Affinity Photo — No Good For Photography

Sydney Harbor by night — processed using Photos
Sydney Harbor by night — processed using Photos

This is a pretty important addition to my first impressions article.

After reading a comment thread on a photography blog it occurred to me that I had not looked particularly hard at a core feature of Affinity Photo, namely the develop (i.e. semi-non-destructive RAW-processing) phase.

I assumed Affinity Photo used Apple’s OS-level RAW-processing (which is pretty good) since just writing a good RAW importer is a major undertaking (and an ongoing commitment, as new cameras with new RAW formats are released on an almost daily basis) and concentrated my attention on its editing functionality.

(There is a downside to using Apple’s RAW processor — Apple only provides updates for new cameras for recent OS releases, so if you were using Mac OS X 10.7 (Lion) and just bought a Nikon D750 you’d be out of luck.)

In the thread, one commenter suggested Affinity Photo as a cheaper alternative to Phase One (which misses the point of Phase One entirely) to which someone had responded that Affinity Photo was terrible at RAW-processing. I wanted to check if this was simply a random hater or actually true and a quick check showed it to be not only true but horribly true.

Photos default RAW import
Photos default RAW import
Affinity Photo default RAW input
Affinity Photo default RAW input

White Balance

Acorn's RAW import dialog
Acorn’s RAW import dialog — it respects the camera’s white balance metadata and also lets you see what it is (temperature and tint).
Affinity simply ignores WB metadata by default
Affinity simply ignores WB metadata by default
Affinity with WB adjustment turned on and the settings copied from Acorn
Affinity with WB adjustment turned on and the settings copied from Acorn (note that it still doesn’t match Acorn, and I know which I trust more at this point).

Affinity Photo ignores the white balance metadata in the RAW file. If you toggle on the white balance option in develop mode you still need to find out the white balance settings (somehow) and type them in yourself.

Good cameras do a very good job of automatically setting white balance for scenes. Serious photographers will often manually set white balance after every lighting change on a shoot. Either way, you want your RAW-processing software to use this valuable information.

Noise Reduction

Top-Right Corner at 200% — Photos on the left, Affinity on the right
Top-Right Corner at 200% — Photos on the left, Affinity on the right

Affinity Photo’s RAW processing is terrible. It somehow manages to create both color and brightness noise even for well-exposed images shot in bright daylight — night shots at high ISO? Don’t even ask. (If you must, see the Sydney Harbor comparison, earlier.) It’s harder to say this definitively, it seems to me that it also smears detail. It’s as if whoever wrote the RAW importer in Affinity Photo doesn’t actually know how to interpolate RAW images.

Incidentally, Affinity Photo’s noise reduction filter appears to have little or no effect. An image with noise reduction maxed out using Affinity Photo is far noisier than the same image processed without noise reduction using any decent program or Apple’s RAW importer’s noise reduction.

Now, if you’re using Affinity Photo in concert with a photo management program like Lightroom, Aperture, Photos, or iPhoto — programs which do the RAW processing and simply hand over a 16-bit TIFF image — you simply won’t notice a problem with the lack of white balance support or the noise creation. But if you actually use Affinity Photo to work on RAW images (i.e. if you actually try to use its semi-non-destructive “develop” mode) you’re basically working with garbage.

I can only apologize to any photographers who might have bought Affinity Photo based on my earlier post. I mainly use would-be Photoshop replacements for editing CG images where RAW processing isn’t a factor, but my failure to carefully check its RAW processing is egregious.

If you want to use Affinity Photo for working on photographs I strongly recommend you wait until its RAW processing is fixed (or it simply adopts the RAW processing functionality Apple provides “for free”).

Remember when I discovered that Affinity Designer’s line styling tools simply didn’t work at all? That’s ridiculous. Well, a self-declared photo editing tool that doesn’t do a halfway decent job of RAW processing is just as ridiculous.

So, what to do?

Photos offers powerful RAW processing if you figure out how to turn it on
Photos offers powerful RAW processing if you figure out how to turn it on

Apple’s new(ish) Photos application is actually surprisingly good once you actually expose its useful features. By default it doesn’t even show a histogram, but with a few clicks you can turn it into a RAW-processing monster.

