My New Workflow: Alienskin Exposure and Affinity Photo

Disclaimer: Most images I’ve edited using this workflow are raw photos taken with Fujifilm X series (X-E2 and X-T2) cameras. Also, I have not had occasion to upgrade yet to the newest release of Alienskin’s X4, so there may be additional features (or fixes) in the new version that I’ve not covered here. There are other features that I rarely, if ever, use in any image editing software that may be critical to your image processing. Please do your homework before undertaking a major change in your own workflow. I have no connection to either company mentioned, nor have I received any kind of compensation for this review.

A little background to this article is in order. I’ve written several blog posts about my search for a viable alternative to using Adobe CC (and, ideally, Windows itself) for my photo editing workflow. For those interested, I’ve outlined many of my concerns about the recent direction taken by Adobe. My original hope was to migrate to a fully open source workflow, but as powerful and feature-rich as some FOSS options are, I didn’t find any of them efficient for working with large batches of images. I continue to experiment with new versions of darktable, GIMP and others, as I think there’s real potential among them. It’s likely I will revisit this option at some point down the road.

After ongoing experimentation with various software, I have settled primarily on two commercial programs to replace Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop (hereafter abbreviated LR and PS), respectively: Alienskin Exposure and Affinity Photo. These programs come from totally different companies, but I’ve found they complement one another nicely. You don’t have to worry about file format compatibility with your existing photos, either, because pretty much any and every image type you might want to use is supported between them. You have tremendous flexibility in this regard.

Used together, these two programs provide roughly equivalent functionality to the Adobe Photography Creative Cloud Plan. So much so, that I recently canceled my monthly subscription. Both have the advantage of being standalone applications that require no subscription. You pay for them up front, and they’re yours to use as long as you wish. It’s the standard model that nearly all commercial software used for decades. You’re not renting these programs, and they won’t be disabled at some future date because you didn’t pay up, or because they fail to “phone home” for one reason or another. You’ll never be pushed to store your private data in someone else’s cloud. In brief, you remain in control of your computer, your software and your photos.

A possible disadvantage for some is that major version upgrades will cost you additional money down the road. Both programs release minor incremental updates for free. Fortunately, both programs are fairly inexpensive, so upgrades aren’t going to take a huge bite out of your paycheck, as was the case with Adobe before they implemented their monthly subscription model. As of today, Exposure 4 will set you back $150 for a new license ($100 for an upgrade), and Affinity Photo costs a whopping $50. Both programs are available for Mac and Windows, and Exposure can be used in conjunction with PS as a plugin, if desired. You can download free trials of both programs to see if they will work for you.

Also worth noting is that you can readily find a number of free online tutorials and videos, or you can purchase books and other training materials, to assist you in learning both programs. Of course you’re not going to find anything near the wealth of resources available for Adobe products. The programs are popular enough, however, that you won’t be left high and dry if you do get stuck. Support is available for both, and I found the Alienskin Exposure folks to be very responsive when I emailed them with questions. (I’ve not yet had a reason to contact Serif regarding Affinity Photo.) There’s also a high probability in the case of Affinity Photo, that you will be able to easily adapt PS tutorials for your needs given their many similarities.

Exposure 3: There and Back Again

Exposure 3 import dialog box. It’s powerful and easy to use. You can rename images on import, as well as add additional meta data.

I use the programs in basically the same way I used their Adobe counterparts: I begin by importing photos into Exposure – an easy and customizable process. Once imported, I do the bulk (if not all) of my adjustments in Exposure using sliders just as I would in LR: exposure, contrast, white balance, clarity, sharpening, and everything else one might typically do.

People coming from LR will find the layout of the controls very familiar, so you can dive in immediately. The adjustments are grouped logically and intuitively. One really useful feature that Exposure offers that’s not found in LR is the ability to add multiple layers to your edits, along with an opacity slider for fine tuning them.

Exposure makes extensive use of film Presets. As a Fujifilm shooter, I find these enormously helpful since they include all the film simulations native to the camera. These are somewhat analogous to camera profiles in LR, which I have long used as the starting points for my edits, even back in my Nikon days. Of course you don’t have to use these Presets, but they are a great starting point towards achieving the look you want. Naturally, you can further adjust the sliders to tweak the Presets any way you want.

If you’re happy with the edits you’ve made, you can export the photos to JPG (or any number of file formats, such as TIFF), just as you would do from within LR. If you have more work to do on them that requires leaving Exposure, you can choose to send the edited (or original) copy to the editing program of your choice. Exposure detects some previously installed editors automatically, and lets you add additional External Editors in your preferences. There doesn’t appear to be a hard limit to the number you can add.

