Forget about JPEGs. You should be working with raw files, editing your photos at their most molecular level. We compare five raw image-conversion and editing apps that promise to take your photography to a higher plane of awesomeness
Would you slice wild Alaskan salmon with a blunted butter knife? You would not. So why would you edit your most coveted high-res images in the JPEG format, such an indelicate digital tool?
It’s all about control—and when you set your DSLR to capture images in the JPEG format, you’re giving up a whole mess of control. Sure, those images may look pretty good, but your final JPEG output never accurately reflects what your camera sensor actually sees, regardless of how well it converts data into the final picture.
A digital camera captures data on an electronic sensor. At its lowest level, this data is known as the raw file. It’s sensor data at its purist, virtually free of modifications and any digital conversions. All the sensor does is catch photons on millions of receptors and write the data to files. That data is literally raw—and DSLRs and some high-end point-and-shoot cameras give you access to this data in order to manipulate your photos with tremendous control.
Don’t like the ISO setting? Tweak it! White balance doesn’t seem right? Correct it! Editing raw files lets you work directly with pure sensor data, making decisions about exposure, shutter speed, fill light, and more, all after the image has been actually shot.
But the downside to control is complexity. Raw files often look “wrong” to your eye. You see every bit of noise, color is off, white balance looks weird. The upshot is that you’ll need good software tools to get the most out of your raw files. Instead of the camera making the decisions about color, exposure, and other details, you get to do that.
In the following pages, we’ll look at five software tools for editing raw images. Two are from Nikon and Canon, who together hold the lion’s share of the DSLR camera market. The other three are third-party apps: Bibble 5 Pro, Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, and Adobe Camera Raw. Which is best for your photographic workflow? Which has the most robust features? And what about processing performance? To gauge how well the apps take advantage of modern, multithreaded CPUs, we ran batch-processing tests on a Core i7-975 Extreme system running at 3.3GHz with Hyper-Threading enabled, converting 100 raw files to JPEG—just bare JPEG conversion, with no tweaks or filters applied.
Raw files consume vast amounts of hard drive space. In fact, we’ve accumulated 320GB of raw files in just the last three years. The upshot is that you’ll need lots of fast storage if you decide to start living life in the raw.
First bit of advice: Don’t just dump all your raw images onto a single big drive. That’s dangerous, as there are two types of computer users: those who have lost data and those who will lose data. So what you really need is a robust, reliable storage and backup strategy.
If you shoot mostly personal photos, a good external hard drive with a decent backup program can get the job done. Run the backup on a regular basis. If your main hard drive does go down, it’s easy to restore from the external drive.
Now, if you’re a professional photographer, or just shoot a lot of material for other people, you’ll need a better solution. A good start would be an automated backup to an external network storage device that’s set up as RAID 1 or RAID 5 redundant drives. In fact, it’s a good idea to have your main storage drive be RAID 1, so a single hard drive failure doesn’t take you down.
If you’re a pro or semi-pro shooter, you also need to think about offsite storage. One natural disaster or fire can destroy both your computer and your backup drives if they’re in the same location. One approach is to back up your backup to archival-quality optical discs, then store them at another physical location. And if you really need long-term archiving, converting proprietary raw formats, like Canon or Nikon raw files, to open DNG or TIFF files is probably a good idea.
Adobe DNG vs. Raw
DNG, or Digital Negative, is Adobe’s attempt at a unified raw format—a format that will be supported into perpetuity, guaranteeing that the images you shoot today can be opened and edited any time in the future. DNG is a freely licensed spec that Adobe has opened up to all software developers and camera manufacturers. The Library of Congress has even suggested that DNG be used as an archive format for digital photos.
The DNG spec is based on a version of the venerable TIFF format, but adds a wrapper that includes extra metadata (that can be tweaked in raw editors) and supports major color-filter technologies. The drawback? Well, the Foveon digital sensor employed by Sigma cameras can only use “linear DNG,” a version of the DNG spec that doesn’t actually include raw sensor data. Rather, the raw data undergoes a conversion process—and once the data is converted, it can’t revert back to raw. Yes, you can continue to adjust all that linear DNG metadata in a raw application, but the data you’re adjusting won’t be raw, undiluted sensor data.
Nikon, Canon, Sony, and Olympus don’t support DNG. However, Casio, Pentax, Leica, Ricoh, Samsung, and Hasselblad do support the pure DNG spec, and if you’re using one of their cameras, shooting DNG files is an easy choice. If you’re shooting with Nikon, Canon, Sony, et al, you can convert to “pure” DNG using Adobe’s own converter.
Which Flavor is Best?
Canon’s Digital Photo Professional is a serviceable tool for basic manipulation of Canon raw files, but it’s the most limited app we tested—you really will need something better for robust photo editing. Nikon’s Capture NX2 offers a couple of very cool features (particularly control points), but the software’s price might be hard to justify for some.
All three of the “non-camera-affiliated” raw apps have strengths and weaknesses. If you’re committed to buying just a single tool, Bibble 5 Pro is a compelling choice. Its rich feature set, speedy performance, workflow management, and layering support make for a tidy, complete package, although we do have some concerns about its stability under 64-bit Windows.
Adobe Camera Raw requires the purchase of Photoshop or Photoshop Elements, as it’s really an integrated add-on. The current version offers rich raw-file manipulation, but it’s not really a useful stand-alone tool. However, if you’re already a Photoshop or Photoshop Elements user, Adobe’s Lightroom 2 is a must-have. Its workflow management eclipses that of Adobe Bridge (included with Photoshop), it integrates all the features of Adobe Camera Raw, and adds superb management of print output along with other features. Toss in 64-bit and useful multimonitor support, and you’ve got a great tool. As a stand-alone app, Lightroom 2 is incredibly useful if all you do is crank out large volumes of photos for clients, using presets to automate tasks. But it’s best used in conjunction with Photoshop or Elements.
You can get excellent results from all these tools; some will just take a little extra effort. Once you’re past the learning curve for a particular app, however, you’ll be able to create jaw-dropping photos that people will cherish for years.