Photo Ninja- the best raw converter yet? I reckon…
The way to Art is through craft, not around it
We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.
Kia ora tatou/Welcome:
I blame Grahame Sydney and Ansel Adams.
As many of you know, I am anal about picture quality. In a sense this comes from my grand landscape aesthetic, which revolves around near/far and large/small. When I first saw Adams’ Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite, I fell in love with the grand landscape as a genre. I stared in awe at the work in his seminal book Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs and realised that was what I really wanted to do with my landscape photography. Then, some 10 years ago, I attended a retrospective exhibition of Grahame’s work in Christchurch, New Zealand. Again I was astounded. I could stand back and admire the grandeur of his photorealist paintings, or step in close and see the detail on a weathered fencepost. That set my compass.
For nearly thirty years, through film and darkroom, and, of late, digital, I have pursued a goal, namely that of creating large images which work at a distance but can also be enjoyed up close. My vision is to create works where a viewer can enjoy the grandeur and drama of a New Zealand sky but also enjoy the perfection of a single blade of grass. So, for nearly 30 years, I have been circling around behind the photorealist painters, sneaking up on them and the early New Zealand landscape painters with their watercolour aesthetic.
This has meant putting enormous amounts of effort into my craft, and reaching for a perfection which I will probably never attain. Fortunately.
My workflow involves a lot of care and attention with capture. As a matter of course I will check files at 100% or 200% on my camera while in the field, to check that the micro-detail has been correctly recorded and correctly resolved. Anything which is less than satisfactory gets deleted later. PhotoShop is not a Get-out-of Jail card. To get the most out of postproduction, it is absolutely necessary to have the best possible file. You cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.
I import and categorise using PhotoShop Lightroom, to my mind one of the most efficient ways of keeping track of my images. And there my love affair with Adobe (NOT!) ends. Having selected the files on which I will work, I then head for one of my small fleet of raw converters. After I have optimised the file as best I can, I save it as a TIFF or PSD, and head back to PhotoShop. Depending upon what I am trying to achieve, I then turn to one (or more) of the plug-ins installed in PhotoShop.
Ansel Adams talks about previsualisation, namely being able to predict the final print before you press the shutter. This means understanding every single step of your workflow process, including the impact and subtleties of the sensor you’re using, the quality and colouration of your lenses, the settings you have selected and the effect they will have upon the file, the raw processor you will use, the postproduction techniques you will employ, and the impact of your printmaking process on the final work. It takes time and skill and experimentation. It means knowing your process so thoroughly that you are able to predict the final outcome in your mind, before you begin to make the file.
In a sense nothing has changed since the days of film. We can take one of two roads; we can choose to use one brand of software, much in the same way that we used one brand of film and film developer back in the day, knowing our results will be predictable but limited. Or we can choose to explore a range of developers, noting which ones give which effect. In doing so we will build up a library of options for postproduction, a mental Rolodex of paths we can take with the file. That way, we can choose a path to the finished work which is most appropriate for it. And do so in the field, before we ever push the button.
In many ways nothing has changed from the days of film, when a darkroom worker had an enormous array of possibilities. No one film developer was ever the complete answer; they all had their own strengths and weaknesses. The trick was in knowing which one could deliver which type of result.
Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.
Nothing has changed.
These days we have a wonderful array of raw converters (the digital version of film developers) to process our files. And, if we are passionate about our workflow, then we would be silly not to explore the possibilities available to us.
Enter Photo Ninja.
I first heard about Photo Ninja from my dear friend Jef de Becker, a master photographer in his own right, and as fussy about image quality as I am. He sent me an email, asking me if I had heard of Photo Ninja, and suggesting I take a very close look. Well I have, and DxO Optics Pro, which has been my de facto raw developer for some time, is now on gardening leave.
Photo Ninja is the brainchild of Dr Jim Christian, the guru and director of PictureCode, the same guys responsible for the amazing Noise Ninja, my noise reduction tool of choice for the last few years (you can still download noise Ninja, but it is now built into Photo Ninja). PictureCode is a small company based in Austin, Texas, the Silicon Valley of the South. When you read their bio, you realise these are seriously talented and highly educated people.
