This post is of interest to people who use cameras and process images. I originally wrote it for the Canberra Photographic Society.
There is of course no ultimate workflow for processing RAW files. Everyone will have a different approach. So I’m not offering a recipe. However, there may be some ideas or information that you can adapt to your own unique processing style.
- The first part deals with why you might want to assess images using FastRawViewer (the only way to see an accurate picture of a RAW file) and why you might want to consider bracketing files.
- The second part shows a way to quickly process images in Lightroom using Autotone as a starting point.
- The third part is a somewhat detailed survey of alternatives, including Fuji-specific issues, plug-ins, other RAW processors, Capture One and Luminosity masking.
There is something for everyone and it covers quite a lot of ground so some may prefer to come back multiple times for different sections.
The most important thing in Photography is to use your own vision to produce an image the way you visualise it, not what the camera or computer decides for you, or what fashions dictate. Post-processing is a very important part of that.
Otowa Bridge at dawn, Hokkaido. This is a stitched panorama with very little other processing. All images benefit from some processing, a few require very little.
Part 1: Why?
RAW files offer potentially greater quality for both tonality and colour than JPEGs though they do require processing. A JPEG file is a subset of a RAW file with limited capacity to make further changes. Some people choose to shoot JPEG so they don’t have to process the image but that only works well if your subject has a limited tonal range and you expose accurately.
For any exposure, it is better to “expose to the right”. This means that the histogram for an image in your camera should be as far as possible to the right side without there being a white line shooting up the border which indicates overexposure. There are partial exceptions to this where bright lights are part of your image such as concert lights, streetlights, the sun or specular highlights. Exposing to the right is important because there is much more information in highlight areas with detail than in shadow areas.
A histogram with a solid white line to the right, indicating overexposure
Your camera shows a histogram for a JPEG file, not a histogram for a RAW file. (Well, unless you have the rare and expensive Leica Monochrom). This makes exposing to the right straightforward if you are shooting JPEG but more mysterious if you are shooting RAW. Usually for RAW you will have about two-thirds of a stop extra highlight room from what the histogram shows (and shadow room) but that varies for different cameras, exposure situations and probably lenses. Your camera “blinkies” are also based on the JPEG histogram.
If parts of your image really are completely overexposed, those parts will have no detail and there is nothing to recover. Similarly with shadows that really are completely underexposed. But if your image is just generally underexposed (and not out the the left of the histogram), you may still be able to recover a viable image, perhaps with some increase in noise. Modern camera sensors have greater dynamic range (they can record a greater range of tones) so there’s more leeway than there used to be.
I shoot RAW because the dynamic range of a scene is often greater than a JPEG can capture. I often bracket when shooting landscape because the dynamic range is often greater than a RAW file can capture. I also shoot RAW because I am interested in the best image quality I can get. A JPEG is what the camera sees but I want more than that. For live music I want to express the music, for landscapes I want to create the feel of it or create something entirely new from it. Photography for me is about creating images, not capturing them, and the exposure is only part of that.
There’s usually no point in bracketing when the subjects are moving, such as live music, wildlife, street photography and most portraits. It becomes useful in landscape and architectural photography. Sometimes, even when parts of your image are moving, you may be able to deal with that later and may want to bracket for the parts that are still.
There are three reasons for bracketing:
- Focus bracketing (For a greater depth of field than a single exposure)
- To accurately expose to the right
- Exposure bracketing (For a larger tonal range than a single exposure)
Focus bracketing is relevant in specific circumstances and I will briefly touch on this later.
Bracketing for accurate exposure to the right is a logical way to find the optimal exposure for a single exposure, bracketing upwards by say third stop intervals. I must admit it’s not something I’ve ever bothered to do.
Exposure bracketing is the most common reason. You bracket because the range of tones in a scene may be greater than the dynamic range of a camera. It’s often a good idea to bracket all your shots and work out afterwards which exposure or exposures to use. You may then end up with a more accurate exposure or you combine the exposures later in an HDR application or manually in Photoshop.
If you’re using a mirrorless camera, it’s easy to determine how many exposures you need because you can look at histogram and blinkies and manually change exposure to see the effect before you take the photos.
Further reading: When in Doubt, Bracket by Iliah Borg. Also: QAD HDR: Expose to the Left and Right by Thom Hogan
In order to determine which images you want to process, it is obviously important to determine which ones are correctly exposed.
