Choosing a RAW converter– My Karma ran over your Dogma

Which image is better? (Click to enlarge)

It seems like no matter what you do or where you go, you can never escape the incessant drone of “my product is better” posts out in cyberspace. Name a photo product, and you’ll find fanboys (and girls) trumpeting the merits of their particular choice in gear, software, whatever. We live in a world where product diversity and competition is fierce, but one thing is completely evident to me: when it comes to RAW processing software, you really can’t go wrong with most of the popular choices out there right now.

The one thing that has started to irk me, though, is the beating of drums from people who claim Product A is superior to Product B based on no provable fact. Case in point: Nikon’s Capture NX. In 2005, I compared all the major RAW converters from a Nikon user’s perspective as part of a multi-part segment for The Image Doctors podcast. At that time, we were able to discern clear rendering quality differences between Capture NX and Adobe Camera Raw (ACR). Ah, but times have changed.

Since 2005, ACR has evolved better demosaic algorithms, new features, and camera profile settings that give you results that are at least as good, in my opinion, as what you can do with Capture NX2. The same is true for Aperture, Capture One, and other RAW processors. While there is no doubt that Nikon’s engineers understand the NEF format best, the argument that CNX2 somehow produces a superior conversion to everything else has gotten pretty weak over time. When I look at NEFs I’ve converted with Capture NX2 using standard settings and compare them to ACR conversions with similar settings, I don’t see anything between the two resulting images that would indicate that one is somehow “superior” to the other. What I see are two slightly different images, but neither one is “better” or “worse” in terms of detail, artifacts, or other obvious quality issues.

So what does that mean for you, the photographer, who is trying to filter through all the chatter and pick a RAW processing tool? Remove the subjective component of “conversion quality” from the discussion and instead look at features and workflow.

Features

When you compare tools, editing features really get down to tools that you like and are comfortable with. Sometimes you use a tool enough and you just get comfortable with it over time, but that’s not to say that you couldn’t get equally comfortable with similar tools if you took the time to learn them. Here are some tools that I like across various RAW converters:

Adobe Camera RAW (Bridge/Lightroom/Photoshop)

  • Lens distortion and perspective correction
  • Defringe highlights (great for HDR work)
  • Color Profiling options
  • Noise reduction quality
  • Clarity and Vibrance tools

Capture NX 2

  • Powerful selection tools, including brushes and Control Points
  • Color Control Points (ie, Viveza) built-in
  • LCH Editor
  • Automatic CA removal, including Axial CA removal
  • Default luminosity channel sharpening
  • Edit list displays order of adjustment tools

With features, you pick what you like and often times you’re splitting hairs. I’d love to have the highlight defringing and perspective control in CNX2, but I’d also really like to have native Control Point selections in ACR.

Workflow Considerations

How you shoot and manage your images is another HUGE issue when you’re choosing an image editing product. My workflow has always been small-scale, fine-art images. I go out, shoot, and then winnow down my shots to a small subset of files which I then process individually. For others, their workflow is exactly the opposite. If you shoot events, sports, or weddings and need to be able to make just enough tweaks to a large volume of images to get them “good enough” for your clients or editor, then you don’t want to work with programs that don’t have fast batching and other features. You also probably want to store your images in a catalog or database if you routinely need to find images out of thousands of files.

Because Capture NX2 was designed as a single-image editor, it’s batching and bulk editing functions are very rudimentary and downright slow. If you use ACR, Lightroom, or Aperture, batch changes are simple– you just copy the “develop” settings across your files and you’re done. If you use Lightroom or Aperture, you also get a built-in file database (catalog) for managing your images. With Capture NX 2 or other stand-alone converters, you’ll need to manage your files via other techniques.

Regardless of how you choose to manage your images, neither technique is right or wrong. Both have pros and cons. I’m able to find images perfectly fine without a catalog because I put my images into a logical directory structure. I rarely batch images, but I do find myself wishing that my browser (Photo Mechanic) had some of the slick “stacks” features that you can find in Aperture and Lightroom. For HDR image processing, I’d much rather launch HDR Efex Pro directly from my NEFs via a browser than batch out TIFFs from Capture NX2. Again, it all comes down to personal taste. What is “better” for you might not make any difference to me or someone else.

