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A RAW Workflow

in Olympus E-System , Thursday, August 03, 2006

Since I have a received a good few questions about my workflow, particularly from Olympus E-1 owners, I though it was maybe time to write something about it. Note, I do all of my digital photography on Macs, so I'm afraid this workflow is Mac specific, or at least the RAW conversion part is. I use three core tools on my workflow:



I also use Colorbtyte ImagePrint for printing, and FixerLabs SizeFixer for scaling up. For RAW processing, I sometimes use PhaseOne CaptureOne Pro and Olympus Studio. For Lumix LX1 RAW processing, I usually use Adobe Lightroom Beta. I only use Adobe Camera Raw in special cases, for example if I want to use Photoshop's HDR tool. In all cases, you can assume I'm using the latest versions of each application.

Stage 1: Ingesting
The first part of the workflow involves getting image files off the card and into the computer. I use MediaPro to import and rename the files, and to apply a basic personal metadata template. I don't really have a solid naming scheme, but I at least rename files to include a code indicating which camera the file comes from, and the date. I let MediaPro assign a serial number. Actually, the best renaming software I've seen is Olympus Studio, which allows you to use EXIF fields as components of the file name. The important thing is to have a unique name, and to keep it throughout the pipeline. In this way, it is possible to sync metadata in between different catalogues and different filetypes (so for example the captions from E1_20060603_0091.ORF and E1_20060603_0091.JPG can be synchronized. My filing system is quite simple: I have a master hard disk for RAW files, with folders for each month. Within these folders, I create subfolders whose structures depend a bit on the nature of the shoot. Usually, I create a folder for a single day, e.g "2006_06_03" (that's 3rd June…I'm European), but I might create a folder for a multiple day "shoot", e.g. "Iceland March 2006". No hard and fast rules, just whatever makes sense. If I end up using CaptureOne, it will require its own sub folder structure to be created inside this folder – at least, if you prefer to keep things simple it will. Other RAW developers will leave settings files inside these folders too, so it is important to ensure these remain safe. I generally back up each folder to DVD – one or more, as necessary, although this is not ideal, really, since the backup only store settings files created up to that point. I also keep an automated working backup using Retrospect. I maintain two "master" RAW catalogs for Olympus ORF and Lumix Raw (converted to Adobe DNG) respectively, and these automatically update. I plan in the future to manage archive backup creation from these catalogs (using a script to record the archive volume names in each image's metadata), but I haven't got around to that yet.

ivmpscreen.jpg

Microsoft iView Media Pro



Stage 2: Preview
Once the files are organized, I create a local catalogue using MediaPro – by this I mean a catalogue of just the RAW files in the particular folder. I set MediaPro to produce the largest, highest quality previews it can create. I then use the comprehensive previewing and rating tools to decide which images I want to work further with, and how I want to categorise them (for example, I might well have "fun", "family" and, er, "art" shots from the same shoot. MediaPro 3's new Lightbox tool comes in extremely handy here, although it is very important to note that you are working with an 8-bit preview here, so the histogram for example is of the preview, not the 12bit RAW. However, it is easily good enough to show if an image is irrecoverably over- or under-exposed, and the method is fast and effective. At this point I will delete any files which are really trash, although if in any doubt, I keep them. Disk space is cheap. I end up with sorted, rated files, and I can even print contact sheets if I wish.

Stage 3: RAW Processing
For RAW Processing in the vast majority of cases I use Iridient RAW Developer (IRD). IRD, thankfully, has the good taste and common sense to be "just" a RAW developer, and has no pretensions to act as a full blown "workflow manager" (no, I'm not going to get sidetracked). IRD has drawn praise from a number of reputable sources, and is possibly the most full featured product in its category. Certainly it can't be beaten on sharpening options. Initially IRD seems very complex, but the complexity is only there if you need it, and it doesn't get in the way. It also often provides several ways to reach the same end, for example tone curves and tone sliders (I prefer curves, because Photoshop forced me to understand them, and Bruce Fraser's books explained them). IRD is especially highly rated by black & white aficionados, but, typically, I don't use it to B&W conversion. I tend to open RAW files in batches of related images, by selecting them in MediaPro, right-clicking and opening in IRD (this works as well for Olympus Studio or Camera RAW, but not very well for CaptureOne – ironically, since there is some sort of marketing alliance between CaptureOne and iView…well, there used to be, pre-Microsoft). Once the photos are open in IRD (note how I use "photo", "file" and "image" interchangeably), they can be selected from the open files drawer, and processed in turn. I won't go into detail on how I use IRD here, but my default settings for E-1 ORFs include using light "Difference of Gaussians" sharpening as "capture sharpening" – although I'm beginning to wonder if multi-stage sharpening is necessary considering the lack of artifacts IRD introduces – and using ProPhoto as the working colour space, and Joe Holmes' ExtaSpace as output space. My principal output files are 16 bit TIFFs, which I save in a temporary holding folder called "IRD Output". I also sometime process directly to JPG for print or web, but for my web galleries I use a set of Photoshop actions (coming later).

