How did you get into photography and image editing? Is it something you’ve always been interested in?
My interest in photography and video came about when I was 17. The school I attended had just started introducing Media Studies lessons and we ended up producing music videos using some basic camcorders and editing software. I really enjoyed it and decided to pursue it further, then got into photography and media encoding.
Previous to that, I’d always been a bit of a nerd anyway—I was sucked into the world of PC gaming early on, when I was about 10 or so, then quickly got into modding games instead of playing them! I taught myself programming, mapping, texturing, etc and even started a mod team. All of that kind of fell by the wayside once I got into the world of media production, but those skills have since proved useful at Serif.
How did you turn it into a career at Serif?
I joined as a Junior Technical Author after looking for a bit of a career change from a video editor and camera operator. When I joined, Affinity Designer had just been released, and Affinity Photo was in beta the following year. I ended up doing the video tutorials for Affinity Photo, and that led to me teaching the apps internally and externally. I started doing demos of the software to companies in different industries as well. At a certain point, it became clear that maintaining that role on top of the technical authoring responsibilities was going to be too much, so I became part of a new Product Expert team dealing primarily with Photo, and we set about recruiting experts to be responsible for Designer and Publisher.
What does your role as a product expert entail?
The remit is to basically ‘look after’ an app in regards to training, demos, tutorials and many other responsibilities—it’s a very flexible role and the context can differ depending on the app. Affinity Photo is quite technical, for example, so I’m constantly developing my skills and exploring different facets of image editing and processing—colour management, 32-bit linear colour space workflows, high end retouching, architecture, just to name a few. I’m frequently producing macros, assets and other content to help out corporate clients and tend to deal with the more technical queries or issues that arise. I also get to use my previous skills—for example, I write and maintain an app for internal use that incorporates all kind of media encoding requirements for streaming video, optimised imagery for the Affinity website and more.
Is there a part of your job that you enjoy the most?
That’s a tricky one to nail down—I could say the sheer variety of the role. It never really gets monotonous because there’s always something new to tackle. That said, there is a kind of routine—once we get to release time, there are tutorials to be produced, etc—but things can be kind of unpredictable and there are plenty of last-minute opportunities that crop up.
Apart from that, I would say I really enjoy that period of time before a release where new features are being added and I have to research and create material for demos and tutorials. I often go out and capture my own imagery, and recently I’ve been teaching myself Blender and using it in anger to create original material for 3D render workflows—I’ve really enjoyed that process.
Do you have a favourite Affinity Photo feature?
I guess you could say features… it has a Procedural Texture filter that you can apply non-destructively, and you can achieve all sorts of useful (and sometimes wacky) filter effects and channel manipulations with it. Combine that with a custom convolution kernel filter and some creative uses for other niche filters, and you can often recreate a lot of functionality that other software has—this ties back into my mentioning the creation of macros for corporate clients. I love the challenge of recreating an effect or adjustment they rely on using some of Photo’s more esoteric functionality!
Are there any ‘hidden gems’ (functionality) within the software that you think don’t get enough credit/use?
Blend Ranges is always a good one—parametric tonal blending which is really useful for compositing. This is very esoteric, but I would also say 32-bit unbounded editing: other software has 32-bit precision editing, certainly, but Photo allows you to use almost all of the tools, filters, adjustments and blending options with no restrictions. For niche genres like astrophotography, this is a massive boon, since most workflows in other software involve tone stretching in 32-bit then immediately flattening and converting to 16-bit for the rest of the editing process, which means you lose precision.
Any top tips you have for using the app for beginners?
Start small—develop a RAW image, use the slider controls to get a basic result that you’re happy with. You don’t need to shoot RAW either; you can go into the Develop Persona from any existing image (like a JPEG) and use these slider controls.
Once you’re happy with this approach, start experimenting with adjustment layers in the main Photo Persona. Try Curves, HSL, Brightness/Contrast—what I would call the fundamentals. Play around with blending options like Opacity and Blend Modes to get some interesting looks and effects. Take it from there! Don’t pressure yourself, either—the process should be fun and creative.
There are plenty of tutorials to help you out with this as well: https://affinity.serif.com/tutorials/photo/desktop/
What about for more advanced users?
Try and keep an open mind. The main issue advanced users have is expecting functionality to work exactly the same as in other software.
Read the Help! I don’t think most people realise it exists—I appreciate many advanced users don’t have the time to sit through tutorials, but the offline Help will often give you the answers you need very quickly. Here’s a great example: one of the most common feedback issues we have is the lack of polygonal and magnetic selection options. They’re right there as ‘modes’ on the Freehand Selection Tool, and you can find this information in 10 seconds by searching ‘freehand’ within the Help.
As someone who was formerly part of the documentation team, I would urge people to use the Help—it’s a valuable tool and we did our best to make it accessible so you can easily search through it and find what you need.
What do you hope to see from Affinity Photo in the future?
That’s a pretty big list! Photo is already quite feature-packed but it’s still early days—I would love to see small quality-of-life improvements like perhaps more macro extensibility. Scripting would be great. More functions in Procedural Texture—having used Blender’s node compositing, there’s a whole array of procedural functions Photo doesn’t have yet that would be incredibly useful. Non-destructive (live) custom kernel convolutions perhaps. Different projection types other than equirectangular for panorama stitching and 360 editing—I know that would be appreciated by quite a few users. Antialiasing for the Flood Tool (and Flood Select)!
Setting aside my personal wishes, it would be great to see linked resource capabilities in both Photo and Designer like we have in Publisher. Linked layers in Photo (similar to Symbols in Designer) would also be very useful for compositing.
To check out more of James’ work, visit his website jamesritson.co.uk.