Review: MacPhun Creative Kit 2016

MacPhun Creative Kit 2016 background

MacPhun is a relative newcomer to the Mac image-editing scene, but it’s not wasting any time making a name for itself. It started out by selling its image-manipulation tools individually via the Mac App Store, with Pro versions delivered straight from its website, but these have now been scooped up into a single Creative Kit 2016 package which offers big savings over the individual prices.

The kit includes Snapheal, a simple but powerful object removal tool, FX Photo Studio for easy one-click image effects, Intensify for dramatic localised contrast effects, Focus for bokeh and depth of field effects, Noiseless for high ISO noise removal and Tonality for beautiful black and white and vintage effects.

MacPhun Creative Kit 2016

There are actually three editions of the Creative Kit at the time of writing: Starter’s Edition (but this only comes with Snapheal, FX Photo Studio and Intensify), Complete Kit (tested) and Pro Kit Premium, which comes with training materials.

All of these programs can be launched and used as standalone applications. The Creative Kit versions also integrate, so apart from saving the image or sharing it via email, Facebook and so on, you can send it straight to one of the other applications in the Creative Kit suite.

MacPhun Creative Kit 2016

More than that, though, the CK applications also work as plug-ins for Lightroom, Aperture, Photoshop and Elements, so that if you already have a favorite image-editing tool, you can still use the MacPhun apps for additional creative inspiration or for jobs which would be just too long-winded or difficult in your regular software.

So those are the basic principles – now let’s take a look at the individual applications.

Snapheal CK

This is a deceptively powerful little program. Its object removal tools are disarmingly simple to use, in that you just paint over the object you want to get rid of (you can also use a freehand or polygonal lasso tool) and press the Erase button.

There are actually three different object removal algorithms: Global is the one to use for larger objects, Local is designed for smaller objects like clouds, while Dynamic is used for small imperfections like skin blemishes in portraits.

If one of these doesn’t do the job, try another. They also have three different quality settings: Norm, High and Highest.

MacPhun Creative Kit 2016

MacPhun Creative Kit 2016

Much of the time, Snapheal does a remarkable job, banishing objects in seconds and leaving little trace behind. It can struggle with larger objects against busy backgrounds or tight up against other objects you want to preserve, but these would probably be extremely difficult for even the most skilled manual cloner to fix too.

Speaking of which, there is a manual clone option for cleaning up after your main repairs or for times when the automated object removal algorithms can’t fix your problem.

MacPhun Creative Kit 2016

MacPhun Creative Kit 2016

Snapheal’s simplicity belies its power – but it goes further. There’s a Retouch panel which offers simple brush-on adjustments for specific areas of your picture – you only get one adjustment, so it’s hardly a Photoshop replacement, but it’s often all you need to finish off a picture nicely.

And for a finishing touch you can also apply global adjustments to contrast, saturation, clarity, sharpening and more via an Adjust panel.

Snapheal CK integrates with the other Creative Kit applications – you can send an edited image directly to one of the others for further work – or you can use it as a standalone tool.

FX Photo Studio CK

FX Photo Studio looks the simplest application in the Creative Kit, but this too springs a few surprises.

On the face of it, it’s a relatively unsophisticated special effects generator, with a strip of thumbnail images across the bottom that preview the look of your photo with each effect applied. They aren’t subtle – but they do take your images in directions you might never have imagined.

MacPhun Creative Kit 2016

MacPhun Creative Kit 2016

In fact, you can tone down these effects using sliders displayed at the right side of the screen. The adjustments are pretty basic, often just contrast or saturation tweaks, but they are a start.

And you can go further by using the built-in masking tools. These are easily overlooked and accessed via an Edit Mask button. From here you can use Brush and Eraser tools with adjustable size and opacity to control the strength of the effect and the areas it’s applied to.

It’s also worth exploring the pop-up menu on the effects strip at the bottom of the window – the effects are organised into categories and this is where you may find out there are a lot more effects than you initially thought.

Not only that, you can add frames to images and save your own effects presets for re-use.

FX Photo Studio CK doesn’t offer the in-depth adjustments of other MacPhun apps like Intensify or Tonality, but it does offer a wide range of striking and easy to apply image effects to browse through.

Intensify CK

Intensify is altogether more powerful and more complex than the previous two applications. It follows a similar route – offering a range of single-click preset effects backed up by manual controls – but this time they’re presented as a list down the right side of the screen, rather than as thumbnail images.

Intensify can really bring your images to life with enhanced clarity, crispness, detail, saturation and contrast. For all its complexity and sophistication, though, it really only does one thing – it takes the localised ‘clarity’ adjustments now offered by most programs for giving pictures more punch, but then makes them a whole lot more complex with Pro Contrast, Structure, Detail and Micro Detail adjustments that quickly get confusing.

It doesn’t help that many of the preset effects look rather similar. They’re organised into categories in the right sidebar according to function, such as Architecture, Creative and Image Tune, but these splits seem pretty arbitrary, and you’re just as likely to find the effect you want in a category you wouldn’t expect.

