Why I still use Nikon’s Capture NX2

Find out why I'm still using this program for my image editing.

It’s been over two years now since Nikon released Capture NX2.  In that time, the competition for our image processing dollars has been furious.  Adobe has updated Photoshop Lightroom to version 3; Apple has done the same with Aperture.  And yet, despite the temptation to switch, I still use Capture NX2 almost exclusively. Let me explain why.

The first thing that you have to understand is that Capture NX2 has only one mission: image editing (particularly NEFs). Capture NX2 is not a pixel editor, at least not in the sense that Photoshop is.  Adobe’s Photoshop Lightroom and Apple’s Aperture also behave differently.  They are image management applications that also offer editing features. Comparing Capture NX2 to either of these products is apples to oranges, unless you only focus on image editing capabilities.  And that’s where I feel Capture NX2 still holds its own in many regards.  I will also address what I feel are the program’s weaknesses and areas for improvement.

Self-contained, Non-Destructive NEF Editing

For me, Capture NX2 has two major strengths as an image editor.  First, it saves all edits directly into your NEF file, meaning that all the image metadata and associated information is inside the NEF container. You won’t lose image metadata unless you delete your image file. Other programs store image metadata in sidecar files (Bridge/Lightroom) or in a separate image database (Aperture).  The downside to this approach to data-handling is that file transfers take much longer because you have to copy 20MB NEFs instead of 5kb XMP files. Capture NX2 also embeds a full-resolution JPEG image preview inside each NEF (just like your Nikon DSLR does).  I know people using Lightroom who convert their NEFs to DNG just to “gain” these benefits!  If you know how to leverage the right software, you can view and work with your NEFs just like they were JPEGs!

The other major strength of Capture NX2 is that any adjustment you make to your image is completely reversible, or non-destructive, provided that you save the file in the native NEF format.  While it is true that the other products out there also offer non-destructive editing, I’ve found their toolsets to be lacking. Let’s take a look at some tools that Capture NX2 has built-in that other programs don’t have:

  • LCH Editor: Enables the adjustment of brightness and contrast independently of color.  Standard Levels/Curves tools also affect image color, as they modify the RGB channel data
  • Non-destructive Color Control Points: To add this functionality to Lightroom or Aperture, you need to purchase Nik’s Viveza 2 software plug-in. But guess what? Viveza for Lightroom/Aperture creates a flattened TIFF file of your image.  If you want a non-destructive workflow for this plug-in, you’ll need to pony up for the full Photoshop version of the plug-in (and have a copy of Photoshop CS3 or later, too).
  • Selection Control Points: Selection Control Points use Nik Software’s U Point technology to make smart selections (masks) in conjunction with Capture NX2′s onboard tools.  Every tool that can be applied in the Adjust Section of Capture NX2′s Edit List can be applied selectively with both brushes and Control Points.  Other products only offer brushes, and even the “smart brushes” aren’t quite as convenient of having Control Points onboard. With Capture NX2, you can use Control Points to selectively apply sharpening tools like USM and High-Pass, as well as selectively control your Noise Reduction. People ask me if I prefer other NR programs; and the short answer is while I’d like to see Nikon’s NR algorithms improve, the advantage of a non-destructive workflow that leverages Control Point selections is better than spending another $150 on specialized NR software that I can’t apply non-destructively unless I use Photoshop Smart Objects.  As much as I like using Nik’s Silver Efex Pro; you can’t use Selection Control Points with it to apply selective B&W effects like you can with Capture NX2– even in Photoshop CS5.
  • Non-destructive editing with Nik’s Color Efex Pro 3 plug-in: Only Photoshop CS3 or later gives you this option.  Lightroom/Aperture users get flattened TIFFs when using any of the Nik plug-ins.

Is the NEF Format a Dead-End?

There was concern a few years back that Nikon would abandon support for the NEF format, and the call for an open RAW standard was very loud, indeed.  Here’s my two cents on the matter.  From the people I’ve talked to at Nikon, the NEF file is the software developers’ version of the F-mount– sacrosanct.  At the time of this brou-ha ha, I think a more valid concern would be if 3rd-party developers abandoned support for earlier NEF versions. So far, this hasn’t happened, at least not with the major players.

