[BIG SOFTWARE, SMALL PRICE]

luminars-user-friendly-face
 [LUMINAR’S user-friendly face]

In the never-ending search for a cheaper alternative to Photoshop we can report on a couple of promising contenders. Luminar, from macphun.com, and Affinity Photo for Windows from serif.com are well worth a look.

The Mac version of Affinity Photo has been around for a year or so and costs about $80 from the App Store. For current owners there is a beta version 1.5 available with impressive focus stacking and HDR merging functions. And now, at last, there is a Windows version, in beta and available as a trial download.

Serif represents Affinity Photo as a Photoshop alternative fit for the pros. It has a comprehensive set of features and controls and it is not for the faint-hearted. The learning curve is steep and it uses some curious nomenclature for its controls. Have a guess at what “Photo Persona” might be. No, it is not a picture of a person.

There is no user manual but there are video tutorials (not so helpful) and a Help section which is not bad. The application has some infuriating quirks such as preventing you from moving to the next step without first doing something else that you don’t understand and it doesn’t explain.

The user interface of Affinity will seem familiar to Photoshop users but a little bewildering to a newcomer to photo editing software. The only way to learn Affinity Photo is by using it.

Affinity Photo has been popular on the Apple App Store and it should be even more popular in its Windows mode because, unlike Macs the Windows 10 machines have no decent native photo editor. So, for $80 the hole in the installed software is plugged.

True to its professional pretensions it eschews automated routines. Users are expected to be grown-ups capable of using slider adjustment tools to fix tone, colour, sharpness and so on.

Macphun’s Luminar takes a different tack on automation, putting up an array of preset thumbnails showing the effects of instant selection. In default you choose from Clarity Booster (edge contrast), Image Enhancer, Mild Image Enhancer, Sharp and Crisp, Classic Black and White, Foggy Day (!) and so on. The intensity of each effect is set with a slider from 0 to 100 percent.

Luminar does automation better than most. Fix Dark Photos, for instance, judiciously recovers a decent image from a badly underexposed photo.

The black and white conversion preset makes a straight monochrome version of the coloured image which can then be manipulated with colour filters. Apply the red filter and you get a black sky, just as you would with red glass on the camera. Luminar opens every RAW file format that we threw at it so the black and white conversion is made with the best version of the photo.

Further controls are in the tool palette on the right of the screen. The usual controls for tone, colour, noise, sharpness come with one or two things that are a surprise, such as the polarising filter effect. The intensity of the filter is variable and just like the physical glass thing it works to reduce bright reflections and to make skies more dramatic.

There are different sets of presets for portraits, landscapes, street and dramatic photos. Even more presets are available from the Macphun web site.

The noise reduction function works by putting before and after previews side by side so that as the intensity of the reduction is varied the effect can be seen on the “after” preview. As noise reduction is always a compromise between removing the dirt and preserving the fine detail it is a help to see what is happening.

Where Affinity Photo is user hostile Luminar is positively cuddly in its friendliness.

At this stage Luminar is for Mac only (there is a trial version from the company web site or the full paid version from the App Store) but Macphun promise a Windows version next year. Luminar is easier to learn than Affinity Photo but is more directed at the occasional editor who doesn’t want to pay the price of Adobe’s products but wants something better than the photo editors built into the operating systems.

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[CANON vs SONY: EVERYBODY WINS]

If you have $1580 burning a hole in the pocket and a hankering for a new camera for Christmas the news is good. Canon can fit you out with the mirrorless EOS M5 with a 15—45mm interchangeable kit lens or, if you prefer a compact with fixed lens, Sony has the latest iteration of the RX100, now Mk V.

The EOS M5 is Canon’s belated entry into the serious mirrorless category. It has a 24 megapixel dual pixel APS sensor – for faster auto focus – and has the internal workings of the excellent Canon 80D in a smaller body.

The sensor is APS so the engraved focal lengths are multiplied by 1.5 to show full frame equivalence. The 15—45mm kit lens is the angle of view of 22.5—67.5mm full frame.

Unlike the competition from Olympus, Sony, Panasonic and Fujifilm the M5 is not a mirrorless camera built from the ground up. Conservative Canon has created a shrunken conventional DSLR. By removing the mirror and prism the volume and mass of the body have been reduced without compromising superb build quality and ergonomics.

The tilting LCD is full time live view, the big advantage of mirrorless, supplementing the high resolution electronic viewfinder. The LCD is touch screen and all important parameters can be set with a touch of the finger. Focus spot can be selected with a touch and then can be dragged to follow the subject, which is brilliant for video.

