Zoner Photo Studio X
- + Comprehensively featured
- + Affordable subscription
- - No Mac version
- - No colour or lens profiles
Price as Reviewed:£3.50 (approx, per monthly subscription)
Andy Westlake explores a fully-featured imaging program for Windows users
Zoner Photo Studio X: At a glance
- Raw converter and image editor
- For Windows computers only
- $4.99/month or $49/year (1-person license)
- One-month free trial available
Zoner probably isn’t the first name that will trip off most photographers’ tongues when it comes to image editing. But the Czech-based company is long established, with its Photo Studio program first appearing way back in 2004. Since then, the program has developed into a uniquely comprehensive imaging package.
Indeed in what is a very crowded market, Zoner Photo Studio X (ZPS) stands out for its sheer breadth of capabilities. To describe it as a raw converter and image editor is almost to do it an injustice, because it promises to do pretty much everything you might need once when you get home from taking pictures. It can be used to download and organise pictures from your camera, develop and edit raw files, and then build web galleries, design photo books and buy prints. It’ll even integrate with external services such as Dropbox and Facebook.
ZPS is, however, only available for Windows, so Mac users can stop reading now. It works on a subscription basis only, with no option to buy a one-off license, which might not endear it photographers who are looking for an alternative to Adobe software. But it costs much less, at $4.99 per month, which at the time of writing equates to about £3.50, compared to £10.42 for Adobe’s Photography Plan.
While some people reject the subscription model on principle, its big advantage is that you continue to get all the latest updates and new features for as long as you keep on paying. Zoner also plays nicely if you decide to end your subscription, as you get a 30-day grace period during which the program continues to work fully. After that, its editing functions will stop working but you’ll still be able to browse your images and export them to standard formats, meaning you should never lose your work.
ZPS X: Camera support
Zoner supports a decent list of cameras, but it’s not as comprehensive or as quick to support new models as Adobe. However, if you install Adobe’s free DNG Converter, ZPS can use it in the background to decode raw files that it doesn’t natively recognise. The only catch is that you want to support a new camera, you’ll have to install the latest DNG Converter version manually.
Using Zone Photo Studio X
As already mentioned, ZPS’s scope is so broad that it’s impossible to touch on all of its features. At heart, it’s perhaps best seen as a non-destructive raw editor of a similar ilk to Lightroom, but it also has a degree of Photoshop-esque layered editing built-in. However, if creative photo-art is your thing, it doesn’t go as far down that route as Skylum Luminar. It’s designed to provide maximum flexibility to advanced users, which means it’s packed full of options and user preferences.
When you start the program, you’re presented with a conventional-looking main window that’s arranged into three sections. On the left is a browser panel that groups together both local folders and external locations and services. Unusually, ZPS can be used with a databased catalogue of images, Lightroom-style, or by simply pointing it towards a folder full of images, like Adobe Bridge. This can be handy for keeping specific projects separate from your main catalogue.
In the middle of the screen, you get a large preview of the image you’re working on, with a toolbar of viewing options above it, and a thumbnail strip below that displays the files in your selected folder. Double-clicking on the preview toggles to an expanded thumbnail browser, which makes it easier to find your desired images. One particularly neat feature is that you can open multiple folders and images at the same time as tabs, which makes it easier to switch between projects compared to using multiple windows.
The business end of the program is located on the right side of the screen, with four sections labelled Manager, Develop, Editor and Create. The first of these provides a range of digital asset management (DAM) functions: you can edit the title, description and keywords, view GPS locations, and examine EXIF data. It’s possible to assign both colour labels and star ratings, which can then be used to filter your images in the browser. Scrolling through images is extremely quick, thanks to ZPS exploiting the JPEGs that are usually embedded in raw files.
ZPS has a well-designed module for ingesting images from your memory card. It can organise imported files into folders by the date they were taken, and automatically add information such as the author name, copyright, and keywords.
