Even at its debut, I was surprised at what a user-friendly yet powerful digital workflow app PhotoDirector was. It had nearly all the bases covered – support for camera raw files, keyword tagging, and even local adjustment brushes. But it still lacked advanced features like face-tagging and corrections for chromatic aberration and geometry offered by competitors like Adobe Lightroom 4 and Apple Aperture 3.
Not only does the latest PhotoDirector release address all of those omissions, it adds some nifty tricks like content-aware object removal, HDR effects, and even a body slimming tool. It’s also the first Mac OS X compatible, non-Apple-built pro photo editor to support Retina displays.
PhotoDirector 4 costs £79.99, although handily it’s also available as a free 30-day, fully functional trial version on the CyberLink site. In terms of installation, I ran into some difficulty with the program on a 64-bit Windows 7 PC.
Setting up PhotoDirector generated error messages, though this could well have been due to issues with my particular Windows setup. The installer stopped due to two different causes: First of all, it couldn't install the Microsoft C++ Redistributable Service Pack. Secondly, I got a message saying that I needed to install on a 32-bit OS. I was running 64-bit Windows 7, but that can run 32-bit apps, too.
Installing the Mac OS X version on a Retina MacBook, by contrast, was a snafu-free breeze.
PhotoDirector 4's interface still manages to be less intimidating than its rivals. It's even more uncluttered and friendly than consumer-level competitors like Corel PaintShop and Photoshop Elements. PhotoDirector bypasses the annoyance of Photoshop Element's separate Organiser app – you can do everything in the one PhotoDirector app.
As is common among pro and near-pro-level photo workflow apps, PhotoDirector uses "modes." That just means there are global tabs or buttons that switch the interface among different functions, usually organising, editing, and sharing. PhotoDirector started with just three modes, but two more – Edit and Print – have been added to the original Library, Adjustment, and Slideshow. Unlike Lightroom 4, PhotoDirector doesn't let you choose which of these mode buttons appears, so for example, if you never print, you still can't remove the Print mode button.
Switching between the modes is as simple as it is in Lightroom, but I actually noticed even more of a delay when switching modes than in Adobe's photo workflow app. And within each of PhotoDirector's modes, a left side panel offers mode-appropriate options. In the Library and Adjustment modes, as with Aperture, the panel is further broken down into two tabs, Project and Metadata for the first, and Manual and Presets for the second.
The main viewing area is flexible, with a few options of its own. In Library mode, a large view of the photo sits above a filmstrip-style look at other pictures in the folder. Alternatively, buttons at the top let you see just the photo, a gallery browser of thumbnails or filenames, or a full screen view of just the current photo. Instead of viewing one large image, you can also compare two or more in Library mode.
The gallery view can be filtered by photos you've flagged, colour labelled, or those you've edited. Hover the mouse over a thumbnail in gallery view, and you'll see star rating and flagging buttons for easy rating and selecting. When viewing one large image, the same choices appear along the bottom, with colour labelling added; optionally you can add controls for rotation and back and forward arrows.
In Adjustment mode, you can see a split before and after editing view. Flipping through images was snappy and delay-free, as was the program’s overall level of responsiveness – even on a less-than-stellar 2.5GHz dual-core laptop. Like Lightroom, PhotoDirector only lets you zoom to preset sizes – 25 per cent, 33 per cent, and 50 per cent, and so on – rather than having a full-range slider. But a single click switches between zoomed and unzoomed, which is convenient.
Like most photo apps at this level, PhotoDirector makes good use of keyboard shortcuts for most actions. As with Lightroom and Aperture, the F key switches you to full screen view. You can also view the image on a separate monitor, and select from four shades of grey for the background. This last choice doesn't change the whole interface colour as Lightroom's more helpfully does – just the area behind the photo – but the rest of PhotoDirector's interface is a dark enough shade to avoid affecting your concentration on the images.
You can't detach the program’s panels to float anywhere on screen, sadly. Undo is well implemented, and an excellent adjustment history panel not only shows all previous tweaks, but also a thumbnail at the top displaying a mini view of those tweaks' effects. Clicking on any history entry applies that point to the full image view. On the whole, PhotoDirector gets very high marks indeed for its interface.
When you plug a camera card into the computer, PhotoDirector adds an entry "From Inspiring Photos to Perfection" to the AutoPlay dialog – a simple "Import Photos" would suffice, but whatever (the marketing guys should have kept their noses out). This opens the app to its photo import dialog, which groups zoomable thumbnails of images on the card by date. Better than Photo Mechanic but just as with Lightroom or Aperture, you can select photos for import from these thumbnails. You can even apply effect presets like B&W Cool, Faux HDR, or Fantasy Pink, but oddly, you can't apply basic adjustments like auto-exposure. You can, however, apply keyword tags, renaming, and a copyright notice.
A progress bar appears during import, and you can zoom photos to full size and start editing, but performance isn't great. And speaking of performance, on the Retina MacBook (a 2.3GHz Core i7 with 8GB RAM), loading the photo thumbnails for import also took an extremely long time, and the import speed compared with other applications is as follows:
Time to import 40 mixed raw files (in minutes and seconds, lower is better)
Time to import 246 CR2 files (in minutes and seconds, lower is better)
Photo Mechanic 5
One note, though; import speed results were inconsistent. It went faster if I waited for the thumbnails to load into the import dialog – the PhotoDirector numbers in the table above are for immediately importing after media is inserted. Another issue with import is that when I started to import a large number of images – the 3,800 plus on my iPhone – PhotoDirector shut down. If the program is unable to handle very large numbers of image files at once, it won't be of use to some professionals. Speaking of the latter, another downside is that tethered shooting still isn't supported by PhotoDirector.