Video is1080p, not 4K, so the M5 is behind the game here, but the video is excellent with very good focus tracking. There is a microphone socket.

Image quality is as expected from a Canon DSLR, outstanding. RAW files are best but the finest JPEGs are as good as most users will want.

The killer feature of the M5 is that it accepts existing Canon lenses, with an adapter. We tried EF lenses from our Canon bag and they focus as fast as the native M glass. This is the best adapter (optional — $130 lowest street price) that we have ever used and we have no hesitation in saying to Canon owners looking for a path into mirrorless that this is the way to go. You could buy the body and the adapter and use existing lenses.

[CANON EOS M5 with Canon 70–200 len with adapter]

The Sony Cyber-shot RX100 MkV is an altogether different bag of tricks. It is a fixed lens (24—70mm equivalent) compact built around a 1” 20 megapixel sensor. It is very small and inconspicuous in its austere black form.

It has a small pop-up electronic viewfinder which is fiddly to activate, suggesting that Sony think the RX100 will be used at arm’s length most of the time. In fact all of the controls are tiny and it is easy to miss connecting with the shutter button.

There is a concentric ring around the lens that can be configured for control of various functions, and when manual focus is selected in the menu the ring automatically assumes the focus role. Neat.

The Sony does do fine 4K video. The only caveat is that the camera has neither hot shoe nor microphone socket so the sound can only be recorded by the in-built microphone. A new feature on the MkV is high frame rate video for extreme slow motion.

Image quality is excellent and the auto white balance is spectacular. We took a number of photos in mixed light settings and the camera always got the colour right.

Using the RX100 MkV is a reminder of how we did it in the days of film – choose your film stock, set the ISO speed and take photos. It would be unfair to describe the Sony as “point and shoot” and better to categorise it as the ultimate “decisive moment” camera. Set the ISO, put the Mode on P and just take photos. The Sony sets you free to concentrate on the important matters of light, composition and capturing the fleeting smile.

If you like the sound of the RX100 MkV but think the price is a bit steep then look for the MkIII and MkIV, both still current and not that different from the latest version.

 

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[STOCKING FILLERS]

It is that time of year when we smack the brow and ask ourselves what will we get Uncle Cyril, who has everything, for Christmas.

Uncle gets pleasure from his photography so we take ourselves to michaels cameras in Melbourne, the biggest camera store in Australia, confident that they will have useful doodads that will evoke the proper appreciation: “Just what I always wanted”. And here’s what we have spotted for the stocking.

We are much taken with the Pro-Master Tripod Mount for mobile phones. For $20 you get a phone clamp that expands and contracts to fit a range of smartphone sizes, either in or out of cases. The clamp has a tripod screw socket on the base and fits onto any standard tripod. The mount will fit Aunty Edna’s old iPhone 4 or Cyril’s new Google Pixel XL.

For any family member going travelling in ’17 the Pro-Master Weatherproof Extreme memory card case ($29.95) will go down nicely. It holds eight SD or sixteen micro SD cards – there are inserts provided for each type – in an indestructible clamshell case. It claims to be “weatherproof” which presumably means a bit of rain won’t get in.

The Benro Mini Tripod Selfie Stick costs $69.95 and as the name suggests consists of a small table-top tripod in which the centre column telescopes out to a stick. It comes with a ball and socket head, a phone clamp and a GoPro action cam attachment. Walk around Paris with yourself constantly in the video picture. Bonzer!

What makes the Benro particularly attractive is the built-in, but detachable, Bluetooth switch. This means that the phone can be mounted on the tripod and fired remotely from up to ten metres distance. It seems like a lot of gadget for the price.

The Pro-Master LED Light ($39.95) is interesting. Instead of relying on harsh and uncontrollable flash this device provides steady always-on light from eight LEDs. It is rechargeable from any USB charger and is intended for use with phones and tablets, plugging into the headphone socket. (Not so good for iPhone 7) With a conventional camera it fits into the hot shoe. It is ultra small and has variable power to let you determine the right amount of light for the situation.

One of the cheapest cameras in the Michaels shop is the Fujifilm Instax Mini 8, a Polaroid-like instant film camera. Right now there is a cashback offer that makes the price for the camera $79. The Instax outputs small prints that cost $2 each from the 10 shot pack. The colour print image quality is best described as “retro” but the black and white “film” has an intriguing appeal.

