2018 July update: We have a new winner. DXO PhotoLab is my new RAW conversion champion for Nikon NEFs! See the details here.
2016 November update: Added observations for DXO Optics Pro 11
A RAW file contain so much more image data than a JPEG file. Most serious enthusiasts and professional photographers shoot in RAW to extract the most out of a photographic image during post-processing. RAW conversion is the very first step in the work-flow with raw files, so it should be obvious how important this initial process is. Get a flawed result from this initial step at the start and the implications will affect all subsequent post-processing efforts.
If it isn’t obvious enough, the reason for this article is because not all RAW converters are optimal. Let me rephrase that properly: Some RAW converters are obviously better than others. However even among the selection of the better converters there is no one-size-fits-all solution that will appeal to everyone and every artist’s unique style. Different RAW converters implement their own approach to conversion. This results in differences in sharpness, noise handling, detail rendering, colour rendering, etc. A photo editor whose job required him to spend a lot of time scrutinizing photo images mentioned that he could identify the RAW converter used without looking at the EXIF information. It is advantageous to understand the different behaviours and characteristics of the various converters available to find one that best suits your vision and work-flow.
In this article I will describe the experiences I have processing Nikon NEF files with Adobe Camera Raw, DXO Optics Pro, Capture One Pro, Photo Ninja and Capture NX-D.
Adobe Camera Raw
Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) is the most widely used RAW converter by a giant margin, as it is the converter used by Lightroom and Photoshop. Considering the ubiquity of Lightroom and Photoshop, alternative RAW converters would have never been able to remain existing in the market if ACR is perfect. 😉 I found that ACR never quite rendered colours the way I preferred them to be. Here is a relatively common comment voiced by Nikon users trying out a Canon camera: “The Canon’s colours seem to look better immediately in Lightroom/Photoshop.” Of course they look better: because ACR never quite got Nikon colours right. 😛
When I was deep into flora photography, ACR handled the saturated, not-exactly-true-to-life colours I wanted quite well. However when my interests switched to architecture and colour street photography, ACR’s limitations with Nikon colours became obvious. The colours were difficult to get right, and half of the time I ended up with a look that is really a ‘stylized’ departure of what I was originally pursuing. This eventually led me to start experimenting with other raw converters.
Whether or not ACR’s results are right for you obviously depends on your creative style. If you find it works for you, congratulations and be happy with it. Since ACR is part of Lightroom and Photoshop, you can continue to use it in those applications without making inconvenient adjustments to your workflow. Just note that whenever a RAW file is giving you a big challenge, try out some of the other alternatives. The results may surprise you.
DXO Optics Pro
I have downloaded and tested every new major version release of DXO Optics Pro (DXO OP) in the past two years. The highlights and shadows recovery capabilities are better than ACR’s. Noise reduction with PRIME offers the best results among all the raw converters compared here. DXO OP’s Smart Lighting system provides a very convenient and effective way to adjust exposure and contrast intelligently, and actually works remarkably well for an automated system. You also get a large library of lens profiles for automatically correcting lens distortions. As a RAW converter, I consider DXO OP to be superior to ACR. Although DXO OP does not really get Nikon’s colours right either, I feel their results are better than ACR’s.
A major minus point against DXO OP is that it lacks local adjustment capabilities. Comparing against the significantly cheaper Lightroom (with ACR) which does offer local adjustments features, this is a glaring omission and is probably a major factor preventing wider adoption of DXO OP. It will never be a one-stop post-processing solution, requiring another application with local adjustment features to complement it.
For the same reason I myself have never purchased DXO OP, uninstalling the trial version when the license expires. It always ended up getting pushed out of my list of choices whenever I consider the whole package of price, overall performance, features, and comparison to competing products. However if you are a working professional, the image quality improvements DXO OP could potentially being might justify a little blip in your investments in photographic tools.
EDIT November 2016:
DxO OP 11 released in June 2016 is really shaping up to be quite impressive. Details are great, colours are nearly perfectly neutral (though it still does not hit that sacred mark 😛 ), PRIME noise reduction is magical, CA correction is out of this world! However, strange mage defects can still happen in some images – such as stubborn colour fringes and moire that appear in places that just do not show up with other RAW converters. And yes they can’t be corrected in DxO OP. You will have to export it to another application to repair.
EDIT July 2018: DXO PhotoLab is my new RAW conversion champion for Nikon NEFs! See the details here.
Capture One Pro
Capture One Pro (C1) is the most expensive option in this comparison list. Like DXO OP I have downloaded and tried every major version release for the past few years, but did not purchase it. The reason was that I found the price difficult to justify for an enthusiast photographer. If you are a working photographer though, C1 might be an investment that you could justify for the ROI it could bring.
C1 has many features, but we will just focus on the purpose of this article – RAW conversion. C1 renders images with a contrasty, saturated, punchy look. The results also have a bite to the image’s sharpness that is quite unique. When examining an image at 1-1 magnification, there seems to be some form of micro-contrast of the pixels’ rendering that increases the perception of sharpness. I am also pleased with C1’s capabilities at highlight and shadow details recovery, labelled somewhat misleadingly as ‘high dynamic range’ among its controls. It is also the only RAW converter here with extensive, user-friendly colour adjustment controls. It still does not do Nikon colours right though. In general, I find raw conversion by C1 better than DXO OP and ACR.
