Updated 22 June 2017 for information about astro noise reduction.
Updated 2 December 2016 for revised recommendations.
Updated 25 November 2016 to include reader observations and suggestions. Also included amended recommendations for noise reduction.
Updated on 5 October 2016 to include more details about the Picture Controls and adjust some grammar.
Capture NX-D is a great RAW converter for Nikon NEFs, no matter how you feel about its in-sufficiency for everything else. For those initial steps of detail extraction, colour interpretation, global exposure adjustment, and noise reduction – it is a great tool. I have spent nearly two years experimenting with the various RAW conversion tools – ACR, Capture One Pro, Photo Ninja, DXO OP, etc. Against all these paid options, NX-D performs surprisingly well. It is especially good at colour reproduction, where none of the competition could quite get the kind of accurate true-to-life colours as NX-D could. Of course, I should emphasize that realistic colours does not automatically mean it looks good to everyone! It really boils down to a matter of preference. Personally I find it easier to perform my edits on a well-exposed image with a neutral colour palette. I use NX-D to produce a globally exposure-adjusted, colour-corrected, noise-corrected, high quality 16-bit TIFF to feed into other post-processing applications that are better for detailed adjustments, such as Lightroom. Use the right tool for the job.
However as I have mentioned earlier, NX-D is not user-friendly and insufficient in many aspects. So here are some tips that could help get that RAW conversion part done.
1. Check colour space setting
NX-D will default to exporting in the colour space your image is set to in-camera. I have no idea if it will also work within that colour space, but decided not to take the risk. If you want the exported TIFF to be in ProPhotoRGB, remember to set this in NX-D’s preferences. Image thumbnails may end up being displayed with wrong colours, but the image you are editing is displayed correctly, and it will export to ProPhotoRGB.
2. Change values in discrete increments
See those sliders in NX-D? NEVER DRAG THEM TO SEE HOW THEY AFFECT THE IMAGE. THIS WILL RESULT IN SUPER-SLOW PERFORMANCE. Change values by typing in discrete numbers. Following this simple rule improves your experience by 1,000%.
3. NX-D is NOT “not sharp”
NX-D generates a lower resolution fit-to-window preview image, so some users mistake it as being “less sharp”. Magnify to 100% and you will see that it renders as much detail as other RAW converters. This is not unique to NX-D. Past versions of On1 Photo Suite over-sharpens the fit-to-window image, while Alien Skin Exposure renders an even lower-resolution preview image.
4. Leave “Colour Moire Reduction” off
This is unchecked by default and for good reason. Selecting “Colour Moire Reduction” may remove colour moire but could cause image degradation in unexpected ways. It also adds a lot of processing overhead with subsequent operations, especially noise reduction. Leave this off and NX-D will operate much faster.
5. Enable Axial Colour Aberration Correction
Enable this and set it to 100%. It works shockingly well in a side-by-side comparison with DXO Optics Pro. If you observe any colour degradation, pull it down.
6. Use the Picture Control Styles
Fact: Canon and Nikon’s JPEG engines are good enough that some photographers only use them. They need to be good because event, sports and wedding photographers do not have the time to process every RAW file they shoot. Indeed, I find Nikon’s Picture Control styles very useful for quickly getting a look close to what you are after. In addition, the results are relatively neutral, so you hardly get the uncomfortable feel that the software is imposing some corny or over-abused aesthetic on your work. You can also tweak the result to suit your own tastes with the Picture Control sliders. Here are a few styles that I like to use:
– Flat. Really flat, but helps to lift the shadows substantially. This is useful for when you want the most neutral and evenly-exposed TIFF possible to start with.
– Neutral. More contrast and slightly more colour punch than Flat. This is useful when you feel that Standard has too much contrast but do not want to go to Flat.
– Standard. The results may seem to have a little too much contrast in some cases. However, manually reducing the contrast level could produce something that is close to what you are after.
– Vivid. Does not work well every time, but can yield some surprisingly pleasant good results when you want something more punchy.
7. Set “Sharpen” In Picture Control
Do this in the Picture Controls panel. We recommend to only perform sharpening in the last step of post-processing as saturation and contrast adjustments can yield results that react differently to different levels of sharpness adjustment. Nowadays I set this to 1, but you can experiment and determine your own preferred levels.
8. White Balance and Exposure controls are great
The white balance tool is easy to understand. If you ever have to adjust white balance, you will appreciate how good colour accuracy is in NX-D compared to other RAW converters, especially in mixed lighting. Make the image warmer or cooler, and watch the colours retain authenticity and not go weird.
