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Most photographers have one or more favorite software programs on which they rely, not that there’s anything wrong with sticking with the tried and true or believing in the maxim that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But exploration and experimentation are part of what spurs creativity. To get you started, I’ve compiled a list of my favorites that are not Photoshop. Some of them, like Exposure X, can run as a plug-in, but most are standalone programs. In fact, some are replacements for Photoshop, boosted in popularity by the subscription-based model that’s out of the price range of some photographers. All of these programs are unique and provide best-in-class functionality.
AFFINITY PHOTO V. 1.4
Voted by Apple as Best Mac App of 2015, this full-featured, Mac-only image-editing program is relatively new, though parent company Serif Labs has been developing imaging and design software for some time. Given its strong similarity to Adobe Photoshop—from features and functions to tools and even keyboard shortcuts—Affinity Photo is a solid alternative for photographers who want to avoid the monthly Creative Cloud membership fee. It doesn’t mirror Photoshop in every way, and there’s a slight learning curve, but this affordable application is powerful and has a lot to offer whether you’re a pro or a serious hobbyist. Price: $50. affinityphoto.com
ALIEN SKIN EXPOSURE X
Although best known for its film emulation and creative effects, Alien Skin Exposure X offers a solid set of image-editing tools, as well. Available as a plug-in and, since version 5, a standalone application, Exposure X has added a number of new features, including the ability to selectively brush on adjustments and effects—which is great for landscape photographers who need to tweak only a part of the image, in addition to portrait photographers who need to whiten teeth or brighten eyes. Intuitive navigation makes this program extremely easy to use, whether you’re making standard adjustments or creating a special look with one of Exposure’s many effects. When opened in standalone mode, users now have plenty of asset management tools to access, sort, rate and filter images. This cross-platform software requires OS X 10.10 Yosemite or newer for Mac and Windows 8 64-bit or newer for PCs. Visit the website for upgrade options. Price: $149 (full). alienskin.com
ANTHROPICS PORTRAITPRO 15
As its name implies, PortraitPro is a specialty application designed for portrait retouching. Like plastic surgery, PortraitPro’s tools can sculpt, reshape and adjust a subject’s facial features. And, like plastic surgery, one of the dangers is the possibility of going to extremes rather than making the subtle changes for which the software is designed. More importantly, there are tools and presets to retouch skin, hair, eyes, lips and, with version 15, the ability to add makeup. The software is smart, too, detecting features to assist with more accurate retouching. There’s even a special mode designed specifically for children, in addition to female and male modes. PortraitPro is fast and powerful, and is capable of finessing portraits into perfection. Cross-platform, the software is available as a standalone application (Standard) or as both standalone and plug-in (Studio and Studio Max). Be sure to check the website for lower prices. Price: $80 (Standard); $120 (Studio); $240 (Studio Max). portraitprofessional.com
Corel offers a wide range of software programs, including its affordable and capable PaintShop Pro photo editor, but the release of the ParticleShop plug-in is an eye-catching addition. Based on Corel Painter’s excellent brush technology, ParticleShop is adept at helping photographers realize creative visions that would otherwise take hours—or even days—to produce with other applications. Using these brushes and effects, you can transform a photograph into a world of fantasy by adding moody elements such as smoke and steam or dystopian-like dust and debris. It’s easy to generate streaks of light or sweeps of fabric and more. The software comes with a starter pack of 11 brushes, but brush selection can be expanded with optional 15-brush packs from categories such as Hair, Fabric, Light it Up, Storm, Smoke & Steam, Dust & Debris and, for a playful touch, Superhero. It’s the perfect software to break out of the constraints of photography into a more creative world. ParticleShop is cross-platform; it’s compatible with Photoshop and Lightroom CS5 and newer, Elements 13, CorelDRAW, Photo-Paint and PaintShop Pro X7 and newer. Price: $50 (software); $30 (each additional brush pack). painterartist.com
DXO OPTICSPRO 10
Brought to you by the company that scientifically analyzes, quantifies and reports on digital camera image quality, OpticsPro imaging software offers a long list of features for photographers working in RAW and/or JPEG. Many of OpticsPro 10’s strengths revolve around its PRIME denoising technology (available in the Elite version), which works very well to reduce even the most obvious image noise. The program is smart enough to optimize images based on the camera/lens combination used. By reading the metadata, the software automatically opens a downloadable DxO Optics Module for the lens used to provide compensation for various optical distortions, including chromatic aberrations, vignetting and other issues. Tools and technology are available for increasing dynamic range, removing haze and much more. Automatic corrections are a good starting point, but most photographers probably will opt to finalize the image with manual adjustments. The software is well integrated with Lightroom, too. Price: $129 (Essential); $199 (Elite). dxo.com
PHASE ONE CAPTURE ONE PRO V. 9
Best known for its RAW processing capabilities, the cross-platform Capture One Pro, now in version 9, is one of the more powerful, versatile imaging programs on the market. While the latest version offers important updates such as a new processing engine and improved keywording, Capture One Pro excels across the board, especially when working with RAW images. The program supports more than 400 cameras, is well respected for its tethering capabilities and offers two companion iOS apps. With the free Capture Pilot, you can wirelessly view, tag, zoom and pan high-res images on an iOS device. Purchase the $15 in-app Camera Control and you’re all set to operate remotely. Price: $299 (full); $99 (upgrade from version 7 or 8). phaseone.com
PINNACLE IMAGING SYSTEMS HDR SOFTWARE
Taken to the extreme, HDR may not be your favorite look, but when used as originally intended—to pull out additional dynamic range from an image—this process can work wonders. Pinnacle Imaging Systems recently acquired Unified Color’s trio of HDR applications and has made improvements to HDR Expose 3, Express 3 and 32 Float v. 3. Expose and Express operate as standalone apps or as plug-ins for Lightroom and Aperture. In addition to better alignment to ensure accuracy even when shooting handheld, deghosting and noise reduction also have been improved. The 32 Float v. 3 plug-in now supports Photoshop CC 2015. You can purchase all three separately or Expose 3 and 32 Float as a suite. Price: From $79. pinnacleimagingsystems.com
Freelance writer and photographer Theano Nikitas has been covering the photo industry for more than 20 years. Her digital imaging reviews, features, tutorials and images have appeared in a variety of print and electronic publications and books.