything like it.

But I found ON1’s Browse module buggy, often taking a long while to allow access into a folder, presumably while it is rendering image previews.

There are no plug-ins or extensions for exporting directly to or synching to social media and photo sharing sites.


Nightscape Processing – Developing Raw Images

ON1 Before and After Processing
On the left, a raw image as it came out of the camera. On the right, after developing (with Develop and Effects module settings applied) in ON1.

For this test I used the same nightscape image I threw at Adobe competitors a year ago, in a test of a dozen or more raw developers. It is a 2-minute tracked exposure with a Sigma 20mm Art lens at f/2 and Nikon D750 at ISO 1600.

ON1 did a fairly good job. Some of its special effect filters, such a Dynamic Contrast, Glow, and Sunshine, can help bring out the Milky Way, though do add an artistic “look” to an image which you might or might not like.

Below, I compare Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) to ON1. It was tough to get ON1’s image looking the same as ACR’s result, but then again, perhaps that’s not the point. Does it just look good? Yes, it does.

ON1 & ACR Raw Image Comparison
On the left, a single raw image developed with Adobe Camera Raw. On the right, the same image with ON1 and its basic Develop and more advanced Effects settings.

Compared to Adobe Camera Raw, which has a good array of basic settings, ON1 has most of those and more, in the form of many special Effects, with many combined as one-click Presets, as shown below.

ON1 Presets
ON1 offers a huge array of Presets that apply combinations of its filters with one click from the Browse module.

A few presets and individual filters – the aforementioned Dynamic Contrast and Glow – are valuable. However, most of ON1’s filters and presets will not be useful for astrophotography, unless you are after highly artistic and unnatural effects.

Noise Reduction and Lens Correction

ON1 Noise Reduction
On the left, an image in ON1 without any Noise Reduction. On the right, with noise reduction and sharpening (under Details) applied with the settings shown.

Critical to all astrophotography is excellent noise reduction. ON1 does a fine job here, with good smoothing of noise without harming details.

Lens Correction works OK. It detected the 20mm Sigma art lens and automatically applied distortion correction, but not any vignetting (light “fall-off”) correction, perhaps the most important correction in nightscape work. You have to dial this in manually by eye, a major deficiency.

By comparison, ACR applies both distortion and vignetting correction automatically. It also includes settings for many manual lenses that you can select and apply in a click. For example, ACR (and Lightroom) includes settings for popular Rokinon and Venus Optics manual lenses; ON1 does not.

Hot Pixel Removal

Hot Pixel Removal Comparison
On the left, ACR with noise reduction applied (it offers no user-selectable Hot Pixel Removal tool). In the middle, ON1 with Remove Hot Pixels turned on; on the right, with it turned off – showing more hot pixels than ACR does.

I shot the example image on a warm summer night and without using in-camera Long Exposure Noise Reduction (to keep the gap between exposures short when shooting sets of tracked and untracked exposures for later compositing).

However, the penalty for not using LENR to expedite the image taking is a ground filled with hot pixels. While Adobe Camera Raw does have some level of hot pixel removal working “under the hood,” many specks remained.

ON1 showed more hot pixels, until you clicked Remove Hot Pixels, found under Details. As shown at centre above, it did a decent job getting rid of the worst offenders.

But as I’ll show later, the penalty is that stars now look distorted and sometimes double, or you get the outright removal of stars. ON1 doesn’t do a good job distinguishing between true sharp-edged hot pixels and the softer images of stars. Indeed, it tends to over sharpen stars.

A competitor, Capture One 11, does a better job, with an adjustable Single Pixel removal slider, so you can at least select the level of star loss you are willing to tolerate to get rid of hot pixels.

Star Image Quality

ON1 & ACR Star Image Comparison
On the left, a 700% blow-up of the stars in Adobe Camera Raw. On the right, the same image processed in ON1 and exported out as a PSD.

Yes, we are pixel peeping here, but that’s what we do in astrophotography. A lot!

Stars in ON1 don’t look as good as in Camera Raw. Inevitably, as you add contrast enhancements, stars in ON1 start to exhibit dark and unsightly “sharpening haloes” not present in ACR, despite me applying similar levels of sharpening and contrast boosts to each version of the image.

Camera Raw has been accused of producing images that are not as sharp as with other programs such as Capture One and ON1.

There’s a reason. Other programs over-sharpen, and it shows here.

We can get away with it here in wide-field images, but not later with deep-sky close-ups. I don’t like it. And it is unavoidable. The haloes are there, albeit at a low level, even with no sharpening or contrast enhancements applied, and no matter what image profile is selected (I used ON1 Standard throughout).

De-Bayering Artifacts

ON1-Debayer
ON1, with contrast boosts applied but with no sharpening or noise reduction, shows star haloes, while the sky shows a blocky pattern at the pixel level in high ISO shots.
ACR-Debayer
Adobe Camera Raw, with similar settings but also no sharpening or noise reduction, shows a smooth and uniform sky background.

You might have to download and closely inspect these images to see the effect, but ON1’s de-Bayering routine exhibits a cross-hatched blocky pattern at the pixel-peeping level. ACR does not.

I see this same effect with some other raw developers. For example, the free Raw Therapee shows it with many of its choices for de-Bayering algorithms, but not all. Of the more than a dozen raw developers I tested a year ago, ACR and DxO PhotoLab had (and still have) the most artifact-free de-Bayering and smoothest noise reduction

Again, we can get away with some pixel-level artifacts here, but not later, in deep-sky processing.


Nightscape Processing — Layering and Compositing

ON1 Perfect Brush
ON1’s adjustable “Perfect Brush” option for precise masking around edges and objects isn’t quite as effective as Photoshop’s Quick Selection Tool.

Compositing

The 2018 version of ON1 forced you to destructively flatten images when bringing them into the Layers module.

The 2019 version of ON1 improves that. It is now possible to composite several raw files into one image and still retain all the original Develop and Effects settings for non-destructive work.

You can then use a range of masking tools to mask in or out the sky.

For the example above, I have stacked tracked and untracked exposures, and am starting to mask out the trailed stars from the untracked exposure layer.

To do this with Adobe, you would have to open the developed raw files in Photoshop (ideally using “smart objects” to retain the link back to the raw files). But with ON1 we stay within the same program, to retain access to non-destructive settings. Very nice!

To add masks, ON1 2019 does not have the equivalent of Photoshop’s excellent Quick Selection Tool for selecting the sky or ground. It does have a “Perfect Brush” option which uses the tonal value of the pixels below it, rather than detecting edges, to avoid “painting over the lines.”

While the Perfect Brush does a decent job, it still requires a lot of hand painting to create an accurate mask without holes and defects. There is no non-destructive “Select and Mask” refinement option as in Photoshop.

Yes, ON1’s Refine Brush and Chisel Mask tools can help clean up a mask edge but are destructive to the mask. That’s not acceptable to my non-destructive mindset!

Local Adjustments 

ON1 Masking Adjustments
Local Adjustments can be painted in or out with classic and easy-to-adjust and view masks and layers, rather than adjustment pins used by many raw developers such as ACR.

The masking tools are also applicable to adding “Local Adjustments” to any image layer, to brighten or darken regions of an image for example.

These work well and I find them more intuitive than the “pins” ACR uses on raw files, or DxO PhotoLab’s quirky “U-Point” interface.

ON1’s Local Adjustments work more like Photoshop’s Adjustment Layers and are similarly non-destructive. Excellent.

Luminosity Masks

ON1 Luminosity Masking
ON1 has one-click Luminosity masking, an excellent feature.

A very powerful feature of ON1 is its built-in Luminosity masking.

Yes, Camera Raw now has Range Masks, and Photoshop can be used to create luminosity masks, but making Photoshop’s luminosity masks easily adjustable requires purchasing third-party extension panels.

ON1 can create an adjustable and non-destructive luminosity mask on any image or adjustment layer with a click.

While such masks, based on the brightness of areas, aren’t so useful for low-contrast images like the Milky Way scene above, they can be very powerful for merging high-contrast images (though ON1 also has an HDR function not tested here).

