Verdict: 4.5 stars
Other programs might have the edge individually for cataloguing tools, RAW processing, analog effects or reality distortion, but no other program brings all those things together like this one. You should try it before you buy it to make sure you like its style, but for scope, depth and value combined, ON1 Photo RAW 2020 is pretty remarkable. Smart albums have been taken out, though, and the upcoming ON1 360 cloud sync service will have more strings than expected, so it’s not a clean sweep.
ON1 Photo RAW 2020 really is a photo editor that does everything, from the start of the photographic workflow right to the end.
It has browsing and cataloguing tools for organising and searching your photos, it has non-destructive editing tools for raw processing, image effects and even layered image composites, and an extensive library preset of one-click effects for kickstarting your creativity.
When you’re ready to share your images, there’s a new and more sophisticated Print module for creating contact sheets, tiled photos on a sheet and watermarked images too.
The new ON1 360 cloud service is getting closer too, but there have been a few compromises compared to the original plan. ON1 now says your synced images will need to be hosted on its own servers rather than third party services like Dropbox, and this will bring a regular Adobe style subscription charge for storage. The ON1 offering will be cheaper than the Adobe alternative, but not by as much as many might have hoped, and with similar strings attached (no choice of cloud provider, an additional subscription charge beyond those you might already have with other storage providers and being tied to a specific provider).
ON1 360 pricing plans (May 2020)
To clarify, you will get the following options:
|Offer||200GB plan||1TB plan|
|Service add-on (ON1 Photo RAW 2020 bought separately)||$59.99/year||$109.99/year|
|$5.99/month (available June 2020)||$9.99/month (available June 2020)|
|Software + service (includes ON1 Photo RAW 2020)||$89.99/year||$179.99/year|
|$7.99/month (available June 2020)||$15.99/month (available June 2020)|
If you have a SmugMug account you might choose a different route, as ON1 Photo RAW 2020 comes with SmugMug integration, which could be all the cloud synchronisation that SmugMug users need.
ON1 Photo RAW 2020 offers two ways of organising your photos. You can browse them folder by folder or you can add them to a catalog. Catalogs have a couple of advantages – you can select which folders are included, whereas the browse window includes your whole computer and connected drives, and catalogs offer more advanced search tools.
In the 2020 version, these have been separated into two different tabs. That’s not a bad idea because there has always been some potentially confusing overlap here – even with folders, you can still do some handy filtering and sorting.
But ON1 has done something odd. It has taken away its smart album feature for catalogs. Smart albums bring together images with matching shooting information, keywords, ratings or other properties you choose. These have been removed, so now all you have is static albums where you add images manually.
Why take smart albums away? It’s hard to imagine there is a technical reason, because ON1 Photo RAW 2019 had them, and they are very useful (to me, at least!). You can create and save custom search presets, which do a similar job (thanks Jürgen). These, however, are buried in the Advanced Search panel, and can only be displayed as a linear list via a drop-down menu. It’s a similar principle technically, but very different in usability terms.
Otherwise, the organising tools are fine. ON1 Photo RAW 2020 can browse folders and build thumbnails very quickly, and if you’re happy with a simple but flexible folder-based system and modest cataloguing tools – as opposed to the full-blown database image management in Capture One and Lightroom – this is fine.
There are two more new features in ON1 Photo RAW 2020. A new timeline view for catalogs lets you browse your photos by date, and a new Map view shows location information for images that have it, and lets you place images on a map and add location information for those that don’t. It’s not quite as slick as the map features already well established in other programs – you can’t simply drag photos on to a map – but once you understand how it works, it’s fine.
One of the key points about Photo RAW 2020, like the preceding versions, is that its adjustments are ‘non-destructive’. This means that it doesn’t change your original photos, but stores your adjustments as processing ‘metadata’ (or processing instructions) alongside your photos. Inside Photo RAW 2020 it looks as if your images have been edited, but to produce an image with those processing changes permanently applied you have to export a new, processed image.
