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Take a Look at the Future of Photo Editing with the Insanely Fast ON1 Photo RAW

Updated September 27, 2016: ON1 recently published a new video that offers a first look at the full Photo RAW software package. The video emphasizes the speed of the software and shows how users will browse and edit photos.

One of Photo RAW’s key design choices was to avoid the traditional catalog or library approach to file management, allowing users to browse photos from any location without a lengthy import process. ON1 had claimed Photo RAW would still include features inherent to catalog-based image processors, however, such as filters and smart albums, which this video now demonstrates in action.

While the video shows off the standard assortment of adjustments, of particular interest is the new content-aware retouching tool, which removed a person from a photograph and instantly filled in the background. This can be done directly in Photo RAW’s Develop module, without having to load a plugin or external application, and, like the standard adjustments, it is completely nondestructive.

While ON1 Photo Plus Pro members will receive Photo RAW as part of their membership, standalone pricing was also announced. New users will be able to purchase Photo RAW for $110, while those upgrading from ON1 Photo 10 will get it for $80. Availability is still listed as fall 2016.

About 10 miles south of Portland, Oregon, in a building shared with Coca-Cola, the 25-person team at ON1 Software is hard at work on their biggest project yet. It’s called ON1 Photo RAW, and not only is it a complete rewrite of their existing technology, it’s the first new RAW image processor in many years.

ON1 has been making photo editing and enhancing tools since 2005, but its software has primarily been in the form of plugins for other popular applications. I had the opportunity to meet with ON1’s Patrick Smith, director of marketing, and Dan Harlacher, director of product management, to learn more about the software and the new direction they’re taking the company.

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Dan Harlacher, left, and Patrick Smith of ON1 Software.

Daven Mathies / Digital Trends

ON1’s key focus with Photo RAW is speed, which was made immediately clear in a demonstration of the new software engine running in a developer test bed. The engine loaded a 42-megapixel RAW image from a Sony A7R II in less than a quarter-of-a-second. Harlacher then demonstrated several real-time effects, from basic exposure adjustments to advanced lens blur simulations. The image preview updated instantly every time he moved a slider, regardless of how many adjustments had already been applied to the photo. While a video of a similar demonstration was released a while ago, seeing it in person made it much more real.

The most impressive thing, though? All of this was running on a measly 13-inch MacBook Air hooked up to a projector via Apple AirPlay. Photo RAW has been retooled from the ground up to do as much work as possible on the computer’s graphics processing unit (GPU), so if all of these effects can render in real-time on a computer that makes do with Intel integrated graphics, I can only imagine what’s possible on a real workstation with a discrete GPU.

Of course, it’s impossible to talk about a RAW processor without making comparisons to a certain other RAW processor that some people may have heard of: Adobe Lightroom. It would seem to be a tricky situation for ON1, whose existing products can run as plugins within Lightroom.

“We didn’t set out to build a Lightroom killer,” Harlacher said. “There were certain things our customers were asking for that we simply couldn’t give them within Lightroom’s SDK.”

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A big component of that is nondestructive editing. Everything done within Lightroom is nondestructive, but as soon as an image is sent to another application, including a plugin, its adjustments are baked in and saved as a new file. This can be hassle for photographers who want the flexibility to jump back and forth between making RAW adjustments and adding effects.

By contrast, “Everything within Photo RAW will be nondestructive,” Harlacher said. Every separate component of ON1’s software suite will exist as a module within Photo RAW. However, ON1 isn’t turning its back on Adobe. In fact, the entire Photo RAW program can run as a plugin within Lightroom, albeit with the usual loss of nondestructive edits when moving between the two applications.

For iPhone photographers excited about the possibility of shooting in RAW with iOS 10, it’s also worth noting that ON1 Photo RAW will run as a plugin within Apple Photos on the Mac.

Unlike Lightroom and other RAW processors, Photo RAW doesn’t store images or information in a “catalog.” Instead, it functions as a hybrid image browser and indexer, and skips the often tedious import/ingest process of other programs. Simply point it at a folder of images, and the program instantly loads them. It still stores metadata about the files, however, so users can organize and filter images within the program.

The potential downside of this approach is that it leaves it up to the photographer to create and maintain a folder hierarchy. However, again, the entire app can function within Lightroom for those who would prefer to continue using it to manage files.

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Another difference between Photo RAW and Lightroom is how users will buy it. “We positioned ourselves to solve the pain points of photographers today,” Smith explained. “One of those is the subscription model.” When Adobe moved to Creative Cloud, it forced users into a subscription service. A special offer for photographers offers both Lightroom and Photoshop for just $10 per month, but the software license expires if a user cancels his or her account.

While ON1 also offers a subscription model for those who want it, the license is perpetual, meaning users can cancel their accounts and still use the software indefinitely, albeit without automatic updates. The goal is to make Photo RAW as accessible and flexible as possible for photographers. “We’ll work wherever you want to work,” Smith said.

ON1 Photo RAW is scheduled to be released this fall, with a public beta coming later in the summer. ON1 Plus Pro members will receive Photo RAW as part of their subscriptions ($150 per year). As for the standalone pricing and availability, ON1 Photo RAW will be available in December of 2016 and will be available for purchase at $119 for new customers, and $99 for upgrade customers.

Update 11/7/2016 by Anthony Thurston to reflect new pricing and availability.