In Quest for a Digital Darkroom Application

(Or why am I always so grumpy)

Most of the advanced photographers use the Photoshop for processing of their images, be it digital, or scanned from film. I can't. I dislike this program a lot, having used it from Version 3.5 in the Nineties to 7.9 and CS more recently (I've given up on CS2). It may be powerful, but awkward and overly complicated in use: the features I do not need clearly stand in my way of doing the basics. Well, a matter of taste, but I really wanted to use it, and gave a fair, few-week try to every next version.

Contrary to some opinions, Photoshop is not the only player in town. Photo-Paint by Corel is as powerful. It offers all Photoshop adjustments in a more intuitive way, does not depend so heavily on use of layers (although offers them named as objects, with the same capabilities), and its user interface was easier and more configurable from day one.

I've been using Photo-Paint since Version 8 of the Nineties, and I really liked the program. Unfortunately, from Version 9 onwards I'm getting an impression that Corel lost the control of the application (or maybe most of the source code?), and issues just perfunctory updates, changing the splash screens and adding some secondary features, but not addressing design flaws and inconsistencies, and also leaving some major bugs unfixed.

For example, some dialogs are persistent (i.e., remember their status from one use to another), some not — without any obvious reason. Why would histogram adjustment be persistent, and the curve adjustment (doing basically the same thing in a slightly different way) not?

Bugs are much worse. The memory manager in Photo-Paint is clearly misbehaving. This led to program occasionally crashing from Version 9 to Version 12 (I haven't tried the current Version X3, but the track record is not encouraging), on at least a dozen of different computers and six different Windows versions. In Version 12 the crashes are less frequent, but the application often runs out of memory and fails to save JPEG files. It does so quietly, i.e., it does not tell you that the file has not been saved. If you do not check, you may discover that too late. The only way out, if you spot the problem in time, is to save your work in the Corel native .CPT format, leave the program, run again, read the file, and pick up where you left. In all those years I was never able to fix this critical problem.

Another known bug, persisting at least since Version 9 is the broken Perspective tool. Yes, you can adjust the perspective (if in a crude and very imprecise way), but the resulting image is translated to a mosaic of 8x8 (or so) pixel squares. Hardly what you want. Well the list could go on...

Corel also clearly does not want you to buy the program. While earlier versions were easy to purchase, the three (?) last ones are available only as a part of the Corel Draw suite at more than double the last price of Photo-Paint alone. No, I don't have a need for Corel Draw. No, I do not need Power Trace. I am not interested in vector graphics, and I do not need to buy (and install) three programs if I only need one. (Corel used to re-brand an older version of Photo-Paint, warts and all, and sell it separately as Essentials, as a pathetic response to Adobe Elements. Are we idiots to go for this?)

The third player on the field is (or was) Paint Shop Pro from JASC Software. I have been using it since Version 3 of mid-Nineties, although mostly for Web graphics. The program was steadily evolving, not always for the better, getting bloated with features of dubious usefulness (at least for most users), like picture tubes (a kind of brush made of an image), but its basic image-processing functions were solid and powerful; again, Version 8 and higher may compete with Photoshop in this aspect. Still, even after massive customization I invested in, the Paint Shop Pro was not as convenient to use as the Photo-Paint, exhibiting some sort of crudeness, hard to describe but easy to feel. Subjective? Maybe.

One would have thought that Paint Shop Pro may offer Photo-Paint a good run for the money, when last year Corel just bought that application from JASC Software (or maybe they bought the whole company; I'm not going to investigate this). Why? Who knows; both are similar applications, aiming at similar markets; we can only keep guessing.

The Inner Harbor in Baltimore, Maryland.

With my allergy to the Photoshop, I had to do the postprocessing in two separate applications: Perspective correction in Paint Shop Pro, followed up by tonal adjustment in Corel Photo-Paint. To avoid additional compression artefacts due to one more save/read cycle, the immediate result was saved in the TIFF format.

Shot with Olympus E-300, Sigma 55-200 mm lens at 55 mm (EFL=110 mm), program exposure with -0.7 EV compensation: 1/125 s at F/6.3.

