For most digital photographers, getting out and making the photo in the field is only the first step in the process, unless you’re happy with JPEG files straight from the camera. Raw converter software takes the raw data recorded by the sensor in a digital camera (all of the colour and luminance information) and converts it to a visual format that we can see on the screen. Plenty of photographers use specialised editors like Adobe Lightroom to develop their raw images further, but there are now plenty of raw file software choices on the market. I thought it would be interesting to conduct an unscientific raw converter comparison!
One can use raw conversion software to manipulate the raw data to pull down highlights, reveal details, improve clarity and sharpness, reduce noise, improve contrast, and pull out detail from shadows. In much the same way as one would use different chemicals and techniques in a film darkroom to produce photos with different tonalities and qualities, raw conversion software does the same to digital files.
The primary advantage is that one can improve the look of photos by manipulating the raw data. Of course, raw file editing is not for the faint of heart. If you’re not comfortable with sliders, histograms, and the idea of changing exposure settings, there are many video tutorials online to help you get to grips with the basic functions. The great thing is that all of these manipulations are done non-destructively, so you can go back again and again to produce different looks.
Whether you’re a seasoned raw conversion software user or you’re just learning, there are now a plethora of raw conversion programs on the market. Adobe Lightroom, perhaps the most well-known of all, has many users, and plenty of tutorial videos accessible on sites like YouTube. But if you’re not keen on Adobe’s business model, or you’re looking to switch from Lightroom, there are other options out there, including DXO Optics Pro, Photo Ninja, ON1 Photo RAW, Capture One, and a raft of freeware creations.
In the spirit of looking at how different raw file conversion programs handle images, it’s sometimes useful to engage in a raw converter comparison. In this post, I’ll be comparing Lightroom 6, DXO Optics Pro 10, Photo Ninja, and the newly released ON1 Photo RAW 2017.
My Testing Methodology
One of the most common tests is to open up a variety of raw files in each piece of software and examine how each one renders the image. This will provide some insight on the philosophy underlying the program and also offer some insights on how the raw conversion algorithms prioritise certain aspects of an image. For example: How are strong highlights rendered? Are skin tones natural looking? Is the rendered image contrasty?
Even though every raw conversion program offers methods of manipulating the data and achieving different looks, the way that the software initially renders the raw file can make our manipulations easier or more involved. For examplpe, it is well-known that Capture One is excellent at rendering skin tones on default settings. Getting the same results in Lightroom is likely possible, but may not be obvious or easy, especially to the beginning user.
Though many such raw converter comparison tests simply import the file and do nothing else, I will admit to pushing my own testing one step further. Photo Ninja, for example, does some heavy default processing by altering exposure and recovering highlights quite strongly. Lightoom, by contrast, doesn’t do as much heavy processing. To balance the testing out, I have enabled the AUTO exposure function in the programs that offer it (Lightroom and Photo RAW). I’ll admit that my methods are far from scientific, but this will at least place each rendered image on a more level playing field and will provide useful insights into the priorities of each piece of software when it comes to exposure settings, highlight recovery, colour, and contrast.
Raw Converter Comparison 2017
You may get a closer look at each photo by simply moving your mouse cursor across the image. A magnifying glass will pop up, enabling a closer look at image details. This is useful for looking at how each raw converter program handles highlight recovery, for example.
Each photo will be captioned according to the raw converter that rendered it. So, onto my unscientific raw converter comparison !
Sunset – strong highlight areas
Raw File Conversion Analysis
Images containing strong highlights always provide interesting results in these tests, and any raw converter comparison will make a point of emphasising it in testing. Lightroom, DXO, and Photo RAW all produce images that are similar in appearance, with slight deviations. It is the result from Photo Ninja that truly stands out as unique. The sky is what I would call painterly in look. Photo Ninja is well-known for outstanding highlight recovery, and in highlight areas where there is no detail in the other renders, Photo Ninja has clearly been liberal with interpolation, and has created colour and detail from very little or no data.
I like the way that Photo Ninja has rendered this image, but it’s not for everyone. My biggest crticism is that the image looks flat compared to the others due to the fact that Photo Ninja aggressively pulls down highlights to restore detail. This can result in flat images that require a little contrast and micro-contrast boost. I find that I often push up the exposure slider in PN, with a subsequent reduction in the illumination slider just to add more highlight areas and more contrast.
Of the others, it would seem that ON1 Photo RAW has been troubled the most by the strong highlights. Early criticism of the newly minted flagship raw conversion program from ON1 Software concludes that the highlight recovery is not very strong. Having said that, I have just updated Photo RAW today to the latest version, and the rendering is quite different.
