A perennial also-ran up against powerhouse apps from the likes of Adobe, Corel, and CyberLink, Serif keeps plugging away, adding the powerful tools we expect from those bigger names. This time with PhotoPlus X6, the software gets a boost with a new 64-bit image processing engine, Smart Selection and Edge Refinement tools, noise reduction, and a tilt-shift effect.
Despite its relatively low price of £75 (direct from Serif), PhotoPlus includes many features found in Photoshop and Lightroom, and some not found in its near-identically-priced competitor, Photoshop Elements, such as non-destructive cropping and RGB curve editing. However, the less positive news is that even with these goodies on board, PhotoPlus still can't match Adobe's apps in terms of either ease or power.
PhotoPlus X6 is compatible with Windows 8, 7, Vista, and XP. At install, you'll need the serial number, which is not on the disc or disc case, but on your invoice, so don't discard that immediately, like I did! During the installation wizard, you're asked which files you want PhotoPlus to handle by default, and you can choose whether to install sample images.
An update was available right when I first ran the program, and installing that was quick and simple. I did appreciate that the installation didn't require a lot of ancillary installations of runtimes and the like, and that I wasn't pressed to install a browser toolbar, the way I have been with other apps.
You start out in PhotoPlus with help all over the main interface: At the centre is a panel offering learning videos and links for the program's main operations – Start New Image, Start New Animation, HDR Photo Merge, and Open PhotoPlus Organiser. This last element is something I had an issue with when using the previous version of the product: The organiser was too separate from the editor, and this remains the case. There are buttons that take you between the two modes, but often they didn't actually switch to the other mode.
Toolbars stretch across the top and down the left side, and an info/control panel graces the right side of the program's window. At first run, a How To panel also appeared next to the left edge panel. This offered basic training like Adjusting Images, Retouching Images, and Creative Effects.
When I enlarged the raw photo files in Organiser, I only got a very pixelated enlargement of the thumbnail rather than a detailed image until half a minute later, when the full resolution image loaded. For many common operations, though, the interface does seem faster than previous versions, and for long operations, a progress bar gives you an idea of how much time you have to wait.
After working on an image in the editor and then moving back to the Organiser, that helper app didn't open with the image I'd just been working on, and I had to dig through my photo folders if I wanted to share that image or do some other organising with it. This is just the sort of lack of helpfulness and intuitiveness you run across with this program. Another is that the filename doesn't display anywhere when you open a full view of an image in Organiser. I did, however, like how spinning the mouse wheel zoomed in and out, without even holding a shift key down. You can also zoom in further in this latest version of the program, helpful for detail work.
Different layouts are available for the interface, with those optimised for Designers, Painters, or Photo Editing, in addition to the default layout. One thing I didn't see here was an Import option. More on that in the next section.
Import and organise
It turns out that there's no importing capability in the photo editor, but you need to run the external PhotoPlus Organiser to take care of this, just as when using Photoshop you have to run Bridge or with Photoshop Elements, Organiser. Nor does the PhotoPlus installer add an import option to the AutoPlay dialog that appears when you insert camera memory. I could import raw camera files like Canon .CR2 files, but thumbnails for these didn't display in the import dialog, though those for JPGs did. You can tell the importer to create a new folder, but by default, it just dumped image files into the root Pictures folder, which isn’t ideal for organisation.
The Organiser lacks other tools helpful in organisation found in rival photo software – flag and reject, and colour coding, for example. Most photo organisation software overlays quick choices for things like ratings when you hover the mouse over a thumbnail, but not PhotoPlus. A right click menu does offer rotation, preset tags, and even geotagging (but no people or face tagging). The geo-tagging offers basic online map integration with the ability to create a slideshow of photos from a location.
An import of 43 raw files, each about 20MB, took 4 minutes and 44 seconds. By comparison, the same import in Adobe Photoshop Elements took 3 minutes and 8 seconds, and took me straight to the freshly imported images when done. When the PhotoPlus import was finished, I wasn't taken to the folder of my just-imported photos, and there was no way to view just photos from my last import session: The Organiser simply drops the photo files into a subfolder under Pictures.
One nice option was the Include folder, which automatically imports any photos that appear in this folder to PhotoPlus. NRW files from a recent Nikon camera showed up as modern art (they weren't), and didn't display in the PhotoPlus editor either.
For raw camera files that PhotoPlus understood, a powerful dialog let me apply noise reduction, change the white balance, and adjust lighting. Presets were also available here for changing lighting and applying creative effects. But this is all stuff I'd rather do after importing, in the program itself. Another unfortunate thing about this raw import dialog was that it offered no revert button, to undo any and every edit you've tried and rejected. Interestingly, the exact same dialog is called PhotoFix, which gets its own button atop the program window.
