We Review ON1 Photo Raw 2023.5: A Complete Workflow With Outstanding Results


ON1 Photo Raw keeps leaping forward in its functionality. It seems that Lightroom is forever playing catchup with the program’s innovative features. The new facilities in the latest release make ON Photo Raw even more attractive.

When Adobe welched on its promise to continue offering a perpetual license several years ago, a lot of people jumped ship, and ON1 Photo Raw was a destination many chose. Since then, it has grown in size and become sleeker in its operation. Recently, it added a lot more features to its already broad arsenal of tools, and it has become a more than viable alternative to the Adobe Photographers Plan. The latest release, ON1 Photo Raw 2023.5, has some super new features.

What Is ON1 Photo Raw?

Imagine Lightroom, Lightroom Classic, Bridge, Photoshop, and a whole bunch of plugins all combined in one program. That’s ON1 Photo Raw. Being an all-in-one package, it is far faster to switch between the different functions that it is between, say, Lightroom and Photoshop. It’s also much quicker than opening plugins. Part of this speed, and a huge advantage to photographers, is due to it maintaining a fully non-destructive workflow. It doesn’t create intermediate files to exchange between different apps.

Furthermore, the app is aimed at every kind of user. At its very basic, it can be used as a simple one-click editor. That will be familiar to most beginners who shoot with a smartphone or use Instagram. But even at that level, it gives a massive variety of results; Instagram filters are a drop in the ocean in comparison. At the other end of the scale, comprehensive cataloging, superior raw file development, and advanced editing are all possible. 

ON1 Photo Raw’s Functionality Briefly Explained

There are previous reviews of this software on Fstoppers, so I won’t go through a full description of its functionality. Worthy of reminder, though, is the AI-based noise reduction (NoNoise AI) that leaves Adobe’s recent effort out of the ballpark in speed and accuracy, especially when coupled with the Tack Sharp AI that removed blur from an image.

You navigate around the program by jumping between modules.

ON1 Photo Raw Is Split Into Different Modules

The Browse Module does as its name suggests. It is a file browser. However, it also has a catalog that works similarly to Lightroom. In fact, you can import the Lightroom catalog data into ON1, so migrating is easy when you choose to divorce from Adobe.  

For those readers who are unfamiliar with how catalogs work, bringing your photos into the catalog is worthwhile, as it allows you to quickly find the photos. By searching for keywords, filenames, and so forth, you can find the pictures you are looking for. You can also apply color tags, star ratings, and flags to help sort and cull your images.

The Edit Module Is Split Into Five Tabs

  • Develop is a raw development tool that gives outstanding results.
  • Effects is a layered and masked special effects tool. It works by stacking fully adjustable filters, of which there are over 30. Some of these will be familiar to Photoshop users, such as blur, black and white, channel mixer, curves, split tone, etc. Meanwhile, others are unique, such as borders, sun flare, weather, and, one I use a lot, dynamic contrast. That accurately enhances contrast using individual sliders that target micro-contrast, moderate contrast, and large-scale contrast.
  • There is a plethora of presets that you can use here, many more are downloadable online, and you can create your own.
  • Portrait, unsurprisingly, edits portraits. ON1 has a long history of expertise in portrait enhancement tools.
  • Sky swaps the sky.
  • Local applies local color and tone adjustments.

Resize AI Accurately Resizes Images

Using this feature, you can produce huge, sharp, noise-free images from relatively small files. It makes the need for cameras with huge pixel counts pretty much redundant.

The Latest Features in ON1

One incredible new feature is Face Recovery, which is part of Resize AI. When used in conjunction with NoNoise, it can produce clean, sharp portraits even from old, out-of-focus, grainy photos. Resize AI has noise reduction built-in, using the same tech as ON1 NoNoise, so you can probably accomplish your work just in Resize in one step.

I recently inherited a lot of very old photos. I’ve been trying this feature on some of those that I had scanned, and the results are amazing. They take faded photographs shot on poor-quality film cameras and improve them to look like they were shot with top-of-the-range lenses. That is a tool I will use from now on when I am restoring photos for clients. I gave it a try on some photos I had fixed recently, and it did a far better job than I had been able to achieve before using Photoshop, and my clients had been over the moon with what I had provided.

In some photos, the initial results I found were a little too heavily applied, but it is easy to get just the right amount by pulling back the smoothness slider.

