What Software Do You Really Need?

As I was editing one of my books, I noted a couple of things I was commenting on about user software: some applications you really don’t need any more. 

The first instance I noted of that was HDR processing software. In Ye Olden Dayes of Digitalis (YODD) there was a strong push for people to buy products such as Nik HDR Efex Pro 2, Photomatix, or Aurora HDR 2019. 

That last one is telling: you don’t find it any more on the Skylum site (unless you log in and view software you’ve purchased). Instead, there’s an HDR Merge extension for Luminar Neo now. Just as there’s a Merge to HDR in Adobe’s products. 

What tends to happen with software over time is that the bigger fish eat the smaller fish, then along comes the shark and everything downstream in the ecosystem is suddenly just a tasty meal, quickly forgotten.

The reason why Photoshop has continued to be a dominate force in digital photography processing is that Adobe R&D spends a huge amount of time looking at what’s happening in the third party extensions, at scholarly research, and even at the semi-secret spook software (e.g. NSA, NRO, etc.). Most people don’t realize that both image stitching and HDR both had an early path of scholarly research to spook implementation to third-party extension. 

Eventually, those big fish eat everything they find. That’s exactly the Photoshop success recipe: improve and extend. 

I believe every photographer needs to be using a big fish. Whether you think that’s Adobe’s Creative Cloud platform, Capture One, On1, DxO, Luminar Neo, or something else, if you don’t see evidence that your chosen fish is constantly eating up smaller fish and adding them to its girth, I can guarantee you that you’ll hit a ceiling at some point, or maybe even that the ceiling will collapse on you.  

Aside: Adobe once ate a smaller fish for sharpening and noise reduction. That was Pixel Genius, Bruce Fraser’s company. Photoshop (and Lightroom) seemed to basically adopt a version of the Pixel Genius approach, complete with many of the same issues when you crank things too high. We’ve been suffering ever since. I’m actually surprised that Adobe hasn’t glommed onto one of the superior sharpening and noise reduction routines that have surfaced in the past 10 years. Sometimes big fish aren’t very smart.

In researching this article, I came across this curious statement on the remaining Pixel Genius stub of a site: “The nature of the industry and marketplace has evolved as digital photography with raw processing applications has diminished the need for pixel based editors such as Photoshop.” I had to re-read that several times to figure out that they meant that non-destructive editing has replaced destructive editing. 

Over time, virtually every plug-in, extension, or template seems to get subsumed into the big fish. Sometimes with great success (e.g. stitching, HDR), sometimes with moderate success (e.g. focus stacking, geometric correction), sometimes with poor success (e.g. Adobe’s current sharpening and noise reduction approaches). 

The “great success” sublimation renders the third-party software no longer necessary. 

The “moderate success” result means that the third-party has to work hard to keep their product producing clearly better results with better performance and more options.

The “poor success” category is where you see third-party products continue to flourish. 

Over time, we see more great successes and fewer moderate and poor successes, and thus the big fish thrives and the small fish need to find a different pond to swim in. 

At one point I had more than two dozen filters and extensions installed in Photoshop (my big fish of choice). Today, that’s down to six that I use with any regularity. (Oh, I knew you’d ask:  Nik Color Efex Pro 4, Nik Silver Efex Pro 3, Macphun Intensify, Piccure+, Topaz DeNoise AI and Topaz Sharpen AI, and two of those are no longer sold. Two of those I use only for discrete contrast adjustment that’s more difficult to do right with Photoshop’s tools.) 

I’m not a template guy, as I prefer to make my own templates if I need any, which all the big fish now allow. 

The interesting playing field now (for not big fish) is mobile. It’s easy enough to foresee a future where we’re not using big desktop computers to do the bulk of our image processing. The interesting part is that I’m not seeing anyone getting the logistics of mobile editing right. Camera to mobile device plus mobile device to user-secured storage, is the basic proposition that hasn’t happened well yet. Putting software in the middle of that won’t work until the other aspects are dealt with correctly. 

I know a lot of you complain about “ongoing costs” of software. Technically, the ongoing cost of software is US$10/month. That’s what the biggest fish charges. There’s little you can’t do with the two Adobe photography products, and they keep eating smaller fish, so you eventually get the extensions you were paying for. 

A less expensive solution for Apple users is Photos coupled with an extension or two. Photos does the ingest, browsing, and organizing just fine. Apple hasn’t shown that they want to extend the processing features, so you end up buying one or two of the better versions of that (Affinity Photo 2, Pixelmator Pro, or Raw Power). 

Adobe and Apple are huge fish. They’re not going away as long as you keep tithing them. While I’m locked into them, I understand the rest of you might prefer not to be. But your choices (and reasons why) are getting slimmer as the big fish take over the pond and the alpha keeps disciplining the school. Basically:

  • Capture One — Perpetually in a catch-up mode to Adobe in technology and new ideas, but slightly ahead of Adobe in terms of consistency of color rendering and demosaic quality. 
  • DxO PhotoLab — The big sword under their fins is PRIME noise reduction. Nothing Adobe has done comes close to matching it, though you might want to invest in a coffee maker to keep you sated while waiting for your results.
  • Luminar Neo — Those upstart Ukrainians are really good at what they do, but they keep forcing you to start over to bring in the cash they need. 
  • On1 RAW — Those upstart Oregonians are really good at what they do, but I’ve found their offerings to be more bug-prone than the others. 

Yes, I know there are Open Source and free options. The problem with free is that it’s not long-term viable. For instance, Darktable has been recently reported to be at risk of dropping support for macOS because the person doing the maintenance work wants to leave to do other things. I’d guess that Darktable will find someone new to fill in that spot, but the problem with free software tends to be that over time it starts to track more slowly to paid software, and it also progresses sporadically. It’s tough to make an Open Source big fish, because it requires too many folk to devour smaller ones on a regular basis.

So, I’ll repeat my advice: find a big fish you like and stuff some money down its gills. 

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