Why not just use DNG?

Sure, Adobe published the format of their “open” DNG RAW file, but at the end of the day, you still need to use Adobe’s products to get maximal functionality out of it.  You can open a NEF with just about anything, and should the day come when Nikon stops providing RAW-editing software (remember, View NX2 is still free), you can convert your precious NEFs to some other format.  But for right now, I don’t have a compelling reason to convert my entire library to Adobe’s format (which limits my software editing choices, too).  I could still use older versions of Capture NX2 as an external editor to Lightroom or Aperture, too.

Room for Improvement

I’m not going to sit here and tell you that Capture NX isn’t due for an upgrade, can’t be improved, and is the best imaging software on the market. Far from it.  Nikon (Japan) needs to get it through their collective egos that they are stifling the development of potentially excellent software by not giving users a clear upgrade path to native 64-bit OS support, etc.  This, combined with the numerous reported issues of failed installations, etc. is totally unacceptable. With that out of the way, I’ll note that I’m running Capture NX2 2.2.6 on a 64-bit (Snow Leopard) Mac Pro– a 6-core machine with 12GB RAM.  I rarely have issues with the application.  That aside, there are some significant areas that I’d like to see Nikon address in future versions of Capture NX:

  • Provide users with a viable workflow for multiple image editing.  The current “browser” in Capture NX2 is such a joke that it only serves one useful purpose– filtering images on stars/labels for easy opening or batching.  The NX2 browser is not color-managed, can’t preview at 100% without opening the image in the editor, and offers no search/find options whatsoever.  Fortunately, this problem is mitigated somewhat if you use Photo Mechanic as the centerpiece of your NEF-based workflow.
  • Figure out a way to speed up batch operations. This has been a problem since the original Capture NX release in 2006; Nikon needs to figure out a way to make batch operations go faster.  Consider giving users the option of updating JPEG previews in the background, or changing the size (resolution) of embedded preview JPEGs.
  • Add Version support to the browser.  Capture NX2′s Versions are great, but you can only access them through the editor.
  • Improve the NR algorithms. Get with Nik Software and figure out a way to implement the Dfine algorithms into Capture NX.  You’ll make people happy.
  • Don’t destroy the UI, but make it easier to read. I actually like the Capture NX2 Edit List.  It shows me all the adjustment steps I’ve made (like a history window) in a way that’s easily accessed.  But geez, make the fonts and controls larger so we can read them!
  • Find the next “killer feature” and go for it. I’d really like to see Nikon take the lead with a new feature like they did when they implemented Nik’s U Point technology in CNX1.  How about HDR? Dual-processing a single NEF into an HDR image?
  • Support for DNG and Canon RAW files: Give the competition some competition! Why not just support these other file formats and be done with it?
  • Native support for Nik’s Plug-in lineup: I realize there are some coding challenges when writing for Capture NX2, but c’mon, man!  There are users out there who are migrating away from your platform because it appears as if the software developer (Nik) doesn’t support their own product!
  • Native 64-bit support and better memory management: Time to get into the 21st century and support more than 4GB RAM.  ‘Nuff said.

Final Thoughts: Pricing Comparisons

With Capture NX2, you get a powerful RAW/TIFF image editor, non-destructive Control Points, but a poor image management/workflow solution.   Let’s see what the comparative costs are between some popular NEF-editing options:

Capture NX2 Solution

Total: $352.95/$532.90* (*with CEP 3.0)

Adobe Photoshop/Lightroom Solution

  • Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 3: $279.95 (Image management solution with RAW editor)
  • Adobe Photoshop CS5 (for non-destructive editing with Nik Plug-ins as Smart Filters): $699
  • Nik Software’s Viveza 2 (Color Control Points): $199.95
  • Nik Software’s Dfine 2 (NR with Control Points): $99.95
  • Nik Software’s Sharpener Pro 3 (Sharpening with Control Points) $199.95
  • Nik’s Color Efex Pro 3 for Photoshop (optional plug-in): $299.95 (complete edition)

Total: $1778.75/$1578.90* (*if you purchase the Nik Complete collection instead of individual plug-ins- I’d recommend it, and you’d also get Silver Efex Pro and HDR Efex Pro.)

