DigitalCameraReview.com
Corel AfterShot Pro Review: A Worthy Competitor to Adobe Lightroom?
by DCR Staff -  2/9/2012

By David English

If you’re into digital cameras, you’re probably still searching for the perfect photo editor. Full-featured photo editing software, such as Adobe Photoshop Lightroom or Apple’s Aperture, can be somewhat slow and cumbersome, especially on an older desktop or notebook computer. You can find smaller editors that are lightning fast, but they tend to be too lightweight in their capabilities. On the other hand, the recently released Corel AfterShot Pro ($99.99) is well worth considering as an alternative to either Lightroom or Aperture.

All three programs offer non-destructive photo editing, which means the original image is left intact. You can back out of your edit steps at any time to return to a prior edit. The feature mix is different among the three programs, although you could argue that the tools and results are just about comparable. Although it might or might not turn out to be your favorite, AfterShot Pro is in the same league as Lightroom and Aperture in both the quantity and quality of its features. What's more, Corel's new software package runs on a choice of three different operating systems (OS): Microsoft Windows, Apple Macintosh, and Linux. (Note: System requirements for each platform appear at the end of this review.)

Lean and Responsive

For notebook computers, AfterShot Pro carries some very real advantages over Lightroom and Aperture. It’s extremely fast, the user interface (UI) is small-screen friendly, and file handling is flexible enough to accommodate the special needs of traveling photographers. Don’t let the version 1.0 throw you. Corel recently purchased Bibble Labs, and AfterShot Pro is a direct descendent of Bibble 5 Pro.

There are some rough edges and a few surprising omissions (no red-eye correction or dual monitor support, for example), but overall this is a mature photo editing package that could be a good fit for either the professional photographer or the photo enthusiast.

Like Lightroom, AfterShot Pro is designed to match a photographer’s typical workflow. Unlike Lightroom, however, AfterShot Pro doesn’t seperate the workflow into distinct modules. AfterShot Pro tries to fit everything onto a single screen. You might think that a single-screen approach would be a bad idea for a smaller screen, but the interface provides plenty of ways to collapse, swap-out, or customize the various onscreen elements. In the end, you may prefer Lightroom’s modular approach, although not having to move back and forth between modules can also be beneficial, especially if you’re in a hurry.

Speaking of being in a hurry, AfterShot Pro is so small and efficient, I was able to install the entire program on a Lenovo X220 laptop equipped with a speedy SSD (solid-state drive) in just five seconds. In addition, there was never a time when the X220 unexpectedly paused or stalled when applying an edit process.

Even on a five-year-old HP xw8400 desktop workstation with a first-generation SATA-interface hard drive, AfterShot Pro ran smoothly with only a few hiccups. I have Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 3.6 and Corel PaintShop Pro X4 installed on both machines, and AfterShot Pro turned out to be the fastest of all three of these photo editors.

Versatile File Management

Most photo editing programs require you to import your photos into the program’s catalog system. There are advantages to doing this (fast keyword searches being one of them). However, if you use your notebook mostly to view your photos and perform quick edits before sending them to your desktop for a full edit, importing your photos could be a waste of time. AfterShot Pro offers a fully capable import-to-catalog option, but it also lets you work with your photos without importing them.

The software supports flash cards, flash drives, and external USB drives so that you can view and/or edit your photos directly on your portable media. You could leave the photos on a portable drive (or even the camera’s SD card) and share the photos between your desktop and notebook computers. Also, if you let AfterShot Pro create a catalog for the photos on the portable drive, the edit steps will be shared back-and-forth along with the edited photos.

Camera Support

Because of its Bibble Labs pedigree, AfterShot Pro supports the RAW formats for more than 200 different cameras, including popular models from Canon, Nikon, Olympus, Pentax, Samsung, Sony, Panasonic, Leica, Minolta, Kodak, and Ricoh. At this time, no Fujifilm cameras are supported, though Corel is working to add some of the current models. We were told by the AfterShot Pro product manager that Corel will be aggressive in adding new cameras as they are introduced into the market. Corel also plans to go back and add some of the earlier models from the manufacturers.

Unfortunately, there’s no generic support for DNG files. There's only support for specific models. For example, the RAW files from the Sigma DP1s and DP2s cameras are not supported, despite the fact that DNG is supposed to be a universal RAW format.