Glow Effect
ON1’s handy Orton-style Glow effect, here with a Luminosity mask applied. The mask can be adjusted with the Levels and Window sliders, and applied to a range of colors as well.

ON1 has the advantage here. Its Luminosity masks are a great feature for compositing exposures or for working on regions of bright and dark in an image.

Final Composite

ON1 Final Composite
A finished nightscape composite, with stacked exposures for the ground and stacked and tracked exposures for the sky, layered and blended in ON1.

Here again is the final result, above.

It is not just one image each for the sky and ground, but is instead a stack of four images for each half of the composite, to smooth noise. This form of stacking is somewhat unique to astrophotography, and is commonly used to reduce noise in nightscapes and in deep-sky images, as shown later.

Stacking

ON1-Layer Opacities
This shows an intermediate step in creating the final composite shown above: Four sky layers are stacked, with opacities as shown, which has the effect of smoothing noise. But to continue working on the image requires making a single “New Stamped Layer” out of the group of four – in this case, the sky layers. The same can be done for the four ground layers.

Here I show how you have to stack images in ON1.

Unlike Photoshop and Affinity Photo, ON1 does not have the ability to merge images automatically into a stack and apply a mathematical averaging to the stack, usually a Mean or Median stack mode. The averaging of the image content is what reduces the random noise.

Instead, with ON1 you have perform an “old school” method of average stacking – by changing the opacity of the layers, so that Layer 2 = 50%, Layer 3 = 33%, Layer 4 = 25%, and so on. The result is identical to performing a Mean stack mode in Photoshop or Affinity.

Fine, except there is no way to perform a Median stack, which can be helpful for eliminating odd elements present in only one frame, perhaps an aircraft trail.

Copy and Paste Settings

ON1 Pasting Settings
ON1 allows easy copying and pasting of settings from one raw image to others, with the annoying exception of Local Adjustments and their masks.

Before we even get to the stacking stage, we have to develop and process all the images in a set. Unlike Lightroom or Camera Raw, ON1 can’t develop and synchronize settings to a set of images at once. You can work on only one image at a time.

So, you work on one image (one of the sky images here), then Copy and Paste its settings to the other images in the set. I show the Paste dialog box here.

This works OK, though I did find some bugs – the masks for some global Effects layers did not copy properly; they copied inverted, as black instead of white masks.

However, Luminosity masks did copy from image to image, which is surprising considering the next point.

The greater limitation is that no Local Adjustments (ones with masks to paint in a correction to a selected area) copy from one image to another … except ones with gradient masks. Why the restriction?

So as wonderful as ON1’s masking tools might be, they aren’t of any use if you want to copy their masked adjustments across several images, or, as shown next, to a large time-lapse set.

While Camera Raw’s and Lightroom’s Local Adjustment pins are more awkward to work with, they do copy across as many images as you like.


Time-Lapse Processing

ON1 Copy & Paste
ON1 does allow developing one image in a set, then copying and pasting its settings to perhaps hundreds of other images in a time-lapse set.

A few Adobe competitors, such as Affinity Photo (as of this writing) simply can’t do this.

By comparison, with the exception of Local Adjustments, ON1 does have good functions for Copying and Pasting Settings. These are essential for processing a set of hundreds of time-lapse frames.

ON1 Export
This is ON1’s Export dialog box, set up here to export the developed raw files into another “intermediate” set of 4K-sized JPGs for movie assembly.

Once all the images are processed – whether it be with ON1 or any other program – the frames have to exported out to an intermediate set of JPGs for assembly into a movie by third-party software. ON1 itself can’t assemble movies, but then again neither can Lightroom (as least not very well), though Photoshop can, through its video editing functions.

For my test set of 220 frames, each with several masked Effects layers, ON1 took 2 hours and 40 minutes to perform the export to 4K JPGs. Photoshop, through its Image Processor utility, took 1 hour and 30 minutes to export the same set, developed similarly and with several local adjustment pins.

ON1 did the job but was slow.

A greater limitation is that, unlike Lightroom, ON1 does not accept any third party plug-ins (it serves as a plug-in for other programs). That means ON1 is not compatible with what I feel are essential programs for advanced time-lapse processing: either Timelapse Workflow (from https://www.timelapseworkflow.com) or the industry-standard LRTimelapse (from https://lrtimelapse.com).

Both programs work with Lightroom to perform incremental adjustments to settings over a set of images, based on the settings of several keyframes.

Lacking the ability to work with these programs means ON1 is not a program for serious and professional time-lapse processing.


Deep-Sky Processing

ON1-Tracked Milky Way
A tracked 2-minute exposure of the Cygnus Milky Way, with a Sony a7III camera at ISO 800 and Venus Optics Laowa 15mm lens at f/2, developed in ON1.
ACR-Tracked Milky Way
The same Milky Way image developed in Adobe Camera Raw. It looks better!

Wide-Angle Milky Way

Now we come to the most demanding task: processing long exposures of the deep-sky, such as wide-angle Milky Way shots and close-ups of nebulas and galaxies taken through telescopes. All require applying generous levels of contrast enhancement.

As the above example shows, try as I might, I could not get my test image of the Milky Way to look as good with ON1 as it did with Adobe Camera Raw. Despite the many ways to increase contrast in ON1 (Contrast, Midtones, Curves, Structure, Haze, Dynamic Contrast and more!), the result still looked flat and with more prominent sky gradients than with ACR.

And remember, with ACR that’s just the start of a processing workflow. You can then take the developed raw file into Photoshop for even more precise work.

With ON1, its effects and filters all you have to work with. Yes, that simplifies the workflow, but its choices are more limited than with Photoshop, despite ON1’s huge number of Presets.

Deep-Sky Close-Ups

ON1 Processed M31
The Andromeda Galaxy, in a stack of six tracked and auto-guided 8-minute exposures with a stock Canon 6D MkII through an 80mm f/6 refractor.
Photoshop Processed M31
The same set of six exposures, stacked and processed with ACR and Photoshop, with multiple masked adjustment layers as at right. The result looks better.

Similarly, taking a popular deep-sky subject, the Andromeda Galaxy, aka M31, and processing the same original images with ON1 and ACR/Photoshop resulted in what I think is a better-looking result with Photoshop.

Of course, it’s possible to change the look of such highly processed images with the application of various Curves and masked adjustment layers. And I’m more expert with Photoshop than with ON1.

But … as with the Cygnus Milky Way image, I just couldn’t get Andromeda looking as good in ON1. It always looked a little flat.

Dynamic Contrast did help snap up the galaxy’s dark lanes, but at the cost of “crunchy” stars, as I show next. A luminosity “star mask” might help protect the stars, but I think the background sky will inevitably suffer from the de-Bayering artifacts.

Star and Background Sky Image Quality

ON1 Processed M31-Close-Up
A 400% close-up of the final Andromeda Galaxy image. It shows haloed stars and a textured and noisy sky background.
Photoshop Processed M31-Close-Up
The same area blown up 400% of the Photoshop version of the Andromeda Galaxy image. Stars and sky look smoother and more natural.

As I showed with the nightscape image, stars in ON1 end up looking too “crunchy,” with dark halos from over sharpening, and also with the blocky de-Bayering artifacts now showing up in the sky.

I feel it is not possible to avoid dark star haloes, as any application of contrast enhancements, so essential for these types of objects, brings them out, even if you back off sharpening at the raw development stage, or apply star masks.

ON1 Processed M31-With & Without
On the left, the image before any processing applied; on the right, after the level of processing needed for such deep-sky images. What starts out looking OK, turns messy.

ON1 is applying too much sharpening “under the hood.” That might “wow” casual daytime photographers into thinking ON1 is making their photos look better, but it is detrimental to deep-sky images. Star haloes are a sign of poor processing.

Noise and Hot Pixels

ON1 With & Without NR and Hot Pixels
With and without noise reduction and hot pixel removal shows stars becoming lost and misshapen with the Remove Hot Pixel option.

ON1’s noise reduction is quite good, and by itself does little harm to image details.

But turn on the Remove Hot Pixel button and stars start to be eaten. Faint stars fade out and brighter stars get distorted into double shapes or have holes in them.

