Verdict: 4 stars ★★★★
Its scope, ambition and value are undeniable. ON1 Photo RAW 2018.1 tackles just about every photo-editing job you can think of. It’s even a great effects plug-in for other programs. However, although it might offer the same tools as more expensive rivals, they don’t always work quite as smoothly or as effectively.
ON1 Photo RAW 2018 aims to be all things to all photographers. It can be used as a plug-in effects tool for Lightroom and Photoshop, or as a standalone image editor with its own image browsing, cataloguing and organising tools. It has a large library of special effects filters and presets but it also offers all the curves, retouching and colour adjustment tools you’d expect from a technical Photoshop-style image-editor. It looks like a special effects tool, but it also offers full layers and mask support for complex image montages. Its like the Leonardo da Vinci of image-editors, able to turn its hand – apparently – to anything.
It also gets a pretty steady stream of updates. ON1 Photo RAW 2018 arrived in October 2017 and brought a series of new features and enhancements, including HDR merging, panorama stitching, new mask opacity and feathering tools, together with Color Range Masks.
It also brought ‘Versions’. These are virtual copies of a photo which you can use to try out different treatments and effects without creating new files on your hard disk. ON1 Photo RAW is a ‘non-destructive’ editor, so all your editing changes are ‘virtual’ until you export a finished image file. This gives you lots of flexibility when editing images and returning to previous attempts.
There were changes to the user interface, selective noise brushing and other enhancements that made ON1 Photo RAW 2018 a significant step forward from the previous version. And now ON1 Photo RAW 2018.1 has come along with another set of tweaks and additions which we’ll look at in this review.
ON1 Photo RAW’s strength is that it does just about everything, from image organising to RAW developing, from enhancement and retouching through to layers, masks and composites – and also includes an extensive set of customisable effects filters and presets. The question is whether a program that does so much can be genuinely good at all of these things.
The Browse module
ON1 Photo RAW’s Browse module is where you do your image organising, and ON1 has brought more tweaks and additions to improve its efficiency. For example, it has a new and improved Import dialog for selecting which photos to download from a memory card, where to story them, how to rename them and what metadata (keywords, for example) to add along the way.
This highlights one of the anomalies in this program, though. ON1 Photo RAW does let you browse your photos without having to go through a Lightroom-style import process but, at the same time, if you want fast access to your top folders and the full benefit of the cataloguing and search tools then, well, actually you need to ‘import’ your pictures into its catalog/database after all.
Other cataloguing improvements include the ability to apply a custom sort in Browse mode – you can drag your photos into the order you want – an auto-advance option to make it quicker to add ratings or labels to your pictures as you go through them, and the ability to search photos by time of day, not just the date. You can now edit the capture date and time of your photos – very useful indeed if you forgot to set your camera’s clock properly or when travelling in different time zones – and you can now browse video files too.
In some ways, ON1 Photo RAW does offer the best of both worlds – fast folder browsing when you need it and more advanced smart album and search tools once you’ve imported your images. Having both options can be a little confusing, though, and the cataloguing tools aren’t really on the same level as those in Lightroom, say, or Capture One. It’s a shame that all the albums you create live in a single, flat list – you can’t create a hierarchical structure to cope with an ever growing photo collection.
Of course, it’s a more expensive route, but you could use Lightroom to do all your organising and ON1 Photo RAW as a powerful effects plug-in. If you do this, Lightroom will also take care of your RAW processing too – more on this shortly.
Before we leave the Browse module, let’s take a look at two new features introduced in ON1 Photo RAW 2018, both of which are a clear nod to similar features in Lightroom – HDR and Panorama stitching.
ON1 makes bold claims about the speed of the HDR merge tool, and it is a lot faster than rivals. However, it didn’t do too well with a bracketed set of JPEGs in my first test, failing to properly merge in extreme highlight detail from the darkest image and leaving instead some rather ugly and obvious clipped highlights. It did much better with a second test using RAW files – but be aware that the images are merged into a 16-bit image, not the 32-bit space usually used by HDR applications, and this will in theory limit the tonal range available after merging. The HDR tool is certainly quick, but it’s not sophisticated.
The Panorama tools currently carries a warning, saying that it is “improving” but that some panoramas may not work out well where there are exposure differences between frames or excessing corner shading from wide-angle lenses, for example.
