A Gaggle of RAW Processors, Part I

As you may be aware, I’m a huge fan of Apple’s Aperture 3. I continue to use it daily for real work even though it’s a lame duck. That status sends people in the tech age into panic attacks, causes them to break out in cold sweats, and other associated anxiety related disorders. Obviously there’s a point at which Aperture 3 won’t work at all. Might be two or three major releases of OS X, might be five, might be two. It’s certainly not one. New camera support is part of the OS and will likely continue to be. I’m not worried in the least about myself nor my workflow nor my images becoming obsolete.

I realize that I’m in a unique position. I have been for years. I really don’t depend on any particular tool I merely use whatever I like the best and happens to be the best tool for the job at any given moment. I have been using all of the mainstream Aperture look alike software for as long as they’ve been around. I have, know and use, Lightroom in various versions, Capture One, Nikon Capture NX/2, a few other really crappy ones. The big three are regulars for me. I do a lot of education and post-processing work for a lot of photographers that requires I have more than just a passing knowledge of the big three. That’s kind of unique. Not just fiddly-diddly familiarity but prolonged use of Lightroom, Aperture, and Capture One.

I’m not at all advocating anyone that doesn’t have to waste the time to become intimate with a bunch of software that all does the same thing in any way. I’ve had far more conversations than I’ve ever wanted to regarding the merits of each in the few months since Apple announced that Aperture was no longer in the process of development and improvement. We’ll all have to wait a bit to see what the Apple photo ecosystem looks like post iPhoto and post Aperture. I’m not interested in what it looks like day one. I’m far more interested in how it feels and how it looks like it will evolve. That’s going to take a bit longer than day one release. That’s okay, this all changes all the time anyway. It’s a fallacy to think you’ll be doing exactly the same steps 5 years from now than you are now. You may get to the same place but how you get there might look a whole lot different.

That brings us to today’s topic. If you really, really, really want to move from Aperture or anywhere else what do the choices really have to offer? How do you decide? I’ll offer some opinions and hopefully give at least a little bit of a flavor of each as the stand at the moment. Hard to predict what any will look like down the road. At least that’s hard to predict tactically which seems to be what everyone is interested in. Over the long term the “safest” bet is probably anything out there will look a whole lot like what Apple does than it will look different. How’s that “safe”? Ask yourself this: What tech, UI, etc, etc, etc. doesn’t look like something, work like something, or is a virtual duplicate of what Apple as already done? Not a whole lot. We could debate that but not really important.

Other companies may move you along a bit slower but that’s not always a good thing. I’ve never really been enamored with any particular software or the mechanics of using it as the primary concern. I really only care about my data. If my data is okay — at least the data that’s immutable — I’m fine. I don’t really count any particular post processing data like adjustments or whatever as data. Technically it is but that’s never been where I spend my time. I also re-process and re-imagine any particular treatment of an image pretty frequently. I’ve always considered knowing where you want to go independently of any given software far far more important than what the software does. Especially what the software does by default.

I’ll leave you with a few illustrations to consider for a moment. You can open the illustrations and see all the JPEG artifacty compressed pixel glory of my iMac 27” screen for each image by opening it in a new window.

Take a look at the top image first. That screenshot at the top is Lightrooom 5.

The screenshot directly above is the same image in Aperture 3. The following is yet again the same image in Capture One 8.

What is all this? This is not a comparison of which particular rendition you prefer. It’s actually a demonstration of how when it comes to how an image looks all of them are more the same then they are different. The default contrast curves for each is radically different. None of these screenshots are “out of the box”.

The first one at the top is typical first pass treatment. VSCO Film Fuji 400H applied on import. I did two other things. A “highlight save” from the VSCO tool box and instead of doing color by eye I choose a very specific point on the white wall on the background for a neutral WB. I also turned off split toning and grain. I can take that or leave it. I did want there to be some apples to apples here in terms of a baseline besides the actual RAW file.

The second screenshot from Aperture is pretty much typical for me in Aperture 3. I use the same point on the white wall for the WB color correction. From that point it’s 5 seconds worth of adjustments. Black point to 0 (the hugest difference; Aperture tends to be way more contrasty with much blacker blacks as a default. The reason is black point. I then slapped on a typical curve to put the mid-tone contrast where I like it. Here’s the real shocker; No messing around with color skews or anything like that, just WB black point and a normal RGB curve. I would say it looks more like 400H VSCO than it does different. Funny stuff as the Aperture 3 VSCO 400H and all the rest are completely wonky and look so far out in left field they’re unusable for me. Oh yea, I did a few spots like I did in LR as well.

Last was Capture One 8. Just came out this week I think. Same WB neutral point on the wall. A quick curves adjustment and C1 also needed an exposure tweak of +.33 stop. Now for the punch line, I wasn’t trying to “match” any of these except my arbitrary WB neutral point. I could make them closer if that was the goal. I had already done one set of adjustments when I shot these. For the other two RAW processors I just used them and did “what I would usually do”. Not in terms of some technical recipe but in terms of the feel I wanted. What each particular tool does exactly is not super important. Knowing where you want to go is far more important.

Does one particular piece of software out of the three have some magic the other ones don’t? Not really. Each has particular strengths, weaknesses, etc. One may have a tiny nit here or there that is more convenient than the other two but they will all do basically the same stuff when it comes to making RAW adjustments or ability to produce whatever look you want. That’s why I weigh all the other things so much more than what any particular one looks like out of the box or what I consider special case fringe adjustment capabilities.

With that out of the way (maybe). Next up we’ll take a quick drive by of what each of them feels like to use, strength and weaknesses for managing boatloads of files, and suitability of tools related to organizing, getting to which particular images are best out of a bunch, etc.


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