Hot pixel removal is a nice option to have, but for these types of images it does too much harm to be useful. Use LENR or take dark frames, best practices in any case.

Image Alignment and Registration

ON1 Auto-Alignment
The six Andromeda images stacked then “Auto-Aligned” in ON1, with just the top (first) and bottom (last) images turned on here. with the top image switched to Difference blend mode to show any mis-alignment.
Photoshop Auto-Alignment
The same set stacked and “Auto-Aligned” in Photoshop, with the same first and last images turned on and blended with Difference. PS’s alignment is much better, indicated by the image “blacking out” as the two registered frames cancel out.

Before any processing of deep-sky images is possible, it is first necessary to stack and align them, to make up for slight shifts from image to image, usually due to the mount not being perfectly polar aligned. Such shifts can be both translational (left-right, up-down) and rotational (turning about the guide star).

New to ON1 2019 is an Auto-Align Layers function. It worked OK but not nearly as well as Photoshop’s routine. In my test images of M31, ON1 didn’t perform enough rotation.

Once stacked and aligned, and as I showed above, you then have to manually change the opacities of each layer to blend them for noise smoothing.

By comparison, Photoshop has a wonderful Statistics script (under File>Scripts) that will automatically stack, align, then mean or median average the images, and turn the result into a non-destructive smart object, all in one fell swoop. I use it all the time for deep-sky images. There’s no need for separate programs such as Deep-Sky Stacker.

In ON1, however, all that has to be done manually, step-by-step. ON1 does do the job, just not as well.


Wrap-Up

M31 from ON1
The final M31, Andromeda Galaxy image processed with ON1.

ON1 Photo RAW 2019 is a major improvement, primarily in providing a more seamless and less destructive workflow.

Think of it as Lightroom with Layers! 

But it isn’t Photoshop.

Dynamic Contrast
ON1’s useful Dynamic Contrast filter. A little goes a long way.

True to ON1’s heritage as a special effect plug-in, it has some fine Effect filters, such as Dynamic Contrast above, ones I sometimes use from within Photoshop as plug-in smart filters.

Under Sharpen, ON1 does offer a High Pass option, a popular method for sharpening deep-sky objects.

Missing Filters and Adjustments

But for astrophoto use, ON1 is missing a lot of basic but essential filters for pixel-level touch-ups. Here’s a short list:

• Missing are Median, Dust & Scratches, Radial Blur, Shake Reduction, and Smart Sharpen, just to mention a handful of filters I find useful for astrophotography, among the dozens of others Photoshop has, but ON1 does not. But then again, neither does Lightroom, another example of how ON1 is more light Lightroom with layers and not Photoshop.

ON1 Color Adjustment
ON1’s selective Color Adjustment. OK, but where’s the Black and Neutrals?

• While ON1 has many basic adjustments for color and contrast, its version of Photoshop’s Selective Color lacks Neutral or Black sliders, great for making fine changes to color balance in astrophotos.

• While there is a Curves panel, it has no equivalent to Photoshop’s “Targeted Adjustment Tool” for clicking on a region of an image to automatically add an inflection point at the right spot on the curve. This is immensely useful for deep-sky images.

• Also lacking is a basic Levels adjustment. I can live without it, but most astrophotographers would find this a deal-breaker.

• On the other hand, hard-core deep-sky photographers who do most of their processing in specialized programs such as PixInsight, using Photoshop or Lightroom only to perform final touch-ups, might find ON1 perfectly fine. Try it!

Saving and Exporting

ON1 saves its layered images as proprietary .onphoto files and does so automatically. There is no Save command, only a final Export command. As such it is possible to make changes you then decide you don’t like … but too late! The image has already been saved, writing over your earlier good version. Nor can you Save As … a file name of your choice. Annoying!

Opening a layered .onphoto file (even with ON1 itself already open) can take a minute or more for it to render and become editable.

Once you are happy with an image, you can Export the final .onphoto version as a layered .PSD file but the masks ON1 exports to the Photoshop layers may not match the ones you had back in ON1 for opacity. So the exported .PSD file doesn’t look like what you were working on. That’s a bug.

Only exporting a flattened TIFF file gets you a result that matches your ON1 file, but it is now flattened.

Bugs and Cost

I encountered a number of other bugs, ones bad enough to lock up ON1 now and then. I’ve even seen ON1’s own gurus encounter bugs with masking during their live tutorials. These will no doubt get fixed in 2019.x upgrades over the next few months.

But by late 2019 we will no doubt be offered ON1 Photo RAW 2020 for another $80 upgrade fee, over the original $100 to $120 purchase price. True, there’s no subscription, but ON1 still costs a modest annual fee, presuming you want the latest features.

Now, I have absolutely no problem with that, and ON1 2019 is a significant improvement.

However, I found that for astrophotography it still isn’t there yet as a complete replacement for Adobe.

But don’t take my word for it. Download the trial copy and test it for yourself.

— Alan, November 22, 2018 / © 2018 Alan Dyer/AmazingSky.com 

 

Testing 10 Photoshop Contenders


1-Comparing Raw Developers (Wide)

To Adobe or not to Adobe. That is the question many photographers are asking with the spate of new image processing programs vying to “kill Photoshop.”

I tested more than ten contenders as alternatives to Adobe’s image processing software, evaluating them ONLY for the specialized task of editing demanding nightscape images taken under the Milky Way, both for single still images and for time-lapses of the moving sky. I did not test these programs for other more “normal” types of images.

Also, please keep in mind, I am a Mac user and tested only programs available for MacOS, though many are also available for Windows. I’ve indicated these.

But I did not test any Windows-only programs. So sorry, fans of Paintshop Pro (though see my note at the end), Photoline, Picture Window Pro, or Xara Photo & Graphic Designer. They’re not here. Even so, I think you will find there’s plenty to pick from!

This review expands upon and updates mini-reviews I included in my Nightscapes and Time-Lapses eBook, shown at right.

If you are hoping there’s a clear winner in the battle against Adobe, one program I can say does it all and for less cost and commitment, I didn’t find one.

Group of 9 (small)

However, a number of contenders offer excellent features and might replace at least one member of Adobe’s image processing suite.


For example, only four of these programs can truly serve as a layer-based editing program replacing Photoshop.

The others are better described as Adobe Lightroom competitors – programs that can catalog image libraries and develop raw image files, with some offering adjustment layers for correcting color, contrast, etc. But as with Lightroom, layering of images – to stack, composite, and mask them – is beyond their ability.

For processing time-lapse sequences, however, we don’t need, nor can we use, the ability to layer and mask several images into one composite.

What we need for time-lapses is to:

  • Develop a single key raw file, then …
  • Copy its settings to the hundreds of other raw files in the time-lapse set, then …
  • Export that folder of raw images to “intermediate JPGs” for assembly into a movie.

Even so, not all these contenders are up to the task.

Here are the image processing programs I looked at. Costs are in U.S. dollars. Most have free trial copies available.


Photoshop+Bridge+Lightroom (small)

The Champion from Adobe

Adobe Camera Raw (ACR), Photoshop, Bridge, and Lightroom, the standards to measure others by

Cost: $10 a month by subscription, includes ACR, Photoshop, Bridge, and Lightroom

Website: https://www.adobe.com

OS: Windows and Mac

Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) is the raw development plug-in that comes with Photoshop and Adobe Bridge, Adobe’s image browsing application that accompanies Photoshop. Camera Raw is equivalent to the Develop module in Lightroom, Adobe’s cataloguing and raw processing software. Camera Raw and Lightroom have identical processing functions and can produce identical results.

Photoshop and Lightroom complement each other and are now available together, but only by monthly subscription through Adobe’s Creative Cloud service, at $10/month. Though $120 for a year is not far off the cost of purchasing many of these other programs and perhaps upgrading them annually, many photographers prefer to purchase their software and not subscribe to it.

Thus the popularity of these alternative programs. Most offered major updates in late 2017.

My question is, how well do they work? Are any serious contenders to replace Photoshop or Lightroom?