Well, in my tests it did very well. With any panoramic ‘stitcher’ you have to shoot it right to give your software even half a chance of stitching the separate frames effectively. You need the right degree of overlap, locked-down exposure and focus to prevent mis-matches between frames. It did a good job in, even when the camera had an upward tilt and produced big changes in keystoning distortion of buildings between frames. That’s a tough test and ON1 Panorama produced a great result with no obvious joins and straightened perspective. Maybe if I kept trying I could find situations where it failed, but that happens a lot with panorama stitching anyway.
The Develop module
If ON1 Photo RAW 2018 is to be a true all-rounder then it needs to be able to process your RAW files too – and that’s where Develop module comes in. It offers a set of regular tone and colour adjustments you can apply to JPEGs too, together with localised adjustments via masks.
ON1 says it has also improved the Develop module’s RAW processing with new debayer (demosaicing) algorithms that produce less noise and sharper detail. There’s certainly less noise than you get in Lightroom, but then Lightroom’s default noise levels are way higher than everyone else’s anyway.
However, while many conversions look great, straight out of the box, the default RAW conversions could sometimes look muddy and undersaturated and require a fair amount of work to get them back to an acceptable state. This seems to happen with less mainstream brands, so that while Nikon and Canon RAW files look great, my Olympus .ORF files don’t come out so well. The other explanation is that ON1 Photo RAW will also open RAW files it doesn’t directly support, and with no warning that this is what it’s doing. It opened some Panasonic GX9 RAW files we’re pretty sure it doesn’t support yet because I’ve only just had the camera in for review and it’s not on sale yet. This is not the first time I’ve noticed this – in the past it’s opened other new and as yet unsupported camera RAW formats. This is when the results can look most flat and lifeless, so it’s great that it can open RAW files that it doesn’t actually support yet (as far as I can tell), but the fact that they don’t look too good could leave you blaming the Develop module for substandard results.
ON1 has added RAW support for a lot of new cameras in this release, and new lens profiles too, so that more and more lenses now get optical corrections applied automatically. Even so, ON1’s Develop module doesn’t really have the polish, speed or instant effectiveness of Lightroom, DxO PhotoLab or Capture One Pro.
It’s good at extracting maximum dynamic range from RAW files and usually produces less noise than Lightroom – though it continues to produce soft and noisy results from our Fujifilm X30 and some images from the new X-H1 did show a fair amount of hard, tight noise under magnification. ON1 has only recently added X-Trans sensor support, and Fujifilm’s X-Trans sensor technology does seem to pose a challenge for RAW converters in general (DxO PhotoLab doesn’t support X-Trans files at all).
The Effects module
There have been no recent changes to the Effects module that I’m aware of, and this is covered in great depth in my ON1 Photo RAW 2017.6 review, so I’ll stick to a shorter summary here.
ON1 Photo RAW’s Effects module consists of a set of individual, configurable effects filters which can be used individually or stacked together. You can apply effects to the whole image or to selected areas using layers and masks. Between them, these effects filters have the potential to create a mind-boggling range of results – and you can get a flavour of this from the Presets panel on the left side of the screen.
This offers a library of instant, one-click effects. Each one is made using combinations of filters and settings, so you can pick one you like, reverse-engineer it to see how it was done and create and save your own ‘looks’.
From vintage black and white, through to modern hipster and wild cinematic effects, ON1 Photo RAW has the lot. It will take a little time to get to grips with the individual filters and their effects, but the potential is huge.
This really does feel like the heart of the program, and it’s what gives it most value as a plug-in filter for Lightroom and Photoshop. The other parts of ON1 Photo RAW – the Browse and Develop modules, HDR and Panorama stitching and Layers modules feel like low-cost alternatives to more expensive programs – and there’s nothing wrong with that – but it’s in the Effects module that ON1 Photo RAW offers something genuinely different, and not just cheaper.
The Layers module
Again, the Layers module was covered in some depth in the ON1 Photo RAW 2017.6 review, so I’ll just offer a summary here.
Essentially, ON1 Photo RAW offers the same layering, masking and compositing tools as a full-blown image editor like Photoshop. If you’re using Adobe’s Photography Plan, you will get both Lightroom and Photoshop, but you will have to ‘round-trip’ images from Lightroom to Photoshop and back again for any work requiring layers. In ON1 Photo RAW you can do it all within the same program.