There is full support for JPG and TIF files. You could set your RAW-compatible camera to save its photos as JPG files rather than as RAW files. However, you would lose a great deal of flexibility (and creative latitude) when adjusting the exposure or white balance levels.

Keeping It RAW

Yet, AfterShot Pro supports its plug-ins in a way that Lightroom and Aperture do not. Adobe and Apple force plug-in developers to convert the RAW format files into a JPG or TIF format, which means you can’t later adjust the exposure or white balance with the same flexibility, after it has passed through the plug-in. You also can’t undo back through the plug-in’s edit steps, because those edit steps are now disconnected from the application’s undo history. Corel avoids these problems by allowing a photo to stay in RAW format, even when edited by a plug-in.

Because AfterShot Pro currently has only a handful of downloadable plug-ins, this staying-in-RAW distinction isn’t a major benefit at this point. However, as the plug-in library expands, as it did with Bibble Pro, this could become a key advantage for AfterShot Pro over both Lightroom and Aperture. Moreover, because AfterShot Pro allows a photo to stay in its RAW format, even when it is being modified by a plug-in, Corel is able to integrate the plug-in controls into the application, so that the sliders and settings become embedded directly into the interface.

Bring on the Power Tools

AfterShot Pro provides a full complement of editing tools that include the usual exposure, saturation, hue, luminance, contrast, fill light, highlights, and sharpness sliders. You can crop, rotate, and straighten your images. There are even automatic optical corrections for some individual lenses. As with Lightroom, you can perform adjustments to specific areas of a photo. AfterShot Pro uses layers to accomplish this, which initially may seem complex, but is more flexible and precise than Lightroom’s Adjustment Brush. AfterShot Pro’s polygonal selection tool, for example, lets you select unusual-shaped areas for more pinpoint control.

The program also integrates two powerful specialized tools that are better known as standalone applications. The Perfectly Clear tool provides a one-button optimization that adjusts the exposure, white balance, and contrast levels. Based on medical imaging technology, it goes far beyond the typical auto level button (which is also included). Even when it doesn’t create exactly the corrections you’re looking for, it can be a good starting point for fine-tuning the image.

The other specialized tool is Noise Ninja, a well-respected noise reduction system. This is another try-it-and see-what-happens type of correction. It doesn’t offer lots of options unless you pay extra for the full version of Noise Ninja.

Other advanced editing tools include the ability to save any sequence of edit steps as a preset, so that the sequence can be applied to other images or selectively applied to portions of an image using layers (In contrast, Lightroom can’t apply presets to portions of an image). You can also send the image to an external editor, such as Adobe Photoshop or Corel PaintShop, though in doing so, you’ll lose the RAW formatting. So it’s best to do this only in the final stages of your editing.

Dealing with Layers

If you’ve managed to avoid needing to use layers up until this point, you might be put off initially by AfterShot Pro. You’ll have to deal with layers if you want to do any kind of clone or heal operations on your photos. Where in Lightroom, which doesn’t supports layers, you have specialized tools for making spot repairs, you’ll create a separate layer for any type of pixel-level editing in AfterShot Pro.

That said, Corel makes it very easy to create, manipulate, and merge levels within the application. Also, support for levels lets you apply the tools and plug-ins much more selectively than you can in Lightroom. Do you want to lighten the exposure or change the color balance of a grassy area, but leave the buildings and sky just as they are? Using the polygonal selection tool in AfterShot Pro's Layer Manager, you can quickly define the edges of the lawn that bumps up against adjoining buildings. You might use one area-defining polygonal form combined with simple feathering. Getting the same effects with Lightoom might require multiple overlapping forms with more complex feathering.

However, Lightroom does hold the advantage with simple repair operations, such as cloning out dark spots caused by sensor dust. I found it easier to perform small, repetitive tasks with Lightroom’s dedicated tools as opposed to AfterShot’s layered approach.

Finding and Displaying

AfterShot Pro provides a robust metadata system that will appeal especially to professionals and longtime enthusiasts, who need to search through hundreds or thousands of images. You might search for all the shots taken over a series of days, that were shot with a particular camera or lens, and which you rated with three or more stars.