The main window of Exposure 3, showing some of the controls available. The layout is quite similar to Adobe’s Lightroom, but can be customized to your preference. With multiple displays, the current photo being edited will appear on a secondary display by default (not shown here).

Just like “round-tripping” your photos between LR and PS, once you complete your edits in the external editor (Affinity Photo, in my case), just click Save and close, and the edited file will then automatically appear as a thumbnail in X3 in the working directory view. As with LR, the intermediate file generated in this process is a lossless .tiff. You can make further tweaks if needed, and finally export in the format of your choosing. This round-trip process is a real time saver, since you don’t have to close and re-open images.

This technique works smoothly with Affinity Photo and Perfectly Clear. I’ve not tested it with other external editors, but it should work fine with any program that has a Save function. On a related note, Alienskin states that PS and LR plugin support is included in Exposure 4. They also sell several optional plugins of their own to use with Exposure. I’ve not yet tried installing any plugins for Exposure or Affinity Photo, but will likely do so at some point.

More About Affinity Photo

Just as Exposure shares many elements in common with LR, Affinity Photo should feel familiar to people coming from Photoshop. In fact, many of the familiar keyboard shortcuts, such as CTRL-J and CTRL-M, work exactly the same. The program window is laid out almost identically to PS. Pretty much anything you’d be looking to find in PS from a photography editing standpoint is there, right down to photo-stitching capabilities and layer effects. Layers and blend modes work exactly as you’d expect. Affinity Photo includes a number of common filters, and the various Auto adjustments available generally work well.

Affinity Photo with a sample jpg image loaded, and the curves dialog displayed. The right panel contains the histogram, layers and other adjustments. The toolbar on the left contains familiar tools for cropping, selecting, moving, adding text layers, etc.

I won’t attempt to describe all of the available features, since I don’t use 90% or more of them. Suffice it to say, I haven’t yet run into anything that created a significant speed bump for my workflow. One difference that you will notice when directly opening raw files is that Affinity Photo uses “Personas” to guide you through the process. A raw image will open in the Develop persona, which is functionally similar to Adobe Camera Raw (but contained in a single window). When you’re done with basic edits here, click the Develop button to commit the changes and move on to the next persona, where you’ll find the standard assortment of editing tools. It’s not as complicated as it sounds; the software guides you logically between these personas as you progress. (If you round-trip images from Exposure, as I normally do, you’ll not see the personas that appear when directly opening raw files.)

While I haven’t yet experimented with the feature, Affinity Photo has limited support for some PS plugins. There’s a new version of Affinity Photo in the works that may offer support for more plugin options, but that version (1.7) is currently in beta. I can’t find a single definitive list. but there’s an older discussion about which plugins are known to work now that you can read here. Again, if your workflow is dependent on a particular plugin, you’ll obviously want to test it for compatibility before you contemplate switching applications.

As a frequent film shooter, I also use Affinity Photo for touch-ups of negative scans. The Canon ScanGear program allows you configure it to automatically transfer new scans into Affinity Photo (just as I did previously with PS). This is one area in which Affinity Photo shines, as the Inpainting Brush Tool does a great job with content aware healing of dust spots and scratches. On the whole, it works at least as well as the healing tool in Photoshop. (There’s one minor caveat to this function, which I’ve noted in the cons below.) I also appreciate the fact that Affinity Photo organizes the High Pass filter logically under “Sharpen,” unlike PS which files it under “Other.”

Exposure 3 Summary

Pros:

  • Unlike LR, Exposure lets you work with multiple layers.

  • The healing brush works well (not painfully slow like LR can be).

  • Sharpening works much better for Fujifilm RAW files than it does in LR, without introducing the dreaded “worm” effect.

  • The vignette tool has some great options for creating an organic effect that’s hard to describe, but reminds me of old school film camera lenses. I use it often.

  • Exposure is a non-destructive editor like LR, so you can easily undo any edits you don’t like.

  • Exposure lets you make virtual copies like LR, allowing you to sample different looks for the same photo (without having to reset a bunch of edits you want to keep).

  • No massive catalogs to manage (tiny sidecar data files reflecting your edits are saved in a sub-folder titled Alien Skin, while the original images are left untouched).

  • Automatically uses a second monitor to extend workspace for the photo being edited (this can be disabled and otherwise customized if desired).

  • The white point eyedropper shows a “live” preview of what the entire image will look like as you move it around the image (not just the small navigator window in LR). No squinting required!

