ON1 Photo RAW 2017 is an all-in-one photo browsing, editing and effects tool which can work as a standalone program or as a plug-in for Lightroom or Photoshop. It’s a replacement for ON1 Photo 10.5, and it’s the latest version of a long-running photo effects suite previously consisting of a whole bundle of effects modules but recently integrated into a single app.

The idea is that you can use this one program to browse and organise your photos, develop and enhance both RAW and JPEG files, use ON1’s large library of special effects and customisation tools and even combine images in layers, Photoshop-style.

It covers a whole spectrum of uses that might otherwise need two or three different applications. If you use Lightroom, for example, you might need Photoshop for layering and compositing and something like the Google Nik Collection for image effects. ON1 Photo RAW 2017 aims to do all three.

The Browse module

This is where you do your image organising, and ON1 sets great value by this module’s speed and efficiency. You don’t have to import your images into a catalog in the way you do with Lightroom, for example, and the Browse module can quickly display the contents of the image folders on your computer ready for adding ratings, keywords, labels and other metadata. There are filtering tools too, so that you can quickly isolate the photos you’re looking for.

ON1 Photo RAW 2017 review

The Browse module works as a fast and simple file browser, but with the ability to view and add metadata and apply filters for finding specific images quickly.

But the Browse module also offers some of the advantages of a regular catalog system. You can create Albums, for example, or Smart Albums based on specific search criteria. This is where things get slightly more complicated, however.

Albums are easy enough to create, but they’re displayed as a flat list without any folder system for establishing a hierarchy. The more albums you add, the more tedious scrolling you’re going to have to do.

Smart Albums need an extra step because they can only be used for images that have been ‘Indexed’. This is not automatic. If you want to index a folder you have to drag it into an Indexed Folders pane at the top of the Browse panel. Any pictures in folders which haven’t been indexed won’t show up in Smart Albums.

ON1 Photo RAW 2017 review

You can create Albums for storing related images, and you can also create Smart Albums which display images matching your search criteria. Here, though, there is a catch…

ON1 Photo RAW 2017 review

ON1 Photo RAW’s Browse module does not require you to import photos into a catalog – except that if you want to use Smart Folders you do have to ‘index’ folders, which feels like the same thing.

It is possible to see images stored in sub-folders within a larger folder, which saves lots of drilling down through a folder hierarchy, but again only if that folder has been indexed.

None of this will be obvious to beginners, who may well wonder why certain features aren’t available or appear to be working inconsistently. Wouldn’t it be better to have ON1 Photo RAW 2017 using its regular fast folder browsing tools but automatically indexing folders in the background too?

That aside, it works pretty well. I like the flexibility and power of a database-driven cataloguing program like Lightroom, but plenty of other photographers get by perfectly well with a simple folder-browsing solution.

You can double-click a thumbnail to view a full-size preview and click again to view it at 100% magnification. The Browse module can also access images stored via cloud services including Dropbox, Google Drive and OneDrive – a nice touch – and there’s a ‘Photo Via’ feature for publishing Album contents on your mobile devices via Dropbox or Google Drive.

Of course, you don’t have to use the ON1 Browse module at all. ON1 Photo RAW 2017 also works as a Lightroom plug-in, so here you still get the benefit of ON1’s effects and layering tools, but the sophistication of Lightroom’s organisation and its powerful RAW processing features. If you don’t use a program like Lightroom, you can carry out your RAW processing in ON1 Photo RAW 2017’s Develop module instead.

The Develop module

ON1 Photo 10.5 had a relatively basic Enhance module, but that’s gone. In its place is a Develop module which can carry out a whole range of image enhancements, including Black & White, Color Adjustment, Curves, Glow, Noise Reduction, Sharpening, Skin Retouching, Split Tone, Transform and Vignette.

This Develop module can be used on both JPEG images and RAW files. It doesn’t have quite the same power, control and fluidity as Lightroom with RAW files, but it does a pretty good job. It didn’t do so well with the RAF files from a Fujfilm X30 compact, failing to pull back all of the extended highlight information the camera’s expanded dynamic range mode can capture, and neither did it apply the distortion correction baked into the camera’s RAW files. Indeed, the Develop module lacks the automatic lens correction profiles found in an increasing number of RAW conversion programs, though it does have perfectly adequate manual distortion correction tools.