Group of 5 Raw DevelopersLightroom Contenders: Five Raw Developers

ACDSee Photo Studio (current as of late 2017)

Cost: $60 to $100, depending on version, upgrades $40 to $60.

Website: http://www.acdsystems.com

OS: Windows and Mac

I tested the single MacOS version. Windows users have a choice of either a Standard or Professional version. Only the Pro version offers the full suite of raw development features, in addition to cataloging functions. The MacOS version resembles the Windows Pro version.


Capture One v11 (late 2017 release)

Cost: $299, and $120 for major upgrades, or by subscription for $180/year

Website: https://www.phaseone.com

OS: Windows and Mac

As of version 11 this powerful raw developer and cataloguing program offers “Layers.” But these are only for applying local adjustments to masked areas of an image. You cannot layer different images. So Capture One cannot be used like Photoshop, to stack and composite images. It is a Lightroom replacement only, but a very good one indeed.


Corel Aftershot Pro v3 (late 2017)

Cost: $80, and $60 for upgrades

Website: http://www.aftershotpro.com/en/

OS: Windows, Mac, and Linux

Here’s a low cost Lightroom replacement for image management and raw processing abilities. Noise reduction is “Perfectly Clear” from Athentech and works well.


DxO PhotoLab ELITE v1 (late 2017)

Cost: $199

Website: http://www.dxo.com/us/photography/photo-software/dxo-photolab

OS: Windows and Mac

The ELITE version of what DxO now calls “PhotoLab” offers DxO’s superb PRIME noise reduction and excellent ClearView contrast enhancement feature. While it has an image browser, PhotoLab does not create a catalog, so this isn’t a full Lightroom replacement, but it is a superb raw developer. DxO also recently acquired the excellent Nik Collection of image processing plug-ins, so we can expect some interesting additions and features.


Raw Therapee v5.3 (mid-2017 release)

Cost: Free

Website: http://rawtherapee.com

OS: Windows, Mac, and Linux

This free open source program has been created and is supported by a loyal community of programmers. It offers a bewildering blizzard of panels and controls, among them the ability to apply dark frames and flat field images, features unique among any raw developer and aimed specifically at astrophotographers. Yes, it’s free, but the learning curve is precipitous.


Group of 4 Layer-Based EditorsPhotoshop Contenders: Four Raw Developers with Layering/Compositing

These programs can not only develop at least single raw images, if not many, but also offer some degree of image layering, compositing, and masking like Photoshop.

However, only ON1 Photo RAW can do that and also catalog/browse images as Lightroom can. Neither Affinity, Luminar, or Pixelmator offer a library catalog like Lightroom, nor even a file browsing function such as Adobe Bridge, serious deficiencies I feel.


Affinity Photo v1.6 (late 2017)

Cost: $50

Website: https://affinity.serif.com

OS: Windows and Mac

This is the lowest cost raw developer and layer-based program on offer here, and has some impressive features, such as stacking images, HDR blending, and panorama stitching. However, it lacks any library or cataloguing function, so this is not a Lightroom replacement, but it could replace Photoshop.


Luminar 2018

Cost: $80, and $40 for major upgrades

Website: https://macphun.com

OS: Windows and Mac

Macphun has changed their name to Skylum and now makes their fine Luminar program for both Mac and Windows. While adding special effects is its forte, Luminar does work well both as a raw developer and layer-based editor. But like Affinity, it has no cataloguing feature. It cannot replace Lightroom.


ON1 Photo RAW 2018

Cost: $120, and $100 for major upgrades

Website: https://www.on1.com

OS: Windows and Mac

Of all the contenders tested here, this is the only program that can truly replace both Lightroom and Photoshop, in that ON1 has cataloguing, raw developing, and image layering and masking abilities. In fact, ON1 allows you to migrate your Lightroom catalog into its format. However, ON1’s cost to buy and maintain is similar to Adobe’s Creative Cloud Photo subscription plan. It’s just that ON1’s license is “perpetual.”

NOTE: Windows users might find Corel’s Paintshop Pro 2018 a good “do-it-all” solution – I tested only Corel’s raw developer program Aftershot Pro, which Paintshop Pro uses.


Pixelmator Pro v1 (late 2017 release)

Cost: $60

Website: http://www.pixelmator.com/pro/

OS: MacOS only

The “Pro” version of Pixelmator was introduced in November 2017. It has an innovative interface and many fine features, and it allows layering and masking of multiple images. However, it lacks some of the key functions (listed below) needed for nightscape and time-lapse work. Touted as a Photoshop replacement, it isn’t there yet.


The Challenge

This is the image I threw at all the programs, a 2-minute exposure of the Milky Way taken at Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park in southern Alberta in late July 2017.

NOTE: Click/tap on any of the screen shots to bring them up full screen so you can inspect and save them. 

2-ACR Original Undeveloped
Original Raw Image Out of the Camera, BEFORE Development

The lens was the Sigma 20mm Art lens at f/2 and the camera the Nikon D750 at ISO 1600.

The camera was on a tracking unit (a Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Mini) to keep stars pinpoints.

Thus the ground is blurred. Keep that in mind, as it will always look fuzzy in the comparison images. But it does show up noise well, including hot pixels. This image of the sky is designed to be composited with one taken without the tracker turning, to keep the ground sharp.

3-ACR Developed (Wide)
Raw Image AFTER Development in Adobe Camera Raw

Above is the image after development in Adobe Camera Raw (ACR), using sliders under its Basic, Tone Curve, Detail, HSL, Lens Corrections, and Effects tabs. Plus I added a “local adjustment” gradient to darken the sky at the top of the frame. I judged programs on how well they could match or beat this result.

4-Adobe Lightroom
Same Image Developed in Adobe Lightroom

Above is the same image developed in Adobe Lightroom, to demonstrate how it can achieve identical results to Camera Raw, because at heart it is Camera Raw.


Feature Focus

I have assumed a workflow that starts with raw image files from the camera, not JPGs, for high-quality results.

And I have assumed the goal of making that raw image look as good as possible at the raw stage, before it goes to Photoshop or some other bit-mapped editor. That’s an essential workflow for time-lapse shooting, if not still-image nightscapes.

However, I made no attempt to evaluate all these programs for a wide range of photo applications. That would be a monumental task!

Nor, in the few programs capable of the task, did I test image layering. My focus was on developing a raw image. As such, I did not test the popular free program GIMP, as it does not open raw files. GIMP users must turn to one of the raw developers here as a first stage.

If you are curious how a program might perform for your purposes and on your photos, then why not test drive a trial copy?

Instead, my focus was on these programs’ abilities to produce great looking results when processing one type of image: my typical Milky Way nightscape, below.

TIFF from DxO into Photoshop
TIFF Exported from DxO PhotoLab … then Imported into Photoshop

Such an image is a challenge because…

  • The subject is inherently low in contrast, with the sky often much brighter than the ground. The sky needs much more contrast applied, but without blocking up the shadows in the ground.
  • The sky is often plagued by off-color tints from artificial and natural sky glows.
  • The ground is dark, perhaps lit only by starlight. Bringing out landscape details requires excellent shadow recovery.
  • Key to success is superb noise reduction. Images are shot at high ISOs and are rife with noise in the shadows. We need to reduce noise without losing stars or sharpness in the landscape.

I focused on being able to make one image look as good as possible as a raw file, before bringing it into Photoshop or a layer-based editor – though that’s where it will usually end up, for stacking and compositing, as per the final result shown at the end.

I then looked at each program’s ability to transfer that one key image’s settings over to what could be hundreds of other images taken that night, either for stacking into star trails or for assembling into a time-lapse movie.


Summary Conclusions

1-Comparing Raw Developers (Wide)
Results of 8 Programs compared to ACR (at left)

None of the programs I tested ticked all the boxes in providing all the functions and image quality of the Adobe products.

But here’s a summary of my recommendations:


For Advanced Time-Lapse

Photoshop+Bridge+Lightroom+LRT

None of the non-Adobe programs will work with the third-party software LRTimelapse (www.lrtimelapse.com). It is an essential tool for advanced time-lapse processing. LRTimelapse works with Lightroom or ACR/Bridge to gradually shift processing settings over a sequence, and smooth annoying image flickering.