At the end of the day, I’ve tried a lot of imaging software products. They have strengths and weaknesses, but image conversion quality is not a major discriminator anymore. Anyone who tells you otherwise should be taken with a grain of salt unless they provide you objective evidence to back their claims– not the tired arguement of “it’s clearly the magic sauce that Company X employs.”

I’ve chosen a suite of applications that fits my needs (Capture NX 2 and Photo Mechanic), but I’m not afraid to use ACR and Bridge/Photoshop for times when the workflow is more streamlined (like HDR). For the record, the left-hand image was produced with Capture NX 2; the right-hand image was made in Adobe Camera Raw.

Happy shooting!


22 thoughts on “Choosing a RAW converter– My Karma ran over your Dogma”

  1. The only area where I see clear difference is in pictures with colored lights (Christmas trees, concert lighting, etc.) The only converter that’s able to deal with the subtle color/light gradations is NX2.

  2. Thanks Jason for a timely discussion of a topic that has been occupying my mind lately. I am struggling with a Capture NX2/Photoshop workflow delimma. Especially in light of all the plug-in editing softwares that are currently availavble–NIK and Topaz Labs in particular. I find that the argument for using proprietary software (NX2 for Nikon) is valid and that NX2, with it’s u-point technology, is a powerful photo editing tool. I would like to contuing using it as my RAW processor. However, as you pointed out in your duscussioin, it is more desirable to “launch HDR Efex Pro [and I would add any other NIK/Topaz/etc. plug-in software] directly from my NEFs via a browser than batch out TIFFs from Capture NX2.” As you well know, NX2 is very limited in its acceptance of plug-ins. I would prefer to use NX2 as a complete digital processing tool. However, if Nikon wants to keep me in the NX2 fold, they need to learm to play nice with plug-in softwares.

  3. It starts with having a plug-in environment. Consider that Lightroom and Aperture don’t accept “Plug-ins” at all– they are merely a convenient launch point for exporting TIFFs to external editing applications (Plug-ins). You can launch Nik plug-ins (except for HDR Efex Pro) directly from CNX2, as well. You just need to set your “Open With” application accordingly.

  4. An excellent summary Jason that I totally agree with. I started out with the initial version of Nikon Capture, but by NC 4 I gave up on Nikon due to workflow and product stability issues. So I asked myself what converter would:

    * be around for the long haul, with a high liklihood of reasonable performance and reliability
    * be able to convert from multiple camera formats, as I don’t want to be tied to Nikon only
    * run on both Windows and OSX as I have a windows desktop and a macbook pro

    This narrowed it down and I ended up with lightroom. My only real beef with LR is adobe’s resistance to opening the product up to true addins in the develop module. I suspect this is indictitive of adobe’s lack of confidence in the durability of the curent rendering pipeline architecture and perhaps a bit of hubris.

    Regards
    Rory

  5. Nikon/Nik are missing out on a huge opportunity with their failure to update NX2. Now that the RAW conversion advantage is largely gone, NX3, if ever there is one, could eliminate or at least minimize the migration of NEF shooters to Adobe.

  6. I’am curious about the results from Aperture 3 (default settings and no tweaks) of the above image. My Nikon D3 images look worse processing them in Aperture (too red, strange color rendering), so that’s why I use LR3. BTW great review Jason, thanks! BTW2 I watched your sharpening in NX2 video, very useful!
    Tim

  7. I think the right img has a slight lens correction applied. But, clearly, they appear similar.

    First off, I am a fan of CNX2, or was. However, frustrated with it and now that I can get most of all I want in Aperture, I am using it mostly. Though, I am more frustrated if I have to spend more time in front of the editing programs. I find my workflow quicker with Aperture.

    To me, the photographer and their camera has to be fully realized before you can be more productive. I find myself using preset WB and tweaking JPEG settings when possible in an attempt to cut down on PP. Yes, I shoot JPEGs and NEFs (D3s) in case. I am more concerned on producing the best img. (like I did with film) in the camera.

