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Review: CyberLink PhotoDirector 4 Ultra

24 September 2012, Nick Peers

PhotoDirector 4 is CyberLink’s answer to the digital darkroom question. In this age where people regularly snap dozens of photos in a single sitting, digital photography tools have to offer more than just editing features. PhotoDirector follows in the footsteps of Adobe’s Photoshop Lightroom in offering organisation, adjustment, editing and sharing tools in a single package. In fact, with its editing tools, PhotoDirector goes beyond Photoshop Lightroom to venture into Photoshop Elements territory.

Version 1 debuted less than two years ago, yet thanks to its rapid pace of development, here we are with version 4. Not only does it debut some major new tools – including a stunning content aware removal tool and body shaper – but PhotoDirector 4 marks the app’s debut on the Mac platform too. With so many new features to check out, we took this brand new version for a test drive to see if it lives up to its new “Ultra” moniker.

Tagging your photos in PhotoDirector 4 is relatively quick and painless.

Stay organised
Like other digital darkroom packages, PhotoDirector 4 splits its tools into four major sections, each representing part of the typical digital photographer’s workflow. The first is organisation, where you add photos to the program’s library. This is simple to do – you can import directly from digital cameras or add folders from your computer’s hard drive.

After selecting your photos, you’re given a number of options that you can apply to the photos before you import them – you can tag, rename and even apply a custom preset to files. These options work best when importing in small batches, but version 4 adds a major new feature that works with even the largest photo collections: automatic face detection and tagging.

The feature is invoked after your first import, or you can manually select a group of photos then click the Tag Faces… button. When you start out you’ll need to input the names of people, but it doesn’t take long for the tool to start recognising faces and allowing you to quickly apply a single name tag to a group of faces. It’s accurate most of the time, although there are some spectacularly wrong suggestions made (thankfully it has unlimited undo in case you accidentally click the wrong person), and offers a quick and relatively easy way to quickly tag your photos by who appears in them.

The Library section also contains tools for browsing, filtering, exporting and sharing your photos, all laid out neatly using its tri-pane interface. It takes a little getting used to, but once you’re familiar with it, accessing your photos should be relatively straightforward.

Create stunning images with the help of PhotoDirector 4's new HDR tool.

Make adjustments
Where PhotoDirector starts to really earn its corn is in the Adjustments section. This is where you edit the colour, lighting, exposure, contrast and other universal aspects of your photos. PhotoDirector offers two basic types of adjustment tool: presets, and a range of manual adjustment tools.

Presets enable you to make quick-fire changes to your photos according to a specific theme or effect, such as accentuating a blue sky or create a platinum black-and-white effect. Roll your mouse over a preset and the thumbnail of your currently selected image displays a preview of what it’ll do. A few dozen presets are supplied, but by signing up for CyberLink’s DirectorZone you can download almost 80 more, plus submit your own. It’s not quite as slick as we’d like – you have to download the presets through your web browser, plus there’s no way to mask out areas of your photo so the preset can be applied selectively – but it’s a good way to quickly apply striking effects to your photos.

If you’re looking to correct problems with your photos, then you’ll need access to the manual tools. You have a choice of global adjustment tools or regional adjustment tools such as crop, clone/heal and red-eye, plus some adjustment brushes that allow you to apply global tools to specific parts of your image.

Version 4 adds a new HDR effects tool, which is designed to create dramatic scenes from high-contrast images. It also includes a chromatic aberration correction tool for those cameras that persist in adding unwanted colour fringes to the edges of your photo subjects.

Other adjustment tools updated in version 4 include the tone adjustment, white balance and spot remover tools, and with unique features like the magnetic lasso selection tool, PhotoDirector 4 continues to close the gap between its correction tools and the mostly superior ones found in Lightroom.

If the circumstances are right, the new Content Aware Removal tool can deliver spectacular results easily.

