13 March 2014

Tip: Workflow considerations

I hadn't yet announced it on this blog (it's still beta), but Nikon announced the “successor” to its Nikon Capture NX2 (raw) image editor a couple of weeks ago. Naturally I was thrilled reading about this; I predominantly use NX2 in my image editing workflow and consider it a great and versatile tool. Over the last couple of years Nikon has maintained NX2 relatively well, but only released small updates to it, no new functionality. So hearing about NX-D, as Nikon calls it, was really met with a positive feeling by me (and I'm sure lots of other photographers).

After going over the specs and learning more about NX-D though (there is a beta available from the Nikon beta website), this positive feeling soon got replaced with a huge sense of disappointment. While the overhaul of the interface is probably welcomed by many, NX-D does away with all that was great about NX-2; edit results no longer embedded in the raw file itself, no local adjustments, no control points (really smart selections), no concept of layers/blending modes, no spot removal/retouch brush (!), etc. Most of these things I, at least partially, see as critical for a raw editor so you can imagine I was very disappointed.

The only great thing is that NX-D will be free! The way I see it, though, is that it is more a replacement of View NX2, not of Capture NX2. A real shame.

So knowing that NX2 is going to be end-of-life in a couple of months and also knowing that NX-D isn't really going to be a successor as it lacks critical tools, I had to reconsider my imaging workflow. For some time now, I have been investigating a new workflow (one without NX2/NX-D), and I think I have found one that works (at least for me).

For my (new) workflow I wanted a couple of things:
  1. great (raw) editing results, functionality and speed – this also means (for me) that there should be good support for batch processing and that I should be able to do as much as possible in raw (with NX2 I can do 99% of my edits in-raw, pano's and HDR processing excepted, of course).
  2. I need to be able to see the results of the edits in my photo browser of choice: PhotoMechanic – this basically means the solution should have embedded previews (of high quality).
  3. Support and development for the years to come.
There are numerous raw editors on the market but most don't fulfil either one, or more of the requirements above. Especially small players will get refused based on the third requirement as they are likely not stable towards the future, or simply do not have enough power to continue development.

Of the bigger ones, I knew (well) how to work with Lightroom (LR), Adobe Camera Raw (ACR), and Capture One, so these were obvious choices to definitely consider. Capture One, I didn't like really much when I used it in the past (though it probably has improved in the last couple of years). Besides, to my knowledge they still do not support embedded previews (and have a ridiculous solution for saving edits involving lots of additional files and directories). I'm not perfectly sure about their stability towards the future either (though I think they should be big enough to continue to exist and develop their software for years to come).

So that basically left me with Adobe software. Being the number one player there at least we can expect continued development (though this regrettably also comes with a of of arrogance, see their recent debacle with their software subscription model). So that leaves requirements 1 and 2.

Requirement 1 (functionality) is mostly covered with ACR/Lightroom, though definitely not as well as with NX2. The functionality that I (so far) miss most are:
  • the “layers” and blending modes that NX2 offers,
  • control points to quickly make good selections, and (probably the most important),
  • the  retouch brush; the spot removal tool of ACR/Lightroom is simply lightyears behind that of NX2 (in many cases that works even better than PS's context aware magic)
This simply means I have to work more in PS. Luckily PS is well integrated and has the added bonus of being able to load raw files as smart object (which I really like). Therefore this is not too bad (still hoping Adobe will include something like layers and a better retouch brush though).

Embedded previews (3), well, here's a tough one: the (somewhat understandable) approach by Adobe is to never alter the original raw file, but to put everything in .xmp sidecar files. That means that edits will never be visible outside adobe software. A real show stopper for me.

Luckily there is a solution to this: the DNG-file (open standard format for raw files), here Adobe does embed all data, and even allows for an (updated and full size) embedded preview!

Going this way does mean having to convert all raw files to DNG first, of course though… This can be automated/batched though, so no real issue here. Oh, and if you don't want to loose your original raw file, there's even an option to embed this in the DNG-file. As I have a backup of all of my original (and untouched) raw files anyway, this is not a problem for me.
One caveat: Adobe does not support Nikon raw files (NEF) that were converted from in-camera uncompressed to lossless compressed (using Capture NX2), this is a huge problem for me as this is exactly what I have done with my Nikon D200 files… Good to know I have the original raw files still too though so if I ever need to edit an “old” file when NX2 doesn't work any longer, I can dig up the original file and be on my way.

Right, that fixes my requirements, so now it comes down to “to Lightroom or not to Lightroom?”

While Lightroom looks great, it does have its problems. For one, I find it nearly impossible to make small and precise adjustments with the sliders, also the fact that the keyboard shortcuts for e.g., crop are not the same as in PS is quite maddening (but one can certainly overcome that after practice). Oh, and why doesn't CMD/CTRL-+ work to zoom in; it has to be CMD/CTRL-= (meaning the + on the numerical keyboard doesn't work)?

The biggest issue I have with Lightroom, though, is the fact it does not automatically update the preview embedded in the DNG file; you have to do that manually. For editing speed this is great, but there is no way to have Lightroom automatically update the files that need being updated, even if you'd initiate this manually. There simply is no way to select only those images that need their preview updated so you have to remember the ones that need updating (extremely cumbersome). For bulk adjustments, Lightroom is great though!

ACR on the other hand really has a crappy looking UI (why haven't they overhauled that one too when the overhauled everything else in PS CS6 and CC?). It works great though and its raw editing capabilities are exactly the same as Lightroom's, just with another interface! Funny enough, I like the philosophy behind the ACR UI-approach a bit more than that of LR (best would be a combination of the two) and they use the same keyboard shortcuts as you will be used to from e.g. PS (yeah!). Even CMD/CTRL-0 works to fit the image into the window! And it does update the embedded preview automatically (when you say so in the preferences)!

To cut a long story short, for my future photography I will now fully adopt a DNG workflow using both LR and ACR together (LR for batch updates, ACR for smaller batches/individual file updates).

If you too are thinking of changing your workflow, I hope you find the above story informative and helpful!

Update: I reported the (D200) lossless compressed RAW problem to Adobe and it looks like it will be fixed in the next update of Camera Raw & Lightroom!

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