RAW Converters Comparison

1. Methodology

I’ve been a user of Adobe Lightroom since Version 1. I have other RAW converters: I used DXO Optics Pro from version 4 to 6 but ended up being too lazy to manage the workflow issues; I picked up Irident Developer many years ago in a special offer but never used it until recently when I acquired a couple of Foveon sensored Sigmas; I dabbled with Lightzone for a bit when it was a commercial program as I liked its refreshingly different toolset, though in the end I preferred to do the sort of things it does in Photoshop; and I have Aperture but almost never use it because the crossover in its functionality is so similar to Lightroom.

In the end, then, Lightroom became a default but not through any major conscious choice. I know, however, that I don’t use it in the way I probably should. In fact I don’t use it for very much at all when it comes to processing images. I have never been happy with its sharpening and noise reduction tools, seeing them as a pair of tools that often work together to make noise problems worse rather than better, though it has been pointed out to me on more than one occasion that this is quite probably because I don’t know how to use them properly. I’ve also never been happy with the very muted colours Lightroom produces by default and the fact that those colours don’t quite seem right to me, never more so than with my E-M1. This has led to my general use of Lightroom as a RAW converter to be generally: 1. Correct exposure, highlights and shadows, and sometimes white balance; 2. Dial in a little clarity and vibrance; 3. Enable automatic lens corrections if present; 4. Turn off sharpening and leave noise reduction at defaults (colour on, luminance off); 5. Go to Photoshop and remove noise with Topaz Denoise, capture sharpen with a combination of (the deconvolution application) Focus Magic and a touch of Uwe Steinmueller’s Optimal Sharp script, correct colours and saturate if necessary in LAB, correct or enhance contrast, microcontrast and detail in Nik Color Efex Pro.

It’s a convoluted and lengthy process but actually one I’m very familiar and happy with and it particularly suits cases where I want to selectively sharpen or reduce noise only in certain areas of the image (this is, perhaps, conflating capture sharpening with creative sharpening, but sometimes I find it necessary to do so). Every now and then, however, I get the feeling that I should adopt a workflow where I do more in the RAW converter and less in Photoshop, and this leads me to looking at other RAW converters. This is such a moment.

Comparing RAW Converters

A RAW converters comparison is notoriously difficult and whilst I have tried to be as neutral as possible I can’t make any claims to scientific objectivity. Where I feel I can attempt to level the playing field between them to make a particular comparison I will do so but the holistic nature of what is done in a RAW converter makes such things very hard to achieve; for example, in many cases changing contrast changes saturation and vice versa, recovering shadow details affects denoising adjustments, and it is often hard to figure out the complex interplay of noise reduction, sharpening and micro/mid tone/local contrast adjustments in assessing how much detail there is in an image.

Objectivity is further removed because every RAW converter chooses a set of default adjustments as its starting point when it first demosaics a file. These initial choices are part of the appeal of different converters and is often part of their selling point. RAW files can often be edited with the tools that RAW converters provide to produce similar output; similar, but generally not the same, for if it were they would perhaps lack a raison d’etre.

Further subjectivity creeps in at every step. For example, some like to ‘see’ their sharpening, others do not want to see deconvolution artefacts or haloed edges; some people are happy with quite high levels of noise in an image, vastly preferring the ‘digital grain’ to any sign of (‘plasticky’ or ‘cartoony’) over-smoothing; some want to see dark shadows (black blacks) and bright highlights (white whites) in an image, whilst others want to pull out as much detail as is possible in an image, even at the expense of losing contrast (HDR lovers?); the range of preferences between muted colours and supersaturation is vast.

I am a pixel peeper and I can nail my colours to the mast on some of these preferences; whilst it very much depends on the image, in general I can live with a few deconvolution artefacts but I don’t want to see too much ‘crunchiness’ in my images at the capture sharpening stage; whilst I don’t want to look at cartoon noise reduction I detest noise with a vengeance and want it gone at 1:1 even if I might never view the finished image at 1:1 (irrational, I know!); I want to see some detail in my shadows and highlights but I would rather have blown highlights than fake ones (we’ll come to this later) and I don’t like the ‘HDR look’; I do want moderately saturated images, perhaps a little more so than I might remember the scene at the time. These are very probably not your preferences; they are mine, and my comments on the quality of the RAW conversions will be biased towards them.