DXO Optics provides the coolest render in terms of colour, with the sky looking washed out compared to the others. This is a little surprising given how contrasty DXO normally renders images in my experience. That said, it’s still a pleasing result.
My Verdict: Lightroom has rendered the most pleasing image overall, with good colour, good highlight recovery, and good default levels of contrast. Photo Ninja provides the most unique and painterly look with the best highlight recovery, and the strongest default sharpening applied of the four programs. My ratings from first to last: Lightroom, Photo Ninja, DXO, Photo RAW (latest Feb 2017 update would place it third for me though).
Here’s a re-rendered version of the same image from the latest update to ON1 Photo RAW:
Immediately, we can see that the strong highlight areas are handled much better. The release notes say that highlight recovery has been improved and the range extended. The image above definitely bears this out! Saturated oranges and still strong, and the sky contains more detail. From this point on, I will be posting rendering results from the new version of Photo RAW, but I may also post a render from the previous version just to look at the differences the changes to the code have made.
Indoor – difficult light
Raw File Conversion Analysis
This image provides some interesting fodder for the four raw converters. There is strong light steraming in through the atrium in the centre of the room, but the rest of the room is quite dim. The ideal balance is to reduce the highlights enough so that colour and detail is revealed in the colourful banners, but to also pull enough detail out from the shadow areas so that the entire scene looks more natural.
Photo Ninja has done really well with this image. As expected, it has reduced the light from the atrium so that colour and detail is revealed in the banners. The shadows have also been pushed up and detail in the clothing and in the wall decorations has been revealed, giving the entire scene a balanced and natural look. Overall it is quite a pleasing render, and is actually similar to the Lightroom image, though sharpened more by default.
DXO Optics Pro has produced the least attractive render in my opinion, which is quite disappointing The contrast is simply too aggressive by default and there are too many shadows obscuring details. The colour balance is also a little too orange for my tastes in this image. DXO has preserved details in the columns under the atrium quite well, which is a plus.
Photo RAW has produced an image render similar to DXO, but the white balance and overall tone of the image is not quite as warm. The other glaring issue is that some finer details have been lost in the columns under the banners due to the highlight areas not being tamed quite enough. That said, Photo RAW has done a good job of pulling out some shadows under the retail counter.
My Verdict: Photo Ninja has produced a balanced photo that looks quite natural, while DXO is disappointing here, with default import settings too aggressive for this image. My ratings from first to last: Photo Ninja, Lightroom, Photo RAW, DXO.
Outdoors – overcast day
Raw File Conversion Analysis
For me, the clear standout here is Photo Ninja. Once again, it has handled the strong highlights in the sky with aplomb, and has added extra detail. The rest of the scene has nicely saturated colours, and the shadows have been lifted so that everything is balanced. From this point, more contrast can be added to add a little more punch. Photo Ninja seems to handle these types of outdoor scenes very well.
Lightroom’s render is OK, but it hasn’t handled the highlights in the sky very well. That said, the image is quite workable from here.
DXO has added a lot of contrast by default, which may or may not suit your tastes, but it has handled the sky area about as well as Lightroom has, which is not great!
Photo RAW has produced an interesting render of this image. In some ways it is similar to the Photo Ninja image in that the highlights in the sky have been pulled down quite well, but the overall image is not as saturated in terms of colour, and it looks a little washed out. What is interesting is that before the version update, Photo RAW handled this particular image very differently. Here it is below:
The difference in the two renders here is quite stark. Before the version update, Photo RAW produced a punchier and more saturated image, but it struggled with the strong highlights in the sky. The new version has definitely improved upon highlight recovery, but with some loss to contrast and saturation.
My Verdict: Photo Ninja is the clear winner for me. The rendered image is saturated, clear, and pleasing to the eye. DXO’s render is just too punchy and dark foe me, but it will definitely suit some scenes. Photo RAW has produced a balanced, if washed out, image that is the least pleasing by default, but it has handled the strong highlights better than Lightroom, making for an easier image to work with. My ratings from first to last: Photo Ninja, Photo RAW, Lightroom, DXO.
Conclusion – Raw Converter Comparison 2017
So, that’s my pretty unscientific raw converter comparison! Please bear in mind that these are only starting points, and all of the software here allows further changes to be made to the image. Even if your raw converter produces something not very pleasing by default, it’s always possible to go in and tweak the settings to your liking. In fact, that’s what the software is intended for! I just think that this comparison shows how differently each piece of software handles various aspects of the same image. If you start out with a pleasing image to begin with, it probably won’t take too much work to improve it even more. Likewise, if your raw converter is having trouble with certain aspects of an image, such as strong highlights, you’ll probably have to tweak the settings and sliders a little more to get the most out of it.
Let me know what you think and what your favourite raw editor is! Have you done a raw converter comparison yourself?