ON1 Photo RAW 2021 verdict
ON1 Photo RAW 2021 is a compelling all-in-one photo organizing and editing tool that does the job of Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop all rolled into one. If offers image browsing, cataloguing and search tools, plus non-destructive RAW processing and even non-destructive image effects and layers. In some respects it is less sophisticated than Lightroom and Photoshop, but in many others it is a compelling one-stop photo editor that does things that the Adobe rivals do not.
+ All-in-one tool that genuinely does everything
+ Layers included in non-destructive workflow
+ Good Lightroom integration
+ Good Portrait AI results
+ Excellent Effects and Presets
– Cataloguing and browsing not especially sophisticated
– Sync options need a subscription
– Small interface text and some feature duplication
What is ON1 Photo RAW?
ON1 Photo RAW 2021 really is a photo editor that does everything, from the start of the photographic workflow right to the end.
ON1 Photo RAW 2022 has been announced and will be released by the end of September 2021. If you pre-order you will get a selection of free bonus items, and if you use our discount code you can save a further 15% at the checkout. See the info and links at the bottom of this review.
It has browsing and cataloguing tools for organising and searching your photos, it has non-destructive editing tools for raw processing, image effects and even layered image composites, and an extensive library preset of one-click effects for kickstarting your creativity.
• See also: Best image editing software – what to look for, how to choose
ON1 also offers an online cloud sync service in a couple of different storage tiers and synchronisation with the ON1 mobile app and, with ON1 Photo RAW 2021, the ability to sync presets and other ON1 assets like brushes and textures.
This does present buyers with a dilemma. For a long time, a major selling point of ON1 Photo RAW is that it is subscription free. That is still true, unless you want Adobe style cloud storage and sync options. For that you need to swap to a subscription plan, so ON1 is another company edging towards subscription models – or at least offering them as an alternative.
ON1 Photo RAW does also offer Smugmug integration, but for this you need to be an ON1 Plus member, which means – again – a subscription.
- ON1 Photo RAW 2021 review
- More ON1 Photo RAW articles
- ON1 Photo RAW download page
- Best image editing software guide
ON1 Photo RAW organising tools
ON1 Photo RAW 2021 offers two ways of organising your photos. You can browse them folder by folder or you can add them to a catalog. Catalogs have a couple of advantages – you can select which folders are included, whereas the browse window includes your whole computer and connected drives, and catalogs offer more advanced search tools.
In the 2021 version, these have been separated into two different tabs. That’s not a bad idea because there has always been some potentially confusing overlap here – even with folders, you can still do some handy filtering and sorting.
But ON1 does not have smart album feature for catalogs. This feature was last seen in ON1 Photo RAW 2019. Smart albums bring together images with matching shooting information, keywords, ratings or other properties you choose. These have been removed, so now all you have is static albums where you add images manually.
Why take smart albums away? It’s hard to imagine there is a technical reason. You can still create and save custom search presets, which do a similar job, but these are buried in the Advanced Search panel, and can only be displayed as a linear list via a drop-down menu. It’s a similar principle technically, but very different in usability terms.
Otherwise, the organising tools are fine. ON1 Photo RAW 2021 can browse folders and build thumbnails very quickly, and if you’re happy with a simple but flexible folder-based system and modest cataloguing tools – as opposed to the full-blown database image management in Capture One and Lightroom – this is fine.
A new Smart Organize tool in this 2021 edition is designed to help you find and eliminate duplicate images, and to help you group images together that were taken at the same location or the same time, or even have the same appearance. This only works on folders added to the Catalog, though, and ‘grouping’ images means moving them to a separate sub-folder – and not everyone likes messing with their carefully constructed folder systems.
One of the key points about Photo RAW 2021, like the preceding versions, is that its adjustments are ‘non-destructive’. This means that it doesn’t change your original photos, but stores your adjustments as processing ‘metadata’ (or processing instructions) alongside your photos. Inside Photo RAW 2021 it looks as if your images have been edited, but to produce an image with those processing changes permanently applied you have to export a new, processed image.
This is how Lightroom, Capture One, DxO PhotoLab and other new photo editing applications work. This non-destructive approach means you can change your mind about the settings at any time, even days or weeks later, and your original images are preserved intact and not altered.
