Release: Standalone sky replacement

Release: Standalone sky replacement

Do you just want AI sky replacement and nothing else? ON1 Sky Swop AI is now available. Windows 10+ only, Photoshop 2020 or higher. What we don’t get to see in the promotional material is how it works on a scene with complex tree-branches across the sky, though. I imagine if it worked well with such images, they’d be showing it. So check the trial first.

How to get the Sponge Tool… in software other than Photoshop

How to get the Sponge Tool… in software other than Photoshop

A business asks: which desktop graphics software offers the vital Sponge Tool, for de-saturating colours by using a brush?

1. Adobe Photoshop – yes, excellent… but apparently it’s not in the online version. Costly, subscription. And Adobe has threatened legal action to businesses users of older DVD-based desktop versions, so you can’t use those instead of a Cloud subscription.

2. Photoshop Elements – yes, but requires an Adobe account and it’s impossible to find out if business use is allowed for Elements or just personal use. Again, you would then have to worry about Adobe threatening legal action in future. About £90.

3. Affinity Photo – yes, but the UI is painfully squinty and it can’t be scaled up. Which is a deal-breaker for many. £70.

4. PhotoLine – sort of, not ideal but it can be emulated using a custom brush (that’s fiddly to set up). Nice friendly UI. Around £54.

PhotoScape X – no, nothing. A very useful toolkit, but it’s missing this vital tool. Nor is it in the earlier and now freeware PhotoScape 3.7. Commercial use is fine for 3.7 and X.

GIMP – the only thing on offer seems to be forum members, angry that you mentioned the P-word (Photoshop) when asking. No.

Paint.NET – no.

Microsoft Expression Design – no, not that I can see.

Clip Studio Paint – no, there seems to be nothing.

PD Howler – I can’t immediately see one.

Krita – nothing that I can see or find. You might be able to make a custom brush?

PaintStorm – nope, though with the very powerful brush controls you might be able to make one with a custom brush.

It’s amazing that this absolutely vital tool/brush is not present in so many graphics/photo editing packages. The best non-Photoshop option for a business, where the comms and marketing person has to have a good Sponge Tool, seems to be the one-time purchase PhotoLine. It’s not as ideal as having Photoshop, but it would save the business a hefty annual Adobe subscription.

Fix the ‘black fonts’ problem when printing to PDF from Microsoft Publisher

Fix the ‘black fonts’ problem when printing to PDF from Microsoft Publisher

Hurrah, I finally tracked down my Microsoft Publisher ‘print to PDF’ problem.

Problem: You get a “black fonts” problem when using “Save as” to PDF from Microsoft Publisher. But you have coloured or toned fonts/headlines in your document.

Why you need to use Publisher: Because regular printer drivers don’t save a PDF with clickable Web links. Publisher does.

Solution: After much frustration I finally found that the problem is that adding a new printer driver can cause Windows to set “Fax” as the default printer for the system…

The tick-mark indicates it’s the default. Even though you are not using or going anywhere near Fax to print your PDF with Publisher, something in the Windows system thinks you need to print the PDF in a way that a fax machine can understand. Ugh. To fix this, simply right-click and change the PCs default printer over to a proper printer driver. The problem is instantly solved.

Release: Darktable 4.2

Release: Darktable 4.2

The free Darktable 4.2 is now available. This open-source project aims to make a freeware equivalent to Adobe Lightroom, to help in bulk processing the RAW images from your digital camera. It has always been actively developed, but the UI and workflow have been very off-putting to many. It certainly was to me, when I tried it some years back. But it can be fast if your camera has a supported profile, and speed can be important for those with 200 RAW files of an event or field-trip to auto-process. Sadly it doesn’t support my key camera makes…

“Darktable currently only supports regular Bayer style sensors (which probably accounts for 99% of available cameras). This means Darktable will not be able to handle Sigma FOVEON based cameras. A lot of Fuji cameras have weird variations of the standard Bayer scheme which make them incompatible with Darktable, too.”

The other free open source alternative is RawTherapee, which in July 2022 had its first big update after the lockdown years. This does support Sigma’s FOVEON camera sensors (i.e. a quality SRL sensor, but in a pocket-sized compact camera)…

“RawTherapee supports most RAW formats, including Pentax Pixel Shift, Canon Dual-Pixel, and those from FOVEON and X-Trans sensors.”

That said, if you’re using a Sigma with a FOVEON sensor then you should really be using the free SIGMA Photo Pro for processing RAW. That will allow you to recover far more detail from shadows while damping the highlights better, compared to Lightroom. You then take it out to a good .TIF and put that into RawTherapee, Lightroom etc.

Freeware: Creature House Expression 3.3

Freeware: Creature House Expression 3.3

Creature House Expression 3.3 is desktop software best described as ‘vector illustration tools meets natural media’. Apparently made by a Japanese team working with a funder in what was then British Hong Kong. Now freeware, since Microsoft purchased it way back when. Still works fine. I spotted it in a 2022 video by Benjamin Morse, a pro comic-book artist. “What’s that, kind of looks like SAI?” I wondered. I found out.

Great, so it’s good genuine freeware, formerly sold for $100. In which case it’s worth spending 30 minutes making a collection of links for it.