And, until Apple somehow breaks it, Aperture is still an excellent piece of software.

Acorn does a good job of using Apple’s RAW importer (it respects the camera’s metadata but allows you to override it). Unfortunately, the workflow is destructive (once you use the RAW importer if you want to second guess your import settings you need to start again from scratch).

Adobe still offers a discounted subscription for Photographers, covering Lightroom and Photoshop. It’s annoying to subscribe to software, but it may be the best and cheapest option right now (especially with Apple abandoning Aperture).

If noise reduction is your main concern, Lightroom, Aperture, Photoshop, and other generalist programs just don’t cut it. You either need a dedicated RAW processing program or a dedicated noise reduction program.

RAW Right Now speeds up RAW previews and makes QuickLook more useful
RAW Right Now speeds up RAW previews and makes QuickLook more useful

Finally, if you’re happy to use different programs for image management (I mainly use Finder with these days), RAW processing, and editing then you have a lot of pretty attractive options. FastRAWViewer is incredibly good for triaging RAW photos (its Focus Peaking feature is just wonderful). DxOMark and Phase One offer almost universally admired RAW-processing capabilities and exceptionally good built-in noise handling. Many serious photographers consider the effect of switching to either of these programs for RAW processing as important as using a better lens. Even the free software offered by camera makers usually does a very good job of RAW processing (it just tends to suck for anything else). If you don’t use Affinity Photo for RAW processing there’s not much wrong with it (but you don’t have a non-destructive workflow).

Beaten by Fallout

I’ve just finished Fallout: New Vegas. Finished as in stopped playing, not finished as in “got to the end”.

As usual, I’m a bit over a year behind with my gaming owing to life, children, work, et al, but I thought I’d discuss my impressions of FNV because it is, to borrow from Alan Kay, worth criticizing. If you’re interested, I also wrote about Fallout 3 after finishing it (for real) some time back. (I might note that none of the failings of Fallout 3 have been addressed in FNV, e.g. combat sucks just as bad as ever.)

The Fallout series, both the old 2d versions and the new Bethesda games, has been marked by the most sophisticated “quest” system ever seen in computer RPGs. From the very first game you had branching quests with real decision points that had real world impacts (if anything, the last part is much less a factor than it was in the earlier games, presumably because of the higher costs of asset production for modern AAA 3d games).

Of course, F3 and FNV are really not AAA games in terms of quality. Both the graphics and the software are actually incredibly shoddy. I’m willing to forgive this because these games have actual stories, good — sometimes even great — writing, a ridiculous amount of content, and often surprise me.

It’s a shame that, despite making bucketloads of money, Bethesda never seems to have managed to figure out how to write decent software.

The Good

Some of the quests are inspired, and left me with genuine moral quandaries. The setting is incredibly rich and sophisticated (the New California Republic, for example, is a basically good but deeply flawed nation, which is an obvious analog for a certain other powerful but often corrupt and stupid country we might be familiar with).

The writing is great, and the voice acting is usually good too. I enjoy a lot of the conversations, including some real laugh out loud moments. (The foul-mouthed cynical caravaneer is a particular favorite, and the entire gang of Elvis impersonators is awesome.)

I try to play Fallout games with a strict “no restore from backup” policy, so that I’m forced to live with my actions which frequently led to my putting off a decision while I tried to find a better alternative or simply get more information. (And, to its credit, there will often be an alternative and/or more information.) There’s no other RPG franchise which consistently achieves this level of immersion for me.

The Bad

Because the quests are so sophisticated and the game is so open, there are lots and lots of bugs. One quest lingered on after I completed it and kept spewing out a message that I needed to do something (even though I’d finished the quest), which led me to go do that thing (and kill a whole bunch of people as a result, which left me feeling a bit guilty).

More annoying, you’ll often find yourself doing a quest out of order which no longer makes sense. Some of these have been explicitly dealt with in a very elegant fashion (as in it’s built into the quest), some are hamfisted (as in you can turn in the quest immediately after being offered it), and some are just broken.

