RAW Processors, Best-ness, Etc.

I have taken a little hiatus over the last month from working on more lighting field guides. I have the next couple outlined and have thought about which particular sequence I will be pursuing them but no shooting, none are written even to first draft stage, nothing. You gotta change it up here and there so I have been working on a personal project. Mostly prep with some shooting here and there.

Over the winter months since my sole endeavor was working one way on one thing with some sort of universal minimal post processing treatment. I chose Lightroom 4 to be that universal. Needless to say I spent a few months using nothing but Lightroom 4. I got used to it. My typical use for the last few years was Aperture 3 interspersed with Lightroom 4 interspersed with Capture One. Not for my own work - mostly other peoples work. Since this was all my own stuff I wasn't working in Aperture 3 at all during those months. Never even fired up. Sin of all sins in DAM and Workflow I didn't even catalog my shots for the lighting guides in my "Database of record" - Aperture 3.

When I finished the Sunlight eBook I thought it would be a perfect time for some long procrastinated housekeeping. Specifically cataloging all of my shots for the field guides in Aperture 3 - everything gets cataloged there. I hate doing that stuff after the fact - especially long after the fact - but I do it.

I was shocked upon returning to my beloved Aperture 3. Shocked at how fantastic it actually is. It was like a breath of fresh air - not just the cliche kind but the kind after you have been submerged underwater to near drowning. It's fluid - a word I use a lot and something I prize in the tools I spend a lot of time with. The UI is so stunningly gorgeous that I actually like being inside Aperture with my photographs. That's a tough thing considering I detest messing around on my computer. What's more as I have written lately, the RAW processing is actually really really good. The tools are very well calibrated for the matter at hand, and ultimately produce amazingly good results.

So what's all the hub-bub that has surrounded Aperture's "neglect" over the last year? So much so that there are people that love Aperture 3 that have either switched to Lightroom 4, Capture One, or are considering it. Honestly Aperture 3 has not really be neglected - new camera support has consistently been added. Most of it not so delayed it affects anyone seriously except photographers that are actually more product testers/sellers. Apple has added features here or there for free, corrected bugs - some minor - some major like the Adobe RGB thing. Retina screens have been supported beautifully. Even the UI has been revised and fine tuned. All for free. Heck, much to my chagrin even the Fuji XTRANS RAW files are now supported. In Fact my X100S was supported in Aperture 3 before it was in Capture One. Last time I checked that camera was still missing in Capture One 7 - maybe it came out in the last few days, who knows.

Here's my take… Apple can be extremely annoying with the whole mums the word thing. People get paranoid - "oh my oh my will Apple ever support my shiny new precious Fuji? What will I do, what will I do…" Would it kill them to freaking say they are actually working on XTRANS? You get the idea. Also it seems people are enamored with those big version number changes. I certainly am not. I much rather get stuff that's not revolutionary and more incremental for free. I am going to state this here and now - the main competitor Adobe never gives you anything like what we have seen feature wise in Aperture 3 for free. Every little frigging thing gets a new major version number slapped on it and a big upgrade fee. Only now it's a force to the cloud and pay over and over forever model.

Is Apple annoying with their complete lack of communication of intent with it's customers? Absolutely. Is Adobe equally annoying? Actually they are far more annoying in some ways. This whole Lightroom 5 thing really doesn't do much. It's not earth shattering for sure. The ACR improvements are nothing like ACR 7 was. They are little bits and pieces. I for one don't want to pay yet again for Lightroom at this frequency. Worse yet I don't want to be on a perpetual subscription plan with no control over my wallet based on Adobe's whims. Apple's whims? Adobe's whims? Pick your poison. Who do you "trust".

Well that depends. For my wallet I trust Apple more. You can look at Aperture and say, like most do that Apple doesn't care about Aperture because it's only a tiny nit of revenue. They haven't demonstrated that - all they have done is their normal non-communication thing. Conversely Adobe must must must find ways to compel additional revenue from the same old same old products. Since they exist as a public corporation they must somehow ensure continued "growth" on a very narrow product range. This whole cloud thing is absolutely to ensure they can get whatever "growth" they need even with not one additional customer or compelling new feature. Just up the subscription price - which will happen.

Do I trust there will be an Aperture 4? Absolutely. Do I trust that Lightroom will continue to be available in traditional non-subscription models? Nope. They say that now for sure just to quell the storm of photographers that are outraged. They said the same thing about Photoshop and the rest of the suite less than a year ago - ummmm sorry. Heck they are already playing games with CS6 customers that paid dearly for that software. Take the purposeful maiming of the latest ACR update for CS6. Some techno reason? Nope - that's not how ACR is hosted. It actually took extra work to determine not to allow new features to be active in CS6. This is the beginning of the end for CS6 RAW updates and we are only a year after purchase. Next up is ummmmmmm yeah for "technical reasons" there will be no new camera support in ACR even though it's perfectly capable of being hosted by CS6. By by. I predict elements will also suffer the RAW support fate. If not fate then like a once a year paid upgrade just to get a new camera.