irdscreen.jpg

Iridient RAW developer



Stage 4: Post-processing
Currently I use Photoshop (.PSD) format as my final archive format, for fully processed images. There are several reasons for this, number one being layers, although even I'm not using any layers, I still save as PSD for consistency – if I see a PSD file, I know it is "finished", or at least it has been worked on. The second reason is that at least 25% of my output is still film-based, and my film workflow always culminates with Photoshop. I don't know of any compelling reason to change this practice. Therefore, I open all files from "IRD Output" in Photoshop, and at a minimum save them as PSDs on another disk volume, which is my "finished work" repository. Here, I simply maintain a folder for each month, and save the file into the current month's folder (I use MediaPro, not the filesystem, to catalog, so it doesn't matter if a photo I took in March 2005 ends up in the January 2006 "finished" folder). Depending on the photo, there are several things I might do in Photoshop. Generally, I will have sorted out tone in IRD, but I might run a local contrast enhancement action to see if it adds anything (I have evolved a variety, which act on different tonal ranges as necessary – usually I find excluding highlights is a good idea). Noise reduction is often required on E-1 files taken at 800 ISO or over, sometimes at 400 as well. For this I use the Noise Ninja plug-in. If I decide to convert to black and white, I use the Convert to BW Pro plug-in on a layer. I save files unflattened, although I might compact things a bit if they get out of hand. The "finished work" gets cataloged in my "reference" MediaPro catalog, where I add detail metadata, and construct various sub-catalogs and sets.

Stage 5: Output to Web and Print
Output requires sharpening and sometimes scaling. If I'm outputting to print, I take the PSD file, and set the output size as necessary. If the resolution drops a bit below 240dpi, I will scale up using Photoshop, but if it is well below, I use SizeFixer SLR. Once I get to the target size, I use Photokit Sharpener to apply output sharpening (note, for SizeFixer, it appears that sharpening before scaling is quite successful, but how Photokit's algorithms react to this, I'm not sure. Whatever – if it looks right, it is right). I then flatten the file, and save it as a copy to a temporary print folder, where ImagePrint picks it up. For my web galleries, I run an action which converts to 8bit, sRGB, then creates three different sizes of the file, appropriately sharpened, in an output folder hierarchy. The largest files are managed in a MediaPro catalog, and this is synchronized with my online mySQL database using a set of Applescripts, which glue MediaPro, MacSQL and Transmit FTP together. There are ways of using scripting additions to do the SQL and FTP parts, but they are complex, and not worth the trouble to me. The Applescript is very specific to my configuration, but I'm happy to send it to anybody who would be interested to see if they can adapt it.

So that's basically it. It takes longer to write about than to do it. The foundation stone is obviously MediaPro, which is a very powerful, but subtle application. The fact that Iridient RAW Developer constrains itself to doing one thing very well makes it very easy to introduce into a composite workflow. And Photoshop remains Photoshop... At some point I will follow up with my film-based workflow, but it isn't really so different.
Posted in category "Olympus E-System" on Thursday, August 03, 2006 at 02:58 PM

