RAW Converters Comparison

5. Shadow Recovery

The next section in this RAW converters comparison is to test the shadow recovery abilities of each application.

To test the RAW converters I have chosen an image of Bude Canal. It was actually the darkest capture in a 5 shot bracketed sequence intended for HDR processing. It was taken with the D80 and 18-200mm at 22mm, ISO 100, 1/250s, f/9, -2 1/3eV. It is, plainly, quite an extreme example but it will push the RAW converters’ shadow recovery features to the limit.

Original image of Bude Canal to illustrate shadow recovery in a RAW Converters Comparison of in Lightroom, Aperture, Capture One Pro, Aftershot Pro, DXO Optics Pro, Irident Developer, Photo Ninja and Raw Photo Processor

Dedicated shadow recovery features in RAW converters generally include a slider dedicated to just this function, but may also include ‘smart lighting’ type features (DXO, Photo Ninja’s ‘Ilumination’, RAW Photo Processor’s ‘Compressed Expsoure’), which appear really to be souped up versions of mid tone brightness sliders. Getting the best result generally involves balancing the adjustments, along with further tweaks to global and local contrast settings.

Raising such dark shadows introduces a massive amount of noise and thus some amount of noise reduction is necessary. Getting this right is very difficult and in the results that follow there is considerable variation in the amounts that have been applied and the degree to which the process has been effective. Following these adjustments the residual noise in the raised shadows generally doesn’t tolerate much further sharpening (In my own work I would generally apply different levels of noise reduction and sharpening to raised shadow areas than normally exposed areas of the image).

I’ve done my best to produce as pleasing a result as I can in the conversions but, as ever, this is a subjective judgement.

The RAW Conversions

The following are 1:1 crops from near the top right corner of the image. [Click on the image to bring up a larger version in a new tab; make sure you do this if you are a retina display user.]
Image showing 1:1 slithers of Bude Canal to illustrate shadow recovery in a RAW Converters Comparison of in Lightroom, Aperture, Capture One Pro, Aftershot Pro, DXO Optics Pro, Irident Developer, Photo Ninja and Raw Photo Processor

Settings & Notes


Tonal – Fill Light: 80; Blacks: 5; Brightness: +70; Contrast: +30; Clarity: 10
Sharpening – Amount: 40; Radius: 0.8; Detail: 25; Masking: 30
Noise Reduction – Luminance: 30; Detail: 50; Contrast: 50; Color: 50; Detail: 50; Smoothness: 50
Notes: Adobe’s 2012 Process settings (Highlights and Shadows) is unable to raise the shadows any great amount, so the 2010 Process settings were enabled, providing the Fill Light slider. With a little luminance noise reduction and sharpening a fairly good result is possible, leaving me a little puzzled as to why the 2012 process is so underpowered in this regard.


Tonal: Black Point: 1.0; Brightness: 0.1; Shadows: 100; Mid Contrast: 10.0
Noise Reduction – Radius: 0.8; Edge Detail: 2.0
Edge Sharpening – Intensity: 0.4; Edges: 0.5; Falloff: 0.69
Notes: Maxing out the shadows slider produces some fairly unpleasant artefacts in the darkest shadows but Aperture’s Noise Reduction panel is able to exert some control over this.

Capture One Pro

Tonal – Shadow: 100; Brightness: 10; Contrast: 10
Clarity – Algorithm: Neutral; Clarity: 0; Structure: 10
Noise Reduction – Luminance: 50; Color: 100; Single Pixel: 0
Sharpening – Amount: 40; Radius: 0.8; Threshold: 1.0
Notes: It is very difficult to strike a balance between removing noise with the luminance slider and avoiding the details getting too ‘plasticky’.

AfterShot Pro

Tonal – Fill Light: 2.50; Fill Range: 1.0; Contrast: -60; Local Contrast Strength: 20; Radius: 15
Noise Reduction – Raw Noise Removal: On; Perfectly Clear Noise Removal Strength: 50; Detail:10
Sharpening – Amount: 50; Sensitivity: 8
Notes: Fill light and fill range maxed out. Raw noise enabled but not the separate slider controls. Highlights look bad but actually they can be controlled with the highlight slider too.