We have already seen that your camera shows you a JPEG histogram (in the sRGB colour space), which is much smaller than the tonal range that your sensor can capture in a RAW file. Similarly, your monitor is sRGB or aRGB and printer somewhere around there so neither your monitor nor your print can show you the full range of a RAW file. So even though Lightroom uses ProfotoRGB as its working space, which is probably similar to your camera’s sensor, it cannot use that to display the image and therefore does not use it for the histogram. This also applies to any other RAW processor except for FastRawViewer.
Many people are using Photo Mechanic or ACDSee for image review as they have both been around a long time (since 1994 for ACDSee and since 1998 for Photo Mechanic; FastRawViewer came out in 2014). However, they don’t show you a RAW histogram and they are also much more expensive. They do have additional functionality but Lightroom has that functionality as well. FastRawViewer is the only way you can see an accurate picture of the exposure of your RAW file. It is also cheap, at $A32.
So I use it to help determine which images I may wish to process and I will show you how in due course.
Lightroom is a RAW processor that mainly makes overall changes to your files and includes image management and bulk processing capabilities. Photoshop is a pixel-level image editor that allows complex regional changes and generally processes one image at a time. If you’re getting into image editing, it’s usually better to start in Lightroom, which is much more accessible.
I should add that when I say Lightroom I mean Lightroom Classic CC 2019. If you’re using Lightroom 6, use of FastRawViewer will still apply but I’d stay away from the [Auto] button, and most of the more advanced features of Lightroom I touch on will not be available.
If you’re using Lightroom CC, it’s currently a cut-down version of Lightroom Classic CC and I don’t know how much will apply. Perhaps in time, all functionality will be there.
If you’re using Bridge CC and Adobe Camera RAW, most of this article will still apply but Camera Raw will not allow you to bulk process with the [Auto] button the way you can in Lightroom.
Lightroom and Photoshop are the industry standards and most people use one or the other or both. There are alternatives though. ON1 Photo Raw, Skylum Luminar, DxO PhotoLab and Capture One Pro are the main alternatives to Lightroom. Affinity Photo and Photoshop Elements are alternatives to Photoshop.
Capture One has been around longer than Lightroom (2002 vs 2007). Martin Evening does an interesting comparison of the two and finds that some people’s claims of better sharpness for Capture One are simply different initial settings that can be easily changed, they both have advantages over the other and they are more similar than most people think.
ON1 Photo Pro, Luminar and DxO PhotoLab are more recent competitors and many of their controls copy those of Lightroom. If you are using one of those then read on by all means though I suspect much of what I have to say on Lightroom for the [Auto] button and some recent changes may not apply.
Matt Kloskowski has some interesting articles on The state of post-processing and photo editing and Is there a Lightroom replacement?
I’ve been using Lightroom since Beta 1 and Photoshop since I think Version 5 and feel no need to switch. I think the Lightroom/ Photoshop subscription is good value and while I can understand that people with erratic incomes may prefer standalone applications, if you purchase all the upgrades, the cost may end up about the same. If you’re using one of the programs just mentioned, there’s probably no need to switch but if you’re using a free editor you will likely benefit from considering alternatives. This article refers to people processing RAW files on their computers and will probably not apply to most people using their phones (I don’t use a mobile phone myself).
Why Auto Tone?
The Auto Tone (or just Auto) button in Lightroom is on the Basic panel of Develop. It used to be a waste of time but a recent update has introduced artificial intelligence based on a database of photographers’ processing. So the effect is customised for each image.
There are two advantages of this. One is that it allows to compare images without having to manually adjust many of them. In particular, images can look quite different at different levels of exposure and if you compare differently exposed images, you may select the wrong one. So if you are not using the [Auto] button, in order to determine which you want to prioritise, you will likely need to adjust images for at least exposure using the Quick Develop controls in the Library module.
The other is that it speeds up your subsequent workflow. The closer you start to your final intention, the easier the processing task. So I find it useful but I stress, only as a better starting point.
Part 2 Process
Importing to Lightroom
Lightroom Import module
I import my files into Lightroom, assess them in RawFileViewer, then update the files in Lightroom. Others may prefer to copy the files to disk, assess them in FastRawViewer, then add them to Lightroom. Nothing wrong with that, but there are a couple of reasons I prefer to do it this way. First, I don’t delete any files that I identify using FastRawViewer, I mark them for deletion, so I’m still going to import them into Lightroom anyway. This is because that my “good” copy of an image may later prove to have something wrong with it and I may want to look at alternatives I earlier discarded. Also, I’m comfortable with the semi-automated interface of the Lightroom Import module and feel I’m less likely to make a mistake than doing it manually.