One of the things which has fascinated me is how a raw converter actually works, and in what ways it follows the film developer paradigm. All film developers essentially have the same chemical components, but it is the ratio of these which determines the actual effect upon the film.
Most raw converters, as I understand it, begin with a common process, namely decompressing the file and then demosaicing it. This is, if you like, the base of raw conversion. You may have wondered, as I have, why the 30 MB file you write to your card suddenly becomes 130 MB when you open it in PhotoShop. The answer is because the file is compressed when it is written to the card. I have yet to hear whether the degree of compression has any impact upon the quality of the file [RAW file formats normally employ a lossless compression method, so the compression has no impact on quality. (In fact, it can be argued that they are probably wasting a fair amount of space to preserve noise in the least significant bits.)-Jim] As I understand it, quite a number of raw converters on the market use the open source application dcraw, written as an alternative to proprietary manufacturer raw conversion software (you know, the CD which comes with your camera).
Once the file has been decompressed and demosaiced (interpreted), then the fun begins. It is at this point that the converted developer’s personal and philosophical approach to conversion is built into the file. Think of it this way: each raw converter will see the data in a different way. I have noticed that Lightroom and Camera Raw give a different default result compared to, say, DxO Optics or Raw Therapee. The difference is often one of response to colour, tone and contrast. And it is here that the character and personality of the raw converter will show. Once you understand what the raw converter will do to/for your files, you can add it to your digital armoury.
So, eager to fill another compartment in my seemingly bottomless digital toolbox, and knowing that Jef’s suggestion would be worth following up, I scuttled across to PictureCode and downloaded a trial.
Why be kind to it? There was a file on my hard drive, a grand landscape made from the top of Little Mount Ida during the Winterlight workshop in July this year. I had used a long lens and shot through a lot of haze across the Valley. My best efforts to date had involved a lot of postproduction black magic, including scrabbling around the plug-ins drawer in my toolbox, without achieving the result I had hoped for. Why the hell not?
I threw the file at Photo Ninja, and waited to see what would happen.
Then I sat back in complete astonishment. It could not be that easy.
The haze was gone, and all the micro-detail, the subtleties of grasses at least a kilometre away were clearly visible. I tried another file, one which is even more difficult. Again the application shrugged shoulders and said: what is your problem?
Three more files, three more tests, and I was sold.
Photo Ninja is a relatively small download for Windows (32-and 64-bit) and MacOS (10.5.8 or later) of only 10.8 MB, a far cry from the 751 MB of PhotoShop Lightroom. And that should tell you something. This is an application built to do a specific job, namely taking raw files and doing a fabulous job of converting them to Tiff or JPEG for later postproduction work. It doesn’t have an image database, the ability to produce slideshows or do photo books. It won’t output to Blurb or Flickr or Facebook. It doesn’t have a geo-tagging module hooked up to Google Maps. It simply takes raw files and processes them fabulously.
The GUI (guided user interface) is rather old school, and designed for people who want to work on their hero images, one at a time. It doesn’t do batch processing, although Jim tells me they are working on introducing batch functionality somewhere in the near future. The interface is, however, clean and simple.
There are two basic work areas, the browser and the editor. The browser window shows your directory tree in a panel on the left, while the rest of the screen real estate is taken up with image thumbnails. A simple slider at the top of the screen enables you to quickly resize your thumbnails to suit. When you double click on an image, the application automatically switches to the second major area, the Editor.
When you access the Editor area, the browser shifts to a small filmstrip along the bottom of the screen, and the directory tree is replaced by (in descending order) a histogram, exif data from your camera, and a series of adjustment options.
The interface is simple, pleasing and uncluttered, with clean, simple white text on a dark grey background. The image occupies most of the screen real estate, and if you use a two-button mouse with a scroll wheel, you can automatically zoom in or out with the scroll wheel. Simple and effective. You can however make a number of changes to the appearance of the interface, depending upon your preferences. Having tried all of them, I much prefer the default setting.
When you first open a raw file, Photo Ninja decompresses and demosaics the file, and then applies a default development setting to it (there are a range of these available to you, including Portrait, Scenic and Neutral). Choose the one that works best for the type of work you do.