I will try hard to get the best possible images that I can out of these RAW converters; ‘best’ is, of course, again subjective, and there is no doubt whatsoever that I will not do as good a job as somebody who uses each application on a regular basis. As noted, changing one setting in a RAW converter often means that one or more other settings need to be changed also, and I’m afraid that I am unlikely to do this as assiduously or as well as someone with greater expertise and familiarity.

The Converters

The contenders, with a few initial comments:

1. ALR: Adobe Lightroom (5.4) / Adobe Camera Raw – I don’t have any figures for market share but this is by far the most ubiquitous Raw converter out there; just about everybody who shoots RAW will have at least demoed Lightroom or ACR and the majority use it on a regular basis. Lightroom has been my RAW converter of choice (or by default!) since its first release in 2007.

2. AP: Apple Aperture (3.4.5) – In use by many, tailored to Macs (and Mac only), and in direct competition as a DAM with Lightroom (generally seen as being slightly inferior to it). Apple’s commitment to improving it is much debated.

3. C1P: PhaseOne Capture One Pro (7.2.2) – Long considered (at least by its developers) as the Rolls Royce of RAW converters (with a price tag to match), with a reputation for providing good colour and contrast in images out of the box, and with some great tools for manipulating colour and tonality and, like DXO, good camera and lens profiles. Has more of a reputation with photographers who shoot people and products due to its powerful tethering capabilities.

4. CAP: Corel AfterShot Pro (2.0) – Thought to be abandonware until very recently, a new 64-bit version (2) of this has just appeared of this rebadged (and alleged by many, dumbed down) Bibble, bought by Corel in 2012. Just released so I thought I’d give it a go.

5. DXO: DXO Optics Pro (9.5) – DXO provides the world with DXOMark, the most comprehensive database of camera and lens tests in the world, and the information from this testing is used extensively in DXO Optics Pro to produce detailed camera and lens profiles to make automated adjustments. It’s claims to fame, then, are this automated correction, its shadow recovery tool (‘smart lighting’), its noise reduction (recently enhanced for high ISO images with PRIME) and the claim made often by its users that it produces the sharpest images. It comes, irritatingly, in two editions with the Elite edition for ‘high end cameras’ costing an arm and a leg.

6. ID: Irident Developer (2.4) – A techie’s raw converter offering some unique features, including colour correction with LAB curves, sophisticated denoising and 4 different sharpening algorithms. Lacking, however, micro contrast tools though the developer is committed to providing them in the future. Mac only.

7. PN: Picturecode Photo Ninja (1.2.2a) – A relative newcomer, having evolved from Noise Ninja, and thus having a reputation for good denoising and also fine detail extraction, highlight recovery, and good profiling that provides accurate tonality and colour by default. Highly regarded by its users.

8. RPP: RAW Photo Processor (4.7.2) – This is going to be used as a kind of reference standard. Highly user unfriendly and lacking most of the features of other RAW converters, this software claims to produce the highest quality demosaicing with a view to capturing the full dynamic range of the data in the RAW files. After doing this it is off to Photoshop to do many of the tasks that the other RAW converters incorporate. This I will do, further processing the images with my usual tools: Focus Magic; Topaz Denoise; and Nik Color Efex Pro, to see if this process can produce better files than the RAW converters alone. Mac only.

If I was going for completeness then I might be including ADCsee, Silkypix, Raw Therapee, Darktable, Lightzone, Digikam and others, but for one reason or another I’m not. End of discussion.

The Image Files

The source material is going to come from a selection of cameras and lenses that I own or have owned, to give a range of image qualities:

Nikon D80 + Nikkor 18-200 – I’ve chosen this as it was my first DSLR pairing and the D80 was notorious for having poor metering and the 18-200 is not a very sharp lens and has complex distortion issues.

Nikon D300 + Nikkor 16-85 – I’ve chosen this because the D300 is an ageing but still highly regarded APS-C camera and the 16-85 is a very good quality APS-C lens but, of course, needs corrections at wider settings.

Olympus EM-1 + 12-40  – Superb quality lens with micro four thirds built in corrections, but a camera with slight noise at base ISO. Currently my main camera.