Top right of Import Dialogue
There are a few options I select when importing images.
I select Build Previews: 1:1. This creates a full-sized JPEG that Lightroom can use when you zoom into an image in the Library module, thus speeding up the process. There are a couple of other options. Standard previews are full-screen previews but not large enough to be used when you zoom in to 100%, for example to check sharpness. Embedded & Sidecar Previews are from your camera, so Lightroom doesn’t need to generate them. They are usually roughly equivalent to standard previews, except for Fuji and Olympus and maybe other mirrorless cameras, where they are smaller and not useful. They speed up import but Lightroom regenerates them to standard previews when it gets a chance, so they may slow down editing. None of these “normal” previews have any effect in Develop.
I also generate smart previews. They are very small RAW files that still retain detail and speed up operations in Develop, including zooming in to 100%. They have no effect in the Library Module. Both kinds of previews slow down the import process but speed up subsequent editing.
[Don’t Import Suspected Duplicates] is an obvious option to check. When I am travelling I will also check [Make a Second Copy To …] to create a backup to an external disk.
I have also selected a custom import preset that I previously created (The selection for Develop Settings). I have several of these, mainly depending on what camera I am using.
You may also choose to add keywords at this stage that are common to this batch of files.
Creating an Import Preset
Presets Pane and New Develop Preset dialogue box.
I use import presets to speed up my process, to make by default the changes I want to make to all images. Otherwise, I might end up making the changes image by image or forget to make them.
To create an import preset, you start with an unedited image in the Develop module, make the changes you want to be your default. Then you click the [+] in the left pane to the right of Presets. This produces the dialogue as shown, so you can specify what you want to save and click [Create].
One of the things I include is a default sharpening setting, such as the presets Adobe provides (shown above). They don’t work so well for Fuji files though, which require a different kind of sharpening, so in this context, different presets.
I used to have a set of default values for the sliders at the top right of Develop (Exposure, Contrast, Highlights, Shadows, Whites, Blacks) but I don’t any more since I’m using the [Auto] button. These came from Michael Clark’s A Professional Photographer’s Workflow.
I also make some choices for Lens Correction. I check [Remove Chromatic Aberration] because why wouldn’t you?. Conversely, you should probably leave [Enable Profile Corrections] unchecked unless you know your camera does not write profile corrections to RAW files for any of your lenses. In the screen capture above, you can see the note at the bottom Built-in lens profile applied. In other words, the camera has already written a profile into the RAW file. In the case of fisheye lenses, where you might want the image uncorrected, corrected or to use a different method of correction, but you can always change the checkbox later.
Assessing Images in FastRawViewer
I now open FastRawViewer to assess images.
FastRawViewer screen, As with all images, you can click to see it larger, though for the screen fragments, there’s no point. They stay small.
Top right of FastRawViewer screen above, some of the key information.
FastRawViewer shows an actual RAW file histogram. The image above is a middle image in an exposure stack. The range of tones is too great for a single exposure so parts of the image are overexposed (with no highlight detail) and other parts underexposed (with no shadow detail). As well as the histogram, we can see as a percentage, how much of the red and blue channels are underexposed and how much of the green channel is overexposed.
Not all images should be discarded just because they have overexposed or underexposed regions. Live music, night shots and shots including the sun may have overexposed elements and some specular highlights may be fine as they are. Similarly, although it is usually desirable to have detail in the shadows, in some cases and in some places it may not matter. FastRawViewer gives you an accurate picture of highlights and shadows. Other applications could show an image as having both blown highlights and black shadows whereas neither may be true.
You will notice at the bottom of the above overall screen that I have assigned colour labels to images. Red ones are marked for deletion. By default, if you use the recommended FastRawViewer shortcut key for deletion, it moves the file to a subdirectory (and doesn’t assign a red flag). I don’t see the point of that because moving a file is slower than changing metadata so I use red as marked for deletion. I also use green as the first image in a stack (whether bracketed for exposure, focus, panorama or a combination), yellow as subsequent images in a stack and blue for information signs (in this kind of travelling anyway). I may also assign one star to an image identified for processing.
I mainly use FastRawViewer for assessing exposure and to a lesser extent for assessing sharpness. It can show edge highlights which I find of limited use although you can zoom in and out of 100% view very quickly. I generally prefer to assess sharpness on images with default sharpening in Lightroom. FastRawView also has other capabilities that I usually do not use.