Crucially, if you then take some more pictures using the same card, ZPS will only import the new files.
Once you’ve picked a file to work on, switching to the Develop tab brings a set of raw editing tools that are a close match to what you’ll find in similar programs. Alongside a comprehensive array of colour and tonal adjustments, there are gradient, radial and brush filters for local adjustments. One notable option is a Polarization slider, which does a very creditable job of selectively enriching blue skies and foliage in landscape scenes. Obviously, though, it can’t control reflections like a polarising filter on your lens.
Healing and cloning tools are on hand to deal with sensor dust spots or other unwanted blemishes, and if you use a graphics tablet, it’s possible to set the pen pressure to control various parameters such as the brush size or opacity. A special shout has to go out to Zoner’s excellent perspective correction tools, which do a fantastic job of automatically correcting converging verticals and horizontals, while leaving scope for the user to tweak the results.
Switch to the Editor tab and you can create layered composites using multiple files, or add graphical elements including text and shapes. While it’s nowhere near as comprehensive as Photoshop, it has the main tools that photographers are likely to need.
Open the Create tab, and you’ll find an extensive set of options for making all kinds of physical output, including photobooks, calendars, prints and postcards. A wide range of templates are built in and really straightforward to use. You can either print your creations at home, output them as PDF files, or order them via Zoner’s own online printing service.
ZPS also makes it incredibly easy to share your photos as online albums via the firm’s Zonerama service, which is accessed from the left-hand browser panel. All you have to do is create a new folder in your Zonerama space and copy a selection of images across. Once they’re uploaded, they automatically appear as a nicely-designed gallery, complete with the ability to display images fullscreen or as slideshows.
Galleries can either be made public, or hidden but shareable via an obscure URL. It’s possible to rename and edit files in a Zonerama browser window just as if they were in a local folder.
ZPS X: Output quality
ZPS’s default raw development settings are very much on the neutral side, with muted colours, low contrast and minimal noise reduction. This provides an excellent starting point for working on your images, but most of the time you’ll want to apply extensive contrast and saturation boosts to create a print-ready result. To this end, a number of presets are built-in to short-cut the process, including a useful set of auto enhancement options. It’s also possible to create your own presets if you tend to work towards specific looks.
It’s worth noting that ZPS doesn’t include any built-in profiles for either lens corrections or colour-matching you camera’s output. It does support standard LCP and DCP profiles, but you’ll have to source and install them manually. Alternatively, you can use its generic lens correction tools to combat distortion, vignetting and chromatic aberration manually.
Once you get used to how it works, though, ZPS is capable of delivering very creditable output. Perhaps its biggest Achilles Heel is with regards to noise handling, where it’s no match for the latest AI-based algorithms from the likes of DxO. This is visible in the crop below, which suffers from chroma noise and lacks detail. It’s no match for Adobe Camera Raw’s default output, let alone DxO’s AI-based DeepPRIME denoising, as you can see from my DxO PureRAW review.
This won’t necessarily be a problem if you usually shoot at low ISOs, or don’t make large prints. But if you like to exploit your camera’s full sensitivity range, better options are available.
Zoner Photo Studio X: Verdict
Windows users looking for a comprehensive image-editing solution will find a lot to like about Zoner Photo Studio X. It really does do it all, from copying your pictures off your memory card right through to creating prints and web galleries; I can’t think of anything else that provides such a complete set of features. Once you’ve familiarised yourself with how it works, it’s also reasonably easy to use, while providing an impressive range of options for advanced users to configure and work with it pretty much as they please.
Some photographers will object to subscribing to software on principle, but ZPS has the twin virtues of being both inexpensive, and nicely behaved if you decide to stop paying. However, the trade-off is that while it’s capable of very decent output, it’s not class-leading in terms of noise control. The lack of profiled lens corrections and camera colour matching also places it behind more expensive competitors. But as an all-in-one option for all your imaging needs, it’s difficult to match, and well worth giving a try.