January 10, 2008

Acorn Review, Version 1.0.3

There are a lot of digital photographers that just don't want to join the Photoshop Army. And why should they? It is expensive, hard to learn, often problematic technically and just way too much for the average everyday photographer that isn't a real computer enthusiast. So, I’m going to review some alternatives to Photoshop, Lightroom and Aperture for photographers that either don’t need all the complexity of those products or the cost. You will see reviews here soon of Pixelmator, Acorn, Compositor and any others I can find. Send me suggestions for others if you are interested.

I'm going to make some assumptions:
• that on the Macintosh platform you are happy using iPhoto for cataloging and organizing but that the editing feels like too little and you'd like to experience some growth in that area.
• that on the Windows platform you are happy using Google's Picasa for cataloging and organizing but that the editing feels like too little and you'd like to experience some growth in that area.
• that you'd like to spend less than $100 ( nice price!)
• that you'd like the product to create industry standard files that won't be "lost" in the future as technology progresses (necessary!)

Acorn, Version 1.0.3

Acorn is a very promising new choice for a low cost application that supports editing of photographic images. It touts itself as "Simple Image Editing" and it is that. It is fun and easy to use. As a Macintosh only program it takes advantage of the GPU processing power and built in functions that make it easy to manipulate images in some powerful but not quite complete ways. I'm looking forward to seeing what comes next in this young product. Some of the basic photographic controls are missing but it is still an interesting choice. It has some helpful "Actions" that allow you to send images to iPhoto, Mail, and the Preview applications.

The interface is simple and consists of three main pieces; the image window, an easy to understand tools and layers palette which is a bit bigger than you might expect but it holds a lot of information and functions in one rather than having many multiple palettes floating around as most other applications do, and the filter dialog windows that appear for making large changes. The tools are at the top of the main palette and are accessed through a text list; Move, Select, Draw etc. The layers and controls for them are below. The layers functions seem quite powerful and easy to learn though there is no masking. The program is excelling here as this has always been a steep learning curve area for digital photographers not already familiar with Photoshop.

Acorn has a handy zoom control built right into the Window on the lower right corner. It remembers where you place your tool palette in between launches of the program. It feels very quick on a new iMac and I like the easy keyboard letter commands for choosing tools; V for Move for example but I don't understand why they are under the View menu. Changing the size of an image is as easy as holding down the Option key while dragging the corner of the image window.

Acorn will open the normal formats (not camera raw files) including Photoshop and will save out to: Acorn (retains layers), PNG, TIFF, GIF, JPEG, and BMP. While working with layers you would be advised to use Acorn but for archiving images for the long term, photographers should absolutely use TIFF for archives and JPGs for sharing. It would be nice if layers could be saved in the TIFF format. Acorn will save changes in a Photoshop file if you open one but PSD is not listed as a choice normally and layers are discarded. Information from the developers' website forum pages (which appear very active) indicate that version 1.1 will include a "saving for the web" feature as well as others.

As for adjusting photographs, Acorn is almost there but not quite. It has controls for exposure, saturation, brightness and contrast but I'd like to see Levels, Curves, and color cast functions. There is no histogram to look at so the adjustments are all by how things look. This is a definite area of need in the program. The controls are all under the Filters menu and in one unexpected twist you can stack controls as you work. You choose a filter then click a small (+) sign to choose another and make all your adjustments in one sweep. However, you can't step back through them one-by-one. There are many, many filters for applying changes for color, composites, and stylized artistic effects. The Sharpen filter appears to work well and quickly too. Cropping and re-sizing are easy and intuitive but I do not like the procedure to straighten a horizon. You have to use a very touchy little jog wheel to adjust the rotation. It is way too small and sensitive which creates the need to guess the angle and type it in. Then you use the Crop tool to finish the fix.

I'm very interested in Acorn. I think it is attractive, intuitive and will definitely grow into a very useful program for photographers. It shows some understandable rough edges that are common in first version software. Some of the functions are oddly misplaced such as Transform Selection being under the Layers menu rather than the Select menu. If it soon gets controls for levels, curves and a histogram display I'll recommend it to photographers that don't need Photoshop. I look forward to using it myself to for quick adjustments to size, or format or crop.

You can download the demo here: flyingmeat.com/download/Acorn.zip
It allows you to use the program in an unrestricted way but after using it for awhile it puts up a request-for-payment banner on top of your image. You can quit and reopen it to do away with the banner for awhile.

Requirements: Mac OS X 10.4.9 or later, works great on 10.5.