The buddy AI in FNV is horrible, broken, and has an interface that is both confusing and bad. To being with, you get a radial menu of options which toggle between two states (e.g. “Follow Me” vs. “Wait Here”). The problem is that each option goes from displaying its current state when not selected to displaying the state you will obtain by clicking when selected. So if your buddy is in “wait” mode and you select it (with a view to changing it, perhaps) it changes to showing “follow”, which changes to “wait” if you click it. It takes a while to figure this out because, as it turns out, a lot of the modes basically don’t work. The most egregious of these is “passive” (as in “don’t attack stuff randomly”) which appears not to do anything.

The quest mapping and in-game maps in general are terrible. In FNV, your in-game interface is a wrist-mounted “Pip-Boy” (which goes back to the original 2d games, and indeed looks pretty much the same). One of the useful innovations in recent games is that you get a lot more help figuring out where to go (which you really need). I’d have to say, though, that the way the map system works in FNV is infuriating, and I spent a huge amount of time chasing after misleading navigation hints. This is exacerbated by what is truly the single worst feature of FNV…

Loading times in FNV are horribly slow. Seriously, cut down the polygon counts and texture size and load the damn levels faster. This isn’t helped by ridiculous level and quest interaction where to perform a quest you need to “zone” dozens times to talk to five different people — and that’s assuming you don’t get horribly lost and confused. You know the loading is bad when you’re grateful to see a new “hint” or transition slide.

As far as I can tell “karma” has no effect — although it does actually change my behavior. (It seems to be independent of the faction system.) But it’s very odd to me that I can gain karma for killing someone but lose it for picking up his stuff afterwards. Perhaps the funniest bug in the whole karma system is that in some cases you can drop stuff on the floor and then get dinged karma for stealing when you pick it up. In the end, the karma system is probably a Good Thing despite not working and being stupid, for me, since it makes me think about stealing even if there are no real consequences.

But, if I kill a bunch of people with no witnesses why does it ruin my rep? Am I assumed to be drunkenly boasting about it as I travel? The funny thing is, at least the way I play, I gain karma from killing and lose it from picking stuff up. Ah, the moral lessons we learn from computer games.

There are some “quests” in the game that aren’t handled by the quest interface. They’re essentially “missions” that are organic to the game content (dialog, events, etc.) but don’t appear in your quest log. This forces you to manually track and check them, which just makes the game unnecessarily tedious. The chief reason for this appears to be to avoid giving away the location of the thing you need to get rather than for any other reason — I’d prefer they implemented them as quests and not always provide waypoints. (One, in particular, involves finding a lost laser pistol — which I was never able to do.)

The Ugly

Because FNV has some really good writing and your decisions have consequences it’s very tempting to play it through and accept setbacks as organic to the story. (It’s also possible to get sucked into the story when things are running smoothly and forget to save.) The problem is that the biggest source of setbacks in Fallout is bugs, and the worst form of bug is the “faction glitch” whereby you get attacked by the wrong people for the wrong reason upon entering a new area (“zoning”). Here’s how it works:

  1. You don’t explicitly save a game for some time because you’re enjoying yourself.
  2. You go through a door or use long-distance travel or sleep.
  3. The game auto-saves.
  4. You suddenly get attacked by members of some faction you had no strong feelings about or perhaps it’s the NCR Army or maybe even New Vegas robot security.
  5. Your buddy or buddies immediately kill a bunch of people / ghouls / mutants / robots destroying your carefully won relationship with at least two major factions (my particular favorite is the sniper, who is generally awesome, who throws grenades around like candy and loves to pull out melee weapons and go to town despite (a) being a sniper, (b) claiming to suck at melee, and (c) being told to stand back, be passive, and stick to ranged weapons).
  6. This is pretty bad, but you could restore your auto-save if you didn’t, say, reflexively back out of the room (and fire off autosave again).

This sequence of events happens with sufficient frequency that it’s pretty much bound to bite you in the ass several times. (And it’s not like turning off auto-save would improve matters — at least auto-save stops you getting bitten in the ass most of the time.) By the time I got to the end-game, I was pretty thoroughly screwed almost entirely by problems inflicted on me by bugs in the game engine. For example (spoiler alert):

My relationship with the NCR (which was very good at the time) was destroyed because they saw me walking around with a mutant (minding our own business). They shot at me. OK, I returned fire (I basically decided, at that moment, that if the NCR were that racist then I wasn’t going to help them any more) except that the Vegas Strip security robots (which were supposed to be under my control at the time) opened fire on me because I was returning fire.

Earlier than that, I tried to visit Caesar* while carrying his safe conduct. One of his Praetorians actually explained to me that I was under his protection while launching an unprovoked attack at me. I was in the middle of his territory at the time (apparently his other people had gotten the message, or were fooled by the Centurion uniform I was wearing (its former owner not having much use for it any more). But then, I’d wiped out an entire town of his earlier that day because apparently my safe conduct didn’t work there either.

Let me add that the quest system apparently knew that the safe conduct was gone because it had closed off the relevant quest (to go meet Caesar) after I killed a few legionnaires during a random skirmish that, again, I did not initiate. I could easily have restored from backup at that point but I decided that it was stupid to even pretend that I would ever side with Caesar and to go with it.

* If you haven’t played FNV, there’s a seethingly bad guy who calls himself Caesar and has assembled Roman-style legions and — somehow — threatens the NCR’s hold on Hoover Dam, despite most of his soldiers being armed with spears and pissing off almost everyone they meet. There’s an interesting bit of dialog with one of your companions who argues some of the attractions of Caesar’s rule (basically, he makes the trains run on time), but it’s pretty hard to see someone like this having any shot against an organized, numerous, and technologically superior enemy.

What Ended the Game For Me

Having completed almost every quest I could find, I was down to recruiting a sexbot for a low-end casino (which I could never figure out how to do because of the broken map system), updating the codebooks for remote ranger stations (perhaps the single most stupid and time-consuming quest in the game, involving walking around mountains trying to find the way up — surely if they really wanted you to take codebooks to remote outposts they would tell you how to get there), and fixing an Elvis Impersonator’s robot dog.

I decided to fix the dog (one of the most memorable companions in the original Fallout was a dog, so the cyborg dog is a nice homage). This involved walking a long way and doing very little (except killing some very weak enemies, an indication that I was expected to have done this earlier) whereupon I reached a new “quest hub”. I only found a couple of simple things to do, did them, got a new companion (a cross-dressing somewhat insane super mutant), and headed back to New Vegas whereupon everything went pear-shaped. My faction standings were damaged (by the NCR firing on my mutant buddy) and I realized that the only way to fix it was to load a three hour old backup.

So I decided to give up on the NCR but keep relations as good as possible. But that turns out not to be viable, so I started having to kill a lot of NCR people. Because, despite my still being on pretty good terms with them (“smiling troublemaker”), they appeared to prefer shooting me to Caesar’s soldiers. (Caesar’s soldiers were inexplicably continuing to attack the NCR despite my having wiped out their main city and two of their biggest settlements and killed all their commanders including Caesar, and despite various NPCs acknowledging the fact I had done this.)

Oh, and did I mention that FNV simply crashes a lot? It’s hard to tell because sometimes it just takes a ridiculous amount of time to load a new area. Anyway, then FNV started crashing. A lot.

Bethesda: you suck. Again.

I thought you’d gotten over the period when you wrote the barely playable Daggerfall, followed by the broken Redguard, and the utterly broken Battlespire. You seemed to have at least figured out how to ship a working app. Sure, Fallout 3 had some rough edges, but this is ridiculous.

Apple’s Broken Hub

WWDC is next week. iOS5, 10.7, and — most intriguingly — iCloud are going to be launched. I’ve been living with the AppleTV (v2, I never got the original) for several months now, and while I love this device, the ecosystem in which it operates remains deeply, and in some cases inexplicably, flawed.

I won’t go into the details of our home setup, but suffice it to say that every major category of Apple device is well-represented. (I won’t say how many iOS devices we have, it’s embarrassing.)

Now, there are plenty of major annoyances with the Apple media ecosystem that don’t have anything to do with technology, such as why won’t HBO let us buy their content (e.g. True Blood) in a timely manner? Ditto CBS. But let’s just look at the really obvious stuff that Apple could easily fix:

  • Why can’t we have an Apple remote that can power the TV set on/off, adjust volume, and select input source?
  • Why can’t I stream content from iTunes (on a Mac) to iOS devices over the LAN? Why can’t an iPad act as an AirPlay receiver?
  • Why can’t I buy something from my AppleTV and have it download to my Home Sharing server and then start streaming?
  • Why does Apple let me turn off Home Sharing on the AppleTV using the iOS Remote Control app without giving me a mechanism for turning it back on? (For that you need to use an IR remote, and if it’s lost and currently paired then you are in for a World of Hurt.)
  • Why can’t a Mac act as an AirPlay receiver?
  • Why does iTunes need to be running for everything to work? Or, why can’t it be launched automatically as needed? (Sure, I can launch it via a VNC client, but I shouldn’t have to.)
  • Why can’t a Mac act as a remote control? (E.g. via iTunes when you’re currently streaming video from that Mac to an AppleTV.)
  • Why doesn’t AppleTV respond instantly when powering on? Every other iOS device manages better response than the AppleTV. (And sometimes it’s crashed and you need to go cycle its power.)
  • Why can’t an iPhone or iPod touch act as a remote for an iPad? (Remember, Apple is selling HDMI outputs for iPads.)
  • For bonus points, why can’t airplay “hand over” sourcing of content to a server. E.g. if I have Cars half-way through on my iPad when I walk into the house, why can’t I “hand over” the playback to my AppleTV with my Mac server becoming the source?

Some of the things I thought would be issues have turned out to be non-issues:

E.g. the lack of DVR support is almost irrelevant (between Netflix and Hulu we hardly use our TiVos any more).

Similarly, ripping our existing DVDs to iTunes has been pretty effortless thanks to iRip and Handbrake (no more painful, say, than ripping MP3s from CDs back when), although as others have pointed out, ripped DVDs use more battery power to play back than iTunes purchases.

Prices in the iTunes store are pretty decent. E.g. we were unable to find better deals on Pixar movies on DVD from Costco or Amazon than iTunes, and the iTunes content is more convenient. (Bluray 1080p content is presumably somewhat better than iTunes 720P, but I’m simply not able to tell them apart with normal viewing.)

Aside: it turns out we can tuck a gen 1 iPad into our car DVD player’s mount and turn the iPad into an in-car entertainment system which doesn’t tie up the cigarette lighter slot (the DVD player could go for maybe one movie on a full charge when new, whereas the iPad can run continuously for a day of driving on a single charge, longer if it gets the charger when available). And, finally, we have a single charger that can charge our iPads (or in-car entertainment systems…) and iPhones and iPods.

Summing Up

The main problem with Apple’s digital ecosystem is that there’s content you simply can’t get without jumping backwards through hoops (and probably breaking the law). But there are plenty of technical shortcomings that Apple can and should address. Why can I stream content from this device to that device, but not this other device? Why can I control this gadget with that gadget, but not this other gadget? Right now, the best experience is streaming content from Apple or Netflix with streaming content from your Mac a fairly distant second, and dealing with content from outside Apple’s ecosystem (e.g. DVDs and rights holders that don’t want to play Apple’s game).

So what might we see on Monday?

  • iCloud digital locker for content purchased from iTunes moving forward
  • iCloud streams to all Macs and iOS devices
  • AppleTV allows purchases which become available immediately via iCloud
  • iCloud digital locker for content purchased from iTunes in the past (or with a small added fee)
  • iCloud digital locker that (say) identifies tracks you’ve ripped, or your CD or DVD, and offers to sell you a digital/streaming version at a discount
  • iCloud as an alternative to DropBox
  • iCloud to provide streaming backups for Time Machine
  • iCloud as a replacement for MobileMe
  • Gaming on TVs via AirPlay and AppleTV using iOS devices as controllers
  • Apps on AppleTV (or its successor) via iOS5
  • Gaming on AppleTV using iOS devices as controllers
  • From left field: iCloud acts as virtual DVR based on content Apple can establish you have access to — actually that sounds like a really great idea; e.g. if you can prove you have basic cable and thus receive CBS, Apple gives you access to a streamable version of the Mentalist the day after it airs. Even better, Apple simply negotiates TV rights as if it were a new cable provider and makes everything available on demand.

We’ll see.