The above pricing is similar for users wishing to utilize Apple’s Aperture 3: Substituting Aperture 3 for Adobe Lightroom at $199 gives a total suite price of  $1697.80/$1497

The point of this comparison is to show that when it comes to a non-destructive editing workflow with Control Points, which is something built-in to Capture NX2, users of other applications would need to fork out for the full version of Photoshop and all of the associated Nik plug-ins.  Obviously, if you’re happy with destructive editing or not using Control Point tools, then you can get by for far less money.  The major drawback for Capture NX2 users is that even with Photo Mechanic, you don’t get a true catalog/database option.  If that is a requirement for your workflow (it isn’t for mine), then you’ll need to go with either the Adobe or Apple solution.  For me, right now, I rarely have a need for Photoshop when it comes to my NEFs.

70 thoughts on “Why I still use Nikon’s Capture NX2”

  1. Jason, by now you’ve probably realized that the $79 Aperture deal is the full version, not an upgrade, if bought at the new Apple “App Store”. Apple hasn’t confirmed if this is a limited time only offer , or the going price from now on. Still, it’s a deal and one of the top sellers at the new App Store.

    Regarding the subject at hand. I was a die-hard NX2 fan (and am still a fan, just not die-hard), but I’ve been pretty much living in Aperture 3 these days since they allowed “selective editing”. It’s not as elegant as the NX2 edit-list, but you can now have multiple instances of the same edit tool (e.g. you can add several sharpening steps and select different regions of the image for each). The highlight protection I find even better than NX2 at recovering blown highlights, but most of the tools are arguably better in NX2, especially LCH which I miss. I do have the Color Efex Pro plugins, though I prefer they way they work in NX2 (as just more non-destructive edit steps).

    I also really, really miss control points in Aperture and I sometimes use NX2 as a TIFF editor just to get them (at the cost of a flattened TIFF). That said, most the time I’m fine using Aperture’s tools which have improved to the point that I “live there” and only exit to a TIFF editor (photoshop or nx2) on rare occassions.

    Secretly, I’m hoping that Nikon has something up their sleeve and/or that the Photomechanic SQL-lite catalog add-on comes to the rescue. But the concern remains of whether Nikon is truly dedicated to NX2 or if they will let it flap in the wind and die a slow death of neglect. I mean, at the rate they are going, they must be selling less , not more, and thus they’re thinking about cutting back on development resources, not increasing them. That is, unless someone decides they really do want to invest to compete with LR/Aperture and to a lesser extent Capture One Pro and Bibble 5.

    Even Nik themselves doesn’t offer their own products for NX2: Silver Efex Pro comes to mind. What a pain that is! So if you like Silver Efex Pro, the NX2 user ends up exporting to TIFF anyway to use it, night as well go with LR3 or Aperture at that point.

    Obviously I’m not an NX2 optimist, but would love to be proven wrong. The way it’s going, the best thing may be for LR and/or Aperture to figure out how to mimic control-points (or license the technology from Nikon/Nik). Then the LR3+Photoshop or Aperture+Photoshop combos become tough to beat.

