Hours of Idleness-A Photographer's Journey in St. Louis

Photos App with MacPhun Extensions Workflow

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Although Adobe Photoshop, Lightroom, et al. are the photo industry standards, I have never enjoyed working with them. Sure, when it comes to heavy edits or putting something in the frame that isn’t there to begin with, Photoshop reigns supreme, but even after using the software since the 1990’s, I still feel like there has got to be a better way (something that is more intuitive and fun to use). No doubt, it is a preference thing for me, and I know many photographers who feel otherwise.

That said, when Adobe introduced the Creative Cloud, a cost-prohibitive solution in my view, I began to look toward the sky over other horizons.

Enter MacPhun, a software company with apps designed exclusively for Mac users.  Their Creative Kit introduces photographers to a host of products that solve certain needs, and generally make image editing a whole lot easier.  Included in CK in 2016, are Intensify Pro (image processing engine geared for dramatic results), Tonality (black and white conversion software), SnapHeal (dust/object removal brushes), Noiseless (noise reduction tool), FX Photo Studio (template-based image editor), and Focus (selective focus app).  Aurora HDR is an additional software for combining images for maximizing high dynamic range looks, designed with input from Trey Radcliff, that can be purchased separately.  All of these can be run standalone, or can be used as extensions for Photos or plug-ins for Adobe, etc.

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In 2009, I converted over to Apple’s wonderful Aperture software, and used it as both my primary editor (I do mostly light edits) and image database module.  During this time, I kept an older copy of Photoshop around for any heavy lifting, like image combinations/stitching, word overlays, etc., that needed to be done, but almost never used it.  In 2015, when it was announced that Aperture would no longer be updated/supported, I began to freak out like many other Aperture converts.

Apple promised that its new Photos software, which would be packaged with all new operating systems, would fill the void.  However, in practice, Photos is a lot more like iPhoto than Aperture, especially in terms of its image editing platform.

What to do?

My wife purchased her first camera in late 2014, and I recommended this new software called “Intensify” as her primary image editor (it is a really intuitive software for the beginner).  After ordering online, it came stored on an SDHC card, which could be reformatted after installation and used with her camera. This was a nice touch for photographers, and even though most people will download the software online, MacPhun still bundles in a bevy of thoughtful add-on items (like a useful watermarking app and discounts to third-party services) that remark upon the fun “culture” of the company.

I liked it enough at the time to keep my eye on developments, and when it was announced that MacPhun would produce the first extensions available to Photos, I felt that this might be a solution to my problem.  In practice though, Photos with MacPhun has been kind of a “best of times, worst of times” scenario.

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First of all, though Photos enables the user to database their images in folders similar to Aperture, I am not a fan of the image thumbnail organization which is defaulted.  It takes a moment to load when you open the software and when you scroll, if you have a lot of folders like I do.  Likewise, I have not yet discovered how to create subfolders, which could eliminate the need for some of these thumbnails appearing all the time- all of the individual “Photo Flood:” folders shown above lived under a master “Photo Flood:” file in the old Aperture system.  Secondly, with Aperture, it was much easier to import a mass of images into a specific location than through Photos, which now requires the additional step of moving the images after upload (the danger of this method is that if you forget to transfer something into a folder, it can be essentially lost in your massive “photos” image bank).

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Aperture was a non-destructive editor that automatically backed up your original before editing.  In Photos you have to selectively “duplicate” your photo, under the “image” tab, in order to do this.  This adds time, and requires something else to be cogniscent of while working.  Furthermore, with Aperture, you could jump right into processing the photo, but because Photos image editing options are garbage, you have to purchase extensions separately to do any justice to your work.  In order to use the extensions, you have to select “edit” while in an open image, and then click on “extensions” in the edit window, and then select the editor that you want to work with, which opens another window.  This process is unfortunately a bit of a time-suck.