If serious and professional time-lapse shooting is your goal, none of the Adobe contenders will work. Period. Subscribe to Creative Cloud. And buy LRTimelapse.


For Basic Time-Lapse

Group of 5 for Time-Lapse

However, for less-demanding time-lapse shooting, when the same settings can be applied to all the images in a sequence, then I feel the best non-Adobe choices are, in alphabetical order:

  • ACDSee
  • Capture One
  • Corel Aftershot Pro
  • DxO PhotoLab
  • ON1 Photo RAW

… With, in my opinion, DxO and Capture One having the edge for image quality and features. But all five have a Library or Browser mode with easy-to-use Copy & Paste and Batch Export functions needed for time-lapse preparation.

Also worth a try is PhotoDirector9 (MacOS and Windows), a good Lightroom replacement. Scroll to the end for more details and a link.


For Still Image Nightscapes

Group of 3 for Still Images

If you are processing just individual still images, perhaps needing only to stack or composite a few exposures, and want to do all the raw development and subsequent layering of images within one non-Adobe program, then look at (again alphabetically):

  • Affinity Photo
  • Luminar 2018
  • ON1 Photo RAW 2018

… With Affinity Photo having the edge in offering a readily-available function off its File menu for stacking images, either for noise smoothing (Mean) or creating star trails (Maximum).

However, I found its raw development module did not produce as good a result as most competitors due to Affinity’s poorer noise reduction and less effective shadow and highlight controls. Using Affinity’s “Develop Persona” module, I could not make my test image look as good as with other programs.

Luminar 2018 has better noise reduction but it demands more manual work to stack and blend images.

While ON1 Photo Raw has some fine features and good masking tools, it exhibits odd de-Bayering artifacts, giving images a cross-hatched appearance at the pixel-peeping level. Sky backgrounds just aren’t smooth, even after noise reduction.

To go into more detail, these are the key factors I used to compare programs.


Noise Reduction

Absolutely essential is effective noise reduction, of luminance noise and chrominance color speckles and splotches.

Ideally, programs should also have a function for suppressing bright “hot” pixels and dark “dead” pixels.

Here’s what I consider to be the “gold standard” for noise reduction, Adobe Camera Raw’s result using the latest processing engine in ACR v10/Photoshop CC 2018.

5A-ACR (Close-Up)
BEFORE and AFTER Noise Reduction with Adobe Camera Raw (ACR)

I judged other programs on their ability to produce results as good as this, if not better, using their noise reduction sliders. Some programs did better than others in providing smooth, noiseless skies and ground, while retaining detail.

5B-DxO Noise Reduction
BEFORE and AFTER Noise Reduction and Other Adjustments with DxO PhotoLab

For example, one of the best was DxO PhotoLab, above. It has excellent options for reducing noise without being overwhelming in its choices, the case with a couple of other programs. For example, DxO has a mostly effective dead/hot pixel removal slider.

ACR does apply such a hot pixel removal “under the hood” as a default, but often still leaves many glaring hot specks that must be fixed later in Photoshop.

Comparing Noise Reduction

6-Comparing Raw Developers (CU)
300% Close-Ups to Compare Noise Reduction

Above are 8 of the contender programs compared to Camera Raw for noise reduction.

Missing from this group is the brand new Pixelmator Pro, for MacOS only. It does not yet have any noise reduction in its v1 release, a serious deficiency in imaging software marketed as “Pro.” For that reason alone, I cannot recommend it. I describe its other deficiencies below.


Lens Corrections

The wide-angle lenses we typically use in nightscape and time-lapse imaging suffer from vignetting and lens distortions. Having software that can automatically detect the lens used and apply bespoke corrections is wonderful.

8B-Capture One Lens Correction
Lens Corrections in Capture One

Only a few programs, such as Capture One (above), have a library of camera and lens data to draw upon to apply accurate corrections with one click. With others you have to dial in corrections manually by eye, which is crude and inaccurate.


Shadows and Highlights

All programs have exposure and contrast adjustments, but the key to making a Milky Way nightscape look good is being able to boost the shadows (the dark ground) while preventing the sky from becoming overly bright, yet while still applying good contrast to the sky.

7-DxO Shadows and Highlights
Shadows and Highlight and other Enhancements in DxO PhotoLab

Of the contenders, I liked DxO PhotoLab best (shown above), not only for its good shadow and highlight recovery, but also excellent “Smart Lighting” and “ClearView” functions which served as effective clarity and dehaze controls to snap up the otherwise low-contrast sky. With most other programs it was tough to boost the shadows without also flattening the contrast.

On the other hand, Capture One’s excellent layering and local adjustments did make it easier to brush in adjustments just to the sky or ground.

However, any local adjustments like those will be feasible only for still images or time-lapses where the camera does not move. In any motion control sequences the horizon will be shifting from frame to frame, making precise masking impractical over a sequence of hundreds of images.

Therefore, I didn’t place too much weight on the presence of good local adjustments. But they are nice to have. Capture One, DxO PhotoLab, and ON1 win here.


Selective Color Adjustments

All programs allow tweaking the white balance and overall tint.

But it’s beneficial to also adjust individual colors selectively, to enhance red nebulas, enhance or suppress green airglow, bring out green grass, or suppress yellow or orange light pollution.

Some programs have an HSL panel (Hue, Saturation, Lightness) or an equalizer-style control for boosting or dialing back specific colors.

8A-Capture One Color Adjustments
Color Adjustments in Capture One

Capture One (above) has the most control over color correction, with an impressive array of color wheels and sliders that can be set to tweak a broad or narrow range of colors.

And yet, despite this, I was still unable to make my test image look quite the way I wanted for color balance. ACR and DxO PhotoLab still won out for the best looking final result.


Copy and Paste Settings

Even when shooting nightscape stills we often take several images to stack later. It’s desirable to be able to process just one image, then copy and paste its settings to all the others in one fell swoop. And then to be able to inspect those images in thumbnails to be sure they all look good.

Some programs (Affinity Photo, Luminar, Pixelmator Pro) lack any library function for viewing or browsing a folder of thumbnail images. Yes, you can export a bunch of images with your settings applied as a user preset, but that’s not nearly as good as actually seeing those images displayed in a Browser mode.

9A-ON1 Photo RAW Copy & Paste
Copy and Paste Settings in ON1 Photo RAW

What’s ideal is a function such as ON1 Photo RAW displays here, and that some other programs have: the ability to inspect a folder of images, work on one, then copy and paste its settings to all the others in the set.

This is absolutely essential for time-lapse work, and nice to have even when working on a small set to be stacked into a still image.


Batch Export

Once you develop a folder of raw images with “Copy and Paste,” you now have to export them with all those settings “baked into” the exported files.

This step is to create an intermediate set of JPGs to assemble into a movie. Or perhaps to stack into a star trail composite using third party software such as StarStaX, or to work on the images in another layer-based program of your choice.

9B-ON1 Photo RAW Batch Export
Batch Export in ON1 Photo RAW

As ON1 Photo RAW shows above, this is best done using a Library or Browser mode to visually select the images, then call up an Export panel or menu to choose the image size, format, quality, and location for the exports.

Click Export and go for coffee – or a leisurely dinner – while the program works through your folder. All programs took an hour or more to export hundreds of images.


Design

Those functions were the key features I looked for when evaluating the programs for nightscape and time-lapse work.

Every program had other attractive features, often ones I wished were in Adobe Camera Raw. But if the program lacked any of the above features, I judged it unsuitable.

Yes, the new contenders to the Photoshop crown have the benefit of starting from a blank slate for interface design.

26-Luminar Interface
Luminar 2018’s Clean User Interface

Many, such as Luminar 2018 above, have a clean, attractive design, with less reliance on menus than Photoshop.

Photoshop has grown haphazardly over 25 years, resulting in complex menus. Just finding key functions can take many tutorial courses!

But Adobe dares to “improve” Photoshop’s design and menu structure at its peril, as Photoshop fans would scream if any menus they know and love were to be reorganized!