FastRawViewer comes with a useful manual and pressing [F1] shows you a list of shortcut keys. Ones I use include [O] to show overexposed regions, [U] to show underexposed regions, [P] to show edge sharpness highlights, [Ctrl] to zoom to 100% on an image where you last clicked and [Ctrl] to zoom out.
You can also define your own keyboard shortcuts with File/ Customise/ Keyboard Shortcuts. Consistent with Lightroom, I have defined 1 for one star, 6 for red label, 7 for yellow label, 8 for green label and 9 for blue label.
Once again, there are two main advantages of FastRawViewer for pruning and selecting images: it gives you a uniquely accurate view of a RAW file and it is faster than Lightroom.
FastRawViewer Review by Nasim Mansurov.
Updating Images in Lightroom
Lightroom stores the changes you make in the catalogue and it can also store them as sidecar files. Most people use only the catalogue because saving changes to sidecar files slows things down. FastRawViewer, though, stores changes in sidecar files and does not update the Lightroom Catalogue, which means you have to update Lightroom for those changes.
(This applies only if the files are already in Lightroom. If you copy them to your hard drive, assign flags in FastRawViewer and next add them to Lightroom, then Lightroom will pick up those metadata changes when you add the files).
Updating metadata in Lightroom
To update the files in Lightroom, I then select them all in grid mode in the Library module and right-click to Metadata/ Read Metadata from Files. (Alternatively, there is the menu command Metadata/ Read Metadata from Files.)
Next, I select all the images with a red flag and press “x” to mark them for deletion.
That works fine with Lightroom. It probably works with ON1 Photo RAW and Luminar, since they copy many of Lightroom’s features. They should either read directly from the sidecar file or if they use a catalogue, there should be a way to update the catalogue.
Some people use Photoshop and Bridge. By default, star ratings came through alright from FastRawViewer to Bridge but the colour flags all came through as white. This is because FastRawViewer is using Lightroom’s labels for colour flags.
Dialogue box defining labels for colour flags in Bridge.
If you want colour labels to come through from FastRawViewer to Bridge, you can select Edit/ Preferences/ Labels and change Bridge’s default colour labels from Select/ Second/ Approved/ Review/ To Do to Red/ Yellow/ Green/ Blue/ Purple. (If you don’t want to do that, Bridge shows the Red/ Yellow/ Green/ Blue/ Purple text values in the Labels panel at the left. You can select images with text values and use Bridge shortcut keys to assign the correct colour flags).
Marking files for deletion in Bridge is called rejecting them. You can select files with red flags and reject them by pressing [Alt][Del]. Then you hide them by unchecking View/ Show Reject Files.
I would think everything I refer to below for Lightroom will also apply to Camera Raw except that you can only process one image at a time.
In our Lightroom workflow we now apply Auto Tone. With all images still selected in Grid Mode of the Library Module, I select the Attributes Unflagged Photos Only and at the far right click the “Unlabelled” colour. This hides images marked for deletion and also the images with colour labels. I do not need to apply Auto Tone to bracketed images and I only need to be able to read the images of signs.
Next I go to the Develop tab. At the bottom of the right pane you will see buttons [Sync…] and [Reset]. To the left of [Sync] is the Autosync switch.
Click it up and the [Sync…] button changes to [AutoSync].
Now click the [Auto] or Autotone button in the basic panel. Each selected image is individually adjusted.
After Auto Tone
To be specific, AutoTone adjusts most of the sliders in the basic panel including Tone sliders of Exposure, Contrast, Highlights, Shadows & Whites, and Presence sliders of Vibrance and Saturation. It does not adjust the White Balance sliders of Temp and Tint and it does not adjust the sliders of Clarity and Dehaze.
Important! Immediately reset the Autosync switch back to show [Synch..] rather than [AutoSync]. If you do not do this, each time you edit an image in Develop when you have multiple images selected in Grid, you will be changing them as well. By the time you discover this, there might be quite a problem to untangle.
I stress again, this is not the end to editing. It just gets you to a better starting point. It does speed up your task but the most important advantage is that it gives you a much better basis for comparing images to assess which to proceed further with.
If you have a Bridge/ Photoshop workflow, you can also apply Auto Tone in Camera Raw, but only to one image at a time.
Further Processing in Lightroom
As I said earlier, I’m not intending to get into detail about how to process in Lightroom and Photoshop because that would require a book or video series and there are lots of excellent ones around, for example: Julianne Kost on Lightroom and on Photoshop. However, I will make a few brief comments and also refer to a few capabilities some may not be aware of.
