Photographic experimenters and artists are always looking out for new and exciting tools to expand their vision, and CyberLink PhotoDirector 9 does seem to offer some interesting and alternative approaches to photography, including 360 photo and video editing and crossover video and stills imaging. It’s also a pretty powerful all-in-one photo cataloguing, enhancing and editing tool, so that alone makes it worth a proper look.
CyberLink is a Taiwanese company with offices around the world. It’s been making its ‘Director’ software for some time, and it consists of PhotoDirector 9, for stills and some crossover video work, PowerDirector 16 for video, ColorDirector 6 for colour grading video and AudioDirector 8 for (obviously) audio editing.
You can get these programs individually or collectively as part of Director Suite 6. Clearly, there’s a pretty heavy bias towards video editing here, so stills photographers will be primarily interested in PhotoDirector 9.
This comes in two versions: Deluxe and a more powerful Ultra version. If you’re using a Mac, like me, there’s no Deluxe option, only Ultra.
So what is PhotoDirector?
PhotoDirector 9 is designed as an all-in-one photo organising, enhancing and editing tool. At first sight it looks like it might be setting itself up as competition for Lightroom (we’ll come on to that), but a closer look at its features shows it’s aiming at a the beginner/enthusiast market more at the level of Photoshop Elements, say.
For example, there’s a Face Swap feature for combining the best expressions from a series of photos to make one single ‘perfect’ group shot, and PhotoDirector can recognise faces automatically and offers face-tagging features. There’s also a section dedicated to cosmetic improvements (however you feel about this), such as skin smoothing, skin tone adjustments and face and body reshaping.
CyberLink wants anyone with a smartphone or a camera to be able to turn ordinary photos into works of art and it certainly offers lots of ways to experiment. Its Adjustments panel offers a selection of Preset effects and the option of downloading more from the CyberLink website – these presets are created both by CyberLink and its creative community.
More interestingly, CyberLink is embracing the latest developments in 360 imaging and new and interesting crossovers between stills and video. PhotoDirector 9 brings the ability to create animated GIFs from video clips for sharing on social media and websites. It can also create ‘living’ photos from video clips, by freezing parts of the scene while retaining movement in others.
Cyberlink gave a demo of the new features at our offices, and while you will probably need scenes to be shot with this living photo effect in mind, it did seem remarkably simple to do, using nothing more than a masking brush to identify areas with movement.
360 degree cameras might not be mainstream right now, but they are becoming more common and CyberLink is clearly keen to exploit their creative potential. With PhotoDirector you can edit 360 images directly, creating flat (planar) panoramas or circular ‘tiny planets’.
It’s not all about 360 imaging and video tools, though. PhotoDirector 9 also has new features aimed at more advanced mainstream photography. It supports Raw files directly and has more than 100 automatic lens correction profiles – not as many as Lightroom or DxO Optics Pro, perhaps, but better than nothing, and you can always resort to the software’s manual distortion and keystone corrections if you need to.
The Layers module now supports blending modes, and the is a new Express Layer Templates option for creating layered compositions quickly.
Other new features include a Dehaze tool to eliminate fog, smoke or haze, a Defringe tool for removing chromatic aberration and purple fringing, Photo Blending options for combining multiple photos into a single image and content-aware object moving.
How does PhotoDirector work?
The visual similarities between PhotoDirector 9 and Lightroom are very strong. If Adobe ever made a ‘Lightroom Elements’, it would almost certainly look like this. Along the top is a row of buttons for the different modules and these are: Library, Adjustment, Edit, Layers, Create and Print.
You start out in the Library module, where you need to import your images into the PhotoDirector 9 library before you can do anything with them. It’s pretty quick and, once they’re imported, they appear in a Folders panel on the left of the screen, with the option of adding them to Albums – PhotoDirector 9 also supports Smart Albums.
Images are displayed as thumbnails in the main window, as single images (when you double-click) in full screen mode or in a combined filmstrip/preview window. To work on an image, you select it and swap to whichever module you want to use.