It also behaved in an inconsistent way with the files from a brand new Canon EOS 800D, loading them more slowly with pop-up messages about colour scaling and interpolation. Any Develop settings applied didn’t show up on the thumbnails in the Browser, though Effects did.

ON1 Photo RAW 2017 review

ON1 Photo RAW’s develop module opened this Canon EOS 800D RAW file, but only after some unusually processing alerts and with an inconsistent thumbnail display afterwards.

ON1 Photo RAW 2017 review

With RAW files from older, established cameras, the Develop module worked fine. It even lets you apply localised adjustments – here I’ve darkened the bright sky with a gradient mask and exposure adjustment.

I suspect the EOS 800D isn’t fully supported yet and the Develop module is applying a generic RAW conversion rather than refusing to open the files at all. It worked perfect well with the RAW files from other cameras.

Like the Develop module in Lightroom, here you get both Overall and Local Adjustments. A small tools panel on the left side of the screen has Gradient and Adjustment Brush tools as well as a ‘Perfect Eraser’ and Retouch Brush.

You can do quite a lot in the Develop module – in fact, this may be all you need for everyday image adjustments and enhancements. You can apply just one adjustment type or a whole series – the Develop module only shows the panels for those tools you’ve chosen, which keeps the screen clutter to a minimum.

Over on the left side of the screen is a Presets panel, showing thumbnail versions of your selected photo with a whole range of different effects applied. In fact, these Presets are applied using the Effects module, not this one – if you choose one, you’ll need to swap to the Effects module to see what’s been done and make any changes.

The Effects module

The Effects module is and always has been (in my opinion) the heart of the ON1 suite. It comes with a large library of effects presets in categories such as Architecture, Black & White, Cinematic, Hipster, Landscape and more. Each category contains a number of different presets, and each preset is built from a combination of different filters.

There are over 20 of these filters, though typically each preset uses no more than a handful. They include Antique, Black & White, Bleach Bypass, Blur, Borders, Color Enhancer, Cross Process, Dynamic Contrast, Glow, Grunge, HDR Look, Lens Blur, Lens Flare, Noise reduction, Photo Filter, Sharpening, Skin Retouching, Split Tone, Sunshine, Textures, Tone Enhancer, Vignette and Vintage.

There are three ways of using the Effects module. You can select a preset and stop there, you can choose a preset and then tweak the settings of the individual filters or you can start with a clean slate and add filters manually.

Each filter comes with its set of controls which can be relatively simple (Antique, Bleach Bypass, Sharpening) or really quite sophisticated and powerful.

The Black & White filter, for example, offers different colour filter effects, tonal adjustments, toning effects and simulated grain. The Color Enhancer offers precise control over the rendition of different colours and ranges, quick fixes for skies, foliage, deserts and fall, and it’s also possible to neutralise (‘purify’) highlight and shadow tones.

ON1 Photo RAW 2017 review

The Effects module is the real ‘heart’ of ON1 Photo RAW 2017, with an impressive array of preset effects, including this ‘Hipster’ category.

ON1 Photo RAW 2017 review

You can create your own effects by combining up to 20 different effects filters in a ‘stack’ and then saving the result as a preset of your own.

If you’re keen on analog/retro looks, you’ll love the huge library of textures and borders and you can even add in some fake lens flare.

The strength of this module is the way you can stack any number of these effects to create the look you want. You can use masking tools (brush and ‘gradient bug’) to localise any of the filter effects, and all of them remain editable and even change the blending mode for that filter. In past versions, editing any filter would temporarily hide the effect of others higher up the stack, which made your adjustments hard to judge, but this limitation has been removed in ON1 Photo RAW 2017.

If you’re looking for parallels, this filter stacking system is a lot like the one in Color Efex Pro, part of the Google Nik Collection, and perhaps MacPhun Luminar’s interesting new approach to editing workspaces.

There’s a lot to like in this Effects module. You won’t find every preset and every filter useful, of course, since we all shoot differently, but there are a lot of great ‘looks’ here, and the potential to create and save many more presets of your own – that too is easy.

