Photoshop has long been the king of photo editing, on every platform. It’s deep, complex, 25 years old, and very powerful. Still, Adobe’s shift to subscription-only software a few years ago has annoyed a number of long-time users, and some of them have been looking for an alternative. Surprisingly, it looks like they finally have one: Affinity Photo.
In many ways, the Affinity Photo interface mirrors Photoshop’s. There are tools on the left, panels on the right, and a toolbar at the top. Shortcut keys select tools, and the same icons do more or less the same things in the same panels. The devil is of course in the details, and while not everything is the same, enough of the features are similar enough to “the Photoshop way” that you won’t be completely at sea. Old workflows will, by and large, work here.
The Brush tool responds quickly, and in much the same way that it does in Photoshop. My Wacom tablet is supported, and the advanced brush features even allow different pressure curves to be attached to the various parameters like scale and scatter. Like many features, they’ve chosen to implement what 90% of the user base want, in a familiar way, and done a good job.
You can even load Photoshop’s custom brushes, which is a nice touch. (At time of writing, Control-Option-dragging to change brush size works, but is limited to 1024px. That’s due to be addressed in the next update.)
Yes, there are layers. Yes, they work in much the same way, but they’re probably going to confuse you at first, because they’re different, and more powerful than in Photoshop. Instead of eyes controlling layer visibility on the left, there are checkboxes on the right. Masks, instead of being simply attached to a layer, can be dragged directly to other layers, or indeed above them, to mask all layers below.
Multiple masks can even be applied to the same layer—just drag them there—and you can clip one layer to another in the same way. It works well, and burying extra layers of masks and clipped layers beneath a disclosure triangle, very much as if they’re in groups, is a worthwhile and clever move.
Layers themselves can be shrunk down, then resized up much later—there’s no need to create Smart Objects to do the same trick, as the app converts between Pixel and Image layer types on the fly. Even better, “Live Filters” can be applied to layers, to groups of layers, or to all layers below them, just like adjustment layers can. It’s just what I’ve always wanted in Photoshop, but never quite had.
Just as in Photoshop, the best way to correct color is with Adjustment Layers, and they can actually be more powerful than in Photoshop. Simply dragging an adjustment layer onto another layer clips it to that layer, so it’s easier to limit the effects of your corrections. Shadow/Highlight works as an adjustment layer here, though it’s not as comprehensive as Photoshop’s equivalent. There’s no non-destructive Auto Levels here, either.
Regular marquee selections work fine, but to add to a selection you need to hold Control instead of Shift. The Magic Wand works, but be aware that to select across all layers at once, you’ll need to activate the Edit All Layers switch at the bottom left of the Layers panel. The Selection Brush tool works well, though neither of these tools include anti-aliased edges. Luckily, Refine Edge is very good, and does its best to decontaminate colors too.
There’s a Healing Brush, an Inpainting Brush Tool (essentially like the Spot Healing Brush) as well as a Blemish Removal Tool, a Clone Stamp, and a Patch Tool. The live previewing of these tools works really nicely—the healing tool shows a live brush preview of what you’ll be painting with it, for example.
Personas are different modes which you use to perform specific operations. The Photo Persona is where you’ll spend most of your time, and where the general purpose tools all live. In the Liquify Persona, the toolbars and panels change to support mesh-based warping, which is a little slower than Photoshop’s, but adds extra tools to the mix and does a decent job.
The Develop Persona is something like Adobe Camera Raw, and though it doesn’t do everything that ACR does, it’s fast and effective for many purposes. Lastly, the Export Persona offers many formats to slice up your image and export it in different sizes.
Frequency Separation is an advanced technique for retouching, but it takes several steps (or an Action) in Photoshop. It’s been implemented here in one hit, which makes life much easier. Also, the toolbar is completely customizable but not yet with customizable shortcuts (coming soon).
A few smaller features have sneaked in there too, including some noise-related filters, a handy “Erase White Paper” filter, and a set of “Managers” which control exactly how various features work. Oh, and over 1000 undos by default, all with a simple Command-Z.
The developers have made the decision to show images at the size they’d appear on a non-Retina display, meaning that you have to work at 50% to see your image using native pixels. However, if you work at 50% of normal size, there’s a slight performance hit, meaning there’s a visible redraw after each pause as the full-resolution image fills in.
You don’t have to release the mouse for the update, but it can be a distraction, and it’s avoidable. If you switch a Retina iMac to its native resolution of 5120x2880, then Affinity Photo shows no redraw delay at 100%. (You can Option-click on “Scaled” in System Preferences > Displays to access this.) With luck, this will be tackled in a future update.
Worth noting: the current version of Photoshop doesn’t work properly at this “native” resolution, though that’s less of an issue as it always uses native pixels for artwork, like most other apps in Creative Cloud as well as FCP X and Motion.
It’s remarkable how attached we can become to our tools. Photoshop has been a vital part of my toolkit since the mid-90s, and its workflows and shortcut keys are embedded deep in my brain. As a professional retoucher, I’d spend entire days working in Photoshop, and yet here’s a nearly-viable alternative for $50?
Adobe make great software, but no app has ever really challenged Photoshop. This does. Given that Affinity already make an app like Illustrator and are planning an app like InDesign for 2016, I think Adobe have something to become seriously worried about. While many users will want to stay with Creative Cloud for a variety of reasons, if you’re against subscription and only need Photoshop, you now have options.
Assuming the minor niggles and bugs are fixed, I could happily use Affinity Photo instead of Photoshop, and that’s a pleasant shock. It’s very impressive—and not a little surprising—that it’s as good as it is. Affinity Photo is an extremely competent program, welcome competition in the design space, and a reminder that the only constant in this industry is change. Recommended.
Price: $49.99 USD / £39.99 GBP