This is how Lightroom, Capture One, DxO PhotoLab and other new photo editing applications work. This non-destructive approach means you can change your mind about the settings at any time, even days or weeks later, and your original images are preserved intact and not altered.
The other advantage of non-destructive editing is that you can create ‘virtual copies’ in ON1 Photo RAW that don’t produce duplicated image files on your computer. Instead, each virtual copy is the same original image but shown with different processing adjustments. You can produce finished, processed images by exporting these virtual copies.
The ability to work on RAW files seamlessly feels like the modern way to work, and while ON1 Photo RAW 2020 isn’t perhaps right up there with the best RAW processing tools, it is making strides. ON1 says processing for Fujifilm X-Trans files has been improved and it does seem to do a pretty good job.
It also has new AI Match and AI Auto options in the Develop panel. These are interesting. AI Match attempts to match the tones and colors in the RAW file’s embedded JPEG preview, which is rather clever, and AI Auto is a quick fix enhancement not unlike Adobe’s Auto Tone – and it does give images a real sparkle.
The power of layers
By incorporating layers into its workflow, Photo RAW 2019 goes a whole step further than rival non-destructive browsing/editing tools. Other programs need to ‘round-trip’ images to other editing tools like Photoshop or Affinity Photo to create composite, multi-layer images, but Photo RAW 2020 can do this internally (as can Skylum Luminar, to be fair).
ON1 Photo RAW’s layering and masking tools can take a little acclimatisation if you’re used to Photoshop, but they are very effective. Be aware, though, that if you do create layered images then Photo RAW will need to create a new image file on your computer. These are still fully non-destructive, so you can keep changing the settings at will, but the files can be pretty big – 100MB+ for a two-layer 24-megapixel image, for example.
Does the integration of these layers tools make ON1 Photo RAW 2020 a genuine Photoshop rival? Actually, when you factor in its Develop and Effects tools (next section), then actually it does. Designers, illustrators and artists will have different needs not addressed here, but photographers may find that Photo RAW 2020 does everything they needed to use Photoshop (and Lightroom) for in the past.
In the early days, ON1’s all-in-one program was a little complex and rough around the edges, but this latest version is a lot slicker. Previously, the program had different modules arranged in a vertical list down the right side of the screen, but now there are only two: Browse and Edit.
In the Edit mode, the previously separate modules have been integrated into a single, tabbed panel, so that all your work is now done in the same window.
ON1 says ON1 Photo RAW 2020 has performance improvements that see images opening for editing up to two times faster. To be honest, every new version of ON1 Photo RAW comes with claimed major performance improvements, so we’ll take that on trust. On my test Mac it is pretty speed, but it also proved a little fractious – I did get a couple of unexpected hangs and a couple of times it split the thumbnail window from the rest and made if full screen while I was working in another application, and I still haven’t figured out why it did that and how to stop it.
The Develop panel is used principally for RAW file enhancements and local adjustments, though it can also be used for routine enhancements to colour, tone, sharpening and more for JPEG and TIFF images. You can also apply lens corrections (Photo RAW 2020 will automatically recognise and correct most lenses) and there’s a very useful Transform pane for fixing converging verticals and other perspective issues.
Alongside is the Effects panel, where you can apply Photo RAW’s extensive and growing list of effects filters. These don’t just include special effects, but more enhancements and adjustments beyond those in the Develop panel.
These filters are an integral part of ON1 Photo RAW 2020’s impressive capabilities. Its wide array of preset image effects uses combinations of these filters that you can inspect and change if you need to.
There is a dedicated Portrait panel, too. It goes way beyond simple skin-softening, with an automatic face-recognition system that picks out and separates different faces in a shot so that you can edit them individually. Skin softening is easy thanks to the automatic face masking (you can modify the mask manually if you need to) and eyes and mouths can be enhanced using simple and adjustable marquee tools. It doesn’t do the kind of face morphing offered by some other programs but not every portrait photographer is into that kind of adjustment anyway.
