By Stan Sholik
Perfect Layers from onOne Software is destined to be as much of a workflow game-changer for photographers at all levels as Adobe Photoshop Lightroom has turned out to be. Installed as a stand-alone application or as a plug-in for Lightroom or Apple Aperture, Perfect Layers provides much of the layer and masking functionality for which Photoshop or Photoshop Elements was needed in the past.
I count myself among the many photographers who resisted using Lightroom when it was first released, and now I find myself using Lightroom for most of my editing and raw conversion. I have come to regret the times I must leave Lightroom and open Photoshop in order to blend in a better sky in a landscape photo or swap a head in a group shot. With Perfect Layers, these changes and many more are possible within Lightroom and Aperture, and within Perfect Layers itself when you open it as a stand-alone application.
While Perfect Layers performs many layer and masking functions, it is not a total replacement for Photoshop. Perfect Layers can’t create text layers, vector masks, layer styles (darn, no drop shadow), adjustment layers, paths, alpha channels, Smart Objects, layer groups or clipping paths. And if you created a file in Photoshop with any of these attributes and tried to open it in Perfect Layers, Perfect Layers opens a flattened copy of the file. Otherwise, Perfect Layers opens layered PSD files. It also saves the layers you create while using Perfect Layers in the native Photoshop PSD file format that you can open in Photoshop, Photoshop Elements or again in Perfect Layers.
For photographers who don’t own or have sworn off of Photoshop or Photoshop Elements, you can use all of the capabilities of Perfect Layers as a stand-alone app or through Lightroom or Aperture, and save the finished image as a flattened TIFF or JPEG file rather than a PSD. You will lose all of the layer information of course.
Creating toned images with a texture overlay from a color capture only takes a couple of minutes in Perfect Layers. I selected a color image and created a virtual copy in Lightroom. I converted the virtual copy to a contrasty monochrome image in Lightroom and exported it to Perfect Layers. Then I added a color fill layer for toning and imported a texture. After adjusting both to my liking I saved the image back to Lightroom. In Lightroom I added a vignette and exported the image. ©Stan Sholik
Perfect Layers installs seamlessly, but it does require some pretty substantial computer hardware to operate smoothly. The system requirements listed in this article should be considered absolute minimums. On my 2.4 GHz iMac with 4GB of RAM, there is a noticeable lag in response. On my 3.2 GHz i7-970 Windows computer with 12GB of RAM, responsiveness is far better, but still more sluggish than that of Lightroom itself. However, I’m still working through some issues with Perfect Layers and my Intuos4 tablet in Windows 7. No problems on the Mac.
The most important hardware requirement is a video card with OpenGL 2 support and an up-to-date driver for the card. Perfect Layers uses OpenGL 2.0 extensively for processing the image previews and speeding overall operation. My iMac video card supports OpenGL 2, but only has 128MB of RAM, one factor in its sluggish operation. My Windows video card supports OpenGL 3.1 and holds 1GB of RAM, both contributing to greater responsiveness. Check your computer and update your video driver if the present driver doesn’t support at least OpenGL 2.
Of the series of images I shot of these models, the client liked one on the left best, except that the model on the left had her eyes closed. I found a similar shot (center) where she had her eyes open and exported both to Perfect Layers from Lightroom (below). ©Stan Sholik (click for large view)
I adjusted the opacity of the top layer (above) and saw that the eyes didn’t line up well. Using the transform tool in Perfect Layers (below), I rotated the top image slightly to better position the eyes.
After painting the eyes in (above), I saved the image back to Lightroom and removed the foreground obstruction (below).
From Lightroom, access Perfect Layers from the File > Plug-in Extras menu after selecting the files you want to layer. From Aperture, access Perfect Layers from the Photos > Edit with Plug-in menu or by right-clicking and selecting Edit with Plug-in. If you are using Perfect Layers as a stand-alone application, open images with the File > Open command. The selected images open with the largest image as the bottom layer. If all the images are the same size, they will open in whatever order Lightroom or Aperture sends them, usually alphabetically. Once they appear in the layers panel, drag the layers up or down to reorder them if needed, just as you would in Photoshop.
If you use Photoshop, the interface will look familiar. The main toolbar is docked to the upper left of the interface. It contains six tools: the transform and trim tools, the masking brush and masking bug, the pan tool and the zoom tool. The center of the interface shows the image in the active working area. To the right of the image are the three tool panels: the Navigator and Loupe panel, the Layers panel, and the Masking panel. Many of the keyboard shortcuts are identical to those used in Photoshop. A list of keyboard shortcuts is found in the Help menu.
I never really liked the way the sky turned out in this HDR image (above). I opened it in Perfect Layers, and then opened another sunset image with a more interesting sky.
Using the transform tool in Perfect Layers, I adjusted the sky image so that the clouds were where I wanted them. I then painted out the areas of the cloud image I didn’t want. When I saved it back to Lightroom and examined it closely, I saw that there were some areas around the buildings that I could have done better. I opened the image in Photoshop and found that both layers of the Perfect Layers image were there, along with a layer mask for the clouds image. I did some painting with a very small brush on the layer mask at 200% magnification. That magnification isn’t available in Perfect Layers. The final result is below.
The onOne Software website contains a wealth of tutorials demonstrating what Perfect Layers can do. There are just a couple of really noteworthy elements of Perfect Layers that deserve mentioning. The first is the implementation of blending modes.
In Photoshop, basic blending modes is often used like a hit and miss operation. You select one, wait for the image to redraw, adjust the opacity and if it doesn’t do what you need, you try another one. If you go to the FX feature for Blending Options, you can see a live preview and do more sophisticated blends, but many users aren't aware of that. Perfect Layers makes it much simpler—as you mouse over the available blending modes, you preview the effect on the image in the active working area. No more guesswork and a real timesaver.
Another noteworthy feature is the Perfect Layers trim tool. The Perfect Layers trim tool is a crop tool that operates only on the active layer. This allows you to crop a section of one image and create picture-in-picture layouts. If only there were drop shadows to make picture-in-picture more 3-dimensional.
The final noteworthy element I found in Perfect Layers is the MaskingBug. A not-so-distant cousin of the Focus Bug in onOne Software’s FocalPoint software, the MaskingBug allows you to easily create vignettes or soft gradient masks when blending images.
There is much more in Perfect Layers than I can cover here. It truly is a must-have program if you find yourself moving from Lightroom to Photoshop to do straightforward image blending, compositing or texture overlays. It represents a major improvement as well as a simplification in workflow for many photographers.
Perfect Layers is available in a 30-day trial version from onOne Software at www.ononesoftware.com. The introductory price is $99.95, which will increase to $129.95 after the introductory period. Owners of Perfect Photo Suite 5.5 are entitled to a free copy of Perfect Layers by downloading the Perfect Photo Suite 5.5.3 update.
Stan Sholik is a commercial and advertising photographer in Santa Ana, Calif., specializing in still life and macro photography. His fifth book, “Nik HDR Efex Pro After the Shoot,” for Wiley Publishing, is now available.