DXO Optics Pro

Tonal – Smart Lighting Algorithm: DXO Optics Pro 7; Correction Intensity: 100; Gamma: 7.5; Shadow Radius: 6; Preserve: 80; Global Contrast: -5; Local Contrast: 20
Noise Reduction – Luminance: 20; Chrominance: 100; Low Freq: 100; Dead Pixels: 24
Lens Softness – Global: 0.5; Details: 80; Bokeh: 50
Sharpening – Lens Softness Global: -1.00; Details: 25; Bokeh: 50
Notes: DXO has the ability to raise the shadows much higher but I wanted to keep the tone in the same ballpark as the other images. The older Smart lighting Algorithm (DXO 7) works much better than current algorithm, which does very peculiar things to the sky (sky turns very orange with high contrast cloud edges), and has a far larger number of controls to make fine adjustments. The complexity of these adjustments mean that the somewhat crunchy result that I have achieved is suboptimal.

Irident Developer

Tonal – Shadow Fine Tune: +100; Brightness Shadows: +100; Brightness Midtones: +100; Contrast: +100; LAB luminance curve adjustments
Sharpening – Algorithm: Difference of Gaussians; Noise Reduction Radius 0.54; Sharpening Radius 0.57; Amount: 300
Noise Reduction – Adaptive Early Stage: 5; ChromaLogic: 2; ChromAdaptive: 5; Luminance: 10
Notes: Irident Developer doesn’t really have the tools for dealing with extreme tonal changes. All the relevant sliders are maxxed out here, and additional changes were made using its curves adjustment features, but it still results in an image that is particularly lacking in contrast and saturation.

Photo Ninja

Tonal – Illumination: 25; Shadows: .75; Contrast: -10; Detail: 5
Sharpening – Strength: 60; Radius: 0.8; Noise Masking: 100
Noise Reduction – Algorithm: Noise Ninja 4 Turbo; Luminance Smoothing: 7; Residual Noise & Detail: 25; Color Strength: 70; Defringe: 0
Notes: In making the tonal adjustments there is a complex interaction between the illumination slider and the shadow recovery slider and I may not have achieved the optimal result. As noted in the previous section Photo Ninja is slow when making changes to noise reduction settings (not as slow as this image has less high frequency details) so this time I have used the Turbo settings. Without noise reduction the image was noisier than any other rendition, but when it is turned on it is hard to control whilst still retaining detail.

RAW Photo Processor

Tonal – Compressed Exposure: 1.80; Contrast: -5; Brighness: 60
Topaz Denoise – Strength: .20; Shadow: -0.06; Highlight: 0.00; Red: -.76; Blue: -.78; Clean Color: .13; Black Level: 1.00; Recover Detail: 0.20; Reduce Blur: 0.40; Add Grain: 0.30
Color Efex Pro (Detail Extractor) – Amount: 10%; Contrast: 6%; Saturation: 6%
Notes: RAW Photo Processor, whilst having powerful tools for manipulating exposure, has no denoising capability, and the image that it produces has intense noise in the shadows. Topaz Denoise struggles to deal with the luminance noise and I have reduced it as best I can whilst still retaining a little detail. With considerable noise left there was little point in attempting to sharpen the image (certainly in the shadows) but Detail Extractor managed to extract slightly more detail.


Again, we find that there are some clear differences in this RAW converters comparison regarding the ability of each application to recover detail in shadows. To be fair, when looking at the original image, it is remarkable that any of them do as well as they do; if you took an out of camera jepg that looked like this then you wouldn’t be able to recover more than a fraction of what all the RAW converters can achieve.

On this image I would say DXO Optics Pro produces the best result. It is possible that Irident Developer manages to resolve slightly more detail but it does this at the expense of contrast and saturation. DXO’s rendition, whilst a little crunchy and noisy, is nevertheless detailed and has accurate colours. Behind these two both Lightroom and Capture One Pro produce very good results.

The other four renditions have issues. AfterShot Pro fails to resolve as much detail as the other converters but nevertheless delivers quite a pleasing result. Photo Ninja pulls out plenty of detail but also a vast amount of noise. Suppressing this involves Noise Ninja’s algorithm and, once again, I can’t say that I care for the results. RAW photo processor also delivered spectacular amounts of noise and attempting to deal with this (not entirely successfully) with Topaz Denoise results in a serious loss of detail. Finally, Aperture produces some particularly unpleasant noise, both colour and luminance, which its tools are quite unable to satisfactorily process.

At the other end of the spectrum of making major tonal adjustments to an image from shadow recovery lies Highlight Recovery; this will be the next section in our RAW converters comparison.

« 4. High ISO | 6. Highlight Recovery »