Creature House Expression 3.3 installer download at This is the free version Microsoft gave away after they purchased the company. Confirmed working on Windows 7, 8.1, Windows 10 Compatibility mode.

Creature House Expression 3 user manual as a PDF. No dark mode. Customisable shortcuts. Not an especially loveable UI, but it’s all logical and documented and SAI users will feel at home.

Annie Ford’s structured tutorial lessons, with exercises, for Creature House Expression 3, as a single .PDF file extracted from the Wayback Machine. Often recommended alongside the manual.

Creature House Expression 3 review in PCMag UK.

you paint just as you would with a pixel-based program, but each stroke you lay down is at root a vector line, which can be reshaped at any time … Expression puts enormous power at your disposal

Expression 3 review in Digital Arts magazine.

the real star remains the final rendering [of vector] to bitmap formats at virtually any size and resolution: Expression 3 doesn’t rush this task, and the result is always well worth the wait.

Expression 3 review in CreativePro.

an indispensable addition to any graphic design toolkit

In Microsoft’s hands it later became a buggy Microsoft Acrylic beta with a key former developer at the helm. It wasn’t great. Then briefly it was Expression Graphic Designer, then Microsoft Expression Design. They had to break it apart and try to harness it to Microsoft’s framework-of-the-month and fly-by-night file formats, of course. And then removed non-Microsoft formats. All of which took away much of the charm and functionality. But at least it got a nice dark mode. Expression Design 4 was the last of the Microsoft run, and Microsoft also then made it freeware. It loads the same strokes (brushes) as 3.3 but now stores them at C:\ProgramData\Microsoft\Expression\Design\Strokes There’s a YouTube playlist for it.

As for 3.3:

File format: saves to .XPR files.

Stroke (brush) format: .SKS files, copy free brushes to C:\ProgramData\Creature House\Expression 3\Strokes

Plugins: .8Bi format.

Import: Adobe Illustrator .AI, Windows metafile, and bitmaps including .PSD.

Output: Illustrator (apparently version 9), .EPS, .PDF files. Can still save to Flash .SWF vector, though this doesn’t appear to be the type needed for Reallusion’s Cartoon Animator props.

Not many free .SKS brushes around now, though in 2020 Doug S. claimed to have a stash of hundreds. Though a Frill set is still live and free.

Also a nice free Water stroke.

And shipped as standard, things like a set of vector watercolours…

It can also do vectorisation of imported bitmaps, in a very basic way. But I had no success at all on simple line-art rendered from Poser. It always made a total mess of it in my tests, and so did its successor Expression Design 4. It can work with Vector Magic, though if you want to vectorise and creatively transform lineart from Poser then Synthetik Studio Artist 5.5.5 is worth a look (though it’s expensive).

Release: RAWTherapee 5.9

Release: RAWTherapee 5.9

The free open-source RAWTherapee 5.9 (November 2022) can now do what the paid DxO Viewpoint does, fix skewed architecture pictures. It even has ‘Automatic’, though manually placing guide lines will likely work better.

Finding and opening the right panels…

Tested and it runs fine on Windows 7. You might expect it needs a RAW camera file to work with, and camera metadata. But I was pleased to find that it’s fine with other types of image format, such as .JPG with no metadata.

Possibly a useful fallback for a ‘second opinion’, if Viewpoint fails to give the results you want.

Rebelle 6 announced

Rebelle 6 announced

Desktop painting software Rebelle 6 has been announced as coming soon, probably before Christmas 2022. The last version added oils to their existing ‘real-world emulating’ watercolour. New features set to be in v6.0 include:

* Liquify. The say… “we have made the best Liquify tool on the planet”. What, better than Kai’s Power Goo? Let’s wait and see. They say that any smudging and smearing of pixels gets partly fixed by NanoPixel (which seems to be their up-scaling and auto-detailing AI).

* Warp. Works like Photoshop, and again uses their NanoPixel up-scaling to fix smearing.

* Built-in general AI image up-scaler.

* Sharpen and Gaussian Blur. Apparently these didn’t exist before.

* Hue/Saturation filter, like Photoshop.

* Apply a filter to a “color range selection based on a hue”. Now that sound somewhat interesting, depending on how well and how automatically it works. Probably not a replacement for AKVIS Decorator, though, unless it follows the underlying flow / curves / drapes of what’s being replaced.

No mention of faster brushes on big canvases. AI up-scaling is nice in this sort of software, but it’s only masking the problem of slow laggy brushes on big canvases.

Sadly, the software is still “Windows 10 only”. An early versions 5.0.x was tested by me and ran on Windows 7, but I was told that the “Windows 10 only” move would likely come in the 5.1.x.

Release: Storypencil

Release: Storypencil

The free Blender 3.4 now has a wholly new and “production ready” storyboarding tool called Storypencil. Said to play nicely with the existing Video Sequence Editor.

Only available in the latest Blender, though, which will refuse to install if your PC’s graphics card is not deemed worthy. Which effectively turns Blender from being free to a ‘$350 purchase’ item, if you don’t have the required card specs.

Update: It was in the beta but appears to have been pulled from the final. To get it: i) Get the 3.4 beta and 3.4 final; ii) install both; iii) copy Storypencil folder from Scripts | Addons_contrib to the same folder in Blender 3.4 final.