- After AutoTone, I will usually make some adjustments to the Tone Curve and Basic Sliders.
- I may also drag on an area of the histogram in Develop
- I may increase clarity a little,
- I may increase Dehaze a little if required and I may adjust Colour Balance.
- I will straighten the image if it needs it.
- I will crop as required.
- I tend to use standard aspect ratios plus a few I’ve defined rather than a custom crop because I feel it helps you see alternatives, I can use standard mattes for prints, and I feel images often look better in precisely a standard aspect ratio (especially square).
I usually leave sharpening at standard and seldom feel the need for noise reduction, even live music shots at high ISOs. (Excessive noise is usually due to underexposure.) I prepare my images with printing to A3+ in mind, for printing a lot larger I might need to be more rigorous in sharpening and noise reduction.
The graduated filter, radial filter and adjustment brush at the top of the Basic panel are all useful for regional modifications. The screen capture shows the radial filter selected (the white circle at the top) with both the brush and the range mask enabled (controls at the bottom, below the main box of sliders).
In the image display, you can use the [O] key to show or hide what is selected. You can decrease or add to that by painting with the brush, and you can restrict the changes to specific colours or tones with the Range Mask. Also, that little down arrow at top right under the word Brush brings up a slider where you can increase or decrease the whole effect.
Those four little squares at top right of the basic panel bring up the Profile Browser. I don’t tend to use Presets (on the left hand side of the Develop Tab), except for specific purposes such as sharpening, because they are saved settings that will overwrite other changes you have made and because I prefer to decide for myself how I want an image to appear. However, I do use profiles for some images. They make an underlying change that doesn’t change any sliders you have already specified. Camera profiles, such as you have in your camera, can be useful, especially perhaps in the case of Fuji cameras. There are also artistic profiles, either as supplied by Adobe or purchased from third parties that I sometimes find useful. They have an aggregate slider so you can calibrate the effect. For me it’s not a case of going for the whole thing and getting a cliché, it’s identifying where an image may be a little deficient and using one to subtly adjust the image. I use camera profiles moderately often and artistic profiles occasionally.
I also print from Lightroom. Printing for me is the purpose of photography and a print has a quality and permanence that a digital image cannot attain. You can get better quality if you do it yourself and in any case, if you get someone else to do your printing it isn’t entirely your own work. Lightroom offers a powerful interface that allows you to save much of the complexity of the printing task in presets. Here are some articles on printing from this Blog:
Launching to Photoshop
For many people, Lightroom may be all they need but Photoshop offers a depth of possibility for regional and pixel-level processing that Lightroom cannot. For some people, Lightroom offers quick processing while others may even spend days on a single image in Photoshop, finessing detail in processing with multiple layers.
Apart from when I use Photoshop for HDR, focus stacking or panoramas, one of my main uses of Photoshop is removing or modifying elements of a photograph in ways that are not available in Lightroom. One of these is content-aware fill and a more powerful new version of this has just been released. With a few images I may get into complex processing with layers and perhaps luminosity masks.
Many profound regional changes are possible are possible through layers in Photoshop. However, it is also a good thing to understand Lightroom or Camera Raw well enough to understand whether they may offer a quick and simpler alternative that may work as well for a specific task and image.
As an illustration of an approach focusing on Photoshop, here is an article from this Blog showing a Photoshop Workflow by Helen McFadden.
As an aside, for people using Photoshop: Have you ever been working with the brush tool and suddenly it turns to a cursor and you can’t use it? I’ve had that happen to me quite a few times over the years and I’ve only just discovered what causes it. It’s accidentally hitting the [Caps Lock] key. That’s some ancient shortcut for an obscure design process. So it just takes hitting the [Caps Lock] again to get the cursor back.
Part 3: Alternatives
RAW Conversion of Fuji Files
There are a couple of issues that are specific to Fuji cameras with an X-Trans sensor.
Some people see artifacts (“worms”) in the fine details of Fuji images. X–Trans files require different sharpening settings than files from Bayer sensors and this problem is caused by inappropriate sharpening. Thomas Fitzgerald has some free Fuji sharpening presets and there is a link on that page to an inexpensive eBook on the issue.
Some people also claim the Lightroom does not demosaic these files well, particularly for landscape files, so they are lacking in fine detail in foliage. Some claim that Iridient Developer (Mac only) or Iridient X-Transformer or Capture One can give better results and others claim they see no practical difference. I can see no difference in most files and where there is a difