RAW Conversion of Photographic Files, Part II (the last part)
As was mentioned in the previous post, if you shoot RAW then you had to pretty much rely on the converter supplied with your camera or use a third party product which meant Adobe and ACR. Yes, there were others way back when but they were fairly pedestrian at best and often didn't even work with certain operating systems. So most people turned to Adobe. Adobe has always done what they wanted form a software standpoint. They provided what they felt was right and didn't do much with customer input. Growing discontent allowed several companies to establish a foothold in RAW conversion, new camera products with new capabilities demanded new features in this software and with more and more people picking up a camera, and the advent of posting every picture you could take to social media the software morphed from just converting to adjustment and enhancement, control, and file management because now people routinely had tens of thousands of pictures and needed a way to catalog them.
Todays RAW converters are tied to all the above functions. Most play nice with the other software and the better ones provide plug ins or other support for the most popular editing and processing software products, and the market leader is still Adobe. Adobe is starting to understand what customers want, slowly, but they are getting it. Capture One (C1) is a product that has really come on strong as an editing product, cataloging and management and camera control suite. A rival to Adobe's Lightroom (LR) and Photoshop (PS) products. C1 caters to only photographers, especially the pros, and is owned and developed by Phase One, a maker of high end medium format cameras. They do support over 800 camera profiles though. Adobe's products are part of a graphics development suite and while LR is solely developed with photography in mind it does work within the suite. Adobe's suite relies on ACR (Camera Raw) to process RAW files. Other third party products focus more on RAW conversion and in most cases, to me anyway, I have found them to deliver better results than ACR. To me ACR provides a middle of the road response to RAW conversion. It produces results that are acceptable but not stellar in any one category. Its colors are dull, structure is weak and often blurry or smeared. These things can be fixed, often needing a trip to PS to do it, but they give you a weak place to start from. LR is to me a fantastic tool for editing and cataloging photos. So I tend to go with one product to convert my RAW files and then feed that into LR and PS as needed. I get better skin tones, more detail, more contrast and a much better place to start my editing from. Yes, its an extra step. Yes, C1 also provides the same results in RAW processing and has a slick editing interface which I do like. I could do all my workflow in one step. But I know LR and PS and I use several other plug ins and presets developed for LR and PS which won't work with C1. These plug ins provide me with many canned routines and recipes that I use often to help reduce post processing and I really hate to give them up.
I use Iridient Developer (ID) for my RAW conversion. I need it for my Fuji X-Trans based RAW files. In the camera world, there are Bayer and X-Trans filters layered over sensors. These filters govern color collection, luminance and detail by the sensor, simply put. They are VERY different in file structure. Adobe barely supports X-Trans so I needed a better product and as it turns out, ID works exceptionally well on Nikon's Bayer related files. So for me, it makes sense to go with ID. Other really good products besides C1 mentioned above are from SilkyPix, Bibble, Apple RAW (Apple just killed Aperture development - their editing software) and the products provided with your camera. Certainly, the software provided with your camera is made for the RAW files but it works with only those files so if you own several cameras made by other makers then you could wind up with 4-5 products or you can buy something like ID or C1 and cover them all.
I mentioned briefly a reference to plug ins which provide canned processing themes and services. This is a huge field now and growing all the time. Its big right now in mobile device and app use. These can provide effects that enhance contrast, color, convert color to black and white, selectively blur, mask objects, and give the same effects as results from different films and cameras no longer available. VSCO is a company that provides presets for LR and PS that offer hundreds of processing "looks" that can mimic films, new and old. OnOne Software is a hard charging company that is starting to offer a complete post processing workflow very similar to C1 with simplified catalog support, browsing support, resizing, effects, etc. They don't do RAW conversion but these guys are aggressive so who knows? NIK software was purchased by Google many years ago but NIK was one of the first to offer post processing effects and their method is based off a control point technology which is very quick and simple to use. Topaz is another newer company supplying much the same as NIK and OnOne. There are many others. Search engines can help you find them. All the products mentioned have rather extensive education support for use. Be assured that anything you pick will come with documentation, online support and usually extensive how to videos. Again, use the internet to find them. Kelby Training, Lynda.com, and CreativeLive are a few third party suppliers of education as well.
All these products ultimately help post process the RAW files we use or as some refer to them as our "digital negatives". There are similarities to film developing and printing, but the scale of what can be done on a desktop far exceeds what we could do in a darkroom. Some argue for that, some against. Yes, you could shoot with the idea of fixing things in post. We all have done it no matter where our preferences lie. Personally, I like to get it right in camera and do less post processing. I'm getting better at it but then I'm shooting 100x more than I did in the past. No matter which way you lean, no doubt there is superior software out there to help - and it gets better all the time. If you shoot RAW, I encourage you to have a look. All of them offer free trials. Take them up on it. You don't have to settle for "acceptable" unless you want to.