The other advantage of non-destructive editing is that you can create ‘Versions’ (virtual copies) in ON1 Photo RAW that don’t produce duplicated image files on your computer. Instead, each virtual copy is the same original image but shown with different processing adjustments. You can produce finished, processed images by exporting these virtual copies.
The ability to work on RAW files seamlessly feels like the modern way to work, and while ON1 Photo RAW 2021 isn’t perhaps right up there with the best RAW processing tools, it is making strides. ON1 says processing for Fujifilm X-Trans files has been improved (in ON1 Photo RAW 2020) and it does seem to do a pretty good job.
The AI Match and AI Auto options in the Develop panel are especially interesting. AI Match attempts to match the tones and colors in the RAW file’s embedded JPEG preview, which is rather clever, and AI Auto is a quick fix enhancement not unlike Adobe’s Auto Tone – and it does give images a real sparkle.
ON1 Photo RAW layers
By incorporating layers into its workflow, ON1 Photo RAW goes a whole step further than rival non-destructive browsing/editing tools. Other programs need to ‘round-trip’ images to other editing tools like Photoshop or Affinity Photo to create composite, multi-layer images, but Photo RAW 2020 can do this internally.
ON1 Photo RAW’s layering and masking tools can take a little acclimatisation if you’re used to Photoshop, but they are very effective. Be aware, though, that if you do create layered images then Photo RAW will need to create a new image file on your computer. These are still fully non-destructive, so you can keep changing the settings at will, but the files can be pretty big – 100MB+ for a two-layer 24-megapixel image, for example.
Does the integration of these layers tools make ON1 Photo RAW a genuine Photoshop rival? Actually, when you factor in its Develop and Effects tools (next section), then perhaps it does. Designers, illustrators and artists will have different needs not addressed here, but photographers may find that ON1 Photo RAW does everything they needed to use Photoshop (and Lightroom) for in the past.
In the early days, ON1’s all-in-one program was a little complex and rough around the edges, but later versions are a lot slicker. There a series of buttons down the right-hand side of the screen for Browse and Edit modes and, below that, for Layers, Pano, HDR and Focus modes. Down at the bottom of the panel are output options which include Resize, Print, Share and Export.
When you click on Edit mode, the other options disappear, but the Edit panel still has Portrait AI and Layers tools, which is one example of some confusing feature overlaps that still exist in this program.
In the Edit mode, there are four tabbed panels.
The Develop tab is used principally for RAW file enhancements and local adjustments, though it can also be used for routine enhancements to colour, tone, sharpening and more for JPEG and TIFF images. You can also apply lens corrections (ON1 Photo RAW will automatically recognise and correct most lenses) and there’s a very useful Transform pane for fixing converging verticals and other perspective issues.
Alongside is the Effects panel, where you can apply Photo RAW’s extensive list of effects filters. These don’t just include special effects, but more enhancements and adjustments beyond those in the Develop panel. These filters are an integral part of ON1 Photo RAW 2020’s impressive capabilities. Its wide array of preset image effects uses combinations of these filters that you can inspect and change if you need to.
There is a dedicated Portrait AI panel, too. It goes way beyond simple skin-softening, with an automatic face-recognition system that picks out and separates faces in a shot so that you can edit them individually. Skin softening is easy thanks to the automatic face masking (you can modify the mask manually if you need to) and eyes and mouths can be enhanced using simple and adjustable marquee tools. This kind of automatic feature-recognition is found in Luminar AI, too, and it certainly makes portrait enhancements quicker and easier.
Lastly, there is a Local tab, for selective masking and adjustments. Each of the ON1 effects filters can have an attached mask too, as can any layers you add – three ways to mask adjustments does seem like a couple too many.
ON1 Photo RAW 2021 and Lightroom
ON1 may not have moved Photo RAW’s own cataloguing tools very far forward with this version, but it has introduced some very good Lightroom integrations – reflecting the reality, perhaps, that many people will prefer to use ON1 Photo RAW as a plug-in tool alongside Lightroom instead of using it as a Lightroom replacement.
It’s now possible to send a ‘Smart Photo’ from Lightroom to ON1 Photo RAW Effects, for example (it instals to Lightroom as separate plug-ins rather than a single tool, as a layered Photoshop file which looks and behaves like any other PSD file to other photo editors, but preserves ON1 Photo RAW editing instructions. In effect, it makes ON1 Effects 2021 a non-destructive plug-in – it’s a similar trick to the ‘multipage TIFF’ format introduced by DxO for the Nik Collection 3.