    Regards,
    PG

  2. Yes, Adobe has made great improvements both to LR and ACR. And yes, the NX2 developed image is still better and nearer to what I did with my camera. That’s the final point we work for: best image quality, and the ability to get as near as possible to our vision, to what we saw or imagined. NX2 has still an andvantage here, and for me that puts an end to the discussion.
    Still I strongly object to the research for a holy grail that does everything, a swiss knife of raw developement and image editing that solves every problem. Nothing similar exists. For many operations, filters, different sharpenings, Photoshop cannot be replaced by something in the early steps of developement. And I see the problem for a total beginner, but I cannot imagine a serious image worker who has no Photoshop. I cannot remember when I bought my CS3, and how much I paid for it. Looks like it has always been in my computer. NX2 gives the best starting point for image editing. Photoshop is the most complete final image editor. Anything else is a compromise.
    I also suggest that Adobe (Lightroom) and Apple (Aperture) think we are complete idiots, unable to develop and refine through the years a hyerachy of folders and back ups strong enough to store and retrieve our images.

  3. Have you checked the download cost of Capture NX2 lately? It went up. Where is it available for $129?
    I am running licensed copies on four P.C.s
    I don’t leave home without it.

  4. I use Lightroom but in regards to your batch processing slowness comment, I’d like to see all these applications take advantage of the GPU’s in most machines today. Video conversion and editing is simply amazingly fast now that most products do use the GPU.

    Time for photo editing to also use the GPU.

  5. The only reason I’m still with Capture NX2 is that it’s the only product that can do IR translation properly from RAW… if adobe get their act together and do a good job out of it, I might just drop NX2…

    If they were to stop NX2 before then I’ll be on trouble…

  6. @William Barrow: Are you still there? You wrote Dec: “In the interest of continued superior imaging results, it would be great if Nik’s Define and Sharpener were build in natively to CNX3, which I am sure will be out Q1 2011.”
    Well William any NX3 signs from your secret source? Still sure NX3 will be out Q1 2011? :).
    Me…. not so sure, it’s more NX2 die a slow death.

  7. Having browsed through your reviews, the one area that I think may be lacking is where the NIK Software ‘plug-ins’ are superior (or not) to those available in NX2.
    With a current interest in HDR I note that this can be (or was?) run as a stand alone application. What of the other Nik plug-ins (Windows platform)?
    Having looked at pricing on the Nik plug-ins, it seems sensible to purchase the whole suite just to get the HDR package – iff there is any benefit in doing so.
    I’ve looked at the other software packages available over the years (and again lately) but none compare, ‘out of the box’ with CX2 with OOC NEF files.
    I don’t take that many photos that are worth keeping and/or post processing so I’m not worried about the workflow aspect and agree with you on this topic – I like to know where my files are, concisely, without having to worry about ‘duplicates’ created by other software products. Back-up is then never an issue.
    BTW, a great website full of useful information. As a Nikon user, very much appreciated! Thank you :-)

  8. Jason, I learned how to use Capture NX2 from you ebook. Well done.
    I like CNX2 a lot but I’m in the process of learning CS5. Although I’m fairly sophisticated now using Camera Raw and Photoshop, I still find that CNX2 works much better for NEF files.
    Anybody else found that Adobe Bridge and Camera Raw render NEF images as grossly over-exposed? I see the images of JPEG and NEF side-by-side and the NEF is an absolute mess. I can open the NEF in Camera Raw but, again, grossly over-exposed. I’ve seen the same problem on my brother’s computer, using Lightroom.
    My experience is the Adobe doesn’t seem to have all the codes for Nikon’s raw files.
    What do you think?
    Best wishes, RC in NYC.

  9. RC-
    I don’t seem to have any major issues with ACR or Lightroom processing NEFs. The default conversion is a little different, but not so different to be dramatically noticeable. I’m talking very subtle differences. You might need to check your ACR processing defaults and make sure that something in the exposure slider didn’t get set by mistake as the default processing settings.

    I’m able to generate very good images from ACR/LR and Aperture, as well as CNX2.

    -Jason

  10. Jason –

    I too learned the wonders of CNX2 from your ebook. I’ve been living by it for a couple of years now, with only occasional forays into an old, decrepit version of Photoshop for minor pixel touch-ups. But now CNX2, for some reason I just can’t figure out, has spontaneously decided to stop running. I’ve tried everything I can think of to get it to run, and it won’t even start up. My wife is a teacher and gets an educational discount on Adobe products (I believe $200 for CS5) and I’m debating switching over. But I’m hesitant for all the reasons you suggest. I don’t even know how my workflow would go if I switched to CS5 for everything. A main concern is the quality of raw conversion. I’ve heard Lightroom is pretty good, but I’ve not heard much about ACR. What about ViewNX2 for Raw to TIFF? Does it compare to CNX2?