The new mobile-oriented Lightroom CC is Adobe’s chance to start afresh with a new interface.


Summary Table of Key Features

Comparison Table
Click or tap to view and save full screen version.

Fair = Feature is present but doesn’t work as easily or produce as good a result

Partial = Program has lens correction but failed to fully apply settings automatically / DxO has a Browse function but not Cataloging

Manual = Program has only a manually-applied lens correction

= Program is missing that feature altogether


Program-by-Program Results

Group of 9 (small)

I could end the review here, but I feel it’s important to present the evidence, in the form of screen shots of all the programs, showing both the whole image, and a close-up to show the all-important noise reduction.


ACDSee Photo Studio

10A-ACDSee (Wide)
ACDSee Full Screen
10B-ACDSee (CU)
ACDSee Enlargement

PROS: This capable cataloging program has good selective color and highlight/shadow recovery, and pretty smooth noise reduction. It can copy and paste settings and batch export images, for time-lapses. It is certainly affordable, making it a low-cost Lightroom contender.

CONS: It lacks any gradient or local adjustments, or even spot removal brushes. Lens corrections are just manual. There is no dehaze control, which can be useful for snapping up even clear night skies. You cannot layer images to create composites or image stacks. This is not a Photoshop replacement.


Affinity Photo

11A-Affinity Photo (Wide)
Affinity Photo Full Screen
11B-Affinity Photo (CU)
Affinity Photo Enlargement

PROS: Affinity supports image layers, masking with precise selection tools, non-destructive “live” filters (like Photoshop’s Smart Filters), and many other Photoshop-like functions. It has a command for image stacking with a choice of stack modes for averaging and adding images.

It’s a very powerful but low cost alternative to Photoshop, but not Lightroom. It works fine when restricted to working on just a handful of images.

CONS: Affinity has no lens correction database, and I found it hard to snap up contrast in the sky and ground without washing them out, or having them block up. Raw noise reduction was acceptable but not up to the best for smoothness. It produced a blocky appearance. There are no selective color adjustments.

Nor is there any library or browse function. You can batch export images, but only through an unfriendly dialog box that lists images only by file name – you cannot see them. Nor can you copy and paste settings visually, but only apply a user-defined “macro” to develop images en masse upon export.

This is not a program for time-lapse work.


Capture One 11

13A-Capture One Pro (Wide)
Capture One 11 Full Screen
13B-Capture One Pro (CU)
Capture One 11 Enlargement

PROS: With version 11 Capture One became one of the most powerful raw developers, using multiple layers to allow brushing in local adjustments, a far better method than Adobe Camera Raw’s local adjustment “pins.” It can create a catalog from imported images, or images can be opened directly for quick editing. Its noise reduction was good, with hot pixel removal lacking in Camera Raw.

Its color correction options were many!

It can batch export images. And it can export files in the raw DNG format, though in tests only Adobe Camera Raw was able to read the DNG file with settings more or less intact.

CONS: It’s costly to purchase, and more expensive than Creative Cloud to subscribe to. Despite all its options I could never quite get as good looking an image using Capture One, compared to DxO PhotoLab for example.

It is just a Lightroom replacement; it can’t layer images.


Corel Aftershot Pro 3

12A-Aftershot Pro (Wide)
Corel Aftershot Pro Full Screen
12B-Aftershot Pro (CU)
Corel Aftershot Pro Enlargement

PROS: This low-cost option has good noise reduction using Athentech’s Perfectly Clear process, with good hot pixel or “impulse” noise removal. It has good selective color and offers adjustment layers for brushing in local corrections. And its library mode can be used to copy and paste settings and batch export images.

Again, it’s solely a Lightroom alternative.

CONS: While it has a database of lenses, and identified my lens, it failed to apply any automatic corrections. Its shadow and highlight recovery never produced a satisfactory image with good contrast. Its local adjustment brush is very basic, with no edge detection.


DxO PhotoLab

14A-DxO PhotoLab (Wide)
DxO PhotoLab Full Screen
14B-DxO PhotoLab (CU)
DxO PhotoLab Enlargement

PROS: I found DxO produced the best looking image, better perhaps than Camera Raw, because of its DxO ClearView and Smart Lighting options. It has downloadable camera and lens modules for automatic lens corrections. Its noise reduction was excellent, with its PRIME option producing by far the best results of all the programs, better perhaps than Camera Raw, plus with hot pixel suppression.

DxO has good selective color adjustments, and its copy and paste and batch export work fine.

CONS: There are no adjustment layers as such. Local adjustments and repairing are done through the unique U-Point interface which works something like ACR’s “pins,” but isn’t as visually intuitive as masks and layers. Plus, DxO is just a raw developer; there is no image layering or compositing. Nor does it create a catalog as such.

So it is not a full replacement for either Lightroom or Photoshop. But it does produce great looking raw files for export (even as raw DNGs) to other programs.


Luminar 2018

15A-Luminar 2018 (Wide)
Luminar 2018 Full Screen
15B-Luminar 2018 (CU)
Luminar 2018 Enlargement

PROS: Luminar has good selective color adjustments, a dehaze control, and good contrast adjustments for highlights, mid-tones, and shadows. Adjustments can be added in layers, making them easier to edit. Noise reduction was smooth and artifact-free, but adjustments were basic. Many filters can be painted on locally with a brush, or with a radial or gradient mask.

CONS: It has no lens correction database; all adjustments are manual. The preview was slow to refresh and display results when adjusting filters. The interface is clean but always requires adding filters to the filter panel to use them when creating new layers. Its batch export is crude, with only a dialog box and no visual browser to inspect or select images.

Settings are applied as a user preset on export, not through a visual copy-and-paste function. I don’t consider that method practical for time-lapses.


ON1 Photo RAW 2018

16A-ON1 Photo Raw (Wide)
ON1 Photo RAW Full Screen
16B-ON1 Photo Raw (CU)
ON1 Photo RAW Enlargement

PROS: ON1 is the only program of the bunch that can: catalog images, develop raw files, and then layer and stack images, performing all that Lightroom and Photoshop can do. It is fast to render previews in its “Fast” mode, but in its “Accurate” mode ON1 is no faster than Lightroom. It has good layering and masking functions, both in its Develop mode and in its Photoshop-like Layers mode.

Selective color and contrast adjustments were good, as was noise reduction. Developing, then exporting a time-lapse set worked very well, but still took as long as with Lightroom or Photoshop.

CONS: Despite promising automatic lens detection and correction, ON1 failed to apply any vignetting correction for my 20mm Sigma lens. Stars exhibited dark haloes, even with no sharpening, dehaze, or noise reduction applied. Its de-Bayering algorithm produced a cross-hatched pattern at the pixel level, an effect not seen on other programs.

Noise reduction did not smooth this. Thus, image quality simply wasn’t as good.


Pixelmator Pro

17A-Pixelmator Pro (Wide)
Pixelmator Pro Full Screen
17B-Pixelmator Pro (CU)
Pixelmator Pro Enlargement

PROS: It is low cost. And it has an attractive interface.

CONS: As of version 1 released in November 2017 Pixelmator Pro lacks: any noise reduction (it’s on their list to add!), any library mode or copy and paste function, nor even the ability to open several images at once displayed together.

It is simply not a contender for “Photoshop killer” for any photo application, despite what click-bait “reviews” promise, ones that only re-write press releases and don’t actually test the product.


Raw Therapee v5.3

18A-Raw Therapee (Wide)
Raw Therapee Full Screen
18B-Raw Therapee (CU)
Raw Therapee Enlargement – With and Without Noise Reduction

PROS: It’s free! It offers an immense number of controls and sliders. You can even change the debayering method. It detects and applies lens corrections (though in my case only distortion, not vignetting). It has good selective color with equalizer-style sliders. It has acceptable (sort of!) noise reduction and sharpening with a choice of methods, and with hot and dead pixel removal.

It can load and apply dark frames and flat fields, the only raw developer software that can. This is immensely useful for deep-sky photography.