Go edit
PhotoDirector steps firmly out of Lightroom’s shadow with its Edit section, venturing into more traditional image-editing territory with a number of tools designed for those who want to perform more dramatic changes to their photos. There are five sections here, headed by the “People Beautifier” tools. If you don’t measure up in your favourite snaps, PhotoDirector makes it easy to cheat and transform yourself into a Hollywood superstar with tools like Tooth Brush, Eye Blinger and Wrinkle Remover.

They all work pretty well, and version 4 adds a major new tool in the form of Body Shaper, a selection of warping tools that allow you to trim (or pile on) the pounds from your body. Start with the Forward Warping Tool – just click on the affected body part and drag the mouse in the desired direction to warp the photo and trim (or add) body fat. The tool is joined by a Pucker tool, which acts like a virtual black hole as you click, with surrounding pixels “sinking” into the mouse selection. The Bulge tool works in opposite, while there’s a Recover tool that can undo over-exuberant changes.

The tools work effectively – you can set the size of the cursor plus the strength of each effect, and there’s a masking tool to ensure surrounding areas of the photo don’t get affected by your cosmetic surgery.

Other tools include four photo effects, which basically transform the photo into black and white, sepia, tint or blur – they’re fully editable, with a cleaner brush that lets you remove the effect from selected parts of your image for a striking image. Again, the effects work well on the whole, although the blur is a little blocky for our tastes.

Another tool added to PhotoDirector 4 is its Content Aware Removal tool – select an unwanted object and PhotoDirector will attempt to erase it without leaving a nasty blank hole behind it. The effect works best where the unwanted object is on a single colour or textured background, and while results can be spectacular it’s very much hit-and-miss.

Thankfully, where the Content Aware Removal tool fails, the Smart Patch tool – already present in PhotoDirector – proves a more than adequate substitute. Just select your unwanted image, then use the selection to choose which part of the image to replace it with. You don’t need to be too accurate with your selection for striking results.

You’ll also find tools for selecting a foreground image by wiping out the background, plus a Photo Composer tool for combining composite images together. There’s also a tool for creating watermarks for your images for copy protection purposes.

The tools all generally work well, but the way PhotoDirector handles the changes you make can be a little confusing. While adjustment tools are non-destructive, with your changes silently saved as a ‘project’ in the background, leaving the original untouched and allowing you to return to your editing later, any changes made in the Edit section are destructive. PhotoDirector protects your original file by forcing you to save your changes as a separate copy when you’re done, but while it protects the original file, it can become confusing to manage.

Create contact sheets for printing with little fuss in PhotoDirector 4.

Share and export
PhotoDirector 4 also offers options for creating movie-based slideshows you can post directly to YouTube or export in a format you can share manually or burn to video DVD. There’s also a basic print screen, which does a good job of producing contact sheets as well as full-blown printouts. Both tools are welcome, but remain largely undeveloped, and fall short of rival product offerings, such as Lightroom’s book creation and web tools.

Like many of today’s powerful photo-editing tools, PhotoDirector 4 is not light on system resources. Its requirements are hefty, and you’ll need to comfortably exceed those if you don’t want to find yourself tapping your feet whenever you task it to do something. We found our dual-core AMD laptop with 4GB RAM running Windows 8 struggled with more advanced tasks, and so spent much of the review testing the new Mac version using a Core i5 Mac Mini with 8GB RAM, where it proved much more responsive.

In summary
There’s an awful lot to like about CyberLink PhotoDirector 4, countered by some annoying niggles and functionality. It offers a wide selection of features for organising, adjusting and editing your photos, and while its broad approach may put off more professional photographers, for the home user it offers a decent array of tools bundled up in a user-friendly and approachable user interface.

We’re less impressed with its mix-and-match of destructive editing and non-destructive adjustments, which can become confusing to manage. The lack of sharing and export tools is also underwhelming, while the program will also tax older computers and many modern laptops too.

Ultimately, though, PhotoDirector 4 is a worthy update to the program, and thanks to a timely price cut, represents exceptional value for money, particularly for new users. The new tools and features all add to the program’s appeal, but we wonder if there’s enough new here to justify the upgrade price (around $70) from version 3, particularly as if this rate of development continues then version 5 could be just around the corner.

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