They also tend to exhibit a lot of ‘bad HDR’ artefacts, such as glow effects around object edges, heightened noise (and sensor spots!) and sometimes ugly posterisation in over-enhanced areas.

MacPhun Creative Kit 2016

MacPhun Creative Kit 2016

You can do a lot with this program. The manual controls offer a good deal of subtlety – if you have the patience to learn them – and it’s also possible to ‘stack’ effects using Intensify’s internal layers and masking system, and save your favourite effects as presets for re-use in future. It can deliver some really impressive results, but you may have to work a little to get the best from it.

Ultimately, Intensify feels too complicated for its relatively straightforward purpose. You can apply simpler localised contrast improvements in other programs and get a better HDR look with a dedicated HDR app like MacPhun Aurora (not in the Creative Kit, alas). Intensify feels like a worthwhile idea that’s been taken a bit too far.

Focus CK

Focus CK gets back to the relative simplicity of the Snapheal and FX Photo Studio apps. It’s designed to do a relatively simple job – creating tilt-shift and bokeh effects – as simply as possible.

Along the top of the screen is a list of typical subjects to choose from, including Portrait, Nature, Architecture, Macro, Tilt-Shift and Custom. You choose a subject type and Focus CK gets you started with the settings.

In fact, though, it’s even simpler than that. Essentially, Focus CK offers three ways of adding a bokeh effect and you soon get to figure out which one you need for any given picture. The Portrait and Macro settings give you a circular focus shape, which is ideal for subjects that you’re looking at head on, and that you want to separate from the background. The Nature, Architecture the Tilt shift options, however, give you a horizontal or vertical ‘planar’ shape, which is ideal when you have a picture with receding planes, such as when you’re looking down on a city street.

MacPhun Creative Kit 2016

The last option, Custom, simply gives you a masking brush and eraser to manually paint over the areas you want to keep in focus.

Once you’ve selected your focus area using any of these three tools, you can then use the sliders in the tools panel on the right to adjust the amount of blur and even create a motion blur effect. There’s also a vignette tool for adding a little atmospheric corner shading to focus attention even more heavily on your main subject.

The circular and planar focus tools are the least precise but they are also the most flexible, because you can easily drag them around the frame, change their size (and the size of the ‘feathered’ region where the blur is blended in) and change the angle of rotation too.

MacPhun Creative Kit 2016

Focus CK is really quick and effective at creating the impression of a wide aperture setting or a tilt-shift lens, but it can’t simulate the real thing with any degree of accuracy – there aren’t any image-editing tools that can because the arrangement of three dimensional planes in real world images is too complex.

But as long as you’re happy with images that have the right ‘look’ and you’re not a stickler for technical accuracy, Focus CK can produce some attractive and atmospheric bokeh effects with little effort or technical know-how required.

Noiseless CK

Noiseless CK is rather like Snapheal – it’s designed to do a single job that’s normally rather technical, but in a way that makes it quick and simple for anyone.

Image noise is less of a problem with today’s digital cameras than it used to be, but it can still give your images a nasty, granular appearance, especially at high ISO settings.

Noise reduction is a pretty standard tool in any image-editor, but it’s a tricky science to get right. The software can’t easily distinguish between real image data and random noise, with the result that image noise can be smoothed out pretty effectively, but a lot of subtle textural detail in the photo gets washed out with it.

This is why you get that horrid ‘watercolor’ look with photos from some smartphones and point and shoot compact cameras – the camera has processed out the noise, but it’s taken out much of the subtle fine detail too.

The solution is some clever image processing algorithms and choosing the right noise reduction settings for each image – and also finding the right trade-off between noise reduction and detail preservation.

MacPhun Creative Kit 2016

Noiseless achieves all three rather well. When you open up your noisy image, it’s split down the middle with the untreated image on the left and the treated version on the right – you can drag the central divider left and right to see a before and after comparison in real time.

Over on the right there’s a list of noise reduction presets with handy titles like Light, Medium and Extreme – you just click a preset and see if you like the result.

If you think you’ve found the right one but the effect looks just a little too strong, then you can drag back the slider under the preset’s title to reduce its strength.

MacPhun Creative Kit 2016

And if you feel you could do a better job by adjusting the noise reduction parameters manually, you can click the Adjust button top right and tweak six in-depth sliders for Noise Reduction, with further panels for Structure, Details, Filtering (Highlights, Midtones, Shadows, Details) and Overall Opacity.

A lot of noise reduction software is horribly complicated and so technical that you may never feel you’ve got to the bottom of it. A lot of software will also kid you that you can achieve miracles.

You can’t. Heavy noise reduction inevitably starts to erode image detail, and high ISO images have other faults beyond just noise – camera shake is likely (high ISOs are used in low light where shutter speeds are also likely to be slow), and the resolution of the sensor diminishes at high ISOs, too. Too much smoothing can make it painfully obvious that the picture doesn’t have much detail anyway, whereas keeping just a little noise can help disguise the fact.

