Oloneo PhotoEngine-a review
There are times when a great product just needs time to mature and grow, before it makes its way out into the world.
Some time ago I received an email, inviting me to try a new RAW converter which was in Beta. My computer froze, coughed and then spat it out.
But that was then and this is now. In the intervening period, Oloneo PhotoEngine grew up, shook off its birthing issues, and came of age. The butterfly which emerged from the chrysalis is shiny, polished and highly competent.
When I began using the Fujifilm XPro-1, there were few processing applications available for it, and at the time only the native Fuji software and Adobe PhotoShop Lightroom supported it. On the one hand the Fuji supplied software, their own take on Silkypix, provided sharp rendition of detail but was prone to a mottling problem in midtone areas; on the other hand Adobe PhotoShop Lightroom provided sharp edges but was prone to smearing micro-detail. For a long time I wondered why, but a recent comparison test by Sean Reid (paywalled), gives an insight into how Adobe have worked around the problem presented by a unique sensor. Their workaround uses an embossing effect to give the illusion of sharpness.
Now however there are more applications on the market to deal with the problems presented by the almost-analogue nature of the Fuji sensor. Recently, Capture One released a version which supports the X-Trans sensor. More and more application developers are coming to the X-series party.
Oloneo PhotoEngine is the brainchild of a small company based in Paris, France, whose developers are working on a heavily-crowded stage, with a wide range of raw converters and processing software available to all of us. So why would you look at this particular product? There are reasons. I recently downloaded a copy of the application, and for the last month or two I have been getting into it. And, for those of you who want the answer upfront, rather than at the end, I am impressed.
Raw processing really occurs in two stages: firstly the application must demosaic the file, in other words take the raw data and make sense of it, and then offer options to interpret it. And this is where the various applications begin to diverge and follow their own paths, for it is here that the developers are able to put their own “take” on the product, and position it for their perceived market. In an email interview with Antoine Clappier, the principal developer, I asked the question about where they saw their product fitting into the market, and who they were aiming it at. His reply:
Our goal is to set Oloneo as a recognized provider of professional software products for photographers. Looking at our customers today, we see that we have a large proportion of professional photographers. This is rather unusual for HDR and Tone Mapping products!
Our competitors’ focus is to deliver images with a heavily processed “HDR look”. This can please the hobbyist but certainly not the pros. Our goal is exactly the reverse: creating natural images with invisible processing. The fact that many pros have added HDR/Tone Mapping to their workflow thanks to PhotoEngine shows that we are heading in the right direction!
And it is here that we begin to get a sense of what Oloneo PhotoEngine is all about.
Like a number of other raw converters, the demosaicing is done using DCRaw, an open source application. This is obvious when you open the application and take the time to read the splash screen (whoever does that?). Dave Coffin, the brains behind dcraw, seems to have been swift to catch on and write an algorithm for the X-Trans sensor. Well done, that man. X series owners will I am sure, be very interested in this comment from Antoine:
We use dcraw to decode the raw files. After that, the complete raw and image processing is done by PhotoEngine with our own algorithms. The XPro-1 uses a 6×6 colour filtered array pattern that is different from the 2×2 Bayer pattern found in most cameras. PhotoEngine and dcraw can handle arbitrary patterns (up to a certain point!). So, it is not very difficult to support this camera. We definitely intend to support other Fuji cameras.
With that in mind, I was very excited at the possibilities PhotoEngine might offer, so I quickly installed it and threw some files at it to see what would happen. This is a fairly small application (18.7 MB), and it installs very quickly.
It seems to me that editing software these days falls into two categories; on the one hand there is the one-size-fits-all application which handles everything for you, including Importing, cataloguing, processing and output. The two 800lb gorillas on this block are Adobe PhotoShop Lightroom and Aperture. Certainly Lightroom has achieved a reputation of being the go-to, the weapon of choice for many photographers. But there are other options.
These comprise specialised applications which, in many cases, provide a more focused approach to processing, with the accent on providing a quality result. For wedding photographers, who must process in excess of 1000 images quickly and efficiently, Lightroom and Aperture offer probably everything they would need to get the job done quick smart. However, for those individual images which need high quality, flexible and effective postproduction, applications like Photo engine offer the ability to take your file that much further.
When you first open the application, you are presented with a browser window. You can select the file by browsing using a file dialogue or using a folder dialogue. The application keeps a record of folders that you do use and so it is easy to switch quickly back to them. Having selected your folder of images, you then have the option to begin to work with one. In the screenshot at right, you will see that, while the interface is relatively spartan, there is a lot going on. As you select a file it is outlined in green and a small window on the top left opens to show you the EXIF data for that file.
In the middle is the main browser window which includes the original files, output files and projects. Each time you finish with a file the program asks you if you want to preserve the settings for that particular image, and saves them as a .rcd file.
It is only when you look at the boxes on the right-hand side of the browser window that you begin to get a sense of how the application differs radically from its competitors. Rather than just applying global adjustments to a file, Oloneo PhotoEngine uses tone mapping (for an explanation see here–but be warned! The explanation is not easy!). There are the options to create a tone map project, along with the ability to create a noise reduction project and, unique to this application, the ability to change the lighting.
Finally, a small sub-browser window at the bottom of your screen stores recent ‘projects’. The menu items at the top of the screen are relatively simple and straightforward.
When you double-click a file, the application automatically opens in the Edit window. Again the interface is relatively simple and spartan but, perhaps because of that, it is relatively straightforward and easy to understand. On the left of the screen is the Timeline, where the application stores each change you make to the file, with the option to move forward or back in the history state.
