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Not for nothing is Photoshop called the “industry standard” for graphic design and photo editing. The moment you defect to another product, you start missing stuff. Can Corel Paintshop Pro 2020 Ultimate do the job just as well? It’s a comprehensive standalone program with lots of extras thrown in for free.
This edition of Paintshop Pro (PSP) introduces several new features, including a touch-ready Photography Workspace, a SmartClone Tool, and a Refine Brush for ultra-precise selections. There are improvements to existing tools, too. We’ll cover these things during this review as well as looking at preexisting features.
Paintshop Pro Ultimate comes with Corel Aftershot 3 raw processing software as well as its own in-built raw conversion. Since many of our pictures start out as raw files, it seems apt to look at these facilities first.
Aftershot 3 is a pared-down version of Corel’s Aftershot Pro, which you can upgrade to for a modest sum. The latter lets you create Lightroom-style catalogs, so all changes to images are stored inside the program instead of in separate XMP sidecar files. Although not as sophisticated as the pro version, Aftershot 3 Standard offers much more than the in-program raw conversion tool of PSP 2020. A notable exception to this is DNG support, but it does have lens corrections, layers and Perfectly Clear auto image enhancement. The latter works well with layers since you can adjust the opacity to achieve optimum results.
An early problem I had with Aftershot and Paintshop Pro 2020 was that neither liked my custom monitor profile, so I had to switch to a generic Adobe RGB profile to make the color look acceptable. It took some head-scratching before I realized why raw previews looked so bad.
With that problem temporarily solved, I found the software eminently usable, though I think Corel should include a histogram in the standard Aftershot version. The pro version has enough to commend it without cutting essentials from its little sibling.
Aftershot is rebranded Bibble software, which was highly rated in its time. It includes access to many plug-ins, such as the Wavelet Sharpen plug-in and the zPerspector perspective correction plugin. These are useful add-ons. I’d recommend that you trial Aftershot thoroughly before buying or upgrading. Remember, the Pro version won’t catalog your DNG files if you use them. You need proprietary raw files. As well, Paintshop Pro doesn’t like Adobe’s enhanced DNG files.
The first thing to do in Paintshop Pro 2020 Ultimate is to choose from three workspaces: Photography, Essentials and Complete. The new “touch-ready” Photography workspace is inviting since it doesn’t distract you with a bewildering set of tools. It’d be a good place to start for beginners. But if you’re coming from years in Photoshop, you’ll probably skip to the Complete workspace where all things are possible.
Just like Photoshop, Paintshop Pro 2020 gives you the choice of editing photos on adjustment layers or independently. Some of the editing choices are not available as layers, though you can always apply these to a duplicate layer. All adjustment layers have built-in layer masks for selective editing.
Paintshop Pro offers most of the features you’d expect in an advanced pixel editor when it comes to correcting color and tone. There are a few things you may not have seen before. For instance, the “Histogram” adjustment layer is a kind of advanced blend of Levels and Curves.
The “Histogram Equalize” adjustment in PSP 2020 evens up the tonal range of the image, often brightening it. You need to be careful with this if you don’t want to blow highlights. More useful, I think, is “Local Tone Mapping” at its default low settings. It seems to have a very subtle HDR effect that perks many photos up.
Conspicuous by its absence in Paintshop Pro is any form of clipping display or exposure warning. If it’s there, I never found it. To me, this is a must-have feature, since it shows you what you’re losing with tonal or color adjustments and whether it’s likely to matter. I don’t expect it to be missing in a wide-ranging package like Paintshop Pro.
I’ve gotten used to being able to correct perspective in architectural photos, so I was keen to see what Paintshop Pro offers in this respect. In fact, the Perspective Correction tool in PSP is very good, albeit without the full-auto option of ACR or Lightroom. It’s the work of a few seconds to correct most photos, and that’s good enough for me.
The regular cloning tool in Paintshop Pro is fine for most cloning work, but now we also have the SmartClone tool. This is useful if you want to lay textures or patterns over another area of a photo or even a different photo. Three blend modes are available for different effects: Original, Blend, Black and White. The first gives you regular-type cloning, the second tries to blend color and texture by reducing opacity, the third clones only texture by desaturating the selected area.
A neat feature of the SmartClone tool is the ability to save selections as presets, so you can use them with future images. This tool is not an equivalent to content-aware fill in Photoshop. It has its own uses and controls. Paintshop Pro offers Object Remover and Scratch Remover tools to intelligently fill in areas of an image, though you have to be reasonable in your expectations as to what these things can do.
