RAW Converter Comparison

A few words about the current state of RAW converters for Nikon-based DSLRs

(These opinions are for released products as of 7/26/07. I'll come back and retouch this page from time to time [so check that date I just gave], but don't expect it to update as rapidly as these products do; I can't rerun a full set of tests every time one iterates.)

I've written extensively about the various RAW image converters for Nikon-based DSLRs in my newsletter, but it was pointed out to me recently that I didn't have anything on the Web site about them. What follows is a very concise summary of my current opinions. If you want more, you'll have to read the newsletter, as the converters iterate so fast that I don't have time to do an in depth article for the Web site; moreover, many of the differences can be subtle, and I can only show that in the high resolution format the newsletter uses.

For Nikon NEF files:

Item Photoshop & Lightroom Bibble Nikon Capture NX PhaseOne
Version Used CS3 4.9.8 1.2 1.4
Platforms Mac/Windows Mac/Windows Mac/Windows Mac/Windows
Speed of conversion Fast Fast Moderately fast Moderately fast
Color Accuracy Good Very Good Very Good Very Good
Detail Very Good Very Good Very Good Very Good
D1x 10mp conversion (resize only) Good Very Good Good
Anti-aliasing, Artifact Avoidance Very Good Very Good Very Good Very Good
Color Saturation Good Very High Very Good Good
Noise Handling Good Very Good Good+ Good
Ease of conversion -- Single Image Excellent Very Good Very Good Good+
Ease of conversion -- Multiple Images Good Good Fair Very Good
Fits in Workflow Very Good+ Good Good Very Good
Depth of Processing Controls Very Deep Very Deep Very Deep Very Deep
Absolute Image Quality (1=low, 10=hi) 7 or 8 8 9 8 or 9

Nikon users have a wealth of competent choices, of which I've outlined the four most encountered ones above. Nikon Capture NX still is my favorite amongst the bunch, though for large batches of images I've moved back to Photoshop CS3 or sometimes Lightroom. While the chart doesn't show a lot of differences between the converters, there are definitely differences. Capture NX, Capture One, and to a slightly lesser degree Bibble, all seem to understand "Nikon color" well. Photoshop's (and Lightroom's) default interpretations tend to be a bit blander and need tweaking to get the most out of the Nikon sensors. It just doesn't seem that Adobe has a rock-solid profile of Nikon NEF images. In particular, "As Shot" white balance doesn't seem to be the same as Nikon's interpretation. Note that my absolute ratings (bottom row) are based upon trying to get the absolute last bit of quality out of my NEF images. In general, I never have a problem pushing my Capture NX conversions into "best of breed" images (though it takes a great deal of time and energy to learn's Capture's nuances). Likewise, CaptureOne seems to have a strong handle on Nikon's data and produces high quality images with consistency and ease once you master its user interface. Both Bibble and the Adobe products can be a little tempremental in adjusting to get the best possible results. And with Photoshop specifically, I just can't seem to get the same result out of it as I can with Capture NX. Lightroom tends to share the Photoshop traits, though the photographer-centric interface makes for a much more pleasant experience.

But let me put this in perspective: none of these products do poorly. My ratings are all about pushing them above and beyond their default settings to get 100% the best pixels I can out of images. I'm exceedingly demanding in that respect. Given how good the current converters are, I'd actually say that most users should simply pick the one whose interface they like best. I'll also point out that I combine use of converters. For my work, I tend to use both Photoshop CS3 and Capture NX. I've even layered NX conversions on top of CS3 conversions in Photoshop to get small differences in my final images.

For RAF files from S2 Pro, S3 Pro, or S5 Pro:

Item Photoshop/Lightroom Bibble Fujifilm HS-V3
Version Used CS3 4.9.8 1.0
Platforms Mac/Windows Mac/Windows Mac/Windows
Speed of conversion Fast Moderately fast Slow
Color Accuracy Good Good Very Good
Detail Good Very Good- Very Good
Anti-aliasing, Artifact Avoidance Fair+ Good Very Good
Color Saturation Good Very Good Very Good
Ease of conversion -- Single Image Excellent Very Good Fair
Ease of conversion -- Multiple Images Good Good Poor+
Fits in Workflow Very Good Good+ Good-
Depth of Processing Controls Deep Deep Deep-
Absolute Image Quality (1=low, 10=hi) 5 or 8 (image dependent) 8 9

Okay, this table needs some explaining, doesn't it? Adobe Photoshop is inviting, but it doesn't always have a good handle on white balance with RAF images and it sometimes, but not predictably, produces very annoying artifacts. Photoshop CS is better than version 7 by a visible margin, but still can produce problem conversions, as does Lightroom, which uses the same conversion engine. Bibble handles RAF files about as well as it does NEF, which is to say decent but not exceptional. The latest iteration of the Fujifilm EX converter is better than the previous one, but still isn't the most convenient thing to fit into your workflow. Still, it arguably produces the best results time after time from RAF files, so is the clear choice as long as you don't need speed or convenience. Unlike the NEF converters, note that every RAF converter does have a weakness of some sort. For Fujifilm to be competitive moving forward, they need to make sure that gets fixed, either by themselves or by being more forthcoming to other developers.



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