It’s also possible to batch process multiple photos in ON1 Photo RAW 2021 from Lightroom, and you can either pause at the first to apply adjustments which are then applied to all the rest, or pause at each one to make custom adjustments to each.
ON1 Photo RAW filters and presets
ON1 Photo RAW 2021’s library of preset image effects remains perhaps its single most important asset. These are organised into categories to help users find exactly the kind of effect they want.
There has been quite a change since ON1 Photo RAW 2019, though. ON1 has radically overhauled its presets, with over 100 new styles “curated from today’s hottest photographic trends”. There are also new skies, backgrounds and textures for creative image effects.
Within each category each preset is previewed on a thumbnail version of the image you’re editing, and if you see one you like you can apply it with a single click. And if it’s not quite right, that’s fine, because each one is made up of a series of filters and adjustments which you can edit directly in the Edit panels.
The only thing is… ON1 has swapped from its old system of giving each style a name (memorable, if not always descriptive) to giving them three- or four-digit alphanumeric codes. It looks very cool, and it’s in line with how other programs like Capture One, Adobe Lightroom and VSCO work, but it’s not so easy to remember the presets you like – or to find your old favorites again.
Quality of results
ON1 Photo RAW 2021 does not quite have the simplicity and slickness of some rival programs. There’s a lot going on here, in a dozen different places. But the results, once you find your way around, are really rather good. Its RAW processing looks pretty good, and while it doesn’t seem about to completely remove tricky examples of color fringing/chromatic aberration as effectively as Capture One or Lightroom, it does do a good job with the RAW files from my Fujifilm X30 compact camera, a non-mainstream camera which is a big challenge for most RAW converters.
The preset effects are rather good. ON1 Photo RAW 2021 might be priced for a mid-range audience, but it has the capabilities and potential to impress experts and professional image makers too.
The Portrait AI tools are rather good. You can accept or modify the default skin smoothing adjustments and apply subtle but effective tweaks to eyes, eyebrows, lips and teeth. The eye enhancements are particularly striking – though it might be easy to push them just that little bit too far.
New features in this version include a quick and effective Spot Healing Brush which works in the same way as those in Lightroom and Capture One, for example, with a brush tool that takes nearby detail to blot out unwanted objects and lets you move the heal ‘source’ to get the best result.
There’s a new Replace Color filter for quickly swapping one color for another – hardly a new innovation in photo editing but still very useful, especially since you can use a mask to restrict its effect to specific areas.
Speaking of masks, ON1 Photo RAW 2021 now includes a color range control in its radial and linear masks to restrict the masking to specific color ranges.
ON1 Photo RAW 2021: conclusions
The ON1 Photo RAW 2021 interface is still a little busy and complicated, and the interface font sizes are pretty small. If you’re using it for the first time it might take you a little while to work out where everything is.
But it’s worth the effort. ON1’s continued refinement of its Effects filters and the way they’re presented make you realise these are important creative tools that deserve to be taken seriously, and while not every filter is equally useful, or equally convincing, that’s true of any software.
ON1 Photo RAW 2021 is less of a step up than the 2020 version, but it’s still worth the upgrade. It’s also cheap enough to for new users to try with little financial risk – in fact the 30-day trial means there’s no risk at all.
Other programs have their strengths – Alien Skin Exposure X6 for its analog effects, DxO PhotoLab for its sublime RAW conversions, Capture One Pro for its quality and editing workflow and so on – but no other program offers this range of capabilities at such a reasonable price.
The ON1 cloud service and subscription model are a tougher call, though, given that the subscription is not a whole lot cheaper than Adobe’s. ON1 has always made a great play of its subscription-free software, but its marketing is driving more and more towards subscription services, so it’s on pretty thin ice here.
For those who object to the whole subscription principle, the standalone ‘perpetual’ (non-subscription) ON1 Photo RAW 2021 purchase looks by far the best option.
- ON1 Photo RAW 2021 review
- More ON1 Photo RAW articles
- ON1 Photo RAW download page
- Best image editing software guide
ON1 software – Save 15%
ON1 Photo RAW 2022 is now available for pre-order (release late September 2021)
ON1 Photo RAW 2022: $99.99
ON1 Photo RAW subscription (200GB): $7.99/month
ON1 Photo RAW subscription (1TB): $15.99/month
• Save 15% at the checkout with this discount code: LAPON1