If you’ve followed my or my photography over the years, you probably know that I’m a huge fan of Nikon cameras and also Capture NX2 editing software. You’ve probably also noticed that I’ve been experimenting with Lightroom 4 recently, and I started teaching classes on it.
I made the move to digital photography from film in 2005. At that time, there were raging battles between Nikon and Adobe over things like “encrypted White Balance” and such. At that time, converting NEFs (Nikon RAW format) images with software other than Nikon Capture 4 (or later, Capture NX) was potentially risky. Early versions of Adobe Camera RAW and other programs sometimes created artifacts and rendered colors differently than what Nikon’s converter did.
The beauty of processing RAW files is that every setting is plastic and reversible. However, the initial conversion parameters set the baseline for exposure, contrast, and color rendition and differ with each RAW converter application. One thing that Nikon photographers point out is that they like their default (starting point) conversion to match the “as-shot” look (as viewed on the back of their camera) as closely as possible. This makes sense. If you like the look of Nikon’s Picture Control “Standard,” then it’s very convenient to see the initial image rendered this way when you open the RAW file. After that initial conversion, you can do whatever you want to process your image.
Unlike in 2005, when Nikon and Adobe appeared to be engaged in some kind of arms race, it’s clear that the two companies are working together closely. First, new camera support is usually available in ACR/Lightroom very shortly after a new model is released. I think I had to wait about two or three weeks to see the Nikon 1 V2 supported by Lightroom. Second, and probably most importantly, is that Adobe started offering camera-specific “Profiles” within Lightroom (and ACR).
Camera Profiles in Lightroom/ACR set the default conversion parameters (color, contrast, etc.) The default is something called “Adobe Standard,” which I don’t particularly like. For some reason, it renders NEFs with a slightly greenish tint in skies. If you were simply judging conversions based on this parameter, you’d probably like the Capture NX2 version better. Moreover, trying to manually adjust the Camera Calibration settings in Lightroom isn’t something I find enjoyable.
But, Adobe offers custom Camera Calibration profiles that are based on Nikon’s own settings. I don’t know if Adobe gets data from Nikon, or if they just reverse-engineer the settings, but these profile options are so close to what I get from Nikon’s Picture Controls as to be virtually indistinguishable from one another.
So, if the base conversion is essentially identical between applications, then you need to look at the other features of the software applications and see what fits your needs. And in the last two years, my needs have changed dramatically.
Making a Move
In 2010, I made photography my full-time profession. That meant not only was I shooting more for myself, but I was also leading 4-5 field workshops annually instead of one. In 2009, I captured 5862 images. In 2010, that number increased to 9062. And for the last two years, I’ve captured over 16,000 images annually!
Having that many images means that the image management side of my workflow was getting difficult to do via my traditional folder-based hierarchies. By last summer, I knew that an image catalog (database) becoming more important to me than it had been in the past. It’s also significantly easier to run Nik Plug-ins, like HDR Efex Pro 2, directly from a catalog interface. So last summer I started fooling around with the two main players: Aperture and Lightroom 4. I quickly came to the realization that Lightroom 4 had some distinct advantages over Aperture, at least for my needs.
Lightroom 4 vs. Aperture 3
As I mentioned before, Lightroom 4 does a damn good job of emulating the look and feel of NEFs processed with Nikon’s Picture Controls. Aperture does not offer a similar set of Nikon-based starting points. That’s not to say that Aperture isn’t a good RAW converter, but as a Capture NX2 user Lightroom’s Camera Calibration settings give me the option to start with an image style that I’m used to seeing. Lightroom also offers automatic lens corrections for most Nikon lenses. This means that distortion and CA can be corrected in one click (or no clicks, if you set it as a default).
From a workflow standpoint, I still prefer having embedded metadata. When keywords are stored separately from your files, you risk data loss. While neither Lightroom nor Aperture will write IPTC/XMP metadata into NEFs, Lightroom does provide the option to use XMP sidecar files. Aperture writes all metadata to the image catalog file. While I’m not a huge fan of sidecar files, the advantage here is that they are compatible with both Adobe Bridge and Photo Mechanic. Never underestimate the power of a good browser, and with Photo Mechanic, I can read and then embed metadata from Lightroom 4 into my NEFs themselves. This allows me to see keywords and other data that was added in Lightroom when I’m using other programs.
Another difference between Lightroom and Aperture is the catalog file itself. When you import files into Aperture, they are actually copied into a hidden directory structure inside the Library file. If you use Aperture, you can view the file structure by right-clicking on the Aperture Library icon and choosing “Show Package Contents.” My preferred workflow is to use Photo Mechanic to import files from my camera to my computer, where I’ll establish a file directory structure and do top-level key-wording. When I import those files into Lightroom, the NEFs remain in their original directories. In fact, that’s helpful because I still find value in having images saved into logical directories rather than all in just one big bucket.
Finally, another question of compatibility comes along if you’re using Adobe Photoshop. Clearly, you don’t need Photoshop to do the heavy-lifting of image adjustment anymore. But Photoshop is my preferred tool for working with layers and plug-ins. In this respect, Lightroom, by being an Adobe product, has some nice touches. In addition to opening images the traditional way (by rasterizing them), you can also send RAW images to Photoshop as RAW Smart Objects. From there, you can use ACR from within Photoshop to tweak the RAW file if needed. Moreover, you can also use Lightroom to send RAW files into Photoshop layers as a “stack,” or to the HDR Merge and Panorama Stitching tools.
By this point, you’re probably asking if I’ve abandoned Capture NX2. The short answer is “no,” but it’s nearly impossible to use it as a primary image converter in conjunction with either Lightroom or Aperture without getting into a complicated workflow. The biggest drawback for me is not RAW conversion quality, but instead the lack of any coherent workflow option for Capture NX2 users who manage thousands of images. I really wish there was a way of having Control Points directly in Lightroom’s local adjustment toolkit, so that’s a drawback. And as long as Nikon continues to update Capture NX2 for new cameras, it’s a good piece of software to use when new cameras come out until the other players offer RAW support. However, as for image quality, there is absolutely nothing, I repeat, NOTHING that I’ve found in working on my images that leads me to conclude that images processed with Nikon’s software are inherently any better than what I can do with Lightroom, Aperture, or other software. The trick is to spend the time to get comfortable with the tools in your software, regardless of which one you choose to use regularly. So no, I haven’t deleted Capture NX2 from my computer, and I’ll continue to use it in situations where it is needed.
There are still some downsides to using third-party software to convert your RAW files. New cameras aren’t always supported. For example, if you own a Nikon D800 or D4, you needed to upgrade (at a cost) to Lightroom 4 from Lightroom 3. While unlikely, very old file formats might lose support over time. However, I find the upside of using the newer software offers me tremendous flexibility in processing my NEFs. Lightroom 4 is 2012 technology; Capture NX2 has remained nearly static since 2008. That’s forever in software terms, and it’s nice to have the ability to use newer tools on my NEFs. Moreover, should I get non-Nikon cameras in the future, it’s nice to know that I can use the same tool to process all my RAW files regardless of manufacturer.