Filters and presets
ON1 Photo RAW 2020’s library of preset image effects remains perhaps its single most important asset. These are organised into categories to help users find exactly the kind of effect they want.
There has been quite a change in this version, though. ON1 has radically overhauled its presets, with over 100 new styles “curated from today’s hottest photographic trends”. There are also new skies, backgrounds and textures for creative image effects.
Within each category each preset is previewed on a thumbnail version of the image you’re editing, and if you see one you like you can apply it with a single click. And if it’s not quite right, that’s fine, because each one is made up of a series of filters and adjustments which you can edit directly in the Edit panels.
The only thing is… ON1 has swapped from its old system of giving each style a name (memorable, if not always descriptive) to giving them three- or four-digit alphanumeric codes. It looks very cool, and it’s in line with how other programs like Capture One, Adobe Lightroom and VSCO work, but it’s not so easy to remember the presets you like – or to find your old favorites again.
As usual with any ON1 Photo RAW update, there are new filters. These include image correction filters (Color Balance, Channel Mixer) and two new creative filters (Weather and Sun Flare). The Weather filter produces pretty convincing blizzard effects, though the rain effect is less convincing. The Sun Flare filter, however, produces some really nice hazy, summery looks.
Quality of results
ON1 Photo RAW 2020 does not quite have the simplicity and slickness of some rival programs. There’s a lot going on here, in a dozen different places. But the results, once you find your way around, are really rather good. Its RAW processing looks pretty good, and while it doesn’t seem about to completely remove tricky examples of color fringing/chromatic aberration as effectively as Capture One or Lightroom, it does do a good job with the RAW files from my Fujifilm X30 compact camera, a non-mainstream camera which is a big challenge for most RAW converters.
The preset effects are rather good. ON1 Photo RAW 2020 might be priced for a mid-range audience, but it has the capabilities and potential to impress experts and professional image makers too.
Other new features in this release include a focus mask overlay for showing areas of sharp focus (reminiscent of Capture One), support for custom camera profiles and claimed improvements to the noise reduction. The noise reduction is certainly effective – the Luminance slider has a strong effect with small adjustments, and it’s not hard to achieve a good balance between noise and detail. It’s not as effective as DxO PRIME Denoise, but then nothing is.
ON1 Photo RAW has always been big on value, features and spectacle, but it’s lacked some of the finesse of big name rivals like Lightroom, Capture One and Exposure X5, for example.
The ON1 Photo RAW 2020 interface is still a little busy and complicated, and the interface font sizes are pretty small. If you’re using it for the first time it might take you a little while to work out where everything is.
But it’s worth the effort. ON1’s continued refinement of its Effects filters and the way they’re presented make you realise these are important creative tools that deserve to be taken seriously, and while not every filter is equally useful, or equally convincing, that’s true of any software.
ON1 Photo RAW 2020 is a significant step up from the 2019 version, and worth the upgrade price. It’s also cheap enough to for new users to try with little financial risk – in fact the 30-day trial means there’s no risk at all.
Other programs have their strengths – Alien Skin Exposure X5 for its analog effects, DxO PhotoLab for its sublime RAW conversions, Capture One Pro for its quality and editing workflow and so on – but no other program offers this range of capabilities at such a reasonable price.
The new ON1 360 service will be a tougher call, though. This ties you into a storage subscription not a whole lot cheaper than Adobe’s. ON1 has always made a great play of its subscription-free software, but its marketing is driving more and more towards subscription services, so it’s on pretty thin ice here.
For those who object to the whole subscription principle, the standalone ‘perpetual’ (non-subscription) ON1 Photo RAW 2020 purchase looks by far the best option. For those who don’t mind subscriptions, ON1’s pricing puts it uncomfortably close (in my opinion) to Adobe’s.
ON1 Photo RAW 2020