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
- Capture NX2 (RAW editor with non-destructive Control Points): $129.95
- Photoshop Elements 9 (pixel editor for text/borders/etc): $84.00 (on-sale with rebates for $54 through 12/31/2010)
- Photo Mechanic (Image Management/Browser) $149
- Nik’s Color Efex Pro 3 (optional plug-in) $179.95 (complete edition)
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)
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.