Photoshop CC vs. Photoshop Elements vs. Affinity Photo
Anyone editing photos in free apps will soon hit the limits of their chosen program—unless that program happens to be GIMP—and will be looking to move on to something with more power, more freedom, and more toys to play with. Software giant Adobe has traditionally held all the cards, its Photoshop Elements and Photoshop covering the range from casual to professional use. But a new challenger entered the arena last year, with Serif’s reasonably priced Affinity Photo making the jump from Mac to Windows. So, which is best?
They’re all really, really good for this. Seriously. It’s what they’re made to do. We couldn’t get an M2 SSD between them, so tightly are they clustered around the “really good” end of the scale. If pressed, we’d say we like the Adobe way of working, especially the behavior of the Crop tool, over Serif’s. But that could be 20 years of professional use talking. So, let’s talk about pricing. Photoshop CC is part of Adobe’s notorious subscription pricing model, which puts some people off. However, the Photographer’s Bundle nets you Photoshop and the raw image development/organization app Lightroom, for $20 a month—looked at like that, maybe it’s not so expensive. Elements and Affinity are buy-once apps, and while Elements gets annual upgrades, which may extract extra cash from you if you’re determined to always have the latest version, Affinity has been receiving regular free patches and updates since its launch, with no version 2.0 on the horizon. If you’re planning to process images for print, be aware that Elements is the only app here that can’t convert to the CMYK color model. Other than this, it’s got 90 percent of Photoshop’s power.
Winner: Photoshop CC
Raw Image Files
Serious cameras shoot raw files. And so do a lot of compacts, cell phones, and action cams. A raw file is the unaltered data from the sensor, written straight to a camera’s memory card, bypassing the expensive processing circuitry. Your PC then processes it, with you taking full control. Adobe Camera Raw is the processing interface you’ll find in Photoshop CC—it even has its own app, Lightroom—and it’s richly featured and kept right up to date with the latest camera releases. There’s a cut-down version of it in Photoshop Elements, which keeps the most important tools, and dispenses with those that it’s merely nice to have. Affinity Photo dedicates an entire “Persona”—its term for dedicated modes of operation that change its whole look and interface—to raw processing, and its tabbed interface means that you can work on a raw file in one tab and a JPEG in another, if that’s your thing. Affinity’s raw processor received a large upgrade in the 1.5 release of the software, and is now much more on a par with Photoshop’s, even though the two companies sometimes call the same adjustment a different name.
Winner: Affinity Photo
All three apps handle vector text using the fonts installed on your PC, and have tool palettes dedicated to the manipulation of those letters and numbers, very much like those you would find in a page layout application. Raster image editors aren’t the best choice for setting lots of small text, but it’s nice to know the option is there. Affinity splits its text tool into two, with single lines of Art Text that can be styled as you choose, or container frames filled with paragraphs of closely set body text. Font previews are instant, and there’s a live spellchecker, too. The Adobe apps have one Type tool, but it works the same way as Serif’s. Click to get a line of text, style it up, and select its size, or drag out a box with the same tool to fill with smaller type. You can select antialiasing options to prevent jagged edges, and all text is placed on its own layer, opening it up to the full range of layer effects—although you may need to rasterize it first. One thing Photoshop has that Affinity doesn’t is the ability to place text along a path, leading to curved headlines or logos that run in circles. Serif’s vector graphics app, Affinity Designer, does have this capability, however. Winner:
There is really only one viable choice if you’re serious about 3D, and that’s Photoshop CC. The other apps can create 3D text effects, or be used to paint textures, or import them from photos, but Photoshop has a dedicated 3D workspace that enables you to create 3D extrusions from 2D artwork, or use pre-set shapes to build a 3D mesh, building up to nine different texture map types to define its surface. It’s not as powerful, nor as intuitive, as a dedicated 3D application would be, and it also relies on you owning such a program in order to directly edit the polygons of any complex 3D meshes you may have imported using several common 3D formats—AE, OBJ, 3DS, U3D, and KMZ. You can, however, view your meshes in a variety of render modes, scale and rotate, cast lights upon them, and import several meshes into one scene. Flat 2D layers can be wrapped around a 3D object, and a depth map can be generated from a grayscale image. Finally, you can render and export your creation as common 3D file types—however, if your scene is quite complex, you’ll have to wait while your PC chews through all the data.
Winner: Photoshop CC
Some might say that any program that can export a transparent PNG file can be used to create web graphics, but there are obvious benefits to using a photo editor. This is one area where full-strength Photoshop might not be the best option, because you’re working in largely low-res workspaces, and not using too many clever tools. Adobe recently updated Photoshop CC’s ancient “Save for Web” export panel, which was based on code from the even older Adobe ImageReady, and shuffled it off to Legacy status. The new “Export” menu supports Photoshop’s latest features, and while “Save for Web” is still in there, the new method should be faster. Elements keeps the “Save for Web” dialog, giving you the options to compress and dither your graphics to get the absolute smallest file size at the best quality, and showing you previews of what the final result will look like. Affinity, as is often the case, dedicates a whole Persona to exporting images, changing the look of the app to bring the tools you need right to your fingertips. There are presets you can use, or you can set your own options to get something that works for you. Winner:
Affinity Photo comes with loads of YouTubebased tutorials, but can be baffling at first.
Photoshop Elements has modes for newbies and talks you through the editing process.
Photoshop CC is a gray, austere-looking program that doesn’t hold your hand.