Picking the right RAW converter

Having worked for years with Nikon software for RAW conversion always left me with a feeling of incompleteness. Some tools where really not there, you need to export to a 16-bit tiff and process the image in an image editor; if you need a few variations and comparison, you editor should be able to support them and then you can save only one, because if you save everything your disk will bloat; asset management is just too cumbersome, keeping track of folders and hierarchies, tagging, geotagging etc; when you work with different camera vendors, you need to use different software. Sometime ago I was already at this crossroads and thought I should try Adobe Lightroom. Somehow I did not like it at the time. It did not fit in my workflow, maybe because I was still scanning old films and slides. However, now I decided to give it another try, especially to help me with the asset management. So I downloaded the trial version and installed it. It has a 30-day trial period which is plenty of time and the new prices from Adobe are more than attractive at around CHF135.-.

But! As someone who has produced quite a lot of software I never give in to software vendors that easily, so I wanted to try all the alternatives and compare. I tried to find some info on the web and indeed you can read the “10 Photo Editing Programs (that aren’t Photoshop)“, a somehow related article again on DPReview as well as other resources you can Google. What I find is that everyone, one way or another, confuses three distinct use cases: asset management, RAW manipulation and pixel editing. In principle I think there is no single piece of software where you can do all three. There is something along this lines in Paint Shop Pro but clearly immature. So, letting the pixel editing out of the equation, what I started looking for is good asset management and RAW manipulation, so I tested a bunch of the alternatives along with the incumbent Lightroom.

The idea of the tests is to have a real world example and work in similar ways with it in all available software, then compare the end result. It is a little bit unfair only because I spent more time with Lightroom 5 than the competition. However the current version fits much better in the workflow I had in mind. Looking on the internet I found somewhere a great piece of advice for using Lightroom (apologies to the author, I cannot find the link any more…): don’t use many folders on disk but create large pools of photos and manage by tags. This of course brings in mind the old hierarchical versus relational database debate. This makes sense. One photo will fit many descriptions. Trying to figure out a way to arrange all photos in folders is futile. Just put them in large pools and tag them. This fits a lot with the Lightroom workflow. I rearranged everything in large pools by season, say “Summer 2013”. I more or less remember when something was shot. Then all projects I ever shot for others went under “Projects”. This way you start with a rather flat hierarchy and tags help you get different views of your photos. Then you can create collections if you want specific groupings. Lightroom also allows virtual copies which is great when you want to try different processing of your photos but you don’t want to save a copy.

However, the key question is which software, upon opening a RAW file, brings you closer to what you feel is more or less the right image and work your way from there. If the starting point is far from ideal then you need to put a lot of work. To test this, I started making comparisons with some real world examples. Here’s a shot on a beach, on an afternoon while the sun was already behind a rock wall in the back. The beach has no sand but black pebbles instead and the water becomes deeper and deeper from 5 meters into the sea and further away. So the photo is shot in shadow with lots of midtones in the background.

Olympus RAW converter

Now, what I decided to do is to compare across all software the same adjustment as far as possible. That is, a simple white balance correction using some of the black and grey pebbles in the background and a curve adjustment, a typical S-like modification to the tone curve. The first candidate is Olympus’ own Olympus viewer 2.

This is the original image

081213_1036_Pickingther1.jpg

And this is how it looks after adjustment:

The original image is a little bit darker than I would like, but not too much, and a little cooler. The modified image has been corrected for the grey pebbles and the tone curve as seen here. It turns out to be slightly warmer and better lit. Skin tones are more natural and reflect the soft lighting of that time of the day. However, I think both versions are acceptable. Not too bad of Olympus!

Lightroom 5

Now, let’s see if Adobe Lightroom can do better. The question is, clearly, where do we start from? So here it is:

The starting points are comparable. Lightroom renders the image quite accurately compared to the Olympus viewer. However, the adjustments offer a much better results. Skin tones are more natural than Olympus while the blues of the sea are still blues. The image is warmer and more pleasing. Note, that for white balance I dialed exactly the same values as seen in this image, wherever that was possible. So the white balance rendering plays an important role, apparently, although this seems to me a bit weird. There may be more adjustments done in the background and not readily available to the user. A unique characteristic of Lightroom is that – apart from the white balance picker, which is unfortunately not present everywhere – it also allows you to preview the result of the white balance adjustment while you drag the eyedropper around the image.

The end result, for a one-minute adjustment is quite pleasing. I wanted to go a bit further and let my model pop out of the scene a bit more. I played a bit with the sliders, especially the tint to improve skin tones and clarity, which I reduced a bit, then some smoothing and sharpening and finally a radial gradient, which I used to reduce the exposure away from the subject. Here’s the result that did not take me more than a few minutes.

AfterShot Pro

Corel is an old firm and I am familiar with it for at least 25 years, since the time WordPerfect was a standard. A frontrunner in many types of software, it unfortunately turned into a laggard of sorts. Corel Draw was for years the best software you could get on a PC to process pixels. Corel, today, offers two programs that can be used for what I need: PaintShop Pro, considered later, and AfterShot Pro. Here I deal with the latter. How does it look when you open the same image in AfterShot Pro? Ughh… not so pro….

Although not far away from the other two, ASP has totally shifted the histogram to the right and clipped the highlights especially on the sea behind it. Don’t know why… Now I tried to adjust the WB and tone but did not get what I was expecting. Not a good starting point…

Capture One Pro 7

Capture One is one of the most expensive and most celebrated contenders. I therefore gave it a bit more time, because I expected more from it than I got initially. Here’s how the RAW file renders initially:

Not too bad although a bit too dark. The complexion is nevertheless better than the rest.