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image in Photos Edit window

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same image unadjusted in Intensify (notice color and exposure shift)

What’s most troubling for me though is that RAW images do funky things when moving between Photos and Intensify Pro.  In the images above, you can clearly see that color and exposure has changed between the image when viewed in Photos and when viewed in Intensify, and I assume that this has to do with different RAW processors, as it is not an issue with JPEG or TIFF images.  Consulting with the image and histogram on the camera, I would say that the Photos version is truer to what I photographed.  What Intensify seems to be doing is auto-correcting exposure, that is, if the image has predominant highlights (i.e. a lot of sky), Intensify will slide exposure toward black.  This becomes a major issue when you have highlights in the frame that go beyond their threshold after Intensify adjusts them.  If you are like me, and like to “get it right in the camera”, this tendency is absolutely maddening.  What’s more, color seems to shift unpredictably, and because their is no eye-dropper tool in Intensify, you can just forget about using it to edit any work that requires exact color reproduction.  Hopefully, both of these issues will be rectified in future updates.

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Thankfully, as in the image above, Intensify’s histogram allows you to show blown highlights, so can dial back exposure to where there is still some tone or at the very least, see where your image area suffers from specular data loss.

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Now for the good.  Intensify is a results oriented software that gets you where you want to go quickly, by keeping the tools you need readily at hand.  I am often shocked at what I am able to pull out the images coming from my 10 year old Nikon D300, that I would have struggled to get out of either Aperture or Photoshop.  There is definitely something in the secret sauce over at MacPhun, and I can confirm that editing is so much more fun and less time consuming on their software than in Photoshop.

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Just above the slider adjustments, there are layers that allow you to perform selectable and finely tuned adjustments.

These include a masking brush:

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and a built-in graduated neutral density filter mask:

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There is even an eraser function to help you “clean up” your adjustments.  For me, there is no doubt, that editing is the best part of the MacPhun/Photos alliance, and it helps me to overlook some of the other aspects that prevent a streamlined experience.  Combined with the cost-savings over Adobe CC, I am committed to making this work for as much of my output as possible.

However, I hope both Apple and MacPhun see this and address the still apparent flaws.  On the Photos side, the biggest one for me is a quirk of their “export” function, which spits out images like the one below, every so often.

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If you are a working pro, and require all aspects of your process to be tidy and reliable, neither MacPhun or Photos is up to the challenge, just yet.  However, I see the problems as fixable quirks, rather than inherent to the software infrastructure, and I hope that updates will soon address them.

If you are a beginner, this is a great solution for you.  Not only do you not need to master the complexity of the Adobe-verse, but this combination of tools encourages you to begin thinking about the results that you want to achieve as a photographer.  What’s more, there is a definite cost benefit to going this route.

If you are somewhere in-between, you have to weigh what I have outlined and decide for yourself if the tradeoffs are worth the benefits.  For now, I still plan on keeping that loathsome Photoshop software onhand, until workflow/functionality improves to the point where I no longer need it.  What would you call that, a lose/win?

I should note that, in my search for a successor to Aperture/alternative to Photoshop, I explored other photo editing software, which I’ll briefly summarize below.

Snapseed: Best editing software for on the go, smart device processing. Although I do very little of that kind of work, this app definitely has a home on my iPhone.
Polarr: Free and $20 “Pro” versions for Mac and Windows. I experimented with this on a Windows machine, and although I admired some aspects of the workflow, it was crash-heavy in my experience. Perhaps they’ve fixed this, and they now have a Photos extension available. Less nuanced adjustment features than MacPhun Creative Kit.
Affinity Photo: A true Photoshop alternative, Affinity offers its entire platform for just $49.99 (no subscription). Trial version was great to work with, but more “Photoshop” than “Aperture” in practice. When I signed up for MacPhun, Affinity did not offer itself as an extension to Photos, but it does now. If MacPhun does not address some of the issues outlined above (weird RAW processing, no White Balance dropper, etc.), I might switch over to Affinity.



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