The sad state of pro photo editing apps on macOS

As I started to write this post, I had a backlog of a few hundreds of unprocessed 5DmarkIV raw files, and couldn’t find a decent solution to edit them. For a while I used raw/jpeg pairs as a coping solution, and hoped that Apple would update the Digital Raw support for macOS El Capitan to support the Canon 5DmarkIV. They still haven’t, it’s apparently integrated in macOS as of Sierra (which my 2008 Mac Pro can’t run). I tried editing them with Aperture on my Macbook Pro (running Sierra), and it still can’t open them. I guess something changed in Core Image that makes Aperture unable to use the newly supported raw format in Sierra.

I knew I could switch to Lightroom, but I’m very partial against Adobe (due to Flash, mostly), and it had left me with a bad impression when I tested it a few years ago. Good features, but ugly UI. So I went on a tour to look for alternatives, and really couldn’t find any satisfying one. I finally bought Lightroom (standalone version, don’t care much for Creative Cloud subscription), and though I still don’t like the UI very much (visually), after working with it for a while I have to admit it’s by far the best solution for pro-level photo editing on macOS. Which is a bit of a shame…

So, to detail what I was looking for in a photo editing app. There are three main features : actual photo retouching, photo editing (ie ranking and sorting through keep/reject shots), and library management. Let’s list what is currently available.

macOS Photos

Actually not far from being a decent library management tool, except for poor handling of multiple libraries (really essential for raw work – uploading all your raws in the Cloud after a photo shoot is simply not a viable solution). For editing, it could do but barely – no ranking, only a ‘love’ toggle. This is compensated by fairly good browsing. For retouching, even though its capabilities are extensible through plugins, you can’t easily toggle on/off the changes you’re making, nor see them conveniently listed. The “global” cursors (“Light”, “Color”, “Black and white”) are a good idea and can yield good results fairly quickly.

A common mention for the two apps that follow (Capture One, ON1 Photo Raw). They are all cross-platform, and as a result they all have ugly-looking UIs that, on a Mac, stand out like an old scarecrow maculated with bird dejections planted on a lavender field in Provence.

Phase One’s Capture One

If you look at the demos, the editing capabilities are very impressive, and no doubt the company has a solid experience in image processing. What they don’t have, however, is any notion of User Experience and User Friendliness. What really turned me away was that, when opening any of my 5DmarkII photos, some cropping was applied to cut out the margins. I couldn’t find a way to disable this in the app, nor any explanation why. Through a fair bit of googling I managed to find why : by default, the app is “clever” and applies distortion correction according to your lens. OK, that nice, but that really shouldn’t be applied by default and without any explanation. And it should be obvious to toggle off. Generally, you care more about what’s in the frame than any kind of distorsion. Off to the trash can.

ON1 Photo Raw

It’s main claim is that it’s fast, opening raw files instantly. It is fast, and speed for opening raw files is adequate but not spectacular. A look at the binary shows that it’s built on Qt, and while I can attest it’s as good a crossplatform library as it gets, it’s never going to produce UIs performing and behaving as well as a native one on macOS. As a good example of this, it doesn’t support trackpad two-finger scrolling. To navigate around an image (probably among the most common things you’re going to do), you have to click-drag. That’s just embarrassing. They’ll probably have to code for this, while they’d get if for free with a frickin’ NSScrollView. Add one more example of why I think cross-platform UIs are a false promise and a bad idea.

However it does show proper photo editing capabilities, and mostly does away with library management in that it’s deferring it to the filesystem (i.e. folders), although it’s capable on indexing folders for quicker data retrieval.

One good thing to note is that, I had bought the pre-release, really tried working with it only after the actual release, and only then asked for a refund, which was given immediately. They seem to be a very dynamic and capable team, which is probably one macOS/Swift training class away from writing top notch macOS apps.

Luminar

A native app, Luminar has a very nice (albeit still perfectible) UI. It’s strictly a photo retouching app, no editing or library management. The main problem right now is its slowness at opening raw files (it uses libRaw instead of macOS’s native raw decoder, and ends up being 10x slower that Aperture on the same 5DmarkII raw). Having complained to their customer support about this (which is quite responsive and friendly), I’ve been told the devs are looking at this. Given the rest of the app is quite well done, I trust they can fix this eventually. That said, they’ll have to look at the overall processing speed, because the lag between moving a filter slider and seeing the effect is really quite noticeable.

Affinity Photo

Also a native app, Affinity Photo is in the same category as Luminar (photo retouching only). It’s extremely powerful, but the UI is way too complicated for simple adjustments. I feel it tries to be both a Photoshop-like and a Lightroom like, which creates confusion : one lets you alter a photo as a graphic editor does, through punctual changes from a set of tools, the other runs your image through a pipeline of “effects” (for lack of a better word), each of which you can tune and see the results as you change their parameters (like with Aperture). Re-editing adjustments is not obvious (double-click on the corresponding layer, and then not on the layer name which takes the largest part of its representation). I couldn’t find a simple way to rotate an image, for instance.
Affinity Photo is really the big tool you’ll get out if you need very elaborate manipulation on an image. It’s a good complement to an app like Aperture/Lightroom, but not a standalone solution. Affinity told me as a reply to an email that they are working on a Digital Asset Management app. Given the quality of their work, I’m quite curious to see it.

Lightroom

: as I said, I had kept a poor opinion about it. But after working with it to post-process a couple of shoots, I have to say it’s impressively well designed, as far as being an effective tool for photographers. I still dislike the UI appearance, which looks outdated and out of place compared to today’s macOS, but from a workflow standpoint, it’s really well done. Basic features like choosing between picks/rejects, crop/straighten, exposure and color adjustment are very well organized and let you go through your set of images quite easily. It does support trackpad gestures (zooming is a bit quirky, though), and crop/rotate in particular is much better than in Aperture. Another very cool feature is being able to directly alter the histogram – take a zone (shadows, middle, highlights…) and adjust it through left/right drag, and there you have it.
The library management side is interesting. The library and folders mirror the filesystem (which Aperture totally hides), and it defaults to storing raws outside of the library (called a catalog), which is what you’ll want most of the time. So, moving a library folder will move the actual filesystem folder underneath. This is less flexible than Aperture but considerably simpler and easier to manage in the long run. One downside is that filters (on metadata, not image processing) are not as good as in Aperture.

So there it is, I’m moving to Lightroom. I still think it’s a shame that Apple killed Aperture and departed the domain of pro photography, they really had a strong advantage there, and Lightroom feels like an good replacement, but a bit clumsy on the side. For now, it will do.

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