Cons:

  • The shadow slider is next to useless, lightening the entire image and decreasing overall contrast. You can work around this issue through the judicious use of other sliders and in Affinity Photo, but it really needs an overhaul to be useful.

  • Exposure 3 (not sure about X4 yet) does not automatically remove hot pixels, which necessitates manual touch-up if they appear in dark areas. I’ve been told this is a planned update.

  • Exposure 3 lacks a Transform function - even something as basic as was offered in older versions of LR. Exposure 4 does introduce a transform function, but has no Auto fix. Hopefully this will come in a future update. I’ve gotten spoiled by LR in being able to quickly straighten buildings and the like.

  • There is no Auto white balance feature, but you can use the dropper to pick a neutral color, or pick from among different white balance types. This isn’t really a major drawback, as Auto white balance in LR rarely gives me exactly the right results, anyway.

Affinity Photo Summary

Pros:

  • Nearly identical layout and functionality as Photoshop.

  • The Inpainting brush tool is superb.

  • Availability of adjustment layer presets in the side panel. You can do everything fully manually, of course, but the presets may save you time.

  • Maturity that comes from years of development experience on the part of Serif. (I owned some of their legacy programs, such as PagePlus and PhotoPlus, back in the mid-1990s.) They have now focused exclusively on a small handful of professional quality applications.

Cons:

  • The Inpainting brush tool doesn’t always work well on the extreme edges of scans. I haven’t figured out why, but running the brush along an edge may leave tiny white smudges. Merely brushing from inside to an edge usually works fine. Switching to the regular healing brush, and sampling from another area, will work around the issue.

  • Occasionally the brush tool will turn back to a pointer in appearance. It still functions normally, but in these instances you can no longer see how large the brush is. This may relate to my use of a cheap Huion graphics tablet, since it doesn’t occur when using the mouse. The last time I checked, the Huion’s driver hadn’t been updated, but that may have been addressed by now. (I had a similar, but slightly different issue in PS where the brush would occasionally disappear entirely, so this glitch could well be specific to my PC.)

  • Personas can be a little confusing to the uninitiated. I’d prefer if they had a separate raw editor like ACR, but it’s not overly complicated to figure out, and the end result is basically the same. Since I do my raw editing primarily in X3, it’s essentially a non-issue, anyway.

Further Reflections

I don’t claim that these are the best programs for everyone, but I have settled on a workflow that easily accomplishes most of what I’d like it to do as a photographer. If you’re an advanced photo retoucher, or do compositing and 3D design, these programs may or may not be your first choice.

If you’re happy using Adobe software, and it’s working for you, there’s clearly no reason to switch software. (Really, you don’t need to tell me!) If you are thinking about switching, however, this alternative workflow is the least disruptive option I have found. I’m aware of various other alternatives, some of which may be technically superior, but most have the disadvantage of needing to learn the ins and outs of an unfamiliar interface. Personally, I’d prefer to spend more time taking photos and less time mastering complex applications.

Both programs are stable on Windows (no crashes of any kind that I can recall), although that’s a given expectation for any mature software these days. The programs play well with others, and there are a variety of existing plugins that can be used in conjunction with each.

If you’re a Fujifilm shooter, I think you’ll be especially pleased with the presets in Alienskin Exposure – a feature that was a major draw for me, as this is the starting point for all of my edits. Even if you use a different camera system, the presets are not in the least bit gimmicky, and they provide a solid foundation for editing. AlienSkin has made these film simulations a key feature of their software. I highly recommend trying them out.

There are a few areas (noted in the cons above) where I think both programs need work. Probably the biggest two for me are: (1) the lack of a transform tool in X3, and (2) the poor performance of the shadow slider. The first concern is partially addressed in X4, and despite the lack of an auto transform function at present, I can live with making manual adjustments.

As for the shadow slider, a friend (also a Fujifilm X shooter) reports similarly unsatisfying results in X4. It’s possible this problem is unique to Fujifilm raw images. I’d be interested in getting feedback from users of other camera systems. While it’s possible to work around this issue to a large degree between the two programs (including round-tripping and using the filters in Affinity Photo), improving these main tools should be a priority for Alienskin in my opinion. Neither of these concerns are ultimately showstoppers for me, though. I’m happy with my software choices for now.





My Reluctant Upgrade to Windows 10

Back in April, I published a detailed post about why I intended to fully migrate to Linux and other open source software for editing photos before Windows 7 supports ends in 2020. The grounds for my stance are still valid, in my opinion, but I want to explain why my experiment was less than successful. I have since upgraded my two main systems to Windows 10, with one of them dual-booting Linux Mint.

