In February of 2015, the photo world gave a collective cheer for what sounded like something we all have wanted for quite some time: a legitimate Photoshop competitor. Affinity Photo went into beta, and what we found inside was something really special. Everyone was excited, heck we got on the hype train. Our expectations were high when we sent the Beta for testing to high-end retoucher Pratik Naik, my go-to guy for everything post processing. What he found was a program that, though incomplete, was a heck of a lot closer than anyone had come in years.
We’ve been keeping a close eye on Affinity since then, knowing that there had to be a lot learned from the widespread testing of the Beta. We spoke with Affinity Photo’s managing director Ashley Hewson to get a feeling of how the platform was coming along. “We learned a lot and that started even before the beta,” he told me. “What we learned from photographers was that we needed a speedy workflow, a healthy, accurate tool set, to declutter and avoid bloat, and of course we also wanted to be real time where possible. We also knew that professional photographers wouldn’t forgive a poor quality product because it’s affordable, so the quality of the app remained the first consideration, not ‘quality at that price point’.”
“The level of exposure we got for the beta launch was unprecedented really—we had a huge amount of press, lots of social activity and in a matter of days we had over 100,000 downloads. It’s probably true we wont be able to replicate that as it doesn’t have the ‘where did this come from!’ factor to it. That said we’re expecting/hoping the press will want to announce its launch, and we now have a massive number of users who will hopefully help us spread the word on social media, etc.. The promo video was definitely an important part of its initial success and I’m actually just starting to work on the new launch one now…”
Photographers’ needs have been built in to Affinity Photo from the first line of code.
Hewson told me that their team is built, at its core, similarly to how Adobe started years ago: the foundation is made up of creative professionals who know what they want. “We have a team of 7 highly experienced devs, some with photography and design as serious hobbies. The team includes a rendering expert, an obsessive who created the unique file format for the suite, a dev with multiple text engines under his belt, and someone who first wrote a vector drawing app at school for the Acorn Archimedes. Geniuses. There’s also a team that covers web development, marketing, localisation, documentation and of course in-house creatives. Some of this crew are also keen photographers, they’ve been useful throughout the dev process, and we’ve also drafted in a couple of local alpha testers. It was the massive public beta that really helped set new goals as well as fix problems.
“Affinity Photo lead dev Andy Somerfield actually kicked off R&D for team Affinity back in 2009, so photographers’ needs have been built in to Affinity Photo from the first line of code… his first mission was to explore and create a memory management system that would allow photographers to open multiple, 16-bit, 20MP images and smoothly edit on iPad hardware with just 80MB RAM available to the app. From there you’ll know how much it’s grown and how much it loves the extra power available in full-on Mac hardware.
“The great thing for us is that starting from scratch means we have a very modern codebase using the latest technologies and coding practice,” Hewson continued. “We have very little problems with regressions for example. We also have the huge efficiency of Affinity Photo sharing a lot of the underlying code with Designer. This means adding new features and functionality is a lot easier than working on code that was written 20 or more years ago. So yes, other companies may have a head start, but we believe we are working from much better foundations and can develop faster now.”
We also knew that professional photographers wouldn’t forgive a poor quality product because it’s affordable, so the quality of the app remained the first consideration, not ‘quality at that price point’.
The point of a beta is to gather feedback, good and bad, from the intended audience. It was interesting to see what the complaints with the platform were, and how the Affinity team addressed them. “When we first made the beta available the Develop persona for RAW processing was the least finished aspect of the product, in fact it was probably only around half done,” Hewson told us. This makes sense, and it was one of the main areas that our review found issue with. “We tried to make it clear in the app that we knew this, but we still received quite a few moans about it! However, there was also a huge amount of really valuable feedback and this RAW processing part of the app is now light years ahead of where it was at the start of the beta.”
“We’ve had some great input from photographers and enthusiasts and Pratik was one of the highest-profile reviewers we encountered that early on in the beta, and his review naturally highlighted areas that we knew needed fixing,” Hewson told us. “Still he described the state of Affinity Photo very fairly. During the beta we refocused some dev resources to do a much better job in the Develop persona in particular, so images should look great when they open and are adjusted there now. Pratik also encouraged the team with positive reinforcement that the app can suit pro workflows and his 4 out of 5 rating gave them a measure to improve on.”
So with all that info and feedback, it’s no surprise there will be a lot more to see in the final version that is dramatically different than what we experienced in the beta. “The release version is seriously improved over the first beta that caught everyone’s eye,” Hewson tole me. “We’ve honed performance, updated RAW import and reworked the Develop persona, added some amazing new things like live Filter Layers that I could talk about on their own for ages they’re so good, and continued to work on PSD compatibility. Just last week we added support for massive PSB Photoshop files. We also had to make a few tough decisions to get where we are… we removed Macros quite early on so they wouldn’t be in the first release, but will bring them back in as a free update soon. It’s looking great now, it’s very usable, something we think can save users a lot of time and hassle from day one.”
The release version is seriously improved over the first beta that caught everyone’s eye.
What has the Affinity team most excited about what they’ve built? “Live Filter layers are particularly cool, they really need to be seen to be appreciated. They are literally like Adjustment layers but for Filters like blurs, distortions, lighting, etc. This means you can erase parts of them away, mask them, put a gradient on them, just turn them on and off—completely non destructively. Another really useful addition since we started the beta is a saveable undo history, so all your undo steps are still available even if it’s months since you last opened the document. What’s even better is if you open that same file in Affinity Designer, that same undo history is also available in there too—and that will be the same for all products in the Affinity suite.”
When the finished product is finally released, and I’ve been told that release is very, very soon, the pricing plan for Affinity will be in direct contrast to what Adobe customers are used to. “The price is going to be US$49.99 / €49.99 / £39.99 with no subscription. We’ll be regularly releasing free updates too – and these won’t just be the ‘minor improvements and bug fixes’ you see in some other companies’ app store updates either, we have plans for impressive new features and will also be growing the community and ecosystem around Affinity apps. We will at some point move to a version 2 of course, but that will be at least 2 years away.”
Adobe has a penchant for quashing competition by simply buying them out. It’s not out of the question that they would consider doing this to Affinity. But for Hewson, that’s not something to be terribly concerned with. “The main thing for us is our full vision, what we are trying to create, will not come to fruition for another 10 years. I can’t foresee any circumstance where we wouldn’t see it through.”
When the finished version of Affinity Photo becomes available, you can bet that Pratik will run it through the wringer once again. But based on what Hewson has told us, we should be ready for a platform that’s considerably more impressive than the beta. And we can’t wait for that.