Underneath it is a range of presets, which make a great place to start. I found myself, having opened the file, trying each of them to see which one would best approximate what I was trying to achieve. Because the ability exists to quickly change any of the settings, I tend to choose one of these presets as a place to begin. There are huge number of them, ranging from very natural (natural) to more out-there HDR looks, some of which, to my eye anyway, are completely over the top. There are also black and white conversions of various flavours, including cyanotype, selenium and various flavours of sepia. In addition to this you can add and create your own presets.
In the right-hand of the screen are the panels where you begin to make changes. Choosing a preset will automatically set a number of the sliders for you, which you can then adjust to taste. Because Oloneo PhotoEngine uses tone mapping it moves a lot closer to HDR techniques, and the temptation is there to create some of those ghastly HDR images which litter the Internet. However the option is there to reduce that to something that looks far more natural.
At the top of the right-hand screen is the ubiquitous but inevitable histogram. Beneath that is the high dynamic tone mapping panel, where we can adjust tone mapping, exposure, contrast detail and edges. Again, all the sliders have an enormous flexibility within them and the post-production possibilities are enormous.
Beneath that is the Natural HDR Mode panel which, when enabled, brings the picture back to something more normal.
Low Dynamic Tone enables you to make global changes across the image and adjust saturation globally.
The next panel contains the white balance controls which include presets, temperature and tint, and a very useful wheel to allow custom selection of colour temperature.
The Photographic Print Toning panel comes next, which enables you to tune your photographs when you are outputting them as toned monochrome prints.
Finally there are a series of boxes which enable you to adjust brightness and saturation global brightness and saturation. Beneath these however are a set of very interesting boxes which enable you to create custom colour curves for a hue in terms of saturation luminance and hue, which provides the ability to adjust small portions of the image.
The final step is to output your file as either a tiff, jpeg or HDR image. You also have the option to export directly to PhotoShop as a tiff which then opens that application for further editing. There is also the option for batch conversion.
The help menu offers you the opportunity to browse online or to download a PDF manual in either English or French. There are also a series of video tutorials available on YouTube, and it is easy to link directly to these.
The proof of the pudding…
By and large this is a relatively straightforward interface to work with, quite simple and easy to understand. Of course any software of this type is only is as good as the results it generates and, to understand this, it is important to work with it and see what sort of “look” is produced. It is here that Oloneo PhotoEngine’s unique character comes to the fore, and provides evidence of its ability to produce files which have that HDR look about them. A study of the interface will have you realise that there are no sliders for sharpness per se, for this appears to be handled through tone mapping and control of detail rendition.
My processing is done on a Windows 7 64 bit machine, using a core i7 processor, 12 GB of RAM and dual SSD hard drives, along with a high-end graphics card with CUDA technology. Rendering generally took around 1.4 seconds. It is clear that the engine is efficient and makes optimum use of the computer resources.
The end files produced have a look which veers towards that HDR look, but what fascinated me was its ability to draw detail out of difficult shadows without generating noise, and its ability to produce files which have a remarkable 3-D look about them.
The header file from this article was made while I was wandering the streets of Wellington, New Zealand’s capital city. It is great fun to take a camera and just wander the streets, responding to light and space and time and moment. As I was wandering furtively past the public library, the morning light was reflecting off the glass windows on the east side of the library, pushing back against the shadows on the west side of the nearby Art Gallery. I was very drawn to the geometric structures and forms, and the rather surreal quality built into what was essentially a formalist composition. Early in the morning at this time of the year the rising sun sends its rays sliding up the glass canyons of the central business district, producing combinations of light and shadow which are quite spectacular.
I made the header photograph for this post using a Fujifilm X-100, with the screen grid switched on so I could correctly align verticals and horizontals. I was careful not to overexpose the highlights, to get any clipping on the right side of the histogram.
When I exported the file to Oloneo PhotoEngine, i experimented with different presets and eventually settled upon “grunge” as a place to begin. The initial result was, as I expected, over the top (REALLY over the top), but then it was a relatively simple matter of detuning the HDR look until it meshed with my memory of the scene. I might add that I normally shoot in raw plus JPEG, so the JPEG provides a concrete reference for later postproduction. In this case I was highly impressed with the way that the application held highlights and opened up the shadows, while allowing me to generate a three-dimensional look to the photograph. The comparison shot at right will give you an idea.
There is an awful lot to like about this application. It is fast, responsive and highly effective at controlling photographs which have very difficult lighting. Once you have worked with it for a little while it becomes really intuitive, a result of the fact that the application doesn’t overwhelm you with all manner of sliders and controls. The result is very high quality indeed.
If you are Fuji film X series owner, then you are going to want to have a hard look at this application. It seems to exhibit none of the bad habits prone to its competitors, yielding smooth tonal transitions, remarkable rendition of micro-detail, and superbly natural sharpness and edge detail. You can create a file which is both true and natural, or take its HDR abilities to the max. Files I made with the XPro-1 show a level of quality so far unmatched by the Big Two (Adobe and Capture One). At the time of writing this, the product retails for $US 149, but there seem to be specials from time to time, a habit most of the online application vendors are indulging in these days (except Adobe!).
What interests me is the number of people I meet who want one application to do it all. It seems to me that is rather like buying a mid-size compact car and then expecting it will do duty as a sports car and as an off-road vehicle. The plain fact of the matter is it can’t. Software is rather like that; all applications have their strengths and weaknesses, and having a small suite of them in your stable means that you can take a single file and move it in different directions. If Oloneo PhotoEngine does have a weakness, it is probably the fact that you can HDR the heck out of it, and it is really tempting to ignore your own good taste and go for it. Keeping yourself under control is the hard bit.
Alexandre and Antoine, you have done well!