Affinity Photo review: Can it create Atlas-style fantasy maps?
I review Affinity Photo as an Adobe Photoshop replacement, by putting the app through its pace using Ascension's Atlas Style fantasy map tutorial.
My foray into the Affinity Suite officially began when I used Affinity Publisher to knock up a paperback book as part of my review of Adobe Indesign alternatives. Colour me impressed, for the app performed really well — but then, so did Pages, Apple’s free word processor. In light of this success, I decided to give Affinity Photo a non-trivial test to see how it stacks up against Adobe Photoshop.
I should note I’ve dabbled with Affinity Photo before, but never really took the plunge because my needs are met by Pixelmator Pro and Procreate. However, there’s a project I have in mind that’s very Photoshop-heavy, thanks to the style’s use of filters and selection techniques that Pixelmator doesn’t support. This may seen unfair, using a tutorial designed for a different app, but Affinity is often proclaimed as a Photoshop replacement, and if I were to buy it, I’d do so on this basis.
So, what follows is my attempt at creating an atlas-style fantasy map first made popular many moons ago by Ascension over at the Cartographer’s Guild. If you are unfamiliar with maps made this way, here’s an example from Ascension’s original tutorial.
Note, this won’t be a full tutorial. Instead, I’ll work through the stages of Ascension’s technique, post my results and thoughts about the differences between Affinity Photo and Photoshop. I may release the full tutorial as an exclusive bonus to my subscribers.
For the purposes of this review, I’m using the trial version for macOS Catalina, on a five-year old MacBook Air (i5 CPU and 8GB of RAM). The machine is old, but there’s some hardware acceleration at work via the Intel HD6000 GPU in my Mac. Affinity Photo is also available on Microsoft Windows and iPad OS. I have a much more powerful Windows gaming PC, but I want to get a sense on how Affinity Photo performs on my daily driver.
So, here we go.
UI basics and document set up
As with Ascension’s original tutorial, I’ll set up my document to be 2000x2000 pixels at 300DPI.
The interface is comparable to the current version of Photoshop. Personally though, I find it much more cluttered than Pixelmator Pro. Just like Affinity Publisher however, I was able to find my way around without too much trouble. And, it’s worth noting here the synergies one finds across the Affinity suite — Photo works very well with Designer and Publisher. One thing I really appreciated however, is the localised UI, so Colour is spelt with the U in all the tools, palettes and menu options.
Ocean and Landform
Ascension’s tutorial is heavy with filters and effects to create the foundations of the map. I set about to create the landform and the ocean. Note, that for the purpose of the review, I’m being quick rather than artistic.
So far, so good, however I did experience some weirdness when pressing B activated the Brush Mixing Tool instead of the Brush tool. Unlike Photoshop you also can’t load a layer’s content as a selection if the layer is invisible. The lighting filters are also very different, which may make the creation of mountains and hills someone difficult.
Hills and Mountains
As suspected, generating the hills and mountains is the point where the technique starts to run off the rails. In Ascension’s tutorials adding elevation depends heavily on Photoshop’s lighting filters, Difference Clouds and Colour Range Selection. Affinity Photo has a Lighting Filter, which you apply through Live Filter Layers, but it works very differently from Photoshop. There’s probably a way to make the same end result, but I haven’t yet figured out how to do it.
Similarly, AP doesn’t have a Difference Clouds filter, but you can achieve the same result using the Perlin Noise generator and setting the blending mode to Difference. Another bit of weirdness that tripped me up was Affinity Photo’s Colour Selection
Here’s what I managed.
You can see that my attempt at using Affinity’s filter led to some rather uneven (in terms of lighting) and plastic looking mountains. They are okay, just not the same as Ascension’s mountains. I didn’t take the time to arrange the mountains better, but that is easily done with the lasso tool.
I decided to stop at this point, firstly, because it was clear to me I wasn’t going to get the tutorial’s desired outcome. Secondly, I’ve kind of grown out of the style, which is no fault of Affinity Photo’s. The longer I spent trying to recreate the look, the more disinterested I became. Yes, I know it’s popular, but my tastes have changed and I prefer the old-school look of hand-drawn line art on simple parchment textures.
Here’s one I’ve been drawing in Procreate on my iPad. I find this style far more satisfying to create, drawing exactly what I want rather than running a bunch of filters that generate pixels with randomising algorithms.
But I digress…and there's no reason at all why this style couldn’t be created on Affinity Photo, since it’s all merely line work and shading.
In all, I found using Affinity Photo a mixed experience — at least for my admittedly singular, and niche usage. I appreciated the feature set, and performance. The UI is familiar enough for Photoshop users, but I stumbled hard on some of its quirks — random tools would activate, layers would suddenly deselect. Getting as far as I did in the tutorial, took me several hours — and a lot of that time was spent reading the help guide and community forum. That would certainly improve the more I used the app, taking the time to learn features and keyboard shortcuts.
Comparisons between apps are always fraught. Affinity Photo is not Photoshop, but it is often, and loudly, touted as a Photoshop replacement. I would tentatively agree (and it’s much closer than Pixelmator Pro is), however the differences between the two apps mean that some workflows and tutorials just won’t work without substantial modification. Photoshop still has mindshare, not to mention 20+ years of readily available tutorials, courses, actions and brushes. That said, the community around Affinity Photo is active and growing rapidly.
I can’t deny that Affinity Photo is professional-grade stuff. If you are looking for a cross-platform alternative to Photoshop, this is certainly the best option I’ve ever used. It’s also the best time to try or buy the app, thanks to the 90-day trial and 50% off the regular price.
If you are an Affinity user, I’d love to hear from you, especially if you use it to make fantasy maps. Also, while I’m not sure if I’ll do a full tutorial, I will if I get enough requests. To get in touch reach out to me via email or social media.