Features galore, but needs work

This is a yarn about some image editing software from OnOne — but first, I'd like to share a GarageBand story with you.

Some years back, I had an epiphany with the aid of GarageBand. See, for a long time I'd been trying to get this guitar lick to sound right on my acoustic six-stringer. It sounded OK — indeed, after some years of practise it sounded as slick as I could make it sound. But it always failed to sound like it should. I wanted Eric Clapton, but all I got was Tiny Tim.

What I didn't realise was that what the lick needed was some amplification. That, and a GarageBand preset called Roadhouse Rock, which took that neat bluesy lick and gave it some, er … well, you know ... oomph. Suddenly, I was the bar room blues god I always knew I could be.

Why am I sharing this? Because the GarageBand experience taught me that presets can be a wonderful thing — that borrowing somebody else's canned expertise can open new possibilities or solve a quandary that you might otherwise never have gotten on top of. And the wonder of presets doesn't end with guitar amp emulations.

Enter OnOne Software and its latest offering, Perfect Photo Suite 6 (PP6). This software isn't all that new, having been on the market since late 2011, but there's a good reason I haven't written about it yet and I'll reveal why shortly.

First, back to the beauty of presets. I know a lot of photographers and retouchers look down their noses at image edit presets. I understand why, too. Having spent a lot of time and effort honing their Photoshop talent, they see presets as a cheap alternative to real skills and, worse, a breeding ground for clichés. But what if you don't have the time for developing some 'shop skills? Or the innate talent for recognising what it is that a photograph needs to make it look even better than it already is? You need only witness the rise and rise of apps such as Instagram to see that people like presets — or, at the least, an easy fix.

But that thing about clichés holds true. I'm gonna scream if I see via Twitter another Instagram pic of what is actually a really boring photo pretending to be an interesting one with a coat of aquamarine wash and a bit of "antiquing". Spare me.

So where are we? How's this: Presets can be a great aid in bringing something extra to an image but be careful how you use them? There you have it. OK? Fair enough? And if you're one of those snobby Photoshoppers with some mad skillz, this is your stop. Off you get. We're gonna talk about an alternative approach to bringing some snap to images and we don't want you sitting at the back of the bus making snide remarks and chortling to yourselves.

Now, if you're thinking PP6 is just another collection of canned presets, I would be at fault for your thinking it, given the way I've been prattling on, so let's spell out what's in the package. Bear in mind the version designations for these modules indicate a full-point release of discrete software titles that can be purchased separately but the best value lies in buying them as the PP6 bundle, priced at $US299.95 (or $US149.95 as an upgrade from the earlier package). Further, installing PP6 gives you an Aperture or Lightroom plug-in, a Photoshop plug-in and standalone versions of the apps, so you're well covered for workflow options.

PP6 comprises seven editing modules:

• Perfect Portrait 1 is for portrait retouching; skin smoothing and blemish removal, that sort of thing.

• Perfect Layers 2 brings layer effects into an Aperture-based workflow. Pretty handy this, given that the absence of layers is a giant hole in Aperture's editing toolkit. Layers, if you weren't aware of them, provide the ability to stack images on top of one another, with areas of full or partial transparency that reveal images lower in the stack to provide a range of image effects, such as a faux multiple exposure, or a combination of simulated paper textures.

• Perfect Effects 3 provides a set of image effects. Black and white transformations, vintage looks, vignettes, movie style treatments, and so on. These are the canned effects with funky names such as "Dawntreader" that people commonly associate with plug-in software.

• Perfect Mask 5 provides a number of masking treatments such as removing backgrounds. It applies a different methodology than Photoshop and for some masking jobs — in particular those with a solid colour background — it is Photoshop's equal at masking.

• Perfect Resize 7 is an app some readers may have previously known as Genuine Fractals. It enables the enlargement of image files beyond their existing resolution and dimensions. A very handy tool for those in the print industry who need to upsize image submissions (or images sourced through unconventional means) to suit publication specs.

• Focal Point 2 is a selective focus tool. Add a soft-focus vignette, change the depth of field or create a tilt/shift effect.

• Photoframe 4.6 Pro allows you to frame your images with film edges, borders, textures and so on. Build textured page layouts for wedding albums, etc. It's another app that is easy to over-use but, applied with discretion, can be invaluable.

Right, so there's the package. And why have I not written about it until now? Because, performance-wise, it needs some work. I've been living in hope that a software update would materialise that fixed performance issues. Alas, that was not the case, though a minor maintenance update was issued not so long ago.

Perfect Portrait is a terrific tool if used carefully. Overplay the skin smoothing and your subjects will end up looking like wax Barbie dolls. But Perfect Portrait has some neat tricks. A useful feature is its facial recognition, which selects a face and applies a selection frame, so treatments are limited to faces; a good thing, because retouching arms as heavily as a face looks just weird.

But if you have two people or a group, the facial recognition slows to a crawl and clicking from one face selection to another is an exercise in frustration, with the software taking so long to respond that you end up clicking again, which of course reverses your action, so you click it again but nothing happens, so you wonder where you are. You need to click and wait for about 15 seconds if you can be that patient (but who can?) to get your desired response. This is painful.

Worse than the poor responsiveness is that it's crash-prone, especially with a group shot. The software just falls over.

Moving on to the Perfect Effects module, there are a number of image treatments I have to admit falling in love with. Problem is, it is horribly sluggish. A good feature is that selecting one of the image treatments will generate a preview, allowing you to test it before applying it and saving. Great! Except having to wait up to ten seconds for the preview to render gets old very quickly.

I understand why it's taking so long. Many of the image effects and other tricks in PP6 are complex treatments. But some users, especially those who prefer the quick-fix plug-in approach over the DIY Photoshop approach, may well fail to appreciate the complexity of what's happening under the hood and throw their arms up in despair.

See, there's a dichotomy at play here. Plug-in solutions should be fast to use. Many, if not all, of us have that expectation. We're conditioned to it. Photoshop solutions, on the other hand, are often laborious, time-consuming and require specialised skill. I'm sure I get no argument there. So when a plug-in solution such as PP6 is sluggish, it's hard not to feel let down, irrespective of how complex the processing task may be.

This is such a shame because the feature set of this software package really is terrific. I'm impressed with what OnOne has achieved. There is a world of canned effects that could take you a long time to work through and, with the ability to stack effects in layers, the possibilities for customisation are limitless. Also, it's fun to use, notwithstanding its sluggishness. The way the user experience unfolds is very much the opposite of the world of mystery that Photoshop presents to the uninitiated.

So here's the deal. When onOne updates PP6 and makes it snappy to use, I'll write reviews of each of the modules. Until then, you might want to hang on to your money because, sadly, I can't recommend it as is, unless you have the patience of Job.

That said, you can download a 30-day free trial of each module in PP6 or even the whole lot as the PP6 bundle itself. Just have a thermos of coffee handy. And maybe a deck of cards.

As a matter of disclosure, I trialled PP6 using a 2.8GHz i7 processor with 8GB RAM, which really should be adequate. It certainly doesn't fail me in Photoshop. If you have a fully-specced Mac Pro with stacks of RAM and a multi-core Xeon processor, brute force might just overcome PP6's sluggishness.