As in Photoshop, PhotoPlus' image adjustment isn't automatically non-destructive – you have to create new layers to make it so. New with this version is a Destructive check box that's unchecked by default. Helpfully, the app will display a message telling you to save the image in the program's own .spp format so that you don't overwrite your original by accident.
The right side panel offers standard adjustment tools – Levels, Curves, Colour, Brightness/Contrast, HSL, and more. Image layers a la Photoshop appear at the bottom of this panel. This time, I found the Levels tool's Auto Adjust button, and it worked quite well on some test images, but it made some dark scenes even darker.
In fact many of PhotoPlus' adjustments are only available in the PhotoFix dialog but not in the main app, including noise reduction and chromatic aberration correction. I was surprised that the PhotoFix offered adjustments for shadows and highlights, but the main editor's levels and brightness/contrast tools in the sidebar did not.
Also, after starting to edit with the main editor, the PhotoFix button was disabled. I could, however, choose the Shadow/Highlight/Midtone tool from the Image menu to get at these controls. This tool has sliders for intensity, range, and radius of shadows and highlights, but even though I had the preview checkbox checked, I didn't see its effect for images shot with an iPhone. It worked with other JPGs and raw files.
One nice tool that seemed a little out of place in the Raw Import/PhotoFix dialog was Edit Mask, which made it easy to select similar areas of the photo and selectively apply adjustments to only those. Adjustment brushes, though, are completely missing. This kind of tool, which lets you brush on effects like white balance changes, and contrast, has made its way into nearly all photo editors at this point.
The new noise reduction worked quite well, with good control for luminance, colour, blend and quality. As with all similar tools, reducing noise often means losing some fine detail, but the quality slider helped with this. The chromatic aberration tool was of the variety with two sliders that I was only successful in making just very slightly better, or more likely, worse. Forget the kind of lens-profile-based fixes you get in Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom. The same goes for geometry corrections: PhotoPlus lets you adjust it, but you're just guessing...
Serif sports a raft of filters for things like distortion, blur, sharpening, edge effects, noise (adding and removing), along with stylistic (think comic book and film grain) and artistic (impressionist, expressionist, or even Munchist) effects.
Several of these had a universal "No" sign circle with a line across it, meaning I couldn't apply them since I was working with a raw camera file; JPGs didn't have this issue. You can browse all these effects in the filter gallery, easily accessible from a button atop the program window. The comic book effect doesn't offer as much control as competitors, but some of the artistic effects let you choose stroke lengths and more.
The last version added an HDR tool; PhotoPlus X6 sees the addition of tool that's become a requirement in photo software: Selective focus, aka "tilt-shift" (see the below image). Part of the Depth of Field, tool, Tilt Shift offers guides you can move to capture the part of a shot that you want in focus, and also lets you boost brightness and saturation for a more powerful effect. However, when I used the brightness boost, the effect was ruined because its edge was hard rather than feathered. Other depth of field options, such as elliptical, linear gradient, and layer mask, can make your subject pop out from the background.
Another advanced tool in the editor is Cutout Studio, which resembles Photoshop Elements' "out of bounds" feature that lets you extract the subject of a photo from the background. Its built-in instructions ensured that marking parts of the photo to keep or discard was a snap. Other procedures included helpful tutorials, similar to Corel's sidebar and Adobe's Guided Edits. I could either correct red eyes or blemishes easily in the PhotoFix, or by using layers the Photoshop way in the full PhotoPlus editor.
Like Photoshop and Photoshop Elements, PhotoPlus offers deep text tools with layer effects like drop shadow, glow, and bevel. It also boasts plenty of digital painting capabilities, and the ability to deform an image using a grid overlay. An airbrush option can be checked (some brushes are pressure sensitive for tablet input devices).
Sharing and exporting
You can export your work in PSD format if your recipient requires Adobe's format. PhotoPlus can launch a basic pan-and-zoom slideshow using selected images in Organiser, but there's nothing like the kind of slideshow creation including background music and transition choices that you'll find in competing products. Serif's CraftArtist is a separate (238MB) install that lets you create projects like photo books, cards, and scrapbooks. Fortunately, if you buy PhotoPlus, CraftArtist is included in the price, but it pales in comparison with Photoshop Elements’ integrated creative options.
Uploading to Facebook or Flickr from within PhotoPlus' Organiser was a simple matter of signing into my account – but I wasn't asked about where to put the photo or privacy settings, let alone tags or descriptions. Each time I had to approve access, but I didn't see the uploaded photos in my stream. When the upload was complete, my browser helpfully opened to the photo on the site.
For some, PhotoPlus could serve as an inexpensive Photoshop replacement – it offers many of the more popular but far more expensive program's features, including layers, filters, selections, image adjustments and text tools. This version is faster and offers a few more features over the previous PhotoPlus, but it's still far behind our top consumer photo software pick, Photoshop Elements 11, in terms of usability and cool features – and Elements only costs a few quid more.