Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Comparing Raw PEF and DNG Converters for Pentax Files, Spring 2007, Part 3

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3. Conclusions, Pros and Cons.

In Part 2, I shared the visual results of the little gauntlet I made. My PEF test photo was run through 6 apps to see a few of the alternatives to CS3 for Raw developing and basic IPTC metadata editing. I didn't look at all the apps out there. It's a small sample group, but it's reflective of what an amateur hobbyist can afford. And I purposefully sabotaged results by asking each of the apps to follow a strict recipe. To make matters worse, my photo isn't even a photograph of a chart or a line graph, and it doesn't have any Gretag-MacBeth color swatches. You can come up with a better test, I'm sure, and you probably should if you're in a professional environment. However, I'm reckless and carefree. I live by the skin of my teeth and laugh in the face of graphs.

Now, it's time to come to some subjective conclusions about what, if anything, I accomplished.

My first conclusion:

None of these applications I tried can do it all by themselves, yet.

It's no surprise, though. Raw developer applications can't live in a vacuum; they're only one piece of the puzzle I'll call "A-B-C-D." I'm going to use these letters to describe where various applications fit.

A. First, you need to have a digital asset management (DAM) program that allows you to archive, sort, and label all your photos non-destructively. Lightroom, and Aperture try their best, but they're not perfect for a multi-library workflow or difficult image adjustments. Even Adobe Elements and Apple iPhoto are to some extent DA managers with a smaller field of usability. The problem is that not every DAM app supports the full list of Pentax DSLRs. DAM Examples: Extensis Portfolio, Photo Mechanic, Adobe Bridge, PhotoShelter, iView Media Pro/Expressions, Phase One's Capture One, etc.

B. Second, you need the Raw developer app of your choice, sometimes built into DAM software.

C. Then, you probably also need another program to make difficult editing moves in RBG or LAB colorspace, like masks and layers. Examples: Adobe Photoshop, GIMP - unfortunately not 16-bit, and dare I say Corel Painter.

D. And, finally, you need another application that's excellent at printing and web export. Some DAM and Raw developers are okay at this, for basic printing and contact sheets. At the high end, you could spend thousands of dollars on RIP software, like ImagePrint.

It's a wonderful thing when an app can do everything well, especially from the advanced amateur prespective, and some programs really give it the old college try, but unfortunately little kinks have yet to be ironed out.

Above: Screenshot of Lightroom in action

1. Adobe Lightroom 1.0

Functionally, it's no surprise that Lightroom 1.0 can do practically everything I already do with Adobe CS3's Bridge and Adobe Camera Raw. But the puzzle piece "C" is Photoshop, and Lightroom can't replace its powerful abilities. However, all the other puzzle pieces are tied together here in one whippersnapper of a beautiful GUI. It has a seamless environment for A, B, export to C, and D. It's easy to use on either a 15" laptop or with my 22" calibrated CRT. I can manage backups, master files and working copies, assign metadata, adjust and correct my photo, and export in all manner of ways. The excellent printing tools are icing on the cake - it's a real joy to print your work from Lightroom, or even export flash web galleries. The Raw results are very good, except for noise reduction and sharpening, which is not as full featured as it needs to be. This is the key area that needs to be improved for me. There needs to be an equivalent of the excellent Photo Kit Sharpener and Noise Ninja plug-ins for Photoshop, and if that ever happens I might just say Lightroom is the perfect application. Otherwise, it requires you to export your image (albeit in quality ProPhoto RGB 16-bit TIFF format) to Photoshop to make the adjustments fine printing requires. But without going to Photoshop, the results are identical to ACR 3.7 in Adobe Bridge CS3 (now that they both use the same processing engine). The main difference is that I can customize my workflow in Bridge to suite more diverse library needs, particularly for managing an image collections that contain dozens of different file formats. However, don't get me wrong, I think Lightroom gets the job done for small to mid-size libraries of photos very well.

Best used for: A, B, C, and D

Pros: Very fast to see changes, and the best GUI layout of any photo application. Best color correction toolset outside of Photoshop, although auto settings are not adequate without spending time making your own tweaks. Spot healing in RAW is amazing. Great printing and web gallery exporting tools.

Cons: Poor noise reduction and sharpening. Can't merge libraries yet. It's going to be $299 soon.

Workflow Tip: Don't ditch Photoshop just yet, you'll need it for sharpening and noise reduction before you send an image to export for web or print. Unfortunately, this results in creating TIFF files, which in turn increases the size of your library.