Having said that, if you want to make any editing changes to layers, you do need to swap modules to do it, so it’s a little clunkier than Photoshop in that respect.
The masking tools are good, with a ‘Masking Bug’ for linear masks, a Masking Brush, Quick Mask and selection tools. You can refine masks after they’ve been created and ON1 Photo RAW 2018.1 adds mask feathering and opacity control as well as colour range selections.
Any Photoshop users taking a look at ON1 Photo RAW are likely to find it a little clunky and quirky by comparison, but that’s not going to be the usual route. It’s more likely that ON1 Photo RAW users are first-timers or upgrading from a lesser image-editing tool, so they’re not really going to be making that comparison.
Portrait photographers should note that where the old ON1 Photo Suite (Photo RAW’s predecessor) had a dedicated Portrait module, these tools have now been absorbed into the Effects module. ON1 Photo RAW is still a very effective tool for portrait enhancement and retouching.
The separate Resize module remains, however. This has a very specific job – upscaling images to a higher resolution for large-scale prints. It uses Genuine Fractals technology to blow up details without the softening and quality loss you get from regular resampling processes. Of course, it can’t generate additional detail that wasn’t captured in the first place (despite early claims by resizing software makers for this kind of process) but it should help preserve sharp edges.
ON1 Photo RAW 2018.1 verdict
This has ended up being a very long review, partly because ON1 Photo RAW 2018.1 does so much and each aspect needs to be looked at, partly because there continue to be so many updates and enhancements, but mostly because it’s tricky to rate.
All through the testing process it’s been apparent that ON1 Photo RAW might offer the same tools as more expensive rivals, but they don’t always works as smoothly or as effectively – or as well, if I’m going to be honest.
ON1 Photo RAW includes such a broad spectrum of tools that maybe we should cut it some slack for not being brilliant at everything. And yet if quality is your focus rather than value, there are better choices than this. The Lightroom and Photoshop pairing of Adobe’s Photography Plan is the obvious candidate. It means paying a subscription, but for that you get software that does just as much as ON1 Photo RAW, but just that bit better – except for image effects.
I remember when ON1 Perfect Suite – this program’s ancestor – was essentially a collection of rather good effects presets and manual tools that worked as a plug-in suite. And for me, that’s still ON1 Photo RAW’s strength. I’d rather trust my image cataloguing and RAW processing to Lightroom and call up ON1 Photo RAW as a plug-in, purely for its image effects. It’s trickier with DxO PhotoLab and Capture One Pro because they don’t offer the same plug-in workflow.
It’s true that ON1 Photo RAW offers image layers where Lightroom doesn’t, but let’s not forget that things have moved on and now Lightroom and Photoshop come together in Adobe’s Photography Plan. You don’t get one without the other, and we no longer need ON1 Photo RAW to plug that gap in Lightroom’s toolset because Photoshop is right there to do it.
It’s also true that Photo RAW offers a (possibly) superior approach to image organising and cataloguing than Lightroom if you’re happier with a more ad hoc, less structured approach to cataloguing, though when you dig a little deeper you find it needs to do some importing of its own.
And it’s true that ON1 Photo RAW is available as a ‘perpetual’ licence and that there is still strong resistance in some quarters to software subscription plans – but can I just point out that ON1 Photo RAW’s regular price is $120 (though it is often on a special offer) which is the same as one year’s subscription to Adobe’s Photography plan.
ON1 Photo RAW 2018.1 offers a lot for the money, and I really rate its image effects because these are, in my opinion, by far its strongest feature. The rest – its image cataloguing tools, RAW Develop tools, layers, panorama stitching, HDR, tethered shooting and more – well, these are definitely a strong proposition in terms of value, but not best-in-class tools. Personally, I would use it alongside other software applications rather than as a replacement.
So it all depends on where you’re coming from. If you’re just starting out with your first serious image editing tool, or you’re working on a tight budget, or you really want a single program that does everything, ON1 Photo RAW offers all the tools of its professional rivals, in a single place, at a lower price.
But if you approach it from the other angle, as a pro or expert already familiar with high-end tools, you’re probably going to find fault with a hundred things. And the comments on my previous ON1 Photo RAW 2017.6 review seem to bear this out, with a strong polarisation between fans who love its scope, value and power, and others who find it fussy, fiddly and infuriating – true, it can be all three of those things, but the longer you spend with it, the more you start to appreciate what it can do.