Last year I published a lengthy review of Serif’s suite of desktop publishing, art and photo software. Serif is based in the UK and this suite was its initial foray into the American market. I found the suite to be intriguing, with some polished gems (PagePlus X3 Publisher Professional was a good product) and others that had promise but could be improved. The first of these products to be improved was DrawPlus, which was upgraded to X3 and reviewed earlier this spring.
PhotoPlus has now graduated to X3, and it boasts several improvements. In my previous review of X2 I lamented the total lack of CMYK image support and compared PhotoPlus X2 to Photoshop Elements rather than Photoshop. PhotoPlus X2 did not have the necessary professional-caliber tools but was a fair product for photo hobbyists and amateurs. PhotoPlus X3 makes some welcome additions for pro users as well as some for amateurs, but one thing still bothers me….
No CMYK support
PhotoPlus X3 has exactly the same weak CMYK support as its predecessor. CMYK images are automatically converted to RGB, and the application doesn’t seem to handle the black channel effectively because the resulting RGB image doesn’t much depth in the shadows. RGB and grayscale are the only two available color modes. Lab isn’t an option either. However, a look at the image modes will show one of the major additions to PhotoPlus X3: support for 16-bit images. 16-bit images can carry more data in each channel so the resulting image can capture a greater tonal range and make High Dynamic Range (HDR) images possible. The downside is that these images naturally have more data and thus more file size, plus some industry leaders argue that the extra bits don’t result in any noticeable differences to the eye. It’s also not quite as advanced as Photoshop, which supports 32-bit images.
Serif was smart to include an HDR Merge function with X3, now that it can support the necessary images. HDR Merge works pretty well but I am used to Photoshop’s Merge to HDR feature which only has a few simple controls; PhotoPlus X3’s HDR Merge offers six sliders. Some users might like the added control but I prefer to fine tune HDR images with Photoshop’s other tools. Nevertheless, HDR Merge is a welcome addition to PhotoPlus.
Raw Studio is raw indeed
I know of only one point-and-shoot camera that writes Camera Raw files; they usually shoot JPEG alone. This explains why PhotoPlus has not supported raw files—until X3 arrived. Now it boasts Raw Studio, a module for processing raw images. The price of cameras keeps dropping and the camera manufacturers have many more SLR models available now, so a lot more prosumer cameras (and raw images) are out in the world. Photoshop and Photoshop Elements both have their own Adobe Camera Raw modules for handling raw images.
Raw Studio is underpowered compared to Camera Raw. There’s not many sliders, other than a few for exposure, black point, noise reduction and chromatic aberration. The White Balance menu does not have most Camera Raw options, such as cloudy or tungsten white point. I also seemed to pick up color noise in the shadows of my test image (a DNG shot with a black background). Camera Raw and Lightroom produced excellent blacks with the same image. Still, I am impressed Raw Studio was even able to read a DNG file (Windows had no idea what to do with it) and with some tweaking of the controls I was able to get decent results. It’s ironic that I complained about the excessive controls in HDR Merge and minimal controls in Raw Studio, but I use a lot of sliders when working with raw images. It’s surprising how often I use Camera Raw’s minor controls like Fill Light and Clarity. But the most important control for any raw photo is Exposure—exposure control is one of the killer features of raw photos—and Raw Studio has that covered. For those who haven’t shot raw before, this is a big step forward.
PhotoPlus X3 sports a new Noise Reduction feature, found in the Raw Studio and also in the Effects menu and QuickFix Studio. I tested the feature with my noisy DNG file but the results were average. Before I even began, I was frustrated by not getting any results in the QuickFix Studio. The Noise Reduction effect was also grayed out in the menu. I eventually realized Noise Reduction does not work on 16-bit images. After I converted down to 8-bit RGB I tried Noise Reduction and the algorithm seemed to blur the color while retaining the details. The resulting image had poor color (almost like sepia tone) and the black/white noise remained.
If you need to use Noise Reduction and are shooting raw images, I recommend using the Noise Reduction control in Raw Studio. It seems to knock out both color and black/white noise, though I’m not quite satisfied with its results either—it blurs important image details as well as noise, and my images often ended up with the soft blur you see in glamour shots.
Print multiple photos much easier
Serif has replaced the Print dialog box with the Print Studio, which gives much greater printing control and enables printing of contact sheets and photo packages. Photoshop used to print these as well but the features were jettisoned with CS4; Lightroom prints both and does a wonderful job. The Print Studio doesn’t have the flexibility Lightroom does when printing photo packages but the contact sheet capabilities are excellent. The photo package (called Print Layout) capabilities are also quite good and easy to use with many presets available immediately. Some users may wonder how to reach the Print Studio since it doesn’t have its own button, but once they learn how easy it is to reach they’ll start using it immediately.
Serif’s has a few other improvements in PhotoPlus X3:
- The How To panel has a new “Black and White Studio” to make grayscale conversion easier for novices. It walks users through a series of options for producing good black and white images, and it’s handy for new users but experienced users will not need this tool.
- As with DrawPlus X3, PhotoPlus X3 supports Microsoft’s HD Photo file format.
- The QuickFix Studio has several new adjustments besides Noise Reduction: Hue/Saturation/Lightness, Exposure and Black And White Film are all new features and work well. It also has a histogram that makes things easier for Photoshop users and others who know how to read histograms. I suspect a lot of PhotoPlus users will sooner use the image itself as feedback.
- There are five new effects: Film Grain, Kaleidoscope, Page Curl, Plasma and Shear. They all make nice effects and are easy to use, and Shear and Page Curl are particularly useful. Plasma is basically Photoshop’s Render Clouds filter, and is good for producing textures. Film Grain works well for high-resolution images but it was hard to get a small enough grain on web-resolution images.
- 3D effects now support mapping of reflections, bumps, patterns and other attributes for 3D image creation. This is not true 3D like Photoshop is supporting nowadays, but manipulation of light sources and maps to make 2D images look 3D. The 3D layer effect process seems kind of complicated but it can produce some fun results.
If Photoshop Elements did not have Camera Raw, I would have considered PhotoPlus X3 to be a compelling substitute. However, Camera Raw is in that product and Raw Studio needs some maturation before it’s comparable. Serif made all the right additions—Raw Studio, 16-bit and HDR support, noise reduction, contact sheets and photo packages—however, users spoiled by Photoshop and Photoshop Elements might be disappointed in their execution. I would recommend Photoshop Elements over PhotoPlus X3, though if you’re already a Serif customer and like using their products then you will enjoy PhotoPlus X3.