I've already alluded to some of the organisational tools – the easily accessible rating, colour coding, and flagging tools in the Library interface. What's new in this version, though, is face tagging, which I'll cover over the page. Geotagging and maps, however, are still absent.
PhotoDirector joins Aperture and Photoshop Elements in now offering face recognition tagging. To get started with Face tagging, you select some photos in Library mode, and hit the Tag Faces button above the thumbnail grid. This starts an "Analysing" dialog, which goes through each photo one at a time. 129 photos took just under 3 minutes. As with all face recognition software, there were a few false positives – bushes were identified as faces, for example. But I was impressed by the speed here, and the fact that it picked up profiles as well as full faces.
The interface for assigning names to faces is, as with much of PhotoDirecter, clear and simple. Once you assign one name, it becomes a button for one-click assignment to other photos with faces. After this, you can just click Faces on the Library's left panel Project tab, and then click on a name to display just photos of that individual.
You can choose "Find more faces of this person in the selected photos," but the program doesn't do as good a job at proposing names that belong to a face as Picasa or Aperture do. Clicking the "Enter face tag editor" icon marked each face with a box and name, as the others do. But when I selected some photos that clearly contained faces, PhotoDirector told me none were found. I could manually add a face tag with another icon, placing a box around the face.
I could export a set of photos containing a face to a New Project, but I couldn't add contact information (email addresses and so on) for the names/faces as is possible in Aperture or Flickr.
Basic photo editing
PhotoDirector offers all the basic adjustments you'd expect – exposure, contrast, white balance, sharpness. On top of that, the ubiquitous fixers – red eye and blemish removers – are added to the local adjustment brushes, and cropping and rotating follows the brilliant approach of Lightroom 4 and Photoshop CS6, showing you the final result rather than an outline of your intended crop. The program also has more pro-image editing tools like curves and levels. The latter let me manipulate highs, lows, and midtones with controls on a three-colour histogram, with optional quarter tone controls, too. The tone curves tool only gave me three control points.
When it comes to pumping up or cutting down on overly dark or bright areas, PhotoDirector adds a couple of levels in between the standard brights, midtones, and darks. Instead, you actually get five sliders – Brightest, Bright, Midtone, Dark, and Darkest. This setup let me use the histogram's "Show over/underexposed areas tool" and then correct these areas with a more appropriate slider. PhotoDirector's "Auto tone" magic wand button, like every similar tool in every photo app, worked beautifully for some photos, but not so well for others.
I was impressed with PhotoDirector's noise reduction tools. I tested this on an underexposed iPad camera photo, and though as with most noise reduction, some detail was lost, it did an excellent job of eliminating luminance noise. Chromatic aberration correction was another story. Similar to other programs' first attempts at removing CA, PhotoDirector's Blue/Yellow and Red/Cyan actually made it easier to add colour distortion than remove it, though I could make minor improvements. Much better are Lightroom and DxO Optic Pro's tools, which make corrections based on the specific lens and camera used.
New for PhotoDirector 4 is geometry correction. This lets you fix barrel and pincushion distortion of tele and wide lenses. I actually found that the Keystone correction tool's vertical and horizontal controls let me straighten distorted lines at the sides of photos of buildings (see above). But Lightroom and DxO's lens profile-based corrections are hard to beat, since they automatically fix distortion added by a lens.
Fancy photo effects
I had a lot of fun with PhotoDirector 4's new "HDR" (high dynamic range) effects. Using these in combination with other tools can produce some spectacular results, particularly where dramatic clouds are concerned (see the image above).
Other new editing tricks include content-aware object removal and a "Body Shaper" to trim off some pounds the easy way (see the pic above, with my trimmer self on the right). These tools have a wizard-driven process that makes creating the effects simple. I had mixed results with the content-aware removal, but I did manage to convincingly replace a swimmer in the ocean with more waves (check out the image below). The body shaper, too, only worked well in certain cases – no striped clothing. And it's a hell of a lot easier than a few months at the gym!
Other effects include a Photo Composer for combining photos, watermarks, and B&W, Sepia, and a blur tool that allows selective focus for a "bokeh" effect (but no tilt-shift). Finally, I should note that you can download other users' editing presets from CyberLink's online exchange, DirectorZone.
Sharing and output
PhotoDirector offers clear buttons for sharing directly to two of the places you're most likely to want – Facebook and Flickr after an initial sign-in. But one option missing is easy email sharing. You can generate slideshows for either instant viewing, saving to an MPEG-4 video file, or directly uploading to YouTube. Lightroom goes beyond this with actual video editing capabilities. PhotoDirector's dedicated Print mode offers every imaginable paper size and custom grid settings, but there aren't presets for standard sizes, and there's no soft proofing as is offered by Lightroom.
I continue to be impressed with this newcomer among photo workflow apps. PhotoDirector 4 sports an incredibly well thought out interface, and all the standard photo editing tools along with a bunch of cool extra goodies. But better speed of import, geo-tagging, more effective lens correction and soft proofing combine to keep Adobe’s Lightroom 4 ahead of CyberLink in the pro photo workflow game.