CONS: It offers an immense number of controls and sliders! Too many! It is open source software by committee, with no one in charge of design or user friendliness. Yes, there is documentation, but it, too, is a lot to wade through to understand, especially with its broken English translations. This is software for digital signal processing geeks.

But worst of all, as shown above, its noise reduction left lots of noisy patches in shadows, no matter what combination of settings I applied. Despite all its hundreds of sliders, results just didn’t look as good.


What About …? (updated December 28)

What About Group of 8

No matter how many programs I found to test, someone always asks, “What about …?” In some cases such comments pointed me to programs I wasn’t even aware of, but subsequently tried out. So here are even more to pick from…


Acorn (https://flyingmeat.com/acorn/)

Acorn
Acorn’s very basic raw adjustment module.

Billed as having “everything you need in an image editor,” this low-cost ($30) MacOS-only program is anything but. Its raw developer module is crude and lacks any of the sophisticated range of adjustments offered by all the other programs on offer here. It might be useful as a layer-based editor of images developed by another program.


Alien Skin Exposure x3 (https://www.alienskin.com)

Alien Skin (Wide)
Alien Skin Exposure x3 at work on the the image

Available for Mac and Windows for $150, this Lightroom competitor offers a good browser function, with the ability to “copy-from-one and paste-to-many” images (unlike some of the programs below), and a good batch export function for time-lapse work. It has good selective color controls and very good noise reduction providing a smooth background without artifacts like blockiness or haloes. Local adjustments, either through brushed-on adjustments or through gradients, are applied via handy and easy to understand (I think!) layers.

While it has auto lens corrections, its database seemed limited — it did not have my Sigma 20mm lens despite it being on the market for 18 months. Manual vignetting correction produced a poor result with just a washed out look.

The main issue was that its shadow, highlight, and clarity adjustments just did not produce the snap and contrast I was looking for, but that other programs could add to raw files. Still, it looks promising, and is worth a try with the trial copy. You might find you like it. I did not. For similar cost, other programs did a better job, notably DxO PhotoLab.


darktable (http://www.darktable.org)

In the same ilk as Raw Therapee, I also tested out another free, open-source raw developer, one simply called “darktable,” with v2.2.5 shown below. While it has some nice functions and produced a decent result, it took a lot of time and work to use.

19A-Darktable
darktable RAW Developer

The MacOS version I tried (on a brand new 5K iMac) ran so sluggishly, taking so long to re-render screen previews, that I judged it impractical to use. Sliders were slow to move and when I made any adjustments often many seconds would pass before I would see the result. Pretty frustrating, even for free.


Iridient Developer (http://www.iridientdigital.com)

19B-Iridient Developer
Iridient Developer

A similar crowd-developed raw processing program, Iridient Developer (above), sells for $99 US. I tested a trial copy of v3.2. While it worked OK, I was never able to produce a great looking image with it. It had no redeeming features over the competition that made its price worthwhile.


Paintshop Pro (https://www.paintshoppro.com/en/)

PaintShop Raw Developer
Paintshop Pro’s included but very basic Raw developer.

Using Parallels running Windows 10 on my Mac, I did try out this popular Windows-only program from Corel. By itself, Paintshop Pro’s raw developer module (shown above) is basic, crude and hardly up to the tax of processing demanding raw files. You are prompted to purchase Corel’s Aftershot Pro for more capable raw development, and I would agree – Aftershot would be an essential addition. However …

As I showed above, I did test the MacOS version of Aftershot Pro on my raw sample image, and found it did the poorest job of making my raw test image look good. Keep in mind that it is the ability of all these programs to develop this typical raw nightscape image that I am primarily testing.

That said, given a well-developed raw file, Paintshop Pro can do much more with it, such as further layering of images and applying non-destructive and masked adjustment layers, as per Photoshop. Indeed, it is sold as a low-cost (~ $60) Photoshop replacement. As such, many Windows users find Paintshop’s features very attractive. However, Paintshop lacks the non-destructive “smart” filters, and the more advanced selection and masking options offered by Photoshop, Affinity Photo, and ON1 Photo Raw. If you have never used these, you likely don’t realize what you are missing.

If it’s an Adobe alternative you are after, I would suggest Windows users would be better served by other options. Why not test drive Affinity and ON1?


PhotoDirector 9 (https://www.cyberlink.com/products/photodirector-ultra/features_en_US.html

Photo Director Wide
PhotoDirector’s very Lightroom-like interface and controls.

This was a surprising find. Little known, certainly to me, this Windows and MacOS program from the Taiwanese company Cyberlink, is best described as a Lightroom substitute, but it’s a good one. Its regular list price is $170. I bought it on sale for $60.

Like Lightroom, working on any images with PhotoDirector requires importing them into a catalog. You cannot just browse to the images. Fine. But one thing some people complain about with Lightroom is the need to always import images.

I was impressed with how good a job PhotoDirector did on my raw test image. PhotoDirector has excellent controls for shadow and highlight recovery, HSL selective color, copying-and-pasting settings, and batch exporting. So it will work well for basic time-lapse processing.

Noise reduction was very good and artifact-free. While it does have automatic lens corrections, its database did not include the 2-year old Sigma 20mm Art lens I used. So it appears its lens data is not updated frequently.

PhotoDirector has good local adjustments and gradients using “pins” rather than layers, similar to Camera Raw and Lightroom.

After performing raw image “Adjustments,” you can take an image into an Edit module (for adding special effects), then into a Layers module for further work. However, doing so destructively “flattens” the image to apply the raw adjustments you made. You cannot go back and tweak the raw settings in the Adjustment module, as you can when opening a raw file as a “smart object” in Adobe Photoshop.

While PhotoDirector does allow you to layer in other images to make basic composites (such as adding type or logos), there is no masking function nor any non-destructive adjustment layers. So this is most assuredly not a Photoshop substitute, despite what the advertising might suggest. But if it’s a Lightroom replacement you are after, do check it out in a trial copy.


Picktorial v3 (https://www.picktorial.com)

Picktorial
MacOS-only Picktorial v3, with its clean interface

This little-known MacOS-only program (only $40 on sale) for developing raw images looks very attractive, with good selective color, lots of local adjustments, and good masking tools, the features promoted on the website. It does have a browse function and can batch export a set of developed files.

However … its noise reduction was poor, introducing glowing haloes around stars when turned up to any useful level. Its shadows, highlights, and contrast adjustments were also poor – it was tough to make the test image look good without flattening contrast or blocking up shadows. Boosting clarity even a little added awful dark haloes to stars, making this a useless function. It has no lens correction, either automatic or manual. Like Topaz Studio, below, it cannot copy and paste settings to a batch of images, only to one image at a time, so it isn’t useful for time-lapse processing.

I cannot recommend this program, no matter how affordable it might be.


Silky Pix Developer Studio 8 (http://www.silkypix.us

Silky Pix Wide

Popular among some camera manufacturers as their included raw developer, Silky Pix can be purchased separately ($80 list price for the standard version, $250 list price for the Pro version) with support for many cameras’ image files. It is available for MacOS and Windows. I tried the lower-cost “non-Pro” version 8. It did produce a good-looking end result, with good shadow and highlight recovery, and excellent color controls. Also on the plus side, Silky Pix has very good copy-and-paste functions for development settings, and good batch export functions, so it can be used to work on a folder of time-lapse frames.

On the down side, noise reduction, while acceptable, left an odd mottled pattern, hardly “silky.” The added “Neat” noise reduction option only smoothed out detail and was of little value except perhaps for very noisy images. Noise reduction did nothing to remove hot pixels, leaving lots of colored specks across the image. The program uses unorthodox controls whose purposes are not obvious. Instead of  Highlights and Shadows you get Exposure Bias and HDR. Instead of Luminance and Color noise reduction, you get sliders labeled Smoothness and Color Distortion. You really need to read the extensive documentation to learn how to use this program.

I found sliders could be sticky and not easy to adjust precisely. The MacOS version was slow, often presenting long bouts of spinning beachballs while it performed some function. This is a program worth a try, and you might find you like it. But considering what the competition offers, I would not recommend it.


