RAW Power 3: an affordable digital photo development app for macOS

software photography

I used to dabble in digital photography, even attended a series of workshops for a year. I’m still amateur level, I think, and haven’t shot much in the past 7 years or so. Still, I have a few thousand pictures, some edited and some not at all, that sit in my archives, and I’d like to edit and publish at least some of those.

Only problem: I didn’t have any photo management and development software I’m comfortable with.

I used to own Lightroom 3 and 4. I still do, but they probably don’t install on current Macs, and Adobe made it hard if not impossible to get a license for the current Lightroom Classic app without paying 20 euros per month. So I’ve been looking for alternatives.

Rounding up photo editors

Here’s a list of what I found:

I also got Affinity Photo and Pixelmator Pro, each for around €50. While they can do some RAW development, and have some great features, they’re closer to Photoshop in spirit. So not my cup of tea. They also don’t include a library browser or manager.

There are a few open-source options too, such as Darktable, RawTherapee and LightZone. I didn’t consider them because they tend to have limited macOS support3, a steep learning curve, and questionable usability4.

Finally, after reading this review of the Apple ProRAW format, I discovered a small macOS and iOS app called RAW Power. It piqued my interest since it’s cheap (around €30), runs natively on Apple’s new CPUs, and looks similar in spirit to early versions of Lightroom and Aperture.

The RAW Power UI

RAW Power is developed by Nik Bhatt, who worked for years at Apple on the Aperture team. A bunch of user comments call RAW Power a spiritual successor to Aperture, though at this time its feature set seems more limited (with a few exceptions where it’s more up-to-date).

It was originally a development extension for Apple Photos, before gaining a photo library module in version 2 (improved further in version 3), making it usable as a standalone app as well. You can get a trial version on the app’s website, which is fully functional and adds a watermark to exported photos.

Before trying it out, I took an hour to watch this video tutorial series recorded by Nik. I especially liked this one, RAW Power 3 for Mac: Rating and Filtering Workflow. That workflow is not super specific to RAW Power, and could be reproduced in several apps, but sharing this method was a nice touch.

The RAW Power UI looks like this:

Screenshot of the RAW Power app.

The UI can be customized a bit, and includes:

All those UI components can be hidden or toggled. And if you hide the main photo viewer, the thumbnail strip becomes a bigger thumbnail grid.

This lets you customize your workspace however you want, but sometimes I find that I want to go from one UI configuration to another, and clicking 3 buttons to change things one way and then 3 buttons to change it back is a bit painful.5

On the customizing front, you can also reorder and show or hide each of the RAW “adjustments” modules that appear in the Edit sidebar. The interface for that would benefit from some improvements though, since you need to use different menus to add a module, hide a module, and reorder modules; it would be possible to unify all that in a single, more intuitive config view.

The Reorder Adjustments dialogue

Personally, I’m missing a way to quickly show the photo’s metadata when I’m in Edit mode6. I have to switch the sidebar from Edit to Info, which takes a good second for some reason, on top of making me lose my place. I’d also love to keep a histogram in Info mode.

The adjustment tools

The adjustment sidebar has a bunch of good tools:

The Basics, Tone and Enhance controls
Not sure why Brightness is a “Basics” control but “Exposure” is a “Tone” control. Or why Deepen and Lighten are in “Enhance” and not “Tone”, or why “Sharpen” is in a different category (with a single slider) and not in “Enhance”. So I’ve reordered those modules to put them together.

Things I like about the adjustment sliders in RAW Power:

Some things I don’t like:

Arguably, I’m finicky. That’s the problem when you use and review software as a UI developer & designer. 😛

Overall I like the tools, they’re rather powerful. There are a few useful presets you can apply, and a couple “Auto Enhance” features which look decent but not quite magical.

One tool which is both powerful and a bit confusing is the RAW Processing adjustment. It shows 9 sliders and a couple options:

The RAW Processing controls, with sliders such as Boost, Black Point, Luma Nose, Color Noise, Moiré, and RAW Sharpen

The noise controls are part of this first RAW processing pass. I haven’t worked with very noisy images yet, so I’m not sure if they’re good. The Color Noise correction seems to work well.

The “Boost” feature is interesting. It’s set at its maximum by default. If you move it back to 0%, you get a much more washed-out, lifeless picture, like you get in some RAW processing software out of the box (especially in some of the open-source ones, when they’re not set up to apply some default enhancements). Comparing the results at 0%, 50% and 100% Boost, I tend to like what it does.