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I still strongly prefer Linux (and the Linux Mint distribution, in particular) to Windows. My reasons all boil down to aesthetics, performance, privacy, security and freedom of choice. That's not to say that Windows 10 doesn't have some strong selling points. Overall it is a significant improvement, performance-wise, over earlier Microsoft operating systems. Linux, on the other hand, is at least equal to Windows 10 (or Apple's Mac OS) in terms of performance, and has the added advantage of letting you remain in control of your computer and everything it does. That freedom of choice may not matter to you, but it is important to me.

So why backtrack on my Linux migration plan? In short: stark pragmatism. Nothing more, nothing less.

Now that I am in business for myself, workflow efficiency has become a critical concern. I can no longer afford to dabble when I have work that needs to be processed and delivered to clients in a timely fashion. While it is possible to do almost everything in Linux with open source image editing software that one can do with Adobe's Lightroom and Photoshop, there is no competing open source software that lets me work as quickly and easily. There are a growing number of exciting paid alternatives, such as Luminar and ON1 Photo RAW, for Windows or Mac OS. But there's little or nothing of the same caliber for Linux currently being sold.

I had earnestly hoped that Darktable (which is finally available for Windows for those who would like to try it), would be a suitable Lightroom alternative for me. I commend the developers who have worked so hard to create such a powerful program. They have done a terrific job at adding new camera RAW profiles, so that even very new models have support. The software allows adjustments that even exceed the capabilities of Lightroom in certain respects. Aside from the lack of Fujifilm film simulations (which are important to me as a Fujifilm mirrorless shooter), there's not much I can't do in Darktable with some fiddling around. But that's the problem.

Open source software like Darktable or the equally powerful RawTherapee are designed for highly technical people who want granular control over settings that ordinary photographers don't necessarily want to muck around with. It's not that the software lacks sophistication; in fact, it's arguably too sophisticated for the average photographer who wants to make basic adjustments quickly and easily. There are really only a handful of adjustments that I make on images from a typical photo shoot. In Lightroom, I can apply automatic settings or stored presets that often get me most of the way to a final image, and then I tweak specific shots as needed.

The other major issue is that, with a few exceptions, there's a notable lack of quality training and support available for open source software tools. They do offer some helpful documentation in free manuals, which is a good start. However, if you want to see some real-life usage scenarios demonstrated, there's just not much of that out there. For users of Adobe products, there's no end to books, workshops and online training. There are a ton of online forums where users can interact and ask questions. Need to know how to resize a background in Photoshop without resizing the entire image? Just hop on Google (as I recently did), and have your answer in a matter of seconds. If you run into an obscure problem using a feature of Darktable, you may spend a lot more time looking for answers with little success.

Back in July, I attended a KelbyOne all-day Lightroom training event in Nashville. While the class did cover a few things I already knew, I was truly overwhelmed by a wealth of techniques and tips that have already saved me considerable time and frustration in my own editing. The training also touched on Photoshop for specific techniques, which is made possible by the fact that the two applications are designed to work seamlessly together. There are no similar training events for photographers using open source software. Having a large community of users, along with expert teachers, is an invaluable resource. After years of learning how to use Adobe products, I've concluded it would be foolish to jettison that hard-earned knowledge only to start all over again.

None of this is to say that I'm abandoning all use of Linux or open source software. I will continue to keep a watchful eye over new developments and test them out. I certainly don't mean to knock the dedicated people who work on these complex programs that have more capability than I'll probably ever understand. But for right now, as someone making a living via photography, the lack of mainstream support makes it tough to embrace other options. I really want to get away from the clutches of Microsoft, but it's an uphill battle at every step.

As for my concerns about Windows 10, I have done all I can to wrest control of my computer back into my own hands. In response to mounting pressure, Microsoft has given back a modicum of control by making it easier to select how much information is sent back to them about your computer and your data. While you can't disable it completely, you can set it to collect a minimal amount of data.

There are additional steps you can take to minimize how much information is gathered. After you've turned off all the nosiest features that you can live without, you may want to install the third party Spybot Anti-Beacon to further clamp down on Windows phoning home. How foolproof are these and other tools at guarding your privacy? Only Microsoft knows how much data gets sent back. But at least you'll have done all you can to maintain control of your personal information.

Now, if we could only persuade Adobe to port their flagship products over to one of the popular Linux distributions, all of my concerns would be addressed once and for all. Until a better option comes along, I'm stuck in bed with the Beast of Redmond.