Some time ago, I posted a blog post about RAW conversion and digital images. That post was about the different products available and what they did or didn’t do.
Today, I’m sort of covering some of that but this post centers on my recent, and ongoing, trial of several different software products in my never ending search for the best skin tones, color and overall contrast possible with the least amount of post processing work. Why is this important someone might ask? Because post processing of photos are the most time consuming portions of any photographic shoot. A typical 2-hour shoot might generate 150-200 photos of which maybe 60 are “selects”. If it’s a formal portrait session that’s over 18 hours of post processing where one is smoothing wrinkles, removing blemishes, errant hairs, whitening teeth, and making facial features along with some body parts more pleasing. Individually. For each photo. People tend to ignore that part of the job, yet it’s the most important part. If you are hankering for composites, or special effects, that’s even more time – and cost. So if you can find software that helps by rendering the RAW conversion into a really good, pleasing starting point, it helps reduce the time in post processing.
If you can use a RAW converter that is also really good at providing further adjustments, and or file management routines, then your workflow is reduced which helps reducing post processing time. Today’s top cameras are far better at recording information than ever before. The tonal ranges capable by today’s cameras along with the possible colors are truly remarkable. But you need to use RAW files to get the most out of a camera’s sensor. Simple JPEG processing (used by phones and point and shoots) is good but can only accommodate a small portion of the colors available along with equally small tonal ranges. To process these converted RAW images fully requires software with the control and adjustments to exploit these data fully and that’s where the issues for a photographer come into play. The software products are not (and can’t be) built to a standard spec. The only spec you have is a tonal range in digital rendering from 0 to 255. Zero is pure white and 255 is black. All cameras conform to that spec. So the color you get from one product is not going to be the same. Sharpness will differ a bit since contrast and micro-contrast contribute to perceived sharpness. So basically, every product will produce slightly different images after RAW conversion. Some will be better with portrait work, some better with landscapes, etc.
The big dog is Adobe, maker of Photoshop and Lightroom, which are the “defacto” standard for photographers. Newer, up and coming software suppliers though are developing software with increasing support for RAW data and now, while Adobe is still really good, you can find products that go above and beyond what Adobe can provide. Better rendering of color and contrast, and wider ranges of adjustments for tonal range, color and a host of other things that you couldn’t even think about adjusting just a few years ago! Remarkable.
So I have been working with a few products to see what best suits my style and work, that can help reduce my post processing time and reduce my overall workflow. I use Lightroom and Photoshop now, along with several third party tools which enhance ANY conversion software tool. I just started trialing, Capture One Pro 9 and DxO Optics Pro 10. Both are said to produce better RAW conversion for most files they support. Adobe supports by far more cameras, profiles and lens combinations but these other guys, while offering less support, tend to go after the higher end market and provide better detail and results for cameras used more by those that make a living using them. I’m at a point now where this matters to me.
So with my limited time working with these products, here is my take. I like to shoot tethered where my camera is connected directly to my laptop, when I’m in a studio or location that allows it. Obviously a wedding or other event isn’t conducive to type of use but portraits, food, product, and other types of photography are. With my laptop attached to my camera, I can find areas of sharpness and see the results of a picture far, far better than what’s shown on the LCD of my camera. Capture One has always had a reputation for tethering support and I have to agree with everything I have heard. Their software for tethering is just the best out there – if your camera is supported. They only support the bigger names like Nikon, Canon and Sony along with most big names in medium format cameras. They do provide a much wider range of RAW file conversion support though and have probably, overall, the best converter out there. Their skin tones are the best I have ever seen right out of conversion. I can get the same thing with Lightroom but it takes a while to get it. They also have adjustments for contrast that will blow away any user. Their contrast adjustments won’t affect color or saturation. Their ability to fine tune color is also at another level. The down side so far is mostly one of me not knowing the controls, the placement of those and the efforts it takes to learn them. Its tedious. Its going to take some time. I’m not real fond either of their mechanism for output or exporting finished images. The only other “quirk” is their folder and session/catalog structure. I like some features, but others are a bit confounding. I’ll work on this.
The same company, DxO and DxOMark, that tests all the camera sensors, lens and other products in their labs, produces DxO Optics Pro 10. They publish this data and are by far the source one goes to find out how a new (or older) camera and lens performs. This means they have a TON of info about camera sensors, lens and their effective combinations. They use these data in producing their software for RAW conversion. DxO Optics Pro has some great adjustment controls and produces images that are probably sharper right off (they apply some RAW sharpening) and while they have pretty good skin tones, I can get the same effect easily in LR and its not as good as C1v9. Their product is really just a really good equivalent to LR’s Develop Module. It’s a more powerful version otherwise it just doesn’t offer much more. It does support more camera (and lens) combos than any other product. I’d rate it high for landscape shooters and street photographers and maybe event shooting outside of weddings. You need Lightroom though to finish and DxO has built a plug-in to make LR part of the workflow. Capture One is totally independent not needing any other product to “finish”.
I’m going to need more time with Capture One. Its just got a huge feature set which is taking some time to learn. I do know that I will still need to use Photoshop since none of these products can offer the altering functions of PS. Photoshop remains the standard for total alteration or touch up of an image. But that’s about 5-8% of my need. I think Capture One might be the best tool for me to use for my normal use in terms of adjustments…but Lightroom’s strength has always been its catalog and file management features. While C1 comes close, I just don’t know yet if it can replace that. I know I like tethered support, its fantastic, and I love the range and ability to adjust but then because it is so encompassing I worry about getting lost, geeking out with the adjustments which could actually add to my processing time. Maybe. I could see using DxO for some other work although it might be too tedious to run all this different software. I am close to adding a monthly C1 subscription to my laptop just to extend my trial of it and test it further. DxO, has been deleted although the company did offer me free licensing, so it might be back. I’ll update this in a few months after I get to spend some time in the real world with Capture One and Lightroom.