A side-by-side comparison of the same image with two different development settings. Left one looks a bit gray and lacks contrast. Right one is more colorful and contrasted.
Boost at 0% and 100%

In the video tutorials, Nik shows how sometimes Boost goes a bit too far, and it’s better to lower it a bit or completely before applying other adjustments (such as highlight recovery). I’ve sometimes moved it down to 90% or 80%, but rarely all the way down.

Another slider I’ve used at times is Black Point, which er makes more or fewer parts of the image black or dark?

Sometimes it looks like there are a few ways to do the same thing, especially when it comes to contrast with: Boost, RAW Contrast, Contrast, Curves and Levels, to name a few. Or micro-contrast with RAW Sharpen, Clarity and Sharpen. It probably takes some time and expertise to learn what works best for you and your images.

I just discovered the RAW Power user manual (50 page PDF), which has more details on how adjustments work. Maybe that’ll clarify what the best approach is for some use cases.

The Curves adjustment tool
The Curves tool is powerful and lets you set as many points as you want, but it’s hard to move a point just right on the vertical axis, and a little nudge can have an overblown effect. I was a bit more at ease with Lightroom’s four number inputs, which make it easy to create a symmetrical S-curve and control how strong the effect is.

Finally, there are no local adjustment tool: no brushes, no gradients, no repair, etc. While things like machine-learning based local repairs can be done by other software working on an exported TIFF file, it would be great to at least have support for gradient filters, e.g. to handle sky-vs-land exposure.

RAW Power 3.2 added support for Apple’s ProRAW (part of the DNG 1.6 format), which includes precomputed local adjustments from the iPhone’s software as a kind of mask or extra layer (I’m not sure) that you can turn on or off or apply partially. Maybe some of the work done on ProRAW support lays the groundwork for local adjustments? One can dream. 😄

Data portability

In an ideal world, adjustments made to a RAW photo in one app would be understood by another app. Sadly we don’t leave in this world, because RAW development and image correction algorithms are specific to each app, and there’s no standard even for common things such as exposure correction, black and white or color processing, curves, vignette, embedded LUTs, etc.

So development settings done in Lightroom, RAW Power or DxO PhotoLab won’t be interoperable at all. Okay. But can we at least make sure that those development settings are saved reliably?

Lightroom lets you write development settings as “sidecar files”, which use the .xmp extension, or embedded inside DNG files. This comes in handy when syncing files via Dropbox, saving photos on an external drive, or changing computers or operating system.

RAW Power saves development data in Documents/RAW Power, with no option to use sidecar files. This folder may look like this:

The RAW Power folder, which stores JPEG previews and development data with a .rawpower extension

If you move or rename a photo, you risk losing the link with this development data, as stated in the help pages:

RAW Power stores its editing and rating / flag information in files stored within its “sandbox,” which is a directory inside your home folder on your disk. RAW Power stores information in the sandbox that lets it connect its data with your original images. Part of the identifier is the file name of your image, and part is the identifier generated by macOS. As a result of this system, RAW Power can connect editing and rating information to your original even if you move the file elsewhere on your disk. However, if you rename it, or move it to another volume, the link is broken.

So if you store photos on a drive, that drive dies and you later get a backup of your photos: sorry, your development data will be lost or not linked to the photos.

In my book, that’s a serious risk that will have me keep looking at alternatives.

My recommendation

Despite a few pain points and concerns, I find that RAW Power is a capable tool and I’ll probably use it more in the future, while keeping an eye on the pricier competition.

If you liked Lightroom Classic or Aperture, RAW Power might be a good fit for you, provided you can forgive a few issues and missing features.

RAW Power is, as far as I can tell, indie software with a team of one and a low price. It should give you a lot of value for your money.

I heartily recommend giving it a try.

  1. I bought a ON1 Photo Raw 2020 license in a sale last year. It fails to install on my computer. The 2021 version — a somewhat pricy upgrade — is an Intel app that runs too slowly to be comfortable. I might reconsider later if the price and performance are right. 

  2. Subjectively and just based on screenshots, Darkroom has the most attractive design. 

  3. Darktable tells you “Good Luck :)” if you want to install a macOS version. 

  4. That’s not a condemnation of those projects. I understand that open-source side projects made by developers might focus on Linux support and/or powerful features that scratch one’s itch over the years-long design process needed for best-in-class usability. 

  5. For browsing and rating I might show the left sidebar, a thumbnail grid with medium thumbnails, and the metadata sidebar. For editing a particular photo, I’d hide the left sidebar, show the main photo view, and either hide the thumbnails or keep them at the smallest size. If I count the clicks needed to go from the first configuration to the other one: that’s 4 clicks. 

  6. For instance, I’ve wanted to check data such as the shooting date and hour when tweaking white balance, to make sure the white balance is consistent with the hour and season when I’m going for a realistic look.