Affinity Photo’s RAW development has always been excellent, but the addition of non-destructive RAW editing puts the program well above many of its peers. This recent update means that photographers who want the ultimate in both power and flexibility when developing RAW files now have even more reason to look at Affinity Photo instead of more expensive, subscription-based options.
You can now open RAW files, edit them as required, and then return to those edits and make further tweaks and refinements as you work in the normal, layer-based interface. It’s an incredible addition to the software; while the process is powerful enough for working professionals, it’s also simple enough that anyone can do it.
In this article, I share the ins and outs of Affinity’s non-destructive RAW editing workflow, and I include plenty of tips along the way!
In order to see the true power of Affinity Photo’s non-destructive RAW editing, it helps to first understand a bit about the RAW format. When you take a picture in JPEG format, your camera discards much of the data captured by the image sensor (though it’s data that you probably won’t really notice). The result is an image that looks great without taking up much space on your memory card or cloud storage, but with one important caveat: you don’t have much flexibility when editing the file. If you want to tweak the colors, recover useful detail in areas that are too dark, or create brilliant HDR-style results, you can’t really do it because of the data that was tossed out when the file was created. That’s where the RAW format really starts to shine.
RAW files contain all of the data captured by your camera’s image sensor, even parts that might seem completely useless and redundant. RAW files are much larger than JPEG pictures and can’t even be opened by many software programs. Instead, RAW files need to be developed – much like film back in the days of analog 35mm cameras. RAW files are often flat, boring, and uninteresting, and this is by design; they contain no tweaks or alterations, but instead let you, the photographer, decide exactly how the end result should look.
What is non-destructive RAW editing?
Non-destructive RAW editing means that your edits are saved separately and never alter the original RAW file.
If you shoot in RAW but use a program like Lightroom or Capture One, you might be wondering why non-destructive RAW editing is such a big deal. These programs have non-destructive RAW editing built in from the ground up, and they’ve always offered the ability to re-edit RAW files years or even decades down the line. In fact, when you import RAW files into Lightroom, the images you see in your Library and Develop modules aren’t RAW files at all, but small previews that contain the instructions for your edits (which are then applied to the RAW files when you export your shots).
Affinity Photo has had the ability to develop RAW files for years, but after doing some initial RAW processing, your edits would be frozen in place. The image could, of course, still be tweaked to some degree in Affinity Photo, but any changes to exposure, highlights, shadows, lens optics, noise reduction, and a host of other parameters would be permanently baked in.
In other words: Back in the day, you had to get everything right the first time around. The introduction of non-destructive RAW editing means that you can tweak your edits later or share your files with other photographers to let them put their own creative spin on your shots!
Affinity Photo and RAW editing
When you open a RAW file in Affinity Photo, you might notice that you don’t have access to the normal suite of editing options. You can’t use layers, brushes, clone stamps, or even create selections. Why? Because the original RAW file hasn’t been developed!
Instead, you’ll see a few simple options on the left, like Pan, Zoom, and Blemish Removal. On the right, you’ll encounter a series of sliders that look similar to what you might find in Lightroom’s Develop module. These allow you to adjust a host of parameters, such as Exposure, Contrast, Saturation, White Balance, and more:
These initial limitations might lead you to conclude that RAW files in Affinity Photo are not as flexible as JPEGs or files captured in another image format. But in reality, it’s quite the opposite! RAW files are significantly more versatile than other kinds of files precisely because you have to edit the RAW files first. Since RAW files are not actually images but a collection of color and luminance data from the camera’s image sensor, that data must first be turned into a usable format before it can be edited in the traditional Affinity Photo interface.
How to do non-destructive RAW editing in Affinity
Affinity Photo RAW editing is actually quite simple.
First, open a RAW file (all major RAW formats are supported, including DNG), and use the sliders and options to edit it however you like using the Develop Persona. You can recover shadow data, reduce noise, adjust color, correct lens distortion, edit the tone curve, and even adjust the metadata. Most of the options are similar to Lightroom and Adobe Camera RAW (ACR is the tool that Photoshop uses to develop RAW files). But Affinity Photo gives you some tools that surpass its subscription-based counterparts, such as a waveform view that offers deep insights into the color data of your RAW files.
In addition to displaying Before and After views so you can see the effects of your edits, you can also drag a slider from left to right that shows a moving divider between the two. This is especially helpful for looking at how your edits are being applied to specific parts of an image instead of seeing the entire shot at once.
After you finish editing your RAW file, click the blue Develop button in the top-left corner to open your image in the normal Affinity Photo editing interface. However, you need to choose one of three options for how you would like the data to be handled: Pixel Layer, RAW Layer (Embedded), and RAW Layer (Linked).
