6. Highlight Recovery
The next section in this RAW converters comparison is to test the highlight recovery abilities of each application.
As a landscape photographer I typically encounter three problems requiring highlight recovery: lack of detail in skies; lack of detail in surf; and completely blown highlights in sunsets. The first two are broadly similar and can generally be recovered if the image is only clipped in one or, less desirably, two channels; with the third the question tends to be more about how the RAW converter handles transitions between areas that are completely blown, to areas that are partly blown, and on to areas where full data is available. We’ll deal with an example of a sunset in our next section on high dynamic range; here we will take an example of one of the first two scenarios, a sky that lacks detail.
To test the RAW converters I have chosen an image of the Gola del Furlo in Marche, Italy. It’s actually the central exposure in a five shot bracketed sequence used to create an HDR image. There are a handful of tiny clipped areas in the tree shadows but the foreground is otherwise reasonably well exposed, but small central areas of the sky and parts of the sunlit cliff on the left are missing data (converted in Lightroom on default settings).
As was the case with shadow recovery, dedicated highlight 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 Exposure’), which appear really to be souped up versions of mid tone brightness sliders. Getting the best result generally involves balancing these adjustments, sometimes reducing overall exposure, and further tweaks to global and local contrast settings.
On this occasion I have made only tonal adjustments and have not made any changes to whatever the RAW converter sets as defaults for colour correction, noise reduction or sharpening in the processed images.
The RAW Conversions
[You can click on the images to bring up a larger version in a lightbox.]
Settings & Notes
Tonal (Basic) – Contrast: -6; Highlights: -80; Shadows: + 26; Blacks: +10; Clarity: +20
Tonal (Curve) – Highlights: -24; Lights: +4
Notes – Whilst I struggled with Adobe’s 2012 Process settings when recovering shadows here the tools work very well, offering a sophisticated set of controls. This sophistication proved necessary as some control was enabled over the high levels of undesirable contrast in the top left cliff that a simple manipulation of the highlight slider caused.
Tonal (Exposure) – Exposure: -0.11; Recovery: 1.5; Black Point: -2.0; Brightness: 0.1
Tonal (Enhance) – Contrast: 0.7; Definition: 0.28
Tonal (Highlights & Shadows) – Highlights: 100; Shadows: 26; Mid Contrast: 2.1
Tonal (Curves) – A very shallow inverted S curve with its central pivot at 75%
Notes – Again, whilst it was a struggle to get a decent result when recovering shadows, recovering highlights using a variety of Aperture’s tools was relatively easy.
Capture One Pro
Tonal (Exposure) – Contrast: 5; Brightness: 5
Tonal (High Dynamic Range) – Highlight: 100; Shadow: 14
Tonal (Clarity) – Algorithm: Punch; Clarity: 10; Structure: 10
Tonal (Curve) – A very shallow inverted S curve with its central pivot at 75%
Notes – Capture One Pro’s highlight recovery tools are a pleasure to use.
Tonal – Blacks: -2.20; Exposure: -0.35; Highlights: 100; HR Range: 100; Fill Light: 0.20; Fill Range: 0.40; Contrast: -80; Local Contrast Strength: 20; Radius: 60
Notes – Every control that can recover details in the sky is maxed out.
DXO Optics Pro
Tonal – Exposure Compensation: -1.15; Smart Lighting Intensity – 160; Contrast: -20; Microcontrast: 10
Tonal (Selective) – Highlights: -100; Midtones: -66; Blacks: 13
Notes – DXO’s tonal controls can be a little confusing and work quite differently to other RAW converters. The method to recover highlights involves bringing down the overall exposure and then compensating for this shift with Smart Lighting.
Tonal (In) – Exposure: -0.50; Shadow Fine Tune: +100; Highlight Recovery: 100
Tonal (Adjustment) – Brightness Shadows: +100; Brightness Midtones: +100; Brightness Highlights: -100; Contrast: +36
Tonal (Curves) – 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 – As noted when discussing shadow recovery Irident Developer doesn’t really have easy tools for dealing with extreme tonal changes. I’ve done what I can with the sliders here and the rest is done with multipoint RGB and LAB Luminance curves, the adjustment of which was a pretty joyless experience. I have no doubt that others could improve on my efforts here.
Tonal – Illumination: 27; Exposure Offset; -1.22; Black: -0.06; Contrast: 4; Detail: 8
Notes – Photo Ninja’s assessment of an image and automatic application of its Smart Lighting algorithm applies automatic highlight recovery and gets it very close to perfect. A little extra tweaking is necessary, not least because it doesn’t automatically compensate in the same way for the resulting loss of light in shadow areas.
RAW Photo Processor
Tonal – Exposure: -0.85; Compressed Exposure: .85; Contrast: 5; Brightness: 70; Highlights Recovery: 0.9
Notes – I struggled a great deal with RAW Photo Processor’s highlight recovery workflow, as detailed in their manual. Whilst I managed to pull some detail back into the sky I was unable to simultaneously compensate for the problematic highlights in areas on the cliff. RAW Photo Processor’s highlight recovery abilities are allegedly one of its strengths so this is probably a case of pilot error I’m afraid.
In this RAW converters comparison there is considerably more variation in these renditions than I was expecting.
If we were judging the results of this on the sky and clouds alone then the clear winner would be DXO Optics Pro, which pulls out superb levels of detail, especially in the wispy cloud, but it struggles with the highlights in the cliff (as do many of the RAW converters). Capture One Pro and Photo Ninja both manage a good job of both, but I marginally prefer the contrast that Capture One Pro manages to inject into the cliff and its rendition of the wispy cloud. Lightroom closely follows these three. It does a good job of the cliff but pulls out marginally less detail in the sky.
It’s hard to choose between AfterShot Pro, which lacks detail as usual, and Aperture, where the sky is a little weird and there is some haloing on the right hand cliff edge. Irident Developer pulls up about as much detail as Aperture and could probably do a bit better if I could manage its curves tools better, but the overall result is a bit flat and disappointing. RAW Photo Processor is the weakest of all but again this is quite possibly down to user error. I doubt though that a massive improvement is possible.
The results for highlight recovery are different to those for shadow recovery. These differences can be image dependent however, and each RAW converter will get another chance in our RAW converters comparison in the next section, on High Dynamic Range, where we will look at an image that has problems in both the shadows and the highlights.