Shooting images in the RAW file format with your digital camera is imperative for producing the best possible photos. That’s because RAW is an uncompressed file format that captures all the data from the camera’s sensor – significantly more than a JPEG file – at the time of shooting.
Furthermore, RAW allows the greatest degree of creative control because critical shooting parameters such as exposure and white balance can be more dramatically and accurately altered, without loss of data, after the image has been shot.
But in order to reap these benefits, and even just to view RAW files in the first place, one needs the appropriate digital photo editing monitor & software to process RAW files. One such software, considered by many to be the industry standard, is the popular Lightroom by Adobe.
The breadth of functionality and quality results from Lightroom speaks for itself, but there’s other software on the market just as good as Lightroom. One such software, and the focus of this tutorial, is Corel’s AfterShot Pro.
AfterShot Pro – The Basics
First, let’s begin with the basics. AfterShot Pro (ASP) is competitively priced at around $80 on Amazon compared with around $165 for Lightroom. ASP operates on the three main operating systems – Windows, Macintosh, and Linux (see Amazon for system requirements) – and is fast and responsive at performing its various functions including image browsing, sorting, editing, file conversion, and output, even on my old clunky laptop. Indeed, ASP can ‘take advantage of every CPU [Central Processing Unit] at its disposal’ – a claim that faster computer speeds translate into faster software speeds.
Each camera manufacturer has its own proprietary RAW file format, and ASP supports all the major ones including those of Canon, Nikon, and Sony. The common TIF and JPEG file formats are also supported. Like Lightroom, ASP uses non-destructive editing which means no matter how many edits you apply to an image one can at anytime revert to the original unedited RAW image.
On screen, ASP has a single modular workspace that in standard viewing mode is split into three vertical sections between which are movable sliders to adjust the viewing size of each section. The left section is dedicated to file management; files may be viewed directly from folders on your computer or imported into the ASP Library.
The middle section is dedicated for image viewing; it comprises a vertical thumbnail filmstrip with an adjacent preview panel displaying the main image, but the orientation and size of both the thumbnails and the preview panel are customizable. And the right section is the photo editing Tool panel, the multiple functions of which are packed into various layered tabs which can be expanded and collapsed.
The beauty of ASP is that you don’t need to import files into the software in order to work with them. Files can be viewed and immediately edited within the software from any folder on your computer or portable storage media. This set-up is great when you’re in a hurry or, like me, your workload doesn’t comprise hundreds of files – a situation that otherwise benefits from ASP’s use of Catalogs.
If you do import files they’re sent to a custom-named Catalog which is basically an ASP-based database containing any number of files and their embedded image and metadata settings. A major advantage of using Catalogs, aside from file organization, is the ability to quickly locate files with specific keywords or other metadata using the Search function. Within a Catalog files may be organized into folders and subfolders, and individual files may be duplicated or dragged from one folder to another or deleted altogether.
Moreover, you can create any number of Catalogs and work from them at any one time which makes jumping between projects a breeze. When viewing images (either from a computer file or within the Library) the Sorting function quickly reorders the thumbnails on your current workspace according to any number of attributes such as the date the image was taken or shooting parameters like exposure, f-stop, or focal length.
In terms of individual file management, ASP can create new versions of a file from, and with the same settings as, the master, current, or original import file. Multiple files may be grouped into an expandable and collapsible Stack, great for grouping different versions of the same file together as in differently edited versions of the same parental file or different exposures of the same subject shot in exposure bracketing mode. Stacks in their collapsed state also have the added advantage of consuming less room on the workspace because the Stack appears as just one file, although it’s clearly marked to show how many additional files are stacked within it.
Additional features of file organization include the ability to assign files a star rating; one of five color labels; or a flag. The Filter function (shown above) easily finds and displays on the current workspace only those thumbnails with any one, or combination, of these three specified attributes, streamlining the location of files with common organizational tags.
These three organizational tabs are incorporated into the Metadata Manager – supporting IPTC, XMP, and EXIF (read-only) data types, as well as custom keywords – which can find files with any combination of this and other metadata across Catalogs, reflecting the robustness of ASP’s file management capabilities.
ASP clearly doesn’t fall short in file management – and neither does it in photo editing. The software provides at one’s disposal a repertoire of powerful photo editing tools. These tools are found in various tabs located in the Tools panel in the far right third of the workspace.