The adjustments do not improve the situation. WB is completely off showing a different model than the rest. The image is just too warm and yellowish. The histogram mode is moved to the left for almost all colors but the red. Not what I expected. I decided to use its own WB and improve skin tones.

Somehow better but still too dark. Then I decided to give it a try with its own automated tools

Not too bad. Still insists on putting the mode to the left. No idea why.

C1 is a feature rich tool that will probably make it to the second round of experimentation. I have to say though that I do not like much its integration with Windows libraries and its concepts on handling files.

DxO Optics Pro

I had received a copy of DxO when it was still a startup. Now it has grown to become a company that measures in a scientific way all combinations of photographic equipment and offers these results to correct your pictures. It also offers some – obscure to me – “filmpacks” that you can use to reproduce artificially the film flaws you were always trying to escape from. Let it be…

DxO Optics Pro installed smoothly although by experience I have really bad experience with the behavior (not to say the code) of software of French provenance. DxO hide their French roots very well on their website nowadays it seems but I remember the letters in French I received back then J

Installation was smooth and that’s about where it all ended. DxO asked me to download the profiles for the camera and lenses. I said OK, go ahead, this is anyway your strong point. The GUI froze forever. I killed it and went through it again without downloading anything… Here’s what I got.

And here’s the result after the adjustments

It’s not bad, but somehow dark. But by all means a good starting point, even better and more easily acquired compared to C1. DxO from the very beginning centers the distributions for all colors. Everything is almost symmetrical around the mean. Why?

Photo Ninja

Then there’s Photo Ninja. For the price of LR you get only a raw converter, but what a converter! Here’s the initial rendering:

Colors, skin tones, the sea, everything is much better than any of the others! Noise is handled superbly, contrast is amazing and histograms make sense. Again, a bit dark but not much to ask for. The adjustments made the image slightly warmer and improved the contrast.

Probably as good as it can get from the RAW point of view. Unfortunately Photo Ninja does not have the rich tools that the alternatives offer.

Photivo

Photivo is the first of the open source breed. It is also a Raw processor, providing all sorts of algorithms in a user-unfriendly interface that is somehow cryptic and does not always function as intended. I had too many artifacts and strange behaviors. The software, overall, performs worse than everything else I tested. On the other hand it is a very respectable open source effort and I will soon download the code and see how I can contribute J

What you get with Photivo out of the box is discouraging:

Almost as bad as C1… I tried to make some adjustments, but their toolset has its own logic and you never know when stuff is done or not, maybe too many things work in a thread, not too many meeting points etc. So I messed up completely:

I think the KISS principle would help the Photivo community…

Picasa

Picasa is free and not open source. It is provided by Google and it is a whole mess in every respect. Opening a file is a nightmare. Adjustments are almost impossible. Moving to my second monitor crashed the application. So bye-bye. Here’s what you get.

PaintShop Pro

I talked already about Aftershot. Not much to say, PSP is often cited as a Photoshop replacement, which it might or might not be. The software has a long-long way to go before it becomes usable. It is cheap and has a lot of features, but its results are strange and the GUI unstable: in my last runs all the widgets suddenly disappear from the shutter container… Here’s the before and after for reference.

By the way, the download link does not link to the latest version. When you install it asks you to download the right version. This is just sad.

Photoline

Photoline is a shareware software that will set you back 59 euros at the time of writing. That is, if you are willing to pay for this starting point:

Fastest uninstall ever.

RawTherapee

RawTherapee is the second of the open source breed and by far the most usable and versatile. Although the name may suggest a cure for people with urination problems, it is in fact only a RAW converter. It somehow looks calibrated with C1, because surprisingly the results I was getting were very similar. Here’s how it renders the file upon opening:

All modes to the left…

And here it is after adjustment:

Not quite there but not far from it! RawTherapee is a pleasure to work with. It is stable and feature rich; it speaks the right language for open source software and is stable and fast. I wish it did not install languages on its own (see mixed Greek-English interface) and that it could manipulate Lightroom sidecars. Download and work with it by all means.

Silkypix

Silkypix is a Japanese piece of software. Apart from the strange language this brings sometimes, it is perfectly capable software, but pricey. Here’s how it renders the file

And here’s the photo after the adjustments, although WB is done from scratch due to inconsistent GUI:

The result is quite good, although I see little added value in this software. The result is very similar to the Olympus converter.

Sagelight

Sagelight is a commercial and fully capable, albeit really low cost, image editor. It has a really weird interface and inelegant widgets, some toolbars are integrated in the GUI and some float so that when you move to a second monitor you start looking around for the lost toolbars. The rendered and corrected images are no better or worse than e.g. Rawtherapee although Sagelight has more editing features:

Conclusion

What was the point of this comparison? The whole question is, when you start with an image, how far can you go by just opening it and not requiring adjustments? Can you combine asset management, conversion and editing in a single software? Well it seems that the only candidate, PaintShop Pro is still not there by far. The Lightroom style of workflow, where you manage your photos and adjust them seems to be the standard for the top of the line, Lightroom, DxO and CaptureOne. The last two though, cost twice as much as Lightroom without any particular benefit over it in raw conversion. CaptureOne may even be the least intuitive for the particular image. But combine Lightroom with Photo Ninja and the combination is more than promising. Rawtherapee is also a great option although it does not integrate with Lightroom as far as I have seen, so when Lighroom just fails to take you there you might want to try Rawtherapee. What I will test next, is how it integrates through DNG.

Disclaimer

All comments are made in good will!

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