Just Browsing my NEFs

One of the things I like about shooting in RAW is that I have the ability to override my in-camera settings during post-processing.  The RAW safety net is tremendously useful, even if you get most things “right” on a shoot.  One thing I don’t like, however, is using software that automatically throws away my in-camera settings because it thinks it is smarter than me.  When I preview my images, I want to see what I had shot in-camera, even if I got it “wrong” (I like to learn from my mistakes).

I’m mostly talking about image browsers, here.  All these products that are “RAW saavy.”  That’s really just code for  “built-in RAW converter” that will ignore all your in-camera settings.  The problem with multiple RAW converters is that each one works with its own set of instructions.  If you use Browser “A” to view your files, then process them in Application “B”, when you go back to Browser “A,” you won’t see any changes in your image previews.  This conundrum is why we’re seeing a big push towards “soup to-nuts” products like Adobe Photoshop Lightroom and Apple Aperture.

Take for instance, the scenario where you shoot NEFs using different Nikon Picture Controls.  By default, you can make four different core settings in your camera:

  • Neutral
  • Standard
  • Vivid
  • Monochrome

When you look at the LCD preview on your camera, you can tell the difference between the images. Neutral is low-contrast and low-saturation, while vivid is high-contrast and high-saturation.  And monochrome, well it’s black and white.

Now consider what happens when you download those same four images and preview them in a browser that has its own RAW engine:

Click to see more…

Here’s what you’d see with those four different NEFs if you previewed them in Bridge (click to enlarge):

When previewed in a browser with its own RAW converter, these four NEFs look identical.

Here are the same four NEFs as rendered by Photo Mechanic (click to enlarge):

Photo Mechanic does not convert RAW files; instead it previews them with the embedded JPEG file created by your camera.

Notice the difference?  Of course, you could rightly argue that your front-end view (before editing) doesn’t matter; in fact, you could easily set up a preset to render your NEFs with a reasonable “basic” look when you preview them after image transfer.  The problem, though, lies on the back-end of the workflow– after editing the NEFs. Unless I make changes to the NEFs using the same rendering engine as my browser (ACR in the case of Adobe Bridge), then I’m stuck having to create a JPEG or TIFF version of my edited NEF file so that it will be viewed properly after editing.  Which brings me back to my workflow conundrum– I like using Capture NX2 as my image editor and saving my NEFs as 20Mb NEFs rather than 70+Mb TIFFs.

To solve this challenge, I’ve adopted Photo Mechanic as my browser.  What Photo Mechanic does that the other browsers don’t is display your NEFs (and DNGs, if applicable) using their embedded JPEG previews.  Yes, every NEF contains a JPEG (it’s what you see on the back of your camera when chimping) that can be used if your viewer supports it.  Most browsers ignore this file and instead re-render the NEF using their own conversion tools.  Photo Mechanic doesn’t do that.  Moreover, because Capture NX2 updates the preview JPEGs in my NEFs during file save (one reason why NX2 takes longer to save than other programs), I can properly view these changes in Photo Mechanic after I edit the files.

Sure, I could just adopt other editing software, but I really have grown to like the simplicity of using Control Points non-destructively in my NEF editing without having to create PSD or TIFF files.  I’ve spent the last four years slowly refining a workflow system that allows me to use Capture NX2 almost exclusively as my image editor.  If you are interested in finding out more, consider taking my “NEF-centric” workflow online course, where I’ll share my technique for a streamlined NEF workflow.

8 thoughts on “Just Browsing my NEFs”

  1. Sure I agree, this could be a workflow. Two questions: 1. what are the benefits of PM to ViewNX or the NX2 browser itself? 2. what program do you use to archive all your NEF’s, JPEGs etc. or searching for shots like ISO 1600 or other criteria? Tim.

  2. PM has numerous benefits over View NX and CNX2, but here are the biggies:
    1) CNX2 & View NX browsers are NOT color-managed
    2) View NX cannot produce a JPEG from a NEF once it has been edited in CNX2
    3) VIew NX has no metadata search function whatsoever

    I use PM’s integrated Spotlight search on the Mac platform to find images across multiple disks, but you can also use its FIND command if you open multiple folders at once.

    These topics are what I cover in my NEF-centric workflow online course.


  3. I agree PM works very well with Capture NX2 but the problem is Capture NX2. I have been using it for years and I love the way you can edit and backtrack in a non destructive way. However, the recent update compatible with snow Leopard is a nightmare. Even View NX and Camera Control is
    behaving badly. I know experience frequent daily crashes each day. I am seriously considering Aperture 3 but I have been told that «Apple’s support for new cameras is very, very slow. That’s because the
    software inherits understanding of raw files from the OS, and the OS updates for cameras are usually not very timely.»

    So what to do? Wait for Nikon update??

  4. Nail on the head, Jason. I struggled for years with other browsers, all with the same result. Finally switched to PM last year and my life in regards to PP has gotten so much easier. As of late I do 99% of my PP with PM & NX, only launching PhotoShop on occasion if I need to run Topaz Noise Reduction (hoping for a NX plugin someday).

    One thing I really wish PM had was the ability to straighten. I like the cropping feature..but if I could just straighten without launching NX, I think my work-flow would be reduced by another 20%.


  5. I played with a trial of PM for a few days, I have to say I like it very much! @Jason, you say ViewNX is not color-managed, but in prefs you can change the color profile, is that only for output?
    @Francois, think twice about adopting AP3… If you are a NEF shooter (like me) you will have to deal with some issues, like color changes in the previews (versions). Apple likes applying its own color ‘sauces’ -:). NEFs will be showing up wrong, the issue like Jason mentioned above. Please, do some google search for the NEF issues in AP3
    So for me, I’m still searching for the right workflow, I also need a good Library system.

  6. Sir, I’ve been following you on Image Doctors for some time now; and on the topic of Photomechanic as part of a NEF-centric workflow, I picked up on your suggestions. I’ve been using PM for around a year now as a result. I started using it at a point when I’d pretty much given up on Aperture, as it had become a slow and unwieldy beast. OTH, PM is blindingly fast, honors NEF edits in NX2, and can be repointed to other editors. I do wish that one could configure it to point at more than one, rather than having to back to the Preferences to change between, say, NX2 and PS.

    Lately, I’ve come back to Aperture though, as v3.0.3 seems to be getting much more powerful. Frankly, there just doesn’t seem to be any single, all-round workflow system out there, even within the context of just being a Nikon-shooter. In order to hit all the possible bases, I import with ViewNX to two independent drives, then re-import into Aperture (and eventually use its Vault feature to yet another drive). That way, I can use PM to browse the primary file folders, select images for editing in either NX2 or PS, or do rapid bulk edits inside Aperture.

    Do I ever get confused: yep! But by enforcing a good naming convention at import time and having that on every NEF or intermediate edit, no matter where, I can almost always trace back to the original raw file.

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