RAW Conversion and Photo Manipulation

Last fall I purchased a digital SLR: the popular (and relatively inexpensive) Canon Rebel XT. I had been dabbling with digital cameras for a few years and was having increasing amounts of fun using the limited manual controls of my Canon S50.

As a technical person part of the draw is simply learning about the equipment, and in particular how to quickly adapt to various shooting conditions by changing the ISO, shutter speed, depth of field. Then there's the gadget factor with being able to choose from a variety of lenses (and flashes, etc.), often with difficult trade-offs. Oh, and it's funny how my personal taste often tends to drift towards "pixel peeping": the sharpness of the part of the subject I had intended to be in focus, the bokeh, the dynamic range, etc., sometimes at the expense of the subject. :-) I've done this forever. Back when I was an Amiga user I would find pictures that exemplified what the Amiga could do, also ignoring the subject ("Look, isn't that a high quality image!").

With this in mind, I find it fun to shoot almost exclusively in RAW and later post-process all of the images. After searching around and trying out various pieces of software I've converged on three main photo-related applications:

pixmantec RawShooter Essentials

This is an excellent RAW processing application and is available for free download. There's also a premium version available for a reasonable price.

RawShooter is great for going through an initial large batch of photos, flagging and categorizing the ones worth keeping, doing initial adjustments, and converting to JPEG. It is fast and has a pleasant real-time preview of most of the operations, and the output is reasonably high quality. The application is multithreaded so that you can queue up images and have it convert them in the background as you continue to sort and adjust. Overall I highly recommend this app, with only a few minor caveats:

  • The sharpening / detail extraction algorithm sometimes creates what I call a "watercolor" effect on parts of the image that are out of focus. This effect seems to be atypical of most sharpening algorithms and sometimes occurs even with very low sharpening (too low, given that RAW files generally need some sharpening).
  • The workflow is great, the engine is good, but parts of the UI are a bit quirky. This isn't a reason to not use RawShooter, but a bit of polish could go along way.

So far I use RawShooter for most initial conversion and I highly recommend it. However when I have a really good image I reach for...

Adobe Photoshop CS2

Due to the price, and the fact that I'm not a professional graphic designer, photographer, or any of those things, I had been hesitant to take the plunge. However, there is such a community around Photoshop that if you want to participate in certain graphics forums, read books, learn tips, share Actions, and generally have the best tool available, it's almost unavoidable.

Photoshop's Camera Raw plug-in is more cumbersome to use than RawShooter, but gives more control and (in my experience) higher overall image quality. In particular, the "watercolor" effect isn't present, and it's nice to have Curves (which are available in RawShooter premium). It's also nice to import the files directly into Photoshop to do additional post-processing while keeping the higher dynamic range. I've saved at least a couple of blown out skies this way (and without going overboard on post-processing either).

The downside of the Camera Raw plug-in is that it's relatively slow and so far I haven't found it effective for converting many images in sequence. When combined with Adobe Bridge it is capable of batch processing, but for me RawShooter is still better for the initial culling and conversion steps.

Once I've converted and finished post-processing I reach for...

Microsoft Digital Image Suite 2006 Library

You knew there had to be at least one Microsoft product in the mix, right? :-)

After trying a variety of photo managers I found that our product was best for my needs. It's fast and great for cataloging and rating pictures. The latest version's built-in image viewer is pretty good as well. It doesn't require any kind of custom directory structure or try to rearrange my images and otherwise complements the OS. For me the fact that it looks and feels like a normal Win32 application is a bonus; I'm not a fan of skinned UI with nonstandard behavior unless there's a strong justification.