So ask yourself - do you really "trust" Adobe just because they like to slap big numbers on the same old same old shit really frequently and give you the pleasure of doing their testing for them? Not after this Creative Cloud money grab.

Can you live with Aperture 3? Maybe, maybe not. If you shoot a medium format digital probably not. In reality ACR is not really "better" in most ways then Aperture 3's RAW engine. Does it lack lens corrections? Yes - do you really really really need them? Heck I use them rarely. Do you need fantastic NR? I certainly don't Not with my current crop of cameras and I assume they are not going to get worse. Can ACR/Lightroom really do things Aperture 3 cannot - not much really. If lens corrections are absolutely critical to most of your images then sure - Lightroom is a better choice. It really comes down to Lightroom is slightly more convenient at rescuing really shit images shot wrong in the first place and making them ever so slightly less shitty.

I have discussed the "lens correction" thing at length with a few LR zealots and here's what that really boils down to in the end. The distortion is not a huge deal for 99% of them. Neither is CA correction (Which Aperture does - it just doesn't have pre-made profiles). It's purple fringing - that's the long and the short of it. Sometimes referred to as CA -but not technically. I would say the vast majority of this purple fringing issue is again shitty images in the first place with a slightly more convenient way to rescue them in Lightroom - Aperture 3 has a tool but it's not global. You need to put it where the issue is… Again shot wrong in the first place. For me it's sort of "why bother with that image". Every once in a blue moon is that "the issue" that is causing me heartache.

So all this "I don't trust Apple because they never tell you what they are doing". Fantasy - and Adobe does? Hey guys heads up - if you paid for our really expensive software you are now screwed but here's a year of discount for you chumps… Me I don't know what I am going to do about Photoshop - probably make someone else pay for it that wants me to use it on their stuff. Thank god I am not a photographer into composites and "photographic illustration". I honestly believe this move will make Adobe less relevant down the road with respect to most things having to do with photography.

Think that's impossible? Do you think the "high end" drives innovation? Wrong - typical mass consumers drive innovation. Where did better film come from? Not the 8x10 pro photographers for sure - the race was better film for consumers that trickled up - not down. Movie shit? Hollywood high-end hold outs? Nope again consumer tech trickling up… These high-end only companies are eventually going nowhere. Will there be an Aperture 4 - sure there will. Will it be good? Probably revolutionary. When? Not sure - probably this year. Will Aperture "go away" nope. If it ever does it will because iPhoto is so so so good and so capable that Apple decides not to differentiate the products. Probably won't happen as long as they need a "simple" and "less simple product". Do you think Apple doesn't know where it's revenue comes from - consumers and what consumers want to do with their content…

They have been down the road of depending on other companies to ingest and allow users to produce or consume content. That turned out really bad. There is no way Apple will ever cede the ability to produce and consume content on it's platforms in some competent way - never.

All of that aside, and getting to the meat of the matter I have more than a little bit of experience with every major RAW processor out there as well as a bunch of camera specific RAW processors - all of them have their ups and downs. When it comes to the major players that support many cameras - Aperture 3, Lightroom, or Capture One I can say a few things with confidence…

  • Aperture 3 over all has the best UI, slickness, speediness, and will probably get you to the end faster. It has better than average ultimate IQ on "good" images across may different RAW file brands.
  • All of the RAW processors have ups and downs in terms of minor differences in IQ. In many cases it's situational. In other cases it may be one particular camera versus another.
  • They all have different color and tone curves as default out of the box - again situational on which is "better". Who cares - if you want out of the box - shoot JPEG.
  • I can pretty much get to the same place no matter which one I use. The relatively minor variations used as illustrations here are far more than processor to processor in numerous ways. I rather use one that I enjoy the most overall and does just about everything right. In my case that's Aperture 3 for as long as the category has existed.

The other thing I can say with certainty is that when I flip flopping back and forth - even with a lot of hours of each under my belt - I find it takes a bit to become acclimated to each products particular set of image modification tools as well as the starting point. In some cases I feel a little invigorated that the starting point is a little bit closer to where I wanted to go, in others I feel a little let down because the starting point is so different to what I want or more likely because it's different that what I am used to seeing. Without fail my ultimate output ends up about the same with all of them. Once I am used to one starting point and one set of tools going back sometimes feels a little strange - a little off. That quickly goes away and I get a different comfort zone.

This tells me two things - first off it's not really possible to gauge the tool without a bunch of hours under your belt. Second is that no matter what my current comfort zone is - I always admire Aperture 3 in more ways than I can even articulate when I come back. There are a ton of subtle niceties that reward experience with it as opposed to build more and more and more frustration with it's shortcomings.

Food for thought.


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