On top of all that, all the adjustments you make in both the Effects module and the Develop module are non-destructive. You can go back at any time and make changes, and adjustments only become final when you export a finished image – which you’ll need to do for your changes to be made permanent and visible to other applications.

One relatively minor criticism is that you can’t make ‘virtual copies’ to try out different variations on a single image. You can’t group or stack related images in the Browser module, either. It’s a reminder that while ON1 Photo RAW 2017 is a powerful effects tool, it’s still got some catching up to do in other areas.

The Layers module

What it can do, however, is create layered montages, using the landscape from one shot, for example, with the sky from another. It does this using the Layers module, and if you’re used to the layers panel in Photoshop or Elements, you’re not going to find this so very different.

You can choose the layers you want to merge from the Browse module by command/Ctrl-clicking each one. When you switch to the Layers module, these are stacked together in the Layers panel. You can do pretty much everything here that you can do in Photoshop. You can change the blend mode, change the order of the layers and create layer masks.

ON1 Photo RAW 2017 review

It’s not quite Photoshop, but ON1 Photo RAW 2017 does let you combine different images using blend modes, masks and retouching tools.

The masking tools are very good. There’s a handy ‘Masking Bug’ for creating and adjusting linear gradient masks – perfect for blending in skies or adding a graduated filter effect – Masking Brush, Quick Mask and polygonal selection tools. You can also refine masks once they’re created with a Refine Brush, Chisel Mask and Blur Mask tools. If a layer is the wrong size or in the wrong place, you can move and resize it easily with the Move tool.

These tools are in a vertical panel on the left of the screen, along with a Crop tool, Perfect Eraser, Red Eye Brush and Retouch Brush. It’s a pretty self-contained module, but if you do need to make tonal or colour adjustments in a layer you’ll need to select it and switch back to the Develop module to make your changes. Preset effects, however, can be applied to the whole composite image, which is a bonus.

The need to switch modules for some editing tasks means that ON1 Photo RAW’s Layers module isn’t really quite the same as being in Photoshop, but it still allows you to combine effects, enhancements and image layers in a single program.

Resize module but no Portrait module?

The Resize module is designed to optimise photos for printing. It uses Genuine Fractals technology to produce better-quality resizing than you could get from regular resampling processes, which inevitably blur edges where extra pixels have to be interpolated or removed. Instead, the Resize technology analyses the image for object edges and preserves the sharpness of these edges during the enlargement process.

What previous users may have noticed in ON1 Photo RAW 2017, however, is that the Portrait module is gone. I remarked in my review of ON1 Photo 10.5 that it seemed odd to give this relatively specialised module equal status in the interface to the entire Effects library, and ON1 must have felt the same way because it has said on its website that the portrait tools are going to be re-introduced as part of the Effects module.

ON1 Photo RAW 2017 conclusions

Some of the issues of the previous version have been fixed, notably the lack of real RAW support and the inability to preview the full filter effect stack while editing individual filters within it. Once you get to grips with the way it works, it’s really quite logical – and it’s certainly very powerful. The Effects module continues to be the most impressive part of this program, and you can create some great image effects with comparatively little time, effort and experience.

The Browse module is very useful for those who don’t want the investment and expense of a cataloguing program like Lightroom, though the need to index your photos to get the full range of organising tools takes away some of the advantage of its fast, folder-based browsing approach. It’s effective, but lacks polish.

The same applies to the Develop module, which does a reasonable job with most RAW files, but can’t match the power, control and quality of dedicated RAW processors like Lightroom, Capture One Pro or DxO Optics Pro. Again, it does the job, but that’s all. You can even say the same about the Layers palette. It does what Photoshop and Affinity Photo can do, kind of, but in a somewhat clunkier and more limited way.

In short, this is a great do-it-all program that combines a whole bunch of functions that otherwise would need separate apps. It offers all these tools in one place, at a single, affordable price. This is what you’re paying for, however, rather than mastery in any single area. The Effects are terrific, but otherwise – and apologies to long-standing ON1 Photo fans – this is a program you’d choose on cost and convenience rather than performance.