Friday, July 18, 2014

Post Processing: RAW Editors

Post processing RAW files is something that many serious photographers do to improve the images that are produced by their cameras. While it might seem like there are only a few options out there, that is simply not the case. When a user wants to move beyond basic editors that ship with most modern OS's (iPhoto for Mac OS, as an example), to more advanced software it can be difficult to make a decision as each choice has ramifications. Thankfully, there are many choices, and the following are samples of the same image edited in five different RAW editors; Nikon Capture NX-D 1.0, Adobe Lightroom 5.5, Aperture 3.5.1, RawTherapee 4.1.1, and Darktable 1.4.2. Even though Apple announced that support for Aperture is coming to an end soon, I included it because I believe the information here may be helpful for those who are looking for new software as a result of that news.

Basic unedited file, with no adjustments
The first photo, above, is a basic, unedited jpeg made from the original D800 NEF file. I used Nikon Capture NX-D to create this file, because I believe that it provides the most accurate as shot file. All of the following files have been edited, from the same NEF file, with what I would consider standard edits, meaning correcting white balance, distortion, vignetting, chromatic aberrations, and applying a basic tonal curve adjustments (when possible). No third party plug-ins were used with any of the applications.

File edited in Capture NX-D 1.0
This second image is one that I made edits to in Nikon Capture NX-D. On top of the basic edits from above, I also applied Nikon's Vivid Picture Control. Nikon's software has always done a good job working with NEF files, even if the software is not the most pleasant to work with. If you want the files coming out of a Nikon camera to have the same look as what you see on the rear LCD of your camera, Capture NX-D is the way to go. Of course the downside to using Nikon's software is that you are dependent on them to keep the software up to date and usable with modern OS's, something that they are not known for being good at. Capture NX-D is also very basic, so all advanced editing requires addition software, as it provides no retouching tools or plug-in support.

File Edited in Adobe Lightroom 5.5
This third image received similar basic editing in Adobe Lightroom 5.5. Note that even though the white balance is identical and tone curves are basically the same, the end result is very different. Adobe Camera RAW, which Lightroom uses, creates a very unique look when compared to the other four editors covered. Lightroom is a good program and would likely cover the needs of many users, who don't do any heavy manipulating of their files. Retouching, and other basic manipulation tools are available in, so additional software may not be required. That said, Lightroom does have a possible downside, at least if you don't buy a standalone licence. Adobe is strongly pushing the Creative Cloud (monthly subscription model), which means that if you stop paying the monthly fee for some reason, say goodbye to the RAW editor. The Creative Cloud version of Lightroom 5.5 still allows users who let the subscription expire to access files stored in Lightroom's collections, and to export files, but no in depth editing is possible. In addition GPS plots on the map module, and some other notable features are not available.

File Edited In Aperture 3.5.1
The fourth image received basic editing in Aperture 3. Aperture 3 easily has the best user interface and built in file management of any of the RAW editors Covered, but that is not the focus here. In terms of look and feel the file from Aperture appears to be closer to the results of Capture NX-D than any of the others. That said Aperture 3 has become out of date, and lacks some of the newer tools that are available in Lightroom 5, and other more modern RAW editors. For example, there are no distortion correction tools, and the built in sharpening and noise reduction are weak when compared to some of the other applications covered.

The next two editors covered are Open Source projects, which could easily be covered in separate posts, because they are more complex editors in some ways. These two programs are RAW editors first and for most, and neither application is useful for heavy photo manipulation, so additional software would be required for that. These applications are available for Mac OS, Windows (XP / Vista / 7 / 8) and Linux OS's.

File Edited In RawTherapee 4.1.1
RawTherapee is similar to Lightroom in that it has different modules for organizing and editing images. That is where the similarities end though. To make matters more complicated there are modules within the editing module for fine tuning. That said, the layout is easy to work with once you know what module does what. Reading the manual is almost a must, otherwise there are a lot of tools you won't understand, or have trouble completing some tasks. In part due to some of the terminology used, and others because the functionality is handled differently than almost every other RAW editor. Needless to say all the basic tools that you need to edit a RAW file are all present. Correcting distortion, chromatic aberrations, and vignetting are all possible within the transforms module. Some cameras support auto correction, while others have to be corrected manually. All applied edits affect the entire image, but in a non-destructive manner, as an edited file is saved separately. Needless to say RawTherapee is a very capable RAW editor, but it has a steeper learning curve than the likes of Lightroom, Aperture and Capture NX-D.

File Edited In Darktable 1.4.2
Darktable is like RawTherapee in many respects, because there are modules for organizing and editing, but the user interface has some differences. Those UI differences go beyond the scope of this post, and will not be covered. Like RawTherapee, Darktable seems to require a lot of tinkering to get the desired results. I found RawTherapee slightly easier to get the hang of, in some respects, and Darktable in others. Again, white balance is set to the same settings, along with similar curve adjustments. No distortion, vignetting or chromatic aberrations were corrected. There is a tool for correcting these things by the camera/lens, but apparently the D800 and 70-300mm F4.5-5.6G VR are unsupported for auto corrections. Again, like the other editors covered, Darktable is a non-destructive editor that saves serrate copies of edited files. Darktable provides another extremely powerful RAW editor, with many options and a steep learning curve. Reading the user manual to fully understand the functionality is a must if you want to take full advantage of what it is able to do.

In most cases I believe the differences between these five applications comes down to one simple thing, the way they convert the original RAW file. Most of the basic editing functions are similar, even if they are given different names, or have more options. Darktable and RawTherapee seem to provide very basic, or flat, files from the start. Both open source applications have a steep learning curve, will take time to learn, but could be worth while. The look of files in Capture NX-D depend on the in camera settings, so whatever picture controls are enabled in camera will determine the default look. If you want a flat look you can use the Neutral Picture Control in camera, or come up with your own flat profile in Picture Control Utility 2. Lightroom and Aperture have a style of their own, and it can take some effort to get a flat file to work with. That said, Lightroom and Aperture allow for user created profiles to be applied on import, so once you have created the look(s) you want it is easy to apply that to images quickly. 

Even though you can achieve high quality output from each of these different RAW editors, the end results can be different. If one were to take hours to learn each program, and edited the files side by side on colour calibrated monitors, producing virtually indistinguishable results could be possible. While that is something that can be achieved, that was not the purpose of what I wanted to demonstrate here. The idea was to show that if all you do is make a few basic edits to a file, even when things like white balance, curves and colour space are identical, there will be differences between the files exported by Capture NX-D, Lightroom 5, Aperture, RawTherapee and Darktable.