Other image-processing programs I've tried cannot compete with these three, at least for me. Photoshop Elements comes closest, but it is missing some functions I badly need (direct tonal curve adjustment); it also inherits some features of its big brother I do not like. The Ulead Photo Impact sounds promising in the latest version, but the one I've tried a few years ago did not leave me impressed at all. To try the new one I have to sign in as a Ulead Member on their Web site, and I do not want to become one, goodbye. Some other offerings are just too limited in fuctionality to be even considered,

Is the situation as hopeless as I am painting it? Maybe, at least on the Windows market. Apple recently released the Aperture application, and everybody is raving about it. Originally priced at the steep $500, it is now in the (supposedly much improved) Version 1.1, at the same time coming down to $300. More, in a move quite untypical on this market, users who paid the original price get a $200 refund, as a coupod good for anything in the Apple company store.

Now, whatever you say about Apple, it cannot be denied that these people have good taste in designing application. The PC (Windows) standard is predominant not because it is better, but because this is where the crowds are, and this can be traced back to the Eighties, when anyone I talked to had a simple explanation: "If I use an IBM PC, I do not have to buy any software; I can get anything I want from the office". No, I'm not kidding; this is what I most often heard. The PC-DOS (and later Windows) standard was by far the worst available, years behind the Mac, Amiga, or Atari ST, but people were buying PC-clone boxes because they could use free (actually, stolen) software. Again, when raising the subject with otherways respectable citizens, I usually heard: Yes, I know this is not right, but I really do not have money to spare now; maybe later. Sad. The same people would be otraged if someone was getting "free" milk from their neighborhood grocery.

The Aperture, not available for Windows, may be enough of a reason for some photographers to switch over to the Mac, especially now, when Mac boxes use Intel processors and (as of recently) allow to run Windows (native, not in emulation mode) on the same computer, if you really have to. This may also tip the scales in my own case, although I consider it painful not being able to mix and match the components to get exacly a computer I need — here the choice is just between a few models made by Apple, take it or leave it.

First of all, however, I have to put my hands ona Mac running Aperture; I'm not taking anyone's word on how good the program may be. To complicate things further, the cheapest, entry-level Mac Mini computers are incapable of running Aperture, as this requires a discrete graphics adapter they are missing (having the Intel on-board graphics instead). I am not sure why Aperture needs a 3D graphics card, as it does not do any three-dimensional rendering, does not need shaders, texturers and such; perhaps for the same reasons for which the upcoming Windows Vista will nees an advanced graphics system just to show its windowed interface looking good.

Where does all this leave me for now? Well, for the time being I'm doomed to use the Photo-Paint as is, working around its bugginess, and resorting to Photoshop CS or Paint shop Pro when I must. Who said postprocessing your photographs is supposed to be fun?

This article was originally published in Quest, the quarterly newsletter of the Olympus Circle; June, 2006.

Update of September, 2006:

The new Photoshop Elements 5 does have, at long last, direct curve adjustment. Hallelujah, after just ten years Adobe decided to "trickle down" this feature for us little people to enjoy. I haven't used this version of the program yet, so I don't know how I will like it.

Claiming that Corel never fixes bugs in photo-Paint may seem a bit unfair, so I downloaded the one-month trial version of the new Version 13 (sorry, X3!) Guess what: not a single problem I've mentioned above has been addressed. The program still suffers memory management problems (read: crashes), and the perspective correction tool converts an image into a mozaic of squares (and I've tried that on two different computers, with identical outcome). My detailed email query to Corel's technical support resulted in an automated response, directing me to installation troubleshooting FAQ and to contact the phone support.

It seems like Corel discovered the best way to kill a good program.

To pre-empt your questions: yes, I've tried the Picture Window, two different versions a year apart. Sorry: an ambitious effort with a poor implementation. Dialogs do not resize to fit screen fonts; it is rather difficult to use a program if you can't see the user interface. And no, I haven't yet tried the newest release of Paint Shop Pro by Corel. Track record.

Update of February, 2007: The recently released Service Pack 1 for the Corel Photo-Paint X-3 fixes, at long last, the bug in the perspective correction tool. The memory problems, causing crashes in the last few versions, seem to be gone, too. Warts and all, I still prefer this program over The Photoshop.

This article was originally published in Quest, the quarterly newsletter of the Olympus Circle; June, 2006.

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Posted 2006/09/20; last updated 2007/02/15 Copyright © 2006-2007 by J. Andrzej Wrotniak