It seems like no matter what you do or where you go, you can never escape the incessant drone of “my product is better” posts out in cyberspace. Name a photo product, and you’ll find fanboys (and girls) trumpeting the merits of their particular choice in gear, software, whatever. We live in a world where product diversity and competition is fierce, but one thing is completely evident to me: when it comes to RAW processing software, you really can’t go wrong with most of the popular choices out there right now.
The one thing that has started to irk me, though, is the beating of drums from people who claim Product A is superior to Product B based on no provable fact. Case in point: Nikon’s Capture NX. In 2005, I compared all the major RAW converters from a Nikon user’s perspective as part of a multi-part segment for The Image Doctors podcast. At that time, we were able to discern clear rendering quality differences between Capture NX and Adobe Camera Raw (ACR). Ah, but times have changed.
Since 2005, ACR has evolved better demosaic algorithms, new features, and camera profile settings that give you results that are at least as good, in my opinion, as what you can do with Capture NX2. The same is true for Aperture, Capture One, and other RAW processors. While there is no doubt that Nikon’s engineers understand the NEF format best, the argument that CNX2 somehow produces a superior conversion to everything else has gotten pretty weak over time. When I look at NEFs I’ve converted with Capture NX2 using standard settings and compare them to ACR conversions with similar settings, I don’t see anything between the two resulting images that would indicate that one is somehow “superior” to the other. What I see are two slightly different images, but neither one is “better” or “worse” in terms of detail, artifacts, or other obvious quality issues.
So what does that mean for you, the photographer, who is trying to filter through all the chatter and pick a RAW processing tool? Remove the subjective component of “conversion quality” from the discussion and instead look at features and workflow.
When you compare tools, editing features really get down to tools that you like and are comfortable with. Sometimes you use a tool enough and you just get comfortable with it over time, but that’s not to say that you couldn’t get equally comfortable with similar tools if you took the time to learn them. Here are some tools that I like across various RAW converters:
Adobe Camera RAW (Bridge/Lightroom/Photoshop)
- Lens distortion and perspective correction
- Defringe highlights (great for HDR work)
- Color Profiling options
- Noise reduction quality
- Clarity and Vibrance tools
Capture NX 2
- Powerful selection tools, including brushes and Control Points
- Color Control Points (ie, Viveza) built-in
- LCH Editor
- Automatic CA removal, including Axial CA removal
- Default luminosity channel sharpening
- Edit list displays order of adjustment tools
With features, you pick what you like and often times you’re splitting hairs. I’d love to have the highlight defringing and perspective control in CNX2, but I’d also really like to have native Control Point selections in ACR.
How you shoot and manage your images is another HUGE issue when you’re choosing an image editing product. My workflow has always been small-scale, fine-art images. I go out, shoot, and then winnow down my shots to a small subset of files which I then process individually. For others, their workflow is exactly the opposite. If you shoot events, sports, or weddings and need to be able to make just enough tweaks to a large volume of images to get them “good enough” for your clients or editor, then you don’t want to work with programs that don’t have fast batching and other features. You also probably want to store your images in a catalog or database if you routinely need to find images out of thousands of files.
Because Capture NX2 was designed as a single-image editor, it’s batching and bulk editing functions are very rudimentary and downright slow. If you use ACR, Lightroom, or Aperture, batch changes are simple– you just copy the “develop” settings across your files and you’re done. If you use Lightroom or Aperture, you also get a built-in file database (catalog) for managing your images. With Capture NX 2 or other stand-alone converters, you’ll need to manage your files via other techniques.
Regardless of how you choose to manage your images, neither technique is right or wrong. Both have pros and cons. I’m able to find images perfectly fine without a catalog because I put my images into a logical directory structure. I rarely batch images, but I do find myself wishing that my browser (Photo Mechanic) had some of the slick “stacks” features that you can find in Aperture and Lightroom. For HDR image processing, I’d much rather launch HDR Efex Pro directly from my NEFs via a browser than batch out TIFFs from Capture NX2. Again, it all comes down to personal taste. What is “better” for you might not make any difference to me or someone else.
At the end of the day, I’ve tried a lot of imaging software products. They have strengths and weaknesses, but image conversion quality is not a major discriminator anymore. Anyone who tells you otherwise should be taken with a grain of salt unless they provide you objective evidence to back their claims– not the tired arguement of “it’s clearly the magic sauce that Company X employs.”
I’ve chosen a suite of applications that fits my needs (Capture NX 2 and Photo Mechanic), but I’m not afraid to use ACR and Bridge/Photoshop for times when the workflow is more streamlined (like HDR). For the record, the left-hand image was produced with Capture NX 2; the right-hand image was made in Adobe Camera Raw.