Above: Screenshot of PPL 3.10 in action

2. Pentax Photo Lab 3.10

Don't underestimate this little guy. It may not have any major library abilities for metadata, keywords, and ratings, but it can batch process PEF and uncompressed DNG files to TIFF and JPEG with aplomb. The noise reduction and sharpening are effected to excellent degree, although after 66% (the closest I could move the slider to 50%) the NR starts to sacrifice a lot of detail, and the contrast, saturation, and sharpness can only adjusted in 1/3 increments (these were set to 33% for my test file). Exposure adjustments are called "sensitivity," and there were no special black point, fill light, or highlight recovery tools. But there is a curves tool. Previews and export to JPEG and TIFF are relatively slow and the adjustment settings windows tend to pile up because the GUI wasn't consolidated. All of these problems should sink Photo Lab 3.10, but the resulting image quality is so good (great sharpness and noise reduction, better than Lightroom), you can't complain.

Best used for: B and D, but with limited printing abilities.

Pros: Free. Excellent noise reduction and sharpening despite limitations, converts to TIFF, JPEG, and DNG files.

Cons: No fine tuning color, no highlight recovery or auto fill light options, no ProPhoto RGB for 16-bit Tiff export, no resizing for export (ex. for making custom web images), no spot healing. Can't open compressed DNG files. If you plan on using PPL 3 for development, make sure you have a good image organizer application to handle metadata, too. The accompanying Pentax Photo Browser is very limited.

Workflow Tip: This is the first application to resort to as an alternative to Apple's Core Image rendering of Raw files if you use iPhoto or ACR if you use Adobe Elements. Backup your PEF files, use PPL to make TIFFs and import those to iPhoto, Elements, or better DAM software. I dare say it's better than using the Raw developing tools in some DAM products like Extensis Portfolio and it's perfectly acceptable as a stand-in for ACR if you use Adobe RGB colorspace.

Above: Screenshot of SILKYPIX in action

3. SILKYPIX Dev Studio 3

SILKYPIX is what PPL should be. Much of what's great about Pentax Photo Lab 3.10 is thanks to the great rendering of its engine's code, licensed from the makers of SILKYPIX. Now if only Pentax could license the GUI, too, because SILKYPIX Dev Studio 3 is much more focused and easier to manage despite having similar toolsets. The one master window with floating palettes for histogram, EXIF info, etc., is surprisingly good looking. Importantly, SILKYPIX has a more robust toolset for sharpening and noise reduction, and consequently you can get much more detail out of your RAW images without any sacrifices to noise. I also appreciate that it has a highlight recovery tool that helps restore details in blown-out highlights, and you can make adjustments with the "fine color controller." The software isn't meant to be more than a developer, an alternative to ACR, but it's pretty fast at exporting. You can actually get a lot done with just the demo version, but you will require something like Bridge or Photoshop to handle the metadata and printing tasks.

Best used for: B

Pros: Free version has more sharpening options than PPL 3. The full version is only $125 US. Excellent noise reduction and sharpening that are on par with Bibble, easy to use highlight and fine color controllers, converts to TIFF, JPEG.

Cons: No ProPhoto RGB for 16 bit Tiff export, no resizing for export (ex. for making custom web images), no spot healing.

Workflow Tip: This is a good application to use as an alternative to Apple's Core Image rendering of Raw files if you use iPhoto or ACR if you use Adobe Elements. Backup your PEF files, use SILKYPIX to make TIFFs and import those to iPhoto, Elements, or better DAM software.

Above: Screenshot of Bibble 4.9.5 in action

4. Bibble Pro/Lite 4.9.5

It's no wonder Bibble has lots of fans. It's is pretty amazing as an ACR replacement thanks to a very specialized adjustment toolset, and its export and printing functions are approaching the sophistication of Photoshop. It's designed for import to print workflows and if it had better IPTC management tools, I'm sure more people would hop on board. The best part is the integration with Noise Ninja, which does a much better job of sharpening than the regular sharpening option when used in conjunction with noise reduction. In some ways, it was at least as good or better than limited Lightroom's sharpening. Also, Perfectly Clear™ (by Athentech Technologies) is built-in to boost luminescence on a per pixel basis and this behaves a bit like fill-light, although it's essentially a trick to "magically enhance" your picture and the results can be too artificially sweetened.

Best used for: A (with very limited metadata tagging abilities), B, and D

Pros: Noise Ninja and Perfectly Clear™ (by Athentech Technologies) work amazingly well for noise reduction, sharpening, and fill light. Sharpening produced fewer halos and outlines than LR sharpening. Good printing tools.

Cons: Mosaic problems and speckling in small details, even with Noise Ninja, unfortunately Highlight Recovery and sharpening practically cancel out Noise Ninja, so I preferred to use USM in Noise Ninja, and Fill Light is weak, you need to use Perfectly Clear. Spot Healing is also tempermental.

Workflow Tip: Use another DAM manager to handle metadata and sorting, and use Bibble for developing, printing and export.

Above: Screenshot of Aperture 1.5.2 in action

5. Aperture 1.5.2

I really want to like Aperture, seeing as iPhoto was so terrific for me before I got fussy and started shooting Raw. But I wonder if it's really worth $299 now when Lightroom has so much more to offer. Apple may have beat Adobe to the punch with stacking and loupe tools, but now they need to do some catching up. There aren't any "fill light" or "recover highlight detail" tools, no curves adjustment (only levels), and there's no fine tuning for the auto noise reduction option. However, like Bibble's Perfectly Clear(tm) option, the "boost" slider is an magic enhancer that amps up the contrast and brightens the image significantly very quickly and easily.

Best used for: A (although entirely Mac-centric), B, and D

Pros: Very good GUI Interface that doesn't require shifting from the main screen environment to do both library and Raw editing tasks. Uses OS X's Core Image to preview everything, which requires a fast Mac, but makes everything fairly quick to do.

Cons: Doesn't yet support the K10D and some *ist models. Expensive iPhoto replacement just to handle Raw photos better, convoluted GUI interface, very high minimum hardware requirements, so-so sharpening and noise reduction.

Workflow Tip: Until it supports all Pentax cameras, you're better off backing up your PEFs and DNGs and then converting them to TIFF with another Raw developer, like PPL 3.1 or SILKYPIX, before you import into Aperture.

Above: Screenshot of RAW Developer in action

6. RAW Developer 1.6.2

RAW Developer is probably one of the quickest applications I've run and it isn't cluttered with any unnecessary frills. It's based on the DCRaw engine and it has a full feature set for WB, noise reduction and sharpening. It does great batch processing, letting you save and apply custom settings with just a few clicks. And better yet, it's able to export into 9 different formats (TIFF, JPEG, PNG, PSD, etc) at any resolution and any scale, with any ICC profile you can muster. This is perfect for exporting and it's refreshing to see that in such a little application.

Best used for: B and D (web-output only, it has no printing features).

Pros: Fast, is very good for bringing out details, and is only $99.

Cons: Free demo leaves a watermark on every image. No specialized RGB color adjustment tools. You need to tweak WB settings to get proper results.

Workflow Tip: This is another application to use as an alternative to Apple's Core Image rendering of Raw files if you use iPhoto. Backup your PEF files, use RAW Developer to make TIFFS and import those to iPhoto.

Final Notes on the Raw Converters, Spring 2007

I typically use Adobe CS3's Bridge and ACR to handle my Raw files, giving Photoshop the heavy lifting and printing. This experiment was to look at alternative methods that I could use on my Mac based on which ones had free trial versions and which weren't strictly aimed at professionals. Of the six applications I looked at as alternatives to Adobe CS3, each one was fully capable of delivering perfectly usable images from my Raw files. And that's what I want to underscore, that every program is capable of terrific results if you give yourself time to learn their strengths and limitations. The trick is to use them as part of a workflow that uses them to their advantage.


ShadZee said...

Thanks for the comparison. I know it took a lot of thoughts and a long time to complete.

I'm finding LightRoom to do what I need. I like the speed I can download, convert to DNG, rename and place the images in their proper folders. If you keep your library small (under 15,000 images), the performance is quite good.

The only thing missing (for me) is support for seamless Multi-Library. By that I mean, ability to have several working libraries, and one master library (which holds everything). And, I want to be able to have a two-way replication between the mater and individual libraries.

solar1 said...

I really appreciate that you have been able to share the comparison with us.

Just wanted to add that with the newest release of Lightzone 3.0 it would be terrific to see if it has improved much over V. 1.0.
I hope that you can eventually update the Lightzone portion of the test.


Solar1 said...

About conversion from RAW and DNG..
I'm very curious to know if you have tried the conversion of DNG files created by Pentax Photo Browser. If you look at the same picture with Lightroom, but using the PEF, the DNG from Lightroom and the DNG from PPB you will notice very different colours... (I've not decided yet which one I prefer) I'm very sure, but I guess that it means that the camera profile which is built in Lightroom is quite different from the PPB one, isn't it?

Anonymous said...

This is interesting, because as a Nikon shooter, I thought we were the worst off as far as requiring Nikon's proprietary software to properly render Raw data to tiff, jpeg, etc. I was drawn to your blog because I was actually considering switching to a more open raw format, but I can see the same problem is present with Pentax. In my eyes, the Pentax sofware easily appears the best, same with Nikon's Capture NX. This is really annoying...this reminds me of having to ship Kodachrome to a lab in Palo Alto California back in the seventies because no one in Vancouver, Canada could process it. I was a relief when films like Fuji, etc came out which didn't require the same processing. It's reasons like this I always shoot RAW + JPEG or at least extract the jpegs from the Raw files for general purpose emailing etc. By the way, try out DxO next time, it actually works well.

robin said...

This obviously took a lot of work and was destined to be out of date before it was published. So it took a lot of will power to do, I am sure!

Thank you for providing a great baseline for comparison in a confusing but crucial area of photography software.

Mac Layout said...

What is really going to be interesting is when DNG workflows are able to make best use of the embedded JPG files

chang said...

Very nice - easy to follow, simple, and working. Thanks for the knowledge!
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