Use the Exposure Compensation tools for global exposure adjustments. The exposure slider is simple to understand. Active D-Lighting is surprisingly competent for intelligently pushing up shadows and pulling down over-bright highlights. In fact, it is so good that it should count as one of the key features of NX-D. You can get very satisfying exposure compensation results with a click of a button, and get shocked when you say to yourself, “hey that’s exactly what I wanted to do!”
You can also tweak shadows and highlights with the details tone tool if the exposure slider and ADL controls are not sufficient to provide a satisfactory exposure histogram. Be warned that the highlight recovery tool may introduce distracting shades in your image. D-Lighting HS may clip blacks and highlights, so I avoid using that. If even these tools are insufficient, we have the next tool….
9. Use the LCH Exposure Curve tool
This adjusts brightness without affecting the colours. (Do not confuse this with the “Levels & Curves” tool – that will affect your colours!) Use this for more control beyond the simpler exposure/ADL/shadow/highlight sliders. Remember there is no need to be exact. Our aim is to just get different parts of the exposure curve adjusted well enough for us to finish it off easily in another post-processing application.
10. Noise reduction
Make sure to use the latest noise reduction algorithm available. Just leave the detail sliders at 50. I spent a lot of time experimenting with this, and the default value of 50 gives the optimal balance of detail retention and noise reduction.
NX-D’s colour noise reduction is somewhat less impressive than Adobe’s. I do not set it any higher than an intensity of 50. You can always finish off the image in Adobe’s tool later.
NX-D’s luminance noise reduction behaves somewhat in an opposite manner to how Adobe’s noise reduction work. Surprisingly, this can be turned to our benefit.
Using Adobe’s noise reduction tool, low intensity values work on smaller noise grain with little impact on details. Increasing the luminance noise reduction strength removes larger noise grain but you end up getting that over-smoothened plastic look as the reduction strength increases.
NX-D’s noise reduction affects large noise grain first at low intensity values, and it retains details very well while doing so. You have to increase the luminance noise reduction strength to remove the smaller noise grain, and that is when you get that over-smoothened plastic look.
Yes, we can combine both solutions! First, use NX-D’s noise reduction to remove large noise grain. After exporting to TIFF for detailed editing with Lightroom/Photoshop, use Adobe’s noise reduction tool to remove the smaller noise grain. This procedure removes noise and retains details surprisingly well.
NX-D’s noise reduction works slowly, so choose luminance strength levels in increments of 10, then sit back and relax while NX-D applies the changes. DO NOT TRY TO PERFORM ANY OTHER ADJUSTMENT WHILE NOISE REDUCTION IS RUNNING, AS NX-D IS CRASH-PRONE AT THIS STAGE AND YOU MAY LOSE ALL YOUR CHANGES. I don’t push the value higher than 40, as I am uncomfortable with the increasing loss of image details beyond that.
11. Noise Reduction – Additional Topics
By default, NX-D will not clean up hot pixels. Just check the “Astro Noise Reduction” option and those dreaded pixels will disappear magically. I suspect this was left unchecked by default because it might cause problems with astro-photography. Note that this option only shows up if you select the latest noise reduction method.
I am still experimenting with the effect of “Edge Noise Reduction”, and will update this guide when I have a conclusive opinion about it.
12. The Final Workflow summary
So here is my workflow summary in NX-D summarised:
- Select desired picture style in Picture Controls panel. Tweak Picture Control sliders to preference. Enable Axial Colour Aberration Correction. Enable “Astro Noise Reduction” Set Sharpen to a low value such as 0 or 1.
- Tweak white balance if necessary.
- Global exposure adjustment using ADL, exposure sliders, highlight/shadow recovery sliders.
- If necessary, a little exposure tweak using the LCH exposure curve.
- Tweak Picture Control settings if required. I don’t do this all the time, as I may prefer to perform more precise tuning in another image processing application.
- Examine image at 100% and perform noise reduction if needed.
- Export to 16-bit TIFF and carry on editing in a preferred image editor. In my case Lightroom. I now have a well-corrected high-quality TIFF to work with.
The whole process could take less than 5 minutes, or 10 minutes if you are experimenting with different noise reduction values on a noisy image. Remember that you can just leave the smaller noise grain and stubborn colour noise to Adobe’s noise reduction tool.
And that’s a wrap! – WY