As previously mentioned, C1 does much more than RAW conversion and I personally feel that the price premium is justified for all that it has to offer. Working photographers should give it a try to see if the results and features suit their creative vision.
Photo Ninja (PN) is a black horse among RAW converters. It is not backed by a large corporation, but still managed to gain a small following due to the unique results it can produce. However the rate of updates can be unpredictable. It may have a period of intensive updates, then followed by a long period where there are no updates at all. So much so a user might wonder if the creators have lost interest! Fortunately the creators have demonstrated they are still committed to the product, and will release an update to support new camera bodies which are released.
Compared to ACR, DXO OP and C1, PN produces more natural and neutral colours, earning it second place in this comparison in terms of ability to render Nikon colours accurately. PN’s output is uniquely characterized by the amount of details it can squeeze out of a raw file that you do not believe even existed. It is also uniquely able to recover details from highlights that competitors find difficult to restore. It also has a smart exposure algorithm under its exposure controls that intelligently pulls up shadows, preserves contrast and extract highlight details. Throw an image with difficult exposure characteristics that you struggle with in other RAW converters, and be amazed at how well PN handles the same image. The first time you see it resolve all the exposure difficulties for you automatically, it almost feels like magic.
However PN’s unique strengths come with some compromises. Colour corruption could occur on highlight areas because of its aggressive highlight recovery algorithm. The exposure controls are idiosyncratic, requiring the user to handle exposure adjustments with a different approach that isn’t necessarily intuitive or convenient. Processing time can be lengthy, so the likes of events and wedding photographers with a lot of output to process may be better off sticking to other faster RAW converters.
Most importantly, although PN’s ability to extract details is amazing, this comes at a cost of producing ugly artifacts which are visible upon close examination. These artifacts look like additional banding lines along any detail edges, and gives one the impression of image sharpening gone wrong. This effect is usually not visible at small image sizes or when the image is viewed at a distance, and may even cause a viewer to mistake it for image sharpness. However the careful observer would be able to deduce that these are really unsightly image artifacts. Eventually I migrated off PN because of this problem.
Released by Nikon themselves, Capture NX-D is free. I will not delve into the somewhat troubled history of Capture NX, but rather focus on its performance and features today. Obviously it only works on Nikon NEF files. It is slow, so photographers who produce a lot of content for their work are better off staying with ACR (LR), DXO OP or C1. It is also crash-prone while performing noise reduction – the release notes actually warn about this, so at least they are being honest! 😛 The UI is somewhat clunky, and coupled with the slow performance, makes the application frustrating to use if you have not figured out its idiosyncrasies. There are no local adjustment capabilities. Suffice to say that NX-D will not be a one-stop solution in your post-processing work-flow. If using NX-D, your aim is to just leverage on its RAW conversion to export a high-quality TIFF to finish off in other post-processing applications.
So how about the goal of this article, the quality for raw conversion? Well, in terms of image quality, Capture NX-D is among the best RAW converter for a Nikon NEF.
2018 July update: This is no longer true. DXO PhotoLab is my new RAW conversion champion for Nikon NEFs! See the details here.
Make no mistake. Despite all its shortcomings, NX-D really produces great results in the RAW conversion stage. It outputs colours that are closest to the actual real-life colours you saw when you took that picture. None of the competition comes close in terms of colour authenticity. Detail extraction is surprisingly good when you examine the image at 1-1, and is actually superior to some of the other RAW converters in some images I tried. Shadow and highlight details recovery is pretty decent as well and competitive with other alternatives. It also has a ‘smart’ exposure system in the form of ADL, which works very well. It comes with distortion correction profiles for all Nikon lenses. Noise reduction is pretty decent when you can get around its slow performance and crash-prone tendencies – it produces a good balance between details and noise reduction. The exposure tools are good enough to produce a well-exposed image for further processing by other imaging applications.
If your preferred workflow consists of getting a high-quality, globally well-exposed, neutral-looking, colour-accurate TIFF at the RAW conversion stage and you don’t want to spend money and don’t have a lot of output for every shoot, NX-D is a great option. Currently I use NX-D exclusively for RAW conversion. (But I am always on the lookout for better alternatives! 😛 )
The most commonly-used ACR is my least recommended RAW converter for Nikon NEF in this comparison. However don’t let that stop you from continuing to use it if you are perfectly happy with the output. I recommend ACR, DXO OP and C1 for working photographers. If you don’t want to spend too much cash and can afford to do things slowly, try Capture NX-D. It produces great quality results in NEF RAW conversion. Yes, using NX-D could be frustrating and it has a lot of quirks that you will have to learn to work around. But it is free, and you can always shelf it aside if you find the experience to be an affront to your sensibilities. Maybe I’ll write a brief user guide to NX-D one day. It really delivers very good results, and it will be a shame if Nikon stops making improvements to it.
Update: I have actually written a simple guide to using NX-D. Check it out here!