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RAW revisited, yet again

Boost is your enemy

in Apple Aperture , Thursday, November 01, 2012

I’ve recently gone through another of my periodic obsessions with testing RAW converters. My default choice remains Apple Aperture, partly because I’m committed it’s excellent organisation and management tools. However, there is no reason why I cannot use Aperture to manage my images while carrying out the RAW conversion in another application. Indeed, as I wrote a few weeks ago, I’ve recently started using Photo Ninja. I’ve also been using Iridient RAW Developer for many years, and indeed I’ve just paid what I think is the first ever upgrade fee they’ve requested. The new arrival of Capture One Pro 7 and DXO Optics Pro 8 also tempted me to give them a spin. Capture One was my first choice ages ago, when they were at version 3. They screwed up badly with version 4 and lost me - first to Iridient, then to Lightroom 1. And when, with version 2, Aperture became a realistic choice, I switched from Lightroom and I’ve stayed there ever since.

The thing is, whatever the interwebs and pundits proclaim, there isn’t really a best RAW converter (although there are some appalling products best not mentioned). They’re just different, a bit like film stocks were different. Even with all settings on zero, they give remarkably varying interpretations of white balance, colour and tone. And in fact it isn’t always that easy - or even possible - to get a basic, standard gamma conversion. Iridient seems to do it, and Aperture can be convinced to do so if you zero all the sliders in RAW Fine Tuning (especially Boost! Boost is - often - your enemy). It seems that DXO’s “neutral” setting does something reasonable. Photo Ninja really doesn’t do neutral, but that’s fine, it has a very different philosophy. CaptureOne, dunno, got bored trying, and I never touch Lightroom these days, for totally irrational reasons. And then there’s also the manufacturer’s software to consider, which we might assume is a good baseline. In my case, that’s Olympus Viewer, which is far from the worst out there, but I’m still glad I don’t depend on it.

ApertureDefFlat

Above is an example of Aperture’s default setting for the Olympus E-5 (right) and a “neutral” setting (left). In my experience the neutral setting is often the better starting point, especially when you want to work on shadows and highlights. Aperture’s default can easily blow perfectly good highlights. However the default is - initially - far more flattering and attractive. And sometimes it’s just fine, so long as you’re in control of the choices, not the software.

Here’s a screen shot from Aperture’s browser of a bunch of different interpretations of a RAW file, where I’ve tried, at least some extent, to get similar results, initially driven by Photo Ninja’s interpretation.

Raw variants

From left to right: Aperture, Photo Ninja, Olympus Viewer, Iridient

None of these are essentially good or bad. It all depends on what you’re trying to achieve, what your aesthetic is, and how many comments you’re trying to get on Flickbook. And probably some applications work better for certain cameras than others. But what is interesting is to examine some of the differences in rendering. Photo Ninja, for example does a remarkable job at tonal separation in shadows, and enhancing micro-contrast. DXO, when it’s co-operating, delivers fantastic sharpening. Aperture, remarkably enough, does a great job on noise reduction, an area where it is frequently maligned (actually it seems that what it is good at is not amplifying noise). Iridient can squeeze out ultimate detail, but it needs careful application of its 4 different sharpening algorithms. As for default looks, the scale ranges between Iridient’s subdued approach and Photo Ninja’s “all knobs on 11” blast. Both can be good.

It’s interesting how many people seem to want their RAW converter to replicate the in-camera JPG. Am I the only one who sees a bit of a logic breakdown there ?

But… the really interesting thing is that the more I look at all these different results, the more I learn about how to replicate them in my primary tool, Aperture. There are some things which Aperture is really not top-notch at, in particular sharpening. However, sharpening can be applied using a plug-in, or via Photoshop. Aperture has some truly fantastic tint and colour correction tools, and it’s overall mode-less, photo-centric workflow is, in my opinion, way ahead of anything else on the market. Nobody else comes close.

Perhaps Apple might now react to the deluge of new releases from its competitors. Aperture 3 is now really ancient in Internet Years, and it could do with a few improvements. Better lens correction, much better sharpening, print tools which are actually designed to support how photographers work (setting a fixed output resolution and size, and sharpening at that setting, for example). But really there’s not that much wrong with it. Anyway, we won’t know until an update is released, if ever. I don’t think Apple’s obsessive secrecy is doing it much good in this particular market.

What I do think is important is that you pick an application and really, really learn to make it do what you want. It’s amazing that people will agonise over expensive lenses, massive amounts of megapixels, etc, and then allow some anonymous computer programmer’s idea of a default setting to dictate the look of their photos.

Posted in category "Apple Aperture" on Thursday, November 01, 2012 at 08:06 PM

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