In a perfect world, editing your photos would be just as fun as snapping them. Corel's newly-released AfterShot Pro 2 is an $80 image editor for shutterbugs and pro photographers that almost makes it so.
If you've used either Adobe Lightroom or Picasa, Aftershot Pro 2 will feel familiar. For one thing, it's just as fast as Picasa: Browsing a 236GB photo library is a snappy and responsive experience. It is significantly faster than Adobe Lightroom on the same machine.
You can choose whether you want AfterShot to import your photos into a database or work on the folder structure you already have on the disk (similar to what Picasa does). Working directly on the disk makes for very fast browsing, and you still get to enjoy one of AfterShot's key features: non-destructive editing. Any changes you make are fully reversible, since they're saved alongside the original image in an XMP file.
Non-destructive editing also means you can easily create multiple versions of a given image and try out different adjustments. AfterShot lets you compare these versions side by side and adjust each independently — and when browsing your photo collection in thumbnail mode, you can stack image versions so they only take up a single thumbnail. Combined with AfterShot's robust support for RAW images, this makes for a fun editing playground.
AfterShot Pro 2 comes with a tempting button labeled Perfectly Clear. This button is supposed to quickly optimize your images — sort of like Picasa's I'm Feeling Lucky feature — but in actual use, I found that it mainly lightened images and made them more contrasty. It was not as impressive as I'd hoped.
Fortunately, image adjustments are easy to make. There's a vertical tool pane running across the window's right side with clearly labeled tabs such as Tone, Details, and Metadata. Dig in, and you'll find curve adjustment tools, color correction and balance, exposure controls, and more. The Perfectly Clear moniker makes another appearance, this time under the Detail tab where it's used for noise removal. It's a different tool with a similar name, because it's based on the same technology — but when used for noise removal, I found that it works well.
By default, all of these adjustments will affect the image as a whole. If you're looking to make more selective adjustments, you need to start working with layers. This is a concept any Photoshop user is familiar with, and AfterShot makes it simple and fuss-free.
The first thing I noticed about the layer tools was how subtly they're implemented. Not the image adjustments, but the way the tools are built into the interface: If you don't usually need layers, you won't even notice they're there. But if you do like to work with layers and selective regions, they're very easy to turn on.
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