The Adjustment module is equivalent to Lightroom’s Develop module. Here you can apply non-destructive adjustments to your images via a series of stacked adjustment panels. These offer pretty much the same set of tools as Lightroom, though often in less depth. Across the top are further tools, including a Crop tool, Spot Removal and Red-eye Removal tools, Adjustment Brush, Gradient Mask and Radial Filter. There’s also a rather useful Selection Mask tool – now that’s something it really would be handy to have in Lightroom.
All of this works pretty well and achieves most of the things you might do in Lightroom’s Develop module. But PhotoDirector goes a step further with its Edit mode, entering the world of pixel-based adjustments simply not possible in Lightroom – you’d have to use an external editor like Photoshop. At this point, PhotoDirector 9 will tell you it’s saving a new copy of your photo to make this possible.
This is where you’ll find PhotoDirector 9’s new 360 Photo Editor, though this only works on 360-degree images, not regular photos. There are also panels for Photo Effects – the Color Splash filter is a really quick and simple way to create a selective colour black and white image and the blur tool is similarly quick and easy – Object Removal, Extract or Compose, Photo Merge, Frames & Watermarks and a People Beautifier.
None of this is terribly sophisticated, but it’s fine for people who are just starting out, or who want to get some interesting effects without having to learn the technicalities of in-depth image-editing. The new Content Aware Move tool works well enough on photos where your subject is clearly defined against a pretty uniform background, but falls down (as they all do) in more complex scenes where your subject is set against more complex, detailed backgrounds, or there’s no clear space between them.
The Layers module is good to have, but it’s not Photoshop, even with the new layer blending modes. You’re also warned that any editing or enhancement on the photos you’re combining needs to be done beforehand – it’s a shame you can’t swap back and forth between modules as you work.
The Create module is where you create Slideshows, animated GIFs and Motion Stills. I have to hold my hands up here and say I don’t routinely do any of these things. I’ve seen them demonstrated, though, and they seem to work great.
The final Print module pretty much speaks for itself. You can use this to control print layouts, photo sizes, watermarks and more.
Is it any good?
PhotoDirector 9 is pretty fast and efficient to use. My copy crashed a couple of times, but it was a pre-release build. Importing is fast, image rendering is fast and many of the tools, although a little simplistic here and there, are fast and simple to use.
Working out how to rate it is much more difficult, and it’s important to take into account the tools it offers and the market it’s aimed at.
The module-based interface and especially the Adjustment tools could make you think you’re looking at a low-cost Lightroom clone, and if you start making direct comparisons PhotoDirector 9 quickly comes up short. It doesn’t have Lightroom’s breadth of Raw support and lens correction profiles, it lacks subtleties like Camera Calibration and automatic perspective corrections and – crucially – it doesn’t support external editors or plug-ins. PhotoDirector 9 offers lots of neat tools and effects but it’s a closed environment.
If you’re looking for a low-cost Lightroom alternative without a subscription plan, this gets half way there but it’s by no means as good as the real thing.
And while the Edit module does offer a range of interesting effects and while the Layers panel does let you create composite images, between them they don’t come close to the power of a proper standalone photo editor like Photoshop or Affinity Photo.
It’s much better to see PhotoDirector 9 as an innovative all-in-one photo tool for beginners and experimenters who want to try out new ideas without getting bogged down in technicalities. I’m going to ignore the similarities with Lightroom because I think that’s a misleading comparison.
With that in mind, I’m going to give it a cautious four stars. It’s very good at what it sets out to do, but it’s aimed at a novice/intermediate audience that wants exciting image effects without being blinded with science. Think smartphones, selfies and social media and you won’t go far wrong. It will tackle more complex and advanced image adjustments, but here you can run up against the buffers pretty quickly, and the inability to swap to an external editor or plug-in starts to hurt.
If PhotoDirector 9’s Adjustment, Edit and Layers panels go absolutely as far as you want to go, that’s fine, but once you get seriously into image-editing, layers and effects you’ll almost certainly need to start looking around at other programs.
PhotoDirector 9 Ultra costs £79.99/$99.99. It’s available online at the CyberLink Store and in selected retail outlets worldwide.