Professionals will also be impressed by the batch capabilities associated with the Output section. You could create a batch routine that creates four different JPG files. One might be full resolution. One might be confined to 1,024 by 1,024 pixels (for posting online). Another might be confined to 640 by 640 pixels (for use as a thumbnail). The fourth one might be processed for black-and-white (using one of the black-and-white presets).

Notebook users will appreciate the built-in Slideshow component, which you can configure to display your photos (edited or not) as large as possible on your screen. If you prefer, you can uncheck the Auto Advance setting and manually advance through your photos to give someone a customized walk-through from your notebook. When set to Auto Advance, the Slideshow component was smooth and fast with no lag on either the X220 or xw8400.

Room for Improvement

Despite its wealth of editing tools, AfterShot Pro suffers a bit from a few key omissions. As mentioned previously, there’s no built-in red-eye correction or support for dual monitors. Corel plans to add both to the program. A dedicated red-eye correction tool is currently in beta testing.

In addition, you could argue that spot removal would be better handled as a dedicated tool rather than being associated with the Layer Manager. Spot removal is -- by its very nature -- applied selectively, so there are no advantages (that we can see) to it being linked to the selective layer tools. If you frequently remove dust spots from your photos, you want a tool that’s instantly available.

There are also a few quirks with the UI, probably attributable to the redesign of Bibble's software for release under the Corel banner. For example, the Thumbnail View, Standard View, and Image View icons are helpfully displayed at the top of the Tools Panel. You can also use keyboard shortcuts to quickly cycle through those same views. However, they are arranged in the reverse order (F6 for Image View, F7 for Standard View, F8 for Thumbnail View). To Corel’s credit, you can easily change any of the keyboard shortcuts through the Preferences menu selection. So, you could change the order of the keyboard shortcuts to logically reflect the onscreen icons.

Another issue will also likely resolve itself over time. Lightroom benefits greatly from a cottage industry of plug-ins, presets, and training materials. Many of these are available for free or at a very low cost. If AfterShot Pro is successful, and the leading plug-in developers decide to support it, it could have the same advantages, with the added benefit of keeping the images in their RAW formats.

Conclusion

Can AfterShot Pro go head-to-head with either Lightroom or Aperture? Yes, it can. Is it better than those two completing applications? Not necessarily. Because it’s leaner and faster, it could enjoy a competitive edge on a notebook or underpowered desktop. AfterShot Pro could also be advantageous for you if you own notebook and/or desktop PCs running different operating systems(specifically Windows, MAC OS, or Linux).

Even if you’re happy using Lightroom or Aperture on your desktop at this time, you should consider running AfterShot Pro on your notebook. Not having to catalog your images in order to preview the RAW files is a great feature if you travel with both a digital camera and notebook computer.

Otherwise, it’s a subjective judgment call. Compare the features and toolsets among the programs and decide which one best suits your working methods and creative goals.

Even if you decide not to go with AfterShot Pro right away, don’t dismiss it entirely. Given the low purchase price, Corel’s substantial marketing reach, and its soup-to-nuts RAW support, AfterShot Pro could prove to be a tough, long-term competitor for both Adobe and Apple.

Pros:

Cons:

System Requirements

Windows:

    Microsoft Windows 7, Windows Vista, Windows XP with the latest service packs installed (32-bit or 64-bit editions)

    Intel Pentium 4 or later or AMD Athlon 64 or later

    2 GB RAM

    250 MB hard drive space

    Mouse or tablet

    Minimum display resolution: 1024 x 600

    CD-ROM drive

Macintosh:

    Mac OS X 10.5, 10.6 or 10.7

    All Intel Mac models are supported

    2 GB RAM

    250 MB of free hard drive space

    Minimum display resolution: 1024 x 600

    CD-ROM drive

Linux:

    Fedora Core 10 or Ubuntu 8.04 or later (32-bit or 64-bit distributions)

    Intel Pentium 4 or later or AMD Athlon 64 or later

    2 GB RAM

    250 MB of free hard drive space

    Minimum display resolution: 1024 x 600

    CD-ROM drive

    Dependencies: GLib 2.4, KDE or GNOME recommended

    Enable desktop compositing recommended

    64-bit distributions require 32-bit compatibility libraries (ia32-libs)

Formats supported:

    RAW file support from most leading camera manufacturers: ARW, CR2, CRW, DCR, DNG, MRW, NEF, NRW, ORF, PEF, RAW, RW2, RWL, SR2

    JPEG, TIF