Where Noiseless scores is not in achieving the hitherto impossible – noise reduction is still a destructive process you have to balance carefully – but in making it simple, fast and straightforward. You’ll soon find out if your image can be rescued and you’ll quickly arrive at the settings which give the best-looking results. And that is pretty much all you could ask from a noise reduction tool.

Tonality CK

If you were buying the MacPhun Creative Kit applications separately, Tonality would be the most expensive. MacPhun describes it as the world’s most advanced black and white photo editor, and it comes with a wide range of preset effects backed up, as ever, with manual adjustment tools.

The screen layout is quite similar to Intensify’s, though here the presets are arranged in categories (Basic, Architecture, Portrait, Dramatic and more), and when you select a category its presets are displayed in a thumbnail strip along the bottom of the screen so that you can get a visual preview of the effects as you choose between them.

Tonality is billed as a black and white tool, but actually it can create some quite striking color effects too, thanks to the way effects can be blended and stacked using the software’s inbuilt layers and masking tools and because of the colour controls offered by the manual adjustments.

MacPhun Creative Kit 2016

This might seem an odd place to start talking about a black and white tool, but it unlocks a lot of this program’s potential. It lies in an unassuming Color Filter panel in the manual tools.

This has sliders for six different colour ranges: Red, Yellow, Green, Cyan, Blue and Violet – and you can adjust both Luminance and Saturation for each. The regular black and white presets will drop all these color values down to zero, but you can push them up manually to produce a black and white photo with the red tones pulled out – or the blues, or greens. Or you can give each colour a different strength to give images a retro, part-toned look. It’s a simple tool with a lot of potential.

MacPhun Creative Kit 2016

Mostly, though, you’ll want to start with the presets, and these do offer a good choice of ‘looks’. You can click a thumbnail to see that effect applied almost instantly to the your image and, if it looks a little strong, you can wind back the percentage with a slider at the base of the preset’s thumbnail. Handily, this doesn’t start re-introducing the color in the original image – instead, it works back to a neutral black and white conversion.

The presets are good, but sooner or later you’ll want to start experimenting with the manual settings, which are displayed as a stack of expanding panels on the right of the screen. There is a lot of control here, including the ability to add texture overlays, grain and photo frames. There’s not a massive selection of frames, but there is still a decent variety.

This is the most powerful program in the Creative Kit, and although it’s designed as a black and white editor, you can ‘switch the color back on’ and use it as a pretty good all-round image-enhancement tool. It offers sophisticated exposure controls (Standard and Adaptive), selective contrast adjustments, clarity, structure and micro-structure controls and more. In some ways, MacPhun is underselling what this program can do.

Verdict

The programs in MacPhun’s Creative Kit 2016 started out as inexpensive individual apps focused on a specific image-editing need. You can still buy them in this form on the Mac App Store, but it makes more sense to get them all at once direct from MacPhun in the Creative Kit – all six apps are useful and worth having, and it the Creative Kit offers a substantial cost saving over the individual prices.

Some software bundles are a bit of a mixed bag, but here the standard is consistently high. Snapheal, Noiseless and Focus are quick and simple tools for carrying out a specialised job that’s often quite complicated. They don’t do much, but they do it well and in an appealing direct and simple way.

FX Photo Studio CK is a bit of a surprise. Its photo effects look rather crude and obvious compared to the subtler effects in Intensify and Tonality, but it does have some depth to it and can give you ideas for image effects you might never have thought of.

The two most powerful apps are Intensify and Tonality. Intensify can be hard going, but Tonality is the opposite – it offers creative scope far beyond its apparently straightforward purpose.

MacPhun Creative Kit 2016

But what do you compare it with? The MacPhun Creative Kit 2016 offers far more inspiration than a regular image-editor like Elements or Photoshop, and it’s closer to plug-in suites like On1 Photos 10 and Google Nik Collection. (In, fact, Photos 10 now works as a standalone suite too and has browsing/organising tools that Creative Kit 2016 lacks.)

It has advantages over both. Creative Kit 2016 is a lot cheaper and more flexible than the Google Nik Collection, and it feels slicker and simpler than On1 Photos 10.

MacPhun Creative Kit 2016

We like

All six apps are attractive, easy to use and responsive. Visually, they don’t tie in completely, but they clearly share the same DNA. Highlights are Snapheal and Noiseless for their simple effectiveness and Tonality for its power and subtlety.

We dislike

Differences in the interface design and user level mean the six programs still need time to absorb individually. Intensify is perhaps the weakest, not because it lacks power – far from it – but because takes the interesting concept of localised contrast adjustment and dissects it almost to the point of dullness.

Final verdict

If you’ve got a Mac and you’re looking for software that can inspire you with new ideas and doesn’t bog you down with jargon and dreary workarounds, you really should try out the free trial. The MacPhun Creative Kit apps feel fast and responsive, as you’d expect for software built for the Mac platform, and they deliver the maximum Mac fun (we see what they did now) with the minimum of technical effort.

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