Olympus E-M1 + 75-300 II – As above regarding the camera but this time with only a medium quality lens.

I’m sticking to Bayer files here. I have a couple of Sigma DP*Ms but as the choice of RAW converters here comes down to the grand total of 2, and because the Foveon files are so different to work with, it makes no sense to include them in this comparison. Landscape photographer who doesn’t use full frame, medium format or film? Yep, guilty as charged.

We will see from the outset that in assessing the relative capabilities of the RAW converters there is little point in assessing their performance on perfectly exposed images all taken at base ISO. They can all do a pretty competent job with such files. Instead we will generally be feeding them with files that are problematic for one reason or another.

The images have been shot over the last six years. I’m a landscape photographer, predominantly coastal, with a bit of travel and nature photography thrown in, so this will be the content of the images. I am interested in how useful these RAW converters are to me for what I do; your mileage may very well vary for what you like to shoot.

Features for Comparison

RAW converters these days cover a vast range of features and some features that might be absolutely vital to some photographers, like extremely accurate colour to product photographers, or tethered shooting to fashion photographers, are not so vital to landscape photographers. Some just do fairly basic raw conversions; some are fully fledged image editors; some have a plugin architecture; some are Digital Assessment Managers (DAMs); some have unique and specialist tools; some have local adjustment tools … the list goes on. I can’t compare all these things so I’m going to stick to a subset of features that are important to me for what I shoot and (mostly) available in all the RAW converters:

2. Defaults – What does the RAW converter produce by default when you first open an image?

3. Detail – How much detail can the RAW converter resolve in the landscape? How well do its tools for noise reduction, micro/mid tone/local contrast and sharpening work together?

4. High ISO – How good is the RAW converter at the reduction of noise at higher ISOs?

5. Shadow Recovery – How much detail can be recovered in the shadows?

6. Highlight Recovery – How much detail can be recovered in the highlights?

7. High Dynamic Range – How well can highlight and shadow recovery be balanced in an image with problems at both ends of the histogram? How well can haloing be controlled?

8. Low Dynamic Range – How easy is it to add contrast to an image with low dynamic range? How good does the resulting image look?

9. Additional Features – Does the RAW converter have any unique or special features of particular value to landscape photography?

10. Conclusion

To begin with, then, the first thing to look at in our RAW converters comparison are default conversions.

2. Defaults]

2. Defaults

In this RAW converters comparison this section's goal is to establish exactly the default behaviour of the various converters. We will see whether lens profiles are applied, any sharpening or noise reduction takes place, and see some very different interpretations of auto white balance. A RAW file starts out as a bunch of 1s and 0s representing a 2*2 Bayer colour filter matrix of 4 photosites - 2 green, 1 red and 1 blue. This has to be interpolated, or demosaiced, into a standard RGB image. The algorithm used for this process varies between RAW converters. Once converted into an RGB file the data requires further interpretation via camera profiles to tell the software what colours things should be in various lighting conditions. RAW converters will contain at least one profile for a camera, sometimes more than one, and you can usually create your own (not a simple and easy process unfortunately) and load that in too. When a camera produces an image it embeds in that image information about the lighting conditions at the time; this is the white balance of the scene. If you shoot RAW then this is not baked into the file and the majority of people shooting landscape images will leave their camera set to 'auto' white balance. The camera usually gets this in the ballpark, especially in outdoor daylight conditions, and this can be fine tuned later in the RAW converter. The default colours that a RAW converter produces are a combination of choices about the demosaicing algorithm, the camera profile the software applies, and the software's interpretation of the information the camera has embedded in the file about the lighting conditions it recorded at the time. As well as making these decisions some RAW converters go further when opening an image for the first time, and apply denoising and sharpening, and/or automatically correct lens defects, and practically all of them make exposure adjustments. The application of these modifications to the image is not always made explicit by the software. The following image was taken with the Olympus E-M1 with the 12-40mm lens (at 40mm) at ISO 200 (base ISO for this camera), 1/1000s and f/5.6. It is slightly underexposed. I have chosen it because everybody has a fairly good idea of what colour grass, the sky and the sea should be (this colours in the image will change a little of course depending on how you have your monitor calibrated). [You can click on the images to bring up a larger version in a lightbox. »