The following photo shows an otherwise unedited photo of one of my ancestors showing the effect of the Face Recovery tool. No other restoration has been carried out yet. It has removed the black speckles on the photo’s degrading emulsion from the face, but it automatically tried to remove the lettering on the hat. However, I could bring this back by adjusting the mask. There’s more about masking below.

The noise reduction tool can now also remove JPEG artifacts. It does a solid job of this and, consequently, allows you to enlarge small jpegs using the AI Resize tool.

The Mask AI has new options that help it automatically choose the background or foreground. This is in addition to the options that already exist for masking architecture, manmade ground, and people. I can envisage that other subjects will be added to this in the future. 

Another superb feature that can be used in conjunction with that and found in the Edit module is the refine brush. By brushing over entire areas where the mask hasn’t been automatically applied, the brush tool is able to differentiate between, say, tree branches and the sky behind. That’s something a lot of masking tools struggle with. I think ON1 is now an industry leader in this area.

The new Encircle Mode is amazing too. You paint with a wide brush around the borders of an area you want to mask, and ON1 automatically identifies what it is you are selecting and masks that area. I tried this on several different subjects including foliage, flowers, birds, and the hair on portraits, and it worked every time. Masking has come on a long way since the advent of AI.

In the Effects tab, there are changes to the Curves filter. The filter now shows the histogram behind the curve.

It also has a dropper selection tool that allows you to select a tone on the image and adjust it by sliding and moving the tool up and down on the photo. This is a common feature on other software and has been a long time coming for ON1 Photo Raw. 

One other feature that is worthy of mentioning is AI Keywords. With a press of a button, the software analyses the image and automatically applies keywords to it. 

Pleasingly, ON1’s AI is that they only use data provided by their staff or public data sets, they are not stealing yours. 

What I Like and What Could Be Improved With ON1 Photo Raw

This is a solid piece of software well worth investigating if you’ve not tried it. Its user base is constantly growing, so it must be doing something right. They have been around for 18 years now.

Things I Like About On1 Photo Raw 2023.5

I’ve mentioned in previous reviews the many advantages of ON1 Photo Raw, so I won’t list them all over again. Its browser integrated with the catalog is more comprehensive than most other apps and has advantages over Lightroom because you can browse uncataloged images. Furthermore, the end results that are achievable with the software are superb. It’s also more affordable than many of its competitors.

ON1 Photo Raw also has more cost-effective subscriptions as well as a perpetual license option.

ON1’s latest releases have had a big focus on usability, performance, and stability. It’s something they are working hard to make improvements in all of them for the future. Little glitches I used to see don’t occur anymore.

However, there are features in the latest release that are a definite boon for me:

  • Face Recovery is something I will be using a lot in the next few months for restoring old photos.
  • Noise reduction that includes removing JPEG artifacts will be great when I work on images I shot at the start of the millennium.
  • AI masking and the improvements to the refine brush are going to be fabulous for working on, especially older images taken with cameras with a lower dynamic range.
  • AI-based keywords.
  • Similarly, the Encircle Mode for selecting and creating masks will speed up the editing process. That ,combined with the new Curves adjustment capabilities, will be a blessing when editing.

What Could Be Improved?

  • It’s getting harder to find what I would like to be improved with ON1 Photo Raw. Its features work well, and it’s mainly new features that would be welcome additions.
  • I would certainly like to see tethered shooting available for my OM System cameras, and I am sure anyone who shoots with cameras other than Canon/Nikon brands wishes the same.
  • There was talk of video support a few years ago, but that has fallen by the wayside. It would be a nice addition to the package.
  • While most were great, a few of the AI choices for masking and subject identification were not perfect on every photo I tried. This is true of every program. However, the selections were easily fixed, and I anticipate there will be improvements as the AI learns. Personally, I would be happy if there were the possibility to opt in for allowing ON1 to learn from my catalog if it made my future editing better.

Conclusion About ON1 Photo Raw

ON1 Photo Raw has come on in huge leaps since I first used the Perfect Effects software so many years ago. What was a reasonable plugin has grown into an outstanding and comprehensive program that is keeping ahead of Lightroom; many of the features recently introduced by Adobe have been a staple of ON1 for several years.

It’s a popular piece of software that has a sizeable bite of the market. It’s software that is often overlooked by experienced photographers and beginners alike, but they are missing out on a superb workflow that gives great results, and I can highly recommend it.

The video at the top of this article gives more demonstrations of the new features. It’s worth noting that many of the features mentioned are available as plugins for those who want to use some of the features with other apps. Plus, there is a 30-day free trial available.


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