Silverfast DC-Pro for E-1 RAW

in Olympus E-System , Monday, February 07, 2005

Lasersoft Imaging is a company with an impressive pedigree in digital imaging. For years, their Silverfast software has been the gold standard in scanning software, supporting a huge range of scanners with a sometimes bewildering variety of options and configurations. From low end consumer devices to high end drum scanners, Silverfast has it covered. Many hardware providers have given up on their software, and either bundle just Silverfast or provide alongside a token face-saving effort of their own. Silverfast is extremely powerful and with some experience can be used to extract the best from scanners, especially film scanners. However, it isn't exactly a usability paragon (although it is better than its only serious rival, the cranky and bug-ridden Vuescan). Since Silverfast is basically a generic image enhancement application layered on top of a device driver, it didn't take a huge leap of imagination to work out that the device driver could be a RAW decoder. And hence a new range of Siverfast variants, the DC range aimed at digital cameras. As a long-time Silverfast Ai user, since Lasersoft claim to support the E-1, I've been tempted to try it for some time. There are 4 variants to Silverfast DC - DC-SE, DC-VLT, DC Pro, and DC Pro Studio. DC SE is the basic version, bundled with some cameras (e.g Leica Digilux); DC-VLT includes the VLT (Virtual Light Table), a RAW engine limited to 24 bit output, and the full, sometimes overwhelming set of image adjustment utilities. DC Pro is the same (also includes VLT) but supports 48 bit output. DC Pro Studio adds some extra features to DC Pro, for example the clone tool, which is I think unique in RAW converters, allowing dust and hot pixels to be removed at the conversion stage. Confused ? Well we've hardly started on Lasersoft's Byzantine product segmentation! Anyway, the main thing to remember is that we have effectively two loosely coupled applications. VLT is essentially for selecting, organising and managing digital images, DC is for processing them, although the boundaries are a bit blurred. The functionality of the VLT depends to some extent on the version. You switch between the two but you cannot have both on screen at the same time. The reason for this is, I suspect, a legacy issue, as the DC series are really a bolt-on to the Ai scanner series. However, the VLT isn't bad at all, once you get used to it. It is fast and responsive, highly customisable, and in my opinion better than Photoshop's File Browser. You can use VLT to select photos from the file system and sort them into any number virtual albums, you can queue images for background processing, and a host of other things, but it must be said that certain features, such as batch processing, are as clear as mud. In many ways VLT combines the best of Olympus, PhaseOne and Adobe's features, but one thing missing is the ability to compare several previews at once. It does avoid imposing its own idea of the world, unlike C1 with its annoying sessions concept. The only drawback is, as I said before, the fact that you have to switch to another application to apply corrections. VLT has also a very complete EXIF browser, one of the best I've seen. vlt.jpg
Silverfast's Virtual Light Table Unfortunately it is when you switch to the (confusingly named) "Silverfast" application that the early promise starts to fade. The initial images presented look quite strange, apparently because Silverfast doesn't use the in-camera white balance. Bringing up the same image simultaneously in Olympus Studio 1.2, C1 SE v3.6 and Silverfast gives almost identical results in the first two, and a completely different rendition in Silverfast. Silverfast does seem to bring out better shadow detail than the other two, but at the expense of a bizarre colour balance which is all but irretrievable, even with the fast power of the image correction tools on offer. DC-Pro, unlike DC-VLT, appears to use the Olympus RAW internal thumbnails (with DC-VLT, thumbnails are generated by VLT, like in C1). Ironically, when you first open an image in Silverfast DC Pro, a very nice looking preview - generated from the thumbnail, I assume - flashes up, only to be overwritten by the above-mentioned oddity. dcpro.jpg
The Silverfast image adjustment application A core feature of the generic Silverfast range is color managed workflow. Silverfast allows you to - indeed encourages you to - calibrate your scanner against a supplied target. DC-Pro also includes camera calibration features, and a supplied target. This really would be a winning feature, except for the fact that even Lasersoft themselves point out that camera calibration is so dependent on external factors that it is of little use except in controlled shooting conditions. It is an interesting feature to have, but it may be at the root of the problem which Silverfast has with the E-1: the interpretation of the RAW data is based on camera profiling, and it appears that with the E-1 at least, Lasersoft have got this seriously wrong. The adjustment tools do allow a reasonable rescue operation to be mounted, but this requires first going to another application to read the in-camera white balance, and to generate a reference image to try to match. All a bit pointless really. For those unfamiliar with the scanner versions, Silverfast also includes some strange-seeming options, such as a Descreen filter. Very useful for scanning printed paper, but not much called for in RAW processing. In the same menu as this unlikely option are the sharpening (USM) tools, and another hangover from film scanning, the GANE grain reduction tool (which can't be applied at the same time as USM!). This, at least, can be used for noise reduction - except that there is a noise reduction slider in the Picture Settings widget (which only comes with DC Pro Studio, as far as I know - even more confused ?). All this needs a serious tidying up operation. DC-Pro Studio adds yet more mayhem, with a more flexible sharpening tool, the above mentioned clone tool (which actually includes a texture matching option putting it on a par with Photoshop's healing brush), and the AACO Auto Adaptive Contrast Optimisation tool, "for the correction of dark, high-contrast areas of the image while preserving the details in the highlights". AACO is a newcomer to Silverfast's vast acronym collection. It seems quite useful, but the early version in Ai Studio was buggy. A final point is that it isn't quite so clear where in the processing these tools are applied. Mac and PC trial versions of all DC Pro variants are available from Lasersoft. The trial is fully functional but imposes a watermark on final output. It does allow one very positive point to be seen - apparently Lasersoft have managed to avoid the dreaded "tetris effect" in bright reds which plagued earlier versions of C1 and others. dcpro2.jpg
300% zoom in Photoshop of Silverfast converted RAW - no Tetris! Silverfast is especially interesting because it offers the promise of a one-stop, integrated solution for both digital and film-sourced raw image processing. It is competitively priced compared to alternatives such as C1, and unlike any other rival it matches and sometimes goes beyond Olympus Studio's organising features. The Silverfast correction tools are really all-encompassing, and in some areas, for example the ability to simultaneously adjust individual RGB or CMY channels, way ahead of Photoshop. A free rotate tool similar to C1's would really complete the package. However the transition from scan correction to RAW adjustment software has been handled clumsily, and needs a serios rethink. There are far too many ambiguous, redundant or plain irrelevant featires. But for Olympus E-1 owners, at present colour fidelity is a showstopper. Lasersoft have stated on the Silverfast forum that fixing the GUI is a priority. If they can fix a few other things, improve E-1 profiling, and try to separate out specific film scanning features from specific digital RAW adjustment features, then they may still be well worth watching.
Posted in category "Olympus E-System" on Monday, February 07, 2005 at 05:37 AM

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