The Color tab contains the obligatory Curves tool which has at various locations on its axes several sliding arrows to manually adjust the gamut of tonal range and contrast. The Auto Contrast function does an excellent job at automatically optimizing these values for a selected image.
The Color Correction tool (show below along with the Curves tool) contains six preset primary and secondary colors, as well as six blank color wells each of which can be manually filled with a specifically selected color from a preview image. Sliding bars allow selective intensity adjustment of Hue, Luminescence, Saturation, or Range of the individual preset and custom colors.
Similarly, three color axes with sliding bars do a good job at fixing images with perceived color imbalance. The White Balance tool contains several preset white balance conditions including a Custom Kelvin sliding bar, which is indispensible for the poor auto white balance function of many Canon’s digital SLR cameras.
The Tone tab contains sliding bars to adjust the intensity of various aspects of tone including Exposure, Highlights, Blacks, and Contrast. There’s also a Fill Light tool which is great for illuminating underexposed night shots without overexposing light sources in them like street lamps (which often occurs when using Exposure to increase light).
The Detail tab has a Sharpening tool to crispen RAW images which invariably suffer from softness. Raw Impulse Noise Removal automatically detects and mends impulse noise, the effects of which can be manually boosted. I’ve noticed very little improvement with this tool probably because my image noise is low to begin with (noise is influenced by camera, lens, and shooting parameters such as exposure and ISO).
The Lens Correction tool contains a directory of several hundred lens and camera combinations from which the software will guess your hardware in order to automatically ameliorate the effects of barrel and pincushion distortions, chromatic aberration, and vignetting.
Don’t like the composition of your subject matter? A one-click Invert function instantly does a great job at mirroring your image (left to right), but be warned that this will also mirror text in the image. Under Basic Adjustments (shown above) are two of the most powerful photo editing tools that ASP has to offer. Firstly, AutoLevel ‘examines the tonal range of your image and sets the black and white points to be at points such that a fixed percent of the image will be pure black and pure white’. Second, Perfectly Clear relies on medical imaging technology to optimize lighting at the individual pixel level, whilst maintaining accurate color.
Both tools are essentially a one-click fix for tonality. Using either AutoLevel or Perfectly Clear – but rarely both which I find invariably results in overexposure – transforms lackluster RAW files into images of rich tonal complexity. These two functions literally make RAW images pop and, for me, is a major selling point for the software. Which function works best for a given image is unpredictable (I generally have more success with AutoLevel, but this depend on the image, camera, lens, and shooting parameters).
At the top of the Tool panel is a tab for Selective editing. ASP uses Layers on which one can create multiple Regions of different shapes to make the same edits for all regions (such as exposure, fill light, contrast). If one wants to make different edits, a new Layer must be created.
Different Region shapes include a Circle; Polygon to create irregular shaped regions such as a horizon studded with buildings; Curve to create irregular curvy regions; and a brush which allows freehand regions that can be used as a finer finishing tool for the other shaped regions. The adjustable Feather function surrounding every region determines the degree of edit transition from inside to outside the Region. A higher Feather value results in a more gradual edit transition.
Selective editing also comes with the Heal tool that uses the Circle to fix small blemishes on an image. The Clone tool (shown above) is similar expect you can use any shape and you specify the source region on the same image that you want clone.
Finally, in the same way that Apps revolutionised the functionality of mobile devices, so too have third-party plugins for photo-editing software. Although the number of ASP Plugins isn’t as extensive as that for Lightroom, ASP Plugins have the upper hand by allowing non-destructive and selective editing of RAW files. ASP is preloaded with an impressive Black & White Plugin containing a variety of film and lens filter types.
At the time of writing, Corel released AfterShot Pro 2 boasting speeds 30% faster than version 1. This quality, coupled to the ASP’s low price and functionality, will surely render the software a serious contender to Lightroom, if it didn’t already before. ASP does have some issues though.
For example, the lack of red-eye reduction may bother portrait and wedding photographers, although this issue is remedial with a Plugin. The Tool panel really strives for a streamlined appearance by using three expandable and collapsible features – tabs, arrows, and pushpins – all designed to reveal and hide the various editing tools.
But this is too many features that create a confusing interface, and something I’ve never gotten the hang of. Other reviewers have noted ASP’s lack of dual-monitor support, and fewer available Plugins than Lightroom.
AfterShot Pro isn’t perfect – but then again, nothing is.