Topaz Studio (http://www.topazlabs.com)

Topaz Studio (Wide)
Topaz Studio at work on the test image

While Topaz Labs previously offered only plug-ins for Photoshop and other programs (their Topaz DeNoise 6 is very good), their Topaz Studio stand-alone program now offers full raw processing abilities.

It is for Mac and Windows. While it did a decent job developing my test Milky Way image (above), with good color and contrast adjustments, it cannot copy and paste settings from one image to a folder of images, only to one other image. Nor can it batch export a folder of images. Both deficiencies make it useless for time-lapse work.

In addition, while the base program is free, adding the “Pro Adjustments” modules I needed to process my test image (Noise Reduction, Dehaze, Precision Contrast, etc.) would cost $160 – each Adjustment is bought separately. Some users might like it, but I wouldn’t recommend it.


And … Adobe Photoshop Elements v18 (late 2017 release)

What about Adobe’s own Photoshop “Lite?” Elements is available for $99 as a boxed or downloadable one-time purchase, but with annual updates costing about $50. While it offers image and adjustment layers, it cannot do much with 16-bit images, and has very limited functions for developing raw files.

And its Lightroom-like Organizer module does not have any copy-and-paste settings or batch export functions, making it unsuitable for time-lapse production.

19C-Photoshop Elements
Photoshop Elements v18 – Showing its Version of Camera Raw Lite

Elements is for processing photos for the snapshot family album. Like Apple’s Photos and other free photo apps, I don’t consider Elements to be a serious option for nightscape and time-lapse work. But it can be pressed into service for raw editing and layering single images, especially by beginners.

However, a Creative Cloud Photo subscription doesn’t cost much more than buying, then upgrading Elements outright, yet gets you far, far more in professional-level software.


And Yet More…!

In addition, for just developing raw files, you likely already have software to do the job – the program that came with your camera.

20-Canon DPP
Canon Digital Photo Professional v4

For Canon it’s Digital Photo Professional (shown above); for Nikon it’s Capture NX; for Pentax it’s Digital Camera Utility, etc.

These are all capable raw developers, but have no layering capabilities. And they read only the files from their camera brand. If theirs is the only software you have, try it. They are great for learning on.

But you’ll find that the programs from other companies offer more features and better image quality.


What Would I Buy?

Except for Capture One, which I tested as a trial copy, I did buy all the software in question, for testing for my Nightscapes eBook.

However, as I’ve described, none of the programs tick all the boxes. Each has strengths, but also weaknesses, if not outright deficiencies. I don’t feel any can fully replace Adobe products for features and image quality.

DxO to Affinity

A possible non-Adobe combination for the best image quality might be DxO PhotoLab for raw developing and basic time-lapse processing, and Affinity Photo for stacking and compositing still images, from finished TIFF files exported out of DxO and opened and layered with Affinity.

But that combo lacks any cataloging option. For that you’d have to add ACDSee or Aftershot for a budget option. It’s hardly a convenient workflow I’d want to use.

DxO vs ON1 Noise
ON1 De-Bayer Artifacts (Right) Compared to DxO PhotoLab (Left), at 400%

I’d love to recommend ON1 Photo RAW more highly as a single solution, if only it had better raw processing results, and didn’t suffer from de-Bayering artifacts (shown in a 400% close-up above, compared to DxO PhotoLab). These add the star haloes and a subtle blocky pattern to the sky, most obvious at right.


To Adobe or Not to Adobe

I’m just not anxious, as others are, to “avoid Adobe.”

I’ve been a satisfied Creative Cloud subscriber for several years, and view the monthly fee as the cost of doing business. It’s much cheaper than the annual updates that boxed Photoshop versions used to cost. Nor am I worried about Adobe suddenly jacking up the fees or holding us hostage with demands.

21-LRTimelapse
LRTimelapse at Work on a Time-Lapse Sequence

For me, the need to use LRTimelapse (shown above) for about 80 percent of all the time-lapse sequences I shoot means the question is settled. LRTimelapse works only with Adobe software, and the combination works great. Sold.

I feel Camera Raw/Lightroom produces results that others can only just match, if that.

Only DxO PhotoLab beat Adobe for its excellent contrast enhancements and PRIME noise reduction.

Yes, other programs certainly have some fine features I wish Camera Raw or Lightroom had, such as:

  • Hot and dead pixel removal
  • Dark frame subtraction and flat field division
  • Better options for contrast enhancement
  • And adding local adjustments to raw files via layers, with more precise masking tools
  • Among others!

But those aren’t “must haves.”

Using ACR or Lightroom makes it easy to export raw files for time-lapse assembly, or to open them into Photoshop for layering and compositing, usually as “smart objects” for non-destructive editing, as shown below.

21-Photoshop Final Image
Final Layered Photoshop Image

Above is the final layered image, consisting of:

  • A stack of 4 tracked exposures for the sky (the test image is one of those exposures)
  • And 4 untracked exposures for the ground.

The mean stacking smooths noise even more. The masking reveals just the sky on the tracked set. Every adjustment layer, mask, and “smart filter” is non-destructive and can be adjusted later.

I’ll work on recreating this same image with the three non-Adobe programs capable of doing so –  Affinity, Luminar, and ON1 Photo RAW – to see how well they do. But that’s the topic of a future blog.


Making the Switch?

The issue with switching from Adobe to any new program is compatibility.

While making a switch will be fine when working on all new images, reading the terabytes of old images I have processed with Adobe software (and being able to re-adjust their raw settings and layered adjustments) will always require that Adobe software.

If you let your Creative Cloud subscription lapse, as I understand it the only thing that will continue to work is Lightroom’s Library module, allowing you to review images only. You can’t do anything to them.

None of the contender programs will read Adobe’s XMP metadata files to display raw images with Adobe’s settings intact.

Conversely, nor can Adobe read the proprietary files and metadata other programs create.

ON1 Warning Dialog

With final layered Photoshop files, while some programs can read .PSD files, they usually open them just as flattened images, as ON1 warns it will do above. It flattened all of the non-destructive editing elements created in Photoshop. Luminar did the same.

23-Affinity Opening PSB File
A Layered Photoshop PSB File Opened in Affinity Photo

Only Affinity Photo (above) successfully read a complex and very large Photoshop .PSB file correctly, honouring at least its adjustment and image layers. So, if backwards compatibility with your legacy Photoshop images is important, choose Affinity Photo.

However, Affinity flattened Photoshop’s smart object image layers and their smart filters. Even Adobe’s own Photoshop Elements doesn’t honor smart objects.

Lest you think that’s a “walled garden” created by “evil Adobe,” keep in mind that the same will be true of the image formats and catalogs that all the contender programs produce.

To read the adjustments, layers, and “live filters” you create using any another program, you will need to use that program.

Will Affinity, DxO, Luminar, ON1, etc. be around in ten years?

Yes, you can save out flattened TIFFs that any program can read in the future, but that rules out using those other programs to re-work any of the image’s original settings.


In Conclusion!

24-DxO UPoint Local
U-Point Local Adjustments in DxO PhotoLab

I can see using DxO PhotoLab (above) or Raw Therapee for some specific images that benefit from their unique features.

Or using ACDSee as a handy image browser.

28-Luminar as Plug-In
Luminar 2018 as a Plug-In Within Photoshop

And ON1 and Luminar have some lovely effects that can be applied by calling them up as plug-ins from within Photoshop, and applied as smart filters. Above, I show Luminar working as a plug-in, applying its “Soft & Airy” filter.

In the case of Capture One and DxO PhotoLab, their ability to save images back as raw DNG files (the only contender programs of the bunch that can), means that any raw processing program in the future should be able to read the raw image.

27-CaptureOne DNG Opened in ACR
DNG Raw File Created by Capture One Opened in ACR

However, only Capture One’s Export to DNG option produced a raw file readable and editable by Adobe Camera Raw with its settings from Capture One (mostly) intact (as shown above).

Even so, I won’t be switching away from Adobe any time soon.

But I hope my survey has given you useful information to judge whether you should make the switch. And if so, to what program.

Thanks! 

— Alan, December 6, 2017 / © 2017 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com