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Information : Ultra Fractal : An Apology

t is fair to say I really like Ultra Fractal.
    I've had the privilege of being a UF beta tester as far back as version 2; in late 1997 Frederik Slijkerman told me he was thinking about how to create the "ultimate" fractal program, and I started to get excited. I had long been chafing at the boundaries of fractal software available at the time, and although I could probably create a fractal tool to satisfy my exploratory interests (because creating software is my job) I would never have had the time to produce as polished a program as Frederik did.
    That was many years ago. I recently commented to some friends that I miss some aspects of that time, when everything was brand new and waiting to be explored. The barriers that had been in place were removed, and we (the other beta testers and I) were like kids waiting in line to get into an amusement park--now we were in, and we couldn't wait to try every new thing.
    In the time since then I've been a sort of evangelist for the Ultra Fractal software. Frederik never paid me to do it, and if he'd offered I would have refused. I recommend the software because I think it's good software, not out of obligation. That I have been involved with the software for so long, and have seen beta versions before most people get to, does in a way make me biased; but that bias comes from familiarity, from knowing a lot more about how the software has been built.
Alternatives to Ultra Fractal

It is true that, for my art, I really don't use anything besides Ultra Fractal. One may choose to consider that snobbishness, but I don't think that's fair; I don't use UF for the prestige of saying I using UF, but for a host of other reasons. I'm not unaware of other tools at all; I simply prefer UF.
    While some would brag about the number of fractal tools they have, I don't; I'm a bit more choosy about the tools I will even try, let alone the tools I will actually keep and use regularly. For me this is true with more than just fractals. I have a full version of XenoDream by Garth Thornton and Virginia Sterling, but I don't use it very often. I have evaluated Chaos Pro by Martin Pfingstl. I've experimented with Apophysis by Mark Townsend. And I've occasionally looked at some of the many programs by Steve Ferguson such as Flarium24 and Tiera-Zon. And of course, I used FractInt for many years.
    All of this barely scratches the surface as far as the number of different fractal programs out there, although it does cover many of the most popular tools. Yet with all of these tools, even the ones I have installed, I continue to use Ultra Fractal almost to the exclusion of everything else.
The Fractals I Want to Make

There are people who absolutely love flames as created with tools like Apophysis and KPT FraxFlame. I have created some flame fractals myself, but most of the time when I'm in a mood to create fractals, flames are just not very high on my list of things I want to experiment with.
    For similar reasons I don't use XenoDream very much. XD has some extremely interesting features; as a graphics programmer I'm especially intrigued by some of its post-processing features. I am not averse to post-processing, as a few of my favorite images were created with such techniques. But while XenoDream excels at creating "things", it's not nearly as easy to create atmospheric pieces. (Proficient XenoDream artists can still do it.)
    In the case of these two programs, there is an extra drawback that deters me from attempting to use them "seriously", and that is the difficulty of producing very high-resolution images. This is simply due to the nature of the fractals created. With certain types of fractals the amount of detail is governed only by the amount of time I am willing to give the computer; I can work at a relatively small size (1024x512, for example) and then, when I am ready, set the computer busy with the task of producing a much larger image (say, 4000x2000). Doing this with either Apophysis or XenoDream is problematic, for a couple of reasons.
    The first problem is that, for both of these programs, creating a large image requires substantially more memory than merely storing the image. Apophysis and XD both use non-linear iterated function systems for their images, and the algorithms used require the entire image (and all the behind-the-scenes working data) to be in memory at once. This is just the way it is (UF has this problem too when it is used to render flames) but it makes it a challenge to produce very large images, which I have had occasion to create.
    The second problem affects Apophysis. Because of the way colors are assigned to points in the image, rendering a flame fractal at a size different than it was created at requires re-tuning some of the fractal parameters, and even then, there are subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) changes in brightness across different parts of the image. These changes are not always fixable. This is not because the software is at fault; the algorithm used to produce flames is just not capable of consistent enlargements the way I expect to do it.
    The third problem is XenoDream's specific problem. Some of those very cool post-processing effects I mentioned are also dependent on the image size; scaled up, they don't have quite the same results. This problem is inherent in many post-processing tools besides XenoDream; the two images I indicated above cannot be produced at a larger size without attempting to adapt the processing algorithms in a non-straightforward fashion.
    I don't hate either of these programs, as they do things Ultra Fractal doesn't do well (or at all). But for the kinds of images I want to create, they're not a good fit.
Apples to Apples

The other fractal tools are much more like Ultra Fractal in terms of the kinds of fractals they can create and the algorithms used to create them. Some (like Chaos Pro) even go so far as to try to support all of UF's data files and formulas. I have tried some of these, and I still use Ultra Fractal.
    I am picky about the tools I will use regularly. Not because I enjoy being picky, but because flaws that I could put up with in a tool that I use once a month become extremely annoying when I am confronted with them on a daily basis. To me, the interface on a piece of software is as important as its capabilities. It's hard for me to adequately convey how much of a difference a good interface can make. The interface in a fractal program is a conduit to creative thought; if I have to stop and think about how to do a particular thing, instead of just doing it, the interface is a hindrance rather than a help. It is in the way.
    Familiarity helps a lot with this. To someone new at fractals in general and Ultra Fractal specifically, UF is intimidating. I have a friend who, while learning to program in C, would ask me: "I'm at int main(); now what?" He had a blank slate, and with total freedom and few guidelines, he didn't know what to do next. Those who learn its interface are rewarded with the ability to translate thought into action quickly.
    Mere familiarity does not, however, make for a good interface. I used FractInt for many years, and while its interface is not that bad for a DOS program it is far from the best practices of modern GUI design. (Not to say that the FractInt programmers do not know this or are incapable of addressing it; it is simply not the focus of their development efforts.) I know FractInt well, but its quirks were constant irritants.
    In my opinion, the interface on Ultra Fractal is one of its most compelling features. Chaos Pro attempts to offer many of the raw fractal-generating features of Ultra Fractal and even, to a limited extent, mimics its interface. I think it doesn't do a terrific job at either, but it has the virtue of being free, whereas Ultra Fractal costs money. For some people the cost is a huge issue, but I don't have a problem paying money for a good, reliable tool.
How Much is Your Time Worth?

The true essence of my preference for Ultra Fractal is that I don't normally have lots of free time. What I have is precious. I can spend that time exploring the quirks of another fractal program. That software may be free, so it costs me nothing to get. But in terms of using it, it costs me time to learn, time to work around its idiosyncracies. Some people enjoy that kind of thing, but I really don't; I'd much rather spend my time exploring fractals and creating art from them. That is how I can justify the cost of something like Ultra Fractal in the face of free alternatives. That investment will be repaid in saved time and aggravation.

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