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1st December 2011
Serif PhotoPlus X5 review
by Ian Burley

Serif's PhotoPlus X5 photo editor and image management solution is solid but is it a winner?

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Serif PhotoPlus X5, on paper, ticks most of the boxes, but how well does it actually work?

Serif, a software house based in Nottingham, England, has been around since 1990 when it launched its affordable Page Plus desktop publishing software package. Serif now has over 200 employees here in the UK and in Europe and North America and the company has diversified in to video editing, web design, vector art/drawing and photo editing software, the latter being represented by Serif PhotoPlus X5 which we're reviewing here.

The first thing you notice about PhotoPlus X5 is its uncanny resemblance to Adobe Photoshop in basic layout. This similarity is not functionally consistent as Serif has chosen to make some of its tools work differently, to varying degrees, compared to its illustrious rival. But in essence, PhotoPlus X5 can claim to match Photoshop in a number of key areas. It's a fully-featured layers-based photo editing application, including adjustment layers and layer masking, and supports camera RAW file conversions. It also includes an image management utility called PhotoPlus Organiser. PhotoPlus now connects you to FaceBook and Flickr online photo albums, which is fine, but what about the many other rival online photo sites? If your photos are get-tagged, you can conveniently view a Google map where the photos originate from. Also included is a s dedicated program, PanoramaPlus X4, which as its name suggests is an image stitching tool for creating panoramic images from multiple donor images.

Key improvements in the X5 version of PhotoPlus are the beefed-up Organiser module, a bundling of Serif's Photo Projects offering that offers templates and wizards to produce complex products like photo books, vibrancy and clarity adjustments have been introduced and there are a series of refinements to the layer handling support. Users of previous editions of PhotoPlus will also notice some revisions to the look and layout of the general user interface.

Serif says it has improved the algorithms behind its Brightness and Contrast adjustment that works better and preserves more detail. There is also a new clip to layer option that enables you to bind effects in the adjustments tab to the layer below. There are easy to use HDR (high dynamic range) effects and a dedicated panorama stitching tool.

One thing that is pleasing straight away is the inclusion, at first start up, of links to some easy to follow online video tutorials. Especially for new and less experienced user these tutorials should provide additional confidence, inspiration and ideas.

(Click image above for larger view in new window) There is plenty of help and inspiration for new users to get started with.

PhotoPlus Organiser

Let's start with a quick look at the PhotoPlus Organiser. This finds images on your hard drive and provides a zoom able grid view of your images. You can rate images and key word tag them, although I found the process rather long-winded. It's not obviously possible to add keywords by typing them specifically for the image or images selected. Instead you need to first enter a new keyword tag into a list and then select and apply that keyword from the list. Nevertheless you can stack similar images and group them by category.

(Click image above for larger view in new window) A basic PhotoPlus Organiser view.

You won't find any fancy symbolic tagging or face recognition features in the Organiser, so it's relatively simple in terms of features. On the other hand the Organiser does serve as a launch pad for the PhotoPlus PhotoFix feature.

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You can zoom a single image to fill the screen in the Organiser view, but unfortunately the magnified view is not optimised and can look softer than it really is.

PhotoFix

Accessible directly from the Organiser module without having to delve into the full-blown PhotoPlus editor is the PhotoFix Studio. This provides access to a set of image adjustments that are arguably the most commonly used for simple image tweaks. There is even a mask brush facility for concentrating adjustments in user-selected areas of the image.

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While key photo editing rival, Photoshop Elements 10, still doesn't offer a fully-featured curves tone adjustment tool, curves are even accessible from the PhotoFix Studio.

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Into the editor

Serif PhotoPlus X5 is not short of powerful adjustment and editing features, but sometimes they can be surprisingly difficult to use. Let's look at this shot of the London Eye that suffers from falling verticals.

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The cropping tool does support perspective correction for fixing problem pictures like this.

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Above you can see that we have cropped the image to straighten the falling verticals and also rotated the view slightly refine the overall result. The problem is that to set the perspective correction you have to keep no less than three keys on the keyboard pressed at the same time while moving the mouse pointer. The perspective correction feature also works in the opposite way to Photoshop, and is definitely counter-intuitive.

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The final result is very agreeable and there is no question that there is real power inside PhotoPlus X5, but I found it unnecessarily testing to get at that power.

I'm happier with PhotoPlus' extraction tool:

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PhotoPlus X5 can achieve complex selections quite easily and quickly by painting around the target subject.

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Image warping is another strength of PhotoPlus X5.

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Fixing blemishes is a breeze with PhotoPlus X5. You just click the brush area over the blemish and then guide the clone source area to the most appropriate neighbouring area, watching the correction develop in real time.

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PhotoPlus X5 offers a comprehensive selection of filter effects in the Filter Gallery. Although 16-bit images are supported, relatively few filters will work on 16-bit images - see the 'no entry' icons on the filters incompatible with 16-bit images.

RAW conversion

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The RAW processor, it has to be said, is light on features. You can't adjust contrast, saturation, vibrance or clarity here. The way the Highlights adjustment tool works is confusing and once an adjustment is made you need to wait seconds for the effect to be previewed. In Photoshop Elements the RAW conversion environment is richer and much faster. Note that 16-bit images can be developed from RAW files.

Conclusions and ratings

What we like about Serif PhotoPlus X5:

  • Fundamentally powerful professional-level layers-based image editing
  • Fully-supported adjustment layers (including curves) and layer masking
  • Very effective extraction tool
  • Easy to use blemish removal tool
  • Rich Filter Gallery
  • PhotoFix Studio
  • Friendly and informative introductory examples and video tutorials
  • Is widely available at very affordable prices

What we don't like about Serif PhotoPlus X5:

  • Too many functions quirky and counter-intuitive
  • RAW conversion features too limited and too slow
  • Organiser is too basic
  • No unique 'killer' features to fend off the competition

Verdict:

The biggest issue for Serif PhotoPlus X5 is not really the program itself - it's powerful and has all the key features a photographer needs to create great images. The problem is that the competition do a similar job sometimes more logically and faster. If you are new to a program like this, you will find a wealth of features to get your teeth into. But I can't see that Serif will be persuading many people to convert from Adobe Photoshop Elements or Corel PaintShop Pro X4.

 

 

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