Pixel Layer means that your edits will be turned into a normal bitmapped layer that can’t be re-edited later on. Do not choose this option if you might want to re-edit the RAW file at some point, but it is useful if you need a quick-and-simple editing workflow and don’t plan on ever returning to the edited RAW for more tweaks. If you do select this option, remember that the original file will stay intact and can be re-opened and re-edited from scratch, but you won’t be able to alter any of your original edits.
RAW Layer (Embedded) creates an .afphoto file that can be opened in Affinity Photo. The file contains the original RAW image, all your edits, and all the layer-based edits applied in the normal Affinity Photo editing interface. It’s great for a more self-contained workflow; all your image data and editing history are stored in a single file, which can be moved around on your computer or sent to someone else for further editing. The main drawback is that the resulting .afphoto file tends to be roughly 10x larger than your original RAW file, which can eat up storage space on your computer if you use this option frequently. Note that the Raw Layer (Embedded) option also leaves your original RAW file untouched.
RAW Layer (Linked) is my personal favorite and the option that I recommend most often. It creates a separate .afphoto file, similar to an XMP sidecar file used by Lightroom, which stores the edits to your RAW file. This .afphoto file is very small, about 1-2 megabytes, and can be opened later to make additional changes to your RAW file as well as any layer-based edits that you may have done in Affinity Photo. However, if you use this option, you do have to be careful not to move the .afphoto file or the original RAW file from their folders or directories on your computer. If you do, you will need to re-link the original RAW file when you open the .afphoto file for further editing.
After your RAW file has been developed, you’re free to perform any edits using the normal Affinity Photo interface: adding layers and filters, creating selections, using layer masks, and more. Your original RAW file will not be altered in any way, and any changes you apply will be saved in the .afphoto file. As long as you don’t rasterize the layer that contains the developed RAW file, you can return to the Develop interface at any time by selecting the layer and clicking the Develop button at the top of the panel.
For example, I used the Develop Persona to perform some initial edits on my prairie dog RAW file. Then, after developing the file, I used the selection tool in Affinity Photo to mask out the background.
In place of the original green background, I’ve added a bright blue sky; my goal was to make the entire scene feel a bit hyper-realistic, almost like something out of a fairy tale. I imported another image into Affinity Photo and used the Layers panel to place it below the prairie dog image, then repositioned the picture so it would be in just the right location to have the new sky in the perfect spot.
The resulting image looks fine, but a bit more tweaking to the prairie dog could help elevate the composition and make everything a bit more interesting. Therefore, I selected the prairie dog layer thumbnail and clicked Develop Image to return to the RAW Develop persona.
The RAW file is now able to be tweaked and refined with all the adjustment sliders right where I had them originally – and with the addition of the new sky in the background. I made some adjustments to the Tone Curve to give the foreground a more ethereal look, and this illustrates the kind of power Affinity Photo offers.
This next image illustrates one of the best parts of Affinity Photo RAW editing:
It also shows why Affinity’s non-destructive process is so useful. Working with the RAW file by itself is one thing, but returning to the RAW Develop environment while also looking at the other layers that make up an entire composition makes this an incredibly powerful tool for photographers.
To save your edits and return to the Affinity Photo editing environment, click the Develop button in the top-left corner. This cycle can be repeated as many times as you need thanks to the flexibility of the non-destructive editing process.
When is non-destructive RAW editing useful?
Image editing is often a complicated, iterative task where things change many times on the way to a final, fully-realized composition. And any photographer who uses Affinity Photo’s RAW editing capabilities will see incredible benefits to this non-destructive workflow.
It allows you to continually tweak, refine, and polish your RAW files, instead of developing your RAW files once and then being stuck with those initial settings.
Non-destructive RAW editing is also useful for casual and hobbyist photographers who just want a bit more freedom and flexibility. It’s like working with a safety net, and it helps make the editing process much less stressful since you can return to your RAW Develop settings whenever you want.
Affinity Photo RAW editing: final words
I remember shooting with 110 and 35mm cameras when I was younger, taking the film to be developed, and excitedly opening the envelopes several days later – only to be disappointed time and time again when my images didn’t look exactly how I wanted them to appear.
Until recently, that was how Affinity Photo RAW editing worked: you had one shot to get it right, and if you wanted to re-develop your RAW files, you had to dust off the digital negatives and begin again. The addition of a non-destructive RAW workflow is a game-changer and is just one more reason to consider Affinity Photo as an alternative to other editing software!
Now over to you:
Do you plan to take advantage of Affinity Photo’s RAW workflow? How will you use it? Share your thoughts in the comments below!