    Thanks.

    -Mark

  11. Mark-
    As far as RAW conversion goes, you’ll get equally good results with just about any product these days. The biggest differences between products are with their tools and workflow.

    You may wish to read this article:
    http://www.luminescentphoto.com/blog/2011/03/03/choosing-a-raw-converter-my-karma-ran-over-your-dogma/

    -Jason

  12. Pingback: Capture NX3 revisited | Reinier van Houten – Photography
  13. Relatively new to the dSLR world and I am contemplating making a switch from iPhoto to Aperture. I am shooting a Nikon D5000 and understand that one benefit of using Capture NX2 is the Nikon lens abberation adjustments that are applied based upon the specific lens used. Can I use Capture NX2 as my RAW editor in conjunction with Aperture for photo management and minor adjustments? Would this be a good work flow? Also, how can I expect NX2 or Aperture for that matter to run on a 1 – 1/2 year old Mac Mini (I have a 500 GB external drive and a 1.5 TB back-up drive (Time Machine); with Aperture, I will be able to have photos on multiple HD’s.

  14. Hey Jason,

    I’d just like to add that hopefully Capture NX3 will support 10 bit/30 bit color (as does Photoshop CS4/CS5).

  15. Reading some old posts about NX2 and Camerabits etc. On January 12, 2011 at 11:53 AM Jason wrote about an upgrade from Camerabits: “I think you’ll be proven wrong soon, Tim”. Well as writing this now for > one year later….. still no show from Camerabits. What does the word ‘soon’ mean to you Jason? :)

  16. NX2 gives superior results for processing the RAW files but Lightroom is best for cataloging, reviewing, organizing, and finding one of the tens of thousands of files I have. Unfortunately, with the latest versions/upgrades, the labels you save in one program no longer appear in the other so that means a lot of wasted effort.

    I can no longer sort photos in LR and then see the stars and colors in NX2 the way I could before upgrading – and the ITPC data no longer translates between programs – some upgrade!

    The thing is, there are things you can do in Photoshop in terms of heavy editing, cutouts, etc that you can’t do in NX2. It would be nice if they played together. Don’t they realize that if they did, they’d be MORE likely to sell both so it’s to their financial advantage to do so. I’ve gone back to reviewing in View though I like LR better but because they don’t work together anymore, I won’t bother upgrading to LR4. Otherwise, I’d buy it in a heartbeat.

    ACR seemed to be better for some types of photos before, but now they are all overexposed – my settings are correct from what I can see – the same I’ve always used.

    I now have an i7 processor and a SSD so NX2 is incredibly fast.

    Any fix for the label issue?

  17. I figured out the overexposure issue in ACR. “Use autotone” was ticked in the camera raw settings. I also figured out that if you review your file in View NX2 first and then go into Lightroom and highlight the file, go up to Metadata and say “read metadata from file”, the labels and ratings from ViewNX2 will show up in LiIghtroom.

    I can’t seem to make it work the other way but if I can get an answer from Nikon I’ll follow up. I saw settings to make it compatible through Bridge CS3. Not very helpful for LR3. It’s too bad because I want to be able to review the photos in LR since its compare feature is much better than View.

  18. Hi Jason,

    After reading your posts I thought this would be the right place to ask my question. I am encountering an error in CNX2 with respect to applying settings file that contains linked-enhancements (i.e. containing more than one enhancement in a single edit step). CNX2 would not apply the enhancements after the edit step that has the linked enhancements. Are you aware of this issue or I am doing it in a wrong way? Is there any rule that must be followed when creating settings file containing linked-enhancement?
    The settings file that do not contain any linked-enhancements can however be applied smoothly without any issue.

    Thanks.

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