The Instax is such a phenomenal success that it has spawned an entire boutique shop-let in Michaels, stuffed with accessories such as frames, stickers, cases, mounting cards, mounting album corners and so on. The idea is that you buy a couple and let the Christmas Dinner guests use them to take photos of the occasion and then you dress up the little prints with witty stick-on labels and mount them on the special Christmas boards and everyone has a good laugh at themselves and Uncle Cyril has the time of his life churning out expensive instant pictures. You had better buy the 50 print box ($60) it works out a bit cheaper.

We didn’t want to break the $100 barrier on our spending spree and the Rode VideoMicGo just makes it at $99.95. This microphone has two things going for it – firstly it is a fine microphone for use when shooting video with any stills camera, and secondly, it is designed and made in Australia. It could well be the only present you give this year that is not made in China. Just two words of warning: make sure that Uncle’s camera has a microphone jack (not all cameras do) and know that the mic hangs out over the back of the camera so that the eye-level viewfinder can’t be used.

Have a snappy Christmas.

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[THE DIGITAL REVIEWER’S DILEMMA]

The person who presumes to review and assess digital doodads faces a constant dilemma: do we judge against an ideal or do we assess on the basis of realistic expectations of owners’ use?

The dilemma presents itself starkly this week as we compare two brilliant smartphone cameras, the Sony Xperia XZ ($999) and the iPhone 7 Plus ($1269).

The Sony is an Android phone with a 23 megapixel sensor camera, five axis image stabilisation, “laser” (actually infra red) focusing and a 13mp selfie camera. The operating system is Android 6, not the latest version.

The iPhone, which is the bigger of the two iPhone models so is not strictly comparable with the Sony in size or price, comes with two cameras of different focal length lenses that work together to achieve certain depth of field and zoom effects. The main cameras have 12 megapixel sensors with image stabilisation.

Both smartphones produce excellent jpegs with the Sony doing better in white balance (colour accuracy) with the iPhone tending to give everyone a tan. The iPhone just pips the Sony in jpeg processing with better noise reduction without blurring fine detail. The differences are only apparent at higher magnification and on Instagram you won’t see any difference.

Both cameras record superb 4K video and the better image stabilisation in the Sony makes for steadier pictures when walking while recording.

Both phones have fine displays but the Sony is a little better with deeper black and richer colours. Both are 1080 line screens, but the Sony is smaller and is therefore subjectively sharper.

[from the Sony Xperia XZ]

Now comes the dilemma – the iPhone allows third party apps to record images in unprocessed RAW format. And you may well say: who cares? Who uses a phone camera as a serious photographic device? Realistically we might guess one in a million. But still…

Sony fits a 23mp sensor and yet can only output a 2MB image file. That’s a lot of information thrown away. The Apple also outputs a 2MB jpeg but from the lower resolution 12mp sensor. And as fewer fat pixels are generally better than more skinny pixels it’s no wonder that the iPhone jpegs show fewer compression and noise reduction effects.

We asked Sony if the Xperia XZ could capture RAW images and they replied “Xperias don’t support RAW format as of yet”, which may mean some day or never. With other Android phones happily opening their camera modules to third party apps, such as Adobe’s Lightroom Mobile, Sony’s position is perplexing.

While the iPhone doesn’t do RAW with its native camera app it is open to third party apps to do the job, and for subscribers to Adobe’s Creative Cloud the integration of Lightroom Mobile with the desktop version is seamless via the syncing system. RAW images are sensational and worthy of any serious photographer. Sony misses out badly here.

However not everything is perfect in the Apple system. We could not find any way to get the RAW (in Adobe’s DNG format) to transfer from the phone to the iMac in full resolution using the built-in functions, such as AirDrop. Every method we tried resulted in the 11 MB DNG being turned into a 2MB jpeg in the process. Only by using the Adobe syncing could we make a full size transfer. The Android operating system wins hands down when it comes to file management. There are expensive third party file management apps for the Apple system but we were not prepared to pay for something that should be native to the OS.

In a curious anomaly managing Android files on an iMac is a doddle. Just install Android File Transfer (free) on the Mac and connect the Android phone and the entire folder structure opens up before your eyes for easy drag and drop.

Verdict: if Instagram, Facebook, Flickr and YouTube straight from the camera are your intended galleries then the Sony Xperia XZ is acceptable with its better white balance, stabilisation, display and operating system. But if you hanker after the ultimate high quality portable camera then the iPhone 7 Plus is the winner.

[from the iPhone 7 Plus]

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