The Adjustments section contains 11 sections, including options for demosaic, colour correction, exposure and detail, colour and enhancement, black and white, Noise Ninja, sharpening, chromatic aberration, vignetting, distortion and geometry and cropping. At first glance these appear very simple, but when you click on any of them, it opens a subset of options which you can use to further fine tune your image. You click on one and the subpanel opens, where you can make a series of adjustments using the supplied sliders. Having made your choices, which are reflected in real time on the preview image, you click Apply, and the effect is applied to the image. PictureCode supply a number of very useful tutorials on their website, and I strongly suggest that you take the time to look through these and understand the power of each of your choices. While at first glance this appears a very simple converter, the subsets have enormous power and are in some cases quite complex, and you’ll need a little time to get your head around what is possible.
Having made your decisions, you then save the file as either a tiff or Jpeg. Then Photo Ninja goes to work and renders the finished image for further postproduction. It also prompts you to save the settings you have chosen, and exports these to a separate file. You can save editor settings to XMP in addition to, or instead of, rendering to JPEG/TIFF. (Also, you will soon be able to use Photo Ninja as a plug-in from Photoshop, so you can avoid intermediate JPEG/TIFF files and go straight to Photoshop after opening/processing the RAW file in Photo Ninja).
A further refinement is the ability to profile your camera and sensor, a by-product, I believe, of its Noise Ninja heritage. You can shoot a test image with something like a Macbeth colour checker and then use that to profile your camera/sensor. Awesome!
And you can feel the Geek energy in this application. Along with giving you a clear picture of your system, it also offers you all sorts of choices to make the most of your system resources, including the ability to adjust the application to make best use of the Horsepower in your computer. You can allocate cache size and have the application use a specific scratch disk. The machine I used to test-drive this application is using a Core i7 processor with 12 GB of RAM, and dual SSD hard drives. Photo Ninja made good use of the processing power, taking little more than three seconds to resolve the images to final. Unlike PhotoShop, which has difficulty in releasing RAM, and tends to hoard it in ever larger chunks, Photo Ninja releases it easily, and doesn’t hold on to RAM unnecessarily. Nice.
Chromatic aberration is brilliantly controlled, and since all camera/lens combinations tend to produce it to a greater or lesser degree, it was wonderful to watch any chromatic aberration in my files simply disappear.
What really got me going, however, was the rendition of micro-detail, the way in which the application teased out the finest details. I suspect this is in part due to Photo Ninja being son of Noise Ninja. Mind you, if your capture technique is not up to par, then this application is going to batter your ego and wallet mercilessly. It could however be very useful in convincing your Financial Controller that you need to invest in better gear…
So who is Photo Ninja for? To my mind, this application is a top-level product particularly suited to anyone seeking to get the very best out of their files. Remember that you can always mess with your files later, but a perfect file is necessary in the beginning. Garbage in equals Garbage out.
So, when Jef emailed me to tell me that in his opinion Photo Ninja could be the best raw converter ever made, I was sceptical. Every application promises to be the best thing since sliced bread, and in so many cases, the expectation exceeds the confirmation. But he was right.
To my mind, Photo Ninja is the 800lb gorilla of raw converters which Lightroom and Camera Raw never were. Adobe has a huge developer team working on Camera Raw/Lightroom, and they promise much. However I have so often found that the expectation exceeded the consummation.
But they have just been blown into the weeds by a small company in Texas, who have produced what is, to my mind, THE raw converter of choice for the time being.
And it is not expensive. At $US 129, this represents remarkable value for money. While it is on a par, pricewise, with Lightroom, and doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of the latter, what it does do is process files brilliantly, and does so in a way and to a level which an Adobe product cannot, without a lot of postproduction cosmetic surgery. Remember also that it is less than half the price of DxO Optics Pro, its most obvious rival. Noise Ninja owners can upgrade for less, depending on how long ago you bought a licence.
Sensors and camera systems today are so good that I suspect many owners/users do not get the best out of them, simply because they don’t have the postproduction tools or skills to maximise what is possible. Extracting all the detail that is contained in a digital raw file requires skill, expertise, and time, and can be a long and arduous process. Photo Ninja will remove much of the need to spend long hours mastering the intricacies of raw conversion.
It is simply that good.
Do yourself a favour. Download a trial today.
Copyright Tony Bridge Oct, 2012. All rights reserved.