  8. @Ivan: don’t you have simular problems in Aperture as I describe in my post above? Maybe you did manage it in PP (presets), but in LR3 my D3 files look pretty good straight from the camera.
    Tim

  9. I tried the image in Aperture- the default settings include some sharpening, but by and large the image looks pretty much on par with the other two.

    Remember, the point here is not to achieve “Identical” looks, it’s to get good images that you can work with to produce the look you want.

  10. Kurt-
    While I agree with you, keep in mind that the issues with NX2 are not related to image processing environment. As a single-image editor, I can get more from NX2 alone than I can with either LR or Aperture (I need either plug-ins or Photoshop to match that). The problems with Capture NX (and the reasons people leave it) usually fall into two categories: workflow and stability. People don’t purchase software when the trial version won’t install. Likewise, having all your images in a catalog where you can quickly make batch adjustments is very tantalizing to many ‘togs.

    Funny thing, though– the serious pros still send their select master images to a full-blown editing environment (ie, Photoshop) for individual processing. 🙂

    -Jason

  11. I use LR for two primary reasons. One, almost all of my photo buddies use LR. I value being able to use the same language. Two, LR integrates so well with PS. Mentioning a couple of things. When I make any changes to a file in the Develop Module, the changes automatically show up in ACR and Bridge. The same is true of the reverse with ACR. And, second, I do almost all of my third party plug-in work in PS. I can use Smart Objects, Blending Modes and Opacity adjustments, all of which are important to me. Moving back and forth between LR and PS is seamless.

  12. Tim… to reply to your query, I find AP3 just fine for my NEFs and JPEGs. In fact, I like the rendition better than LR3. In addition, I have print proofing and it matches what’s on my screen. Conversely, NX2 does not give an accurate print rendition in the dialogue box, actually far from the real thing. Not to mention, if the setting are misaligned the slightest, the print from NX2 is horrible. (Jason… remember our communications on getting the print setting right?). I have all the programs, or shall I say, investments. At the end of the day, I come back to AP3, for now.

  13. Ivan, not only does NX2 not give an accurate print rendition, I have never been able to get NX2 to accurately size my prints. Truth be told, resizing, bordering and printing Tiffs from NX2 is one of the major tasks for my copy of CS5.

  14. @Ivan and Jason: thanks for your feedback.
    I also use the workflow as Jack Larson describes. Works perfect for me.

  15. Kurt-
    The prints I make from NX2 are identical to those I print from CS5… unless I want a border.
    With NX2, you need to crop your image first to a particular aspect ratio, and THEN resize. I get perfect 12×18″ prints this way.

    -Jason

  16. Jason,
    I shoot digital IR with Nikon DSLR’s with a custom WB which Acr still doesn’t recognize and so for my work NX2 is the choice.

    However I have recently used the Adobe camera calibration feature which works well on my D70 Raw images in Acr…WB is nearly up to par with NX2.

  17. @Jason: thanks for the update on raw conversion options. Good to know NX2 is still competitive. I’m staying with Photo Mechanic and NX2, and hoping for an Nx3 some day. Peter

  18. So far, I found that the only converter that converts IR shots properly is NX2, and that’s the only reason to go with NX2. Other than that, CS5 or LR3 seems to be good enough.

  19. Thanks for another great post Jason. I still LOVE Capture NX 2 and it is very stable for me for some reason. I like the batch processing features and I still believe the output rivals the others for the work I do. The auto CA removal is amazing, as are the selection points. Probably like Jason, I go Photo Mechanic>NX 2>Photoshop but most of my work is done in NX 2 with the raw file. I eschewed programs that use catalogs long ago after seeing untold hours of work lost with corrupt catalog files with some of the above mentioned programs. Photo Mechanic and NX 2 store my edits/metadata in the raw file which I then output to 16 bit Tiff. I do like to use Lightroom for batch processing large events like weddings, and the web gallery function is fantastic.

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