I never need to make intricate selections in my day-to-day photography, but perhaps that makes me a good candidate for testing the new Selection Refine Brush in Paintshop Pro 2020. I had trouble even accessing it at first until I realized the chosen selection tool must be docked for the button to appear. Despite this shaky start, I was soon impressed.
I started with a quick freehand selection around the edge of the subject and well within the hairline so that any intricate hairs could be selected later with the refine brush. The brush does such a good job at picking out fine detail that it’s a waste of time to attempt precision yourself. You can further refine the end result with global corrections such as smooth edge or feathering.
Once you’re happy with the selection, you can output it in various ways. It’s easy to copy and paste the selection with transparent background onto a new image if you want, or you can edit it further on a new layer. Whatever your aim, it’s hard to imagine other software doing a much better job in getting you to that point.
Fixing chromatic aberration, even in its most common purple fringing form, is one of the great strengths of Photoshop. Other programs struggle to compete. Paintshop Pro’s “One Step Purple Fringe Fix” introduced an artifact the first time I used it and didn’t completely remove the fringing. On the other hand, “Chromatic Aberration Removal” in PSP 2020 gave a good result. Taking as small a sample as possible seemed to help. Based on this, it might be better to leave chromatic aberration in a raw image and fix it in the rendered version, unless you have advanced raw conversion software on your side.
Paintshop Pro offers four sharpening methods: Sharpen, Sharpen More, Unsharp Mask, and High Pass Sharpening. These are familiar choices. Unsharp Mask lets you choose radius, strength and clipping settings. It also includes a set of presets you can pick from according to your intended use for the image.
High Pass Sharpening focuses sharpening on edges. Most programs give you a grey overlay with this feature so you can clearly see the effect of your edit, but that’s not possible in Paintshop Pro. Instead, you have to eyeball the image directly.
There is another route to high-pass sharpening in PSP where you do get the grey preview: create a duplicate layer and go to Effects->Edge Effect->High Pass. Choose an Overlay, Hard Light or Soft Light blend mode.
The noisier your photo is to begin with, the wiser it is to avoid global sharpening. If you have a clean file to work with that you want to quickly publish online, a simple Sharpen or Sharpen More adjustment will often look fine.
A great feature of Paintshop Pro is its compatibility with Photoshop plugins (those with 8bf, 8be, 8bi, and 8ba extensions). A lot of the time they work fine, though I noticed the color goes flat in my Nik Collection Viveza 2 plugin if the preview is small. This is a known problem with other Photoshop alternatives.
Paintshop Pro’s compatibility with PS plugins is not an insignificant factor when weighing up the software. In fact, a range of downloadable plugins and scripts is available as soon as you buy the product – some of them free.
Paintshop Pro also offers the fun “Time Machine” photo effect. This teaches you something about photographic history and attempts to replicate photos from different eras, ranging from the daguerreotype in 1839 to the cross-processing look discovered in the late 1950s to early 60s. You can add appropriate borders to each effect if you want. Below is the “Early Color” preset in action with James Joyce obliging as the subject.
As well as Corel Aftershot 3 raw conversion software, Paintshop Pro 2020 Ultimate comes bundled with a host of other goodies. Here’s the full inventory:
Other new features of PSP 2020 include copy-and-paste layer styles; quicker text rendering, editing and text wrap; faster Pic-to-Painting transitions; and an improved depth-of-field effect.
Corel Paintshop Pro 2020 Ultimate is a vast photo-editing package that doesn’t leave you wanting for much. But it’s lacking in places. The absence of a clipping display or exposure warning that I could find is almost a deal-breaker for me. I use that all the time when adjusting color and tone. Also on my wants list would be gradient maps. There are surprising omissions and inconsistencies in Paintshop Pro. That aside, it’s not unlovable.
Some of the tools in Paintshop Pro 2020 Ultimate are exceptional. My new-found ability to make complex selections with the Refine Brush was a bit of a revelation. And there are tons of special effects, so there’s no excuse not to be creative. Paintshop Pro seems to lean that way – towards the visual editor who doesn’t care so much about the math and more about how the photo just looks. And maybe that’s not a bad thing.
Have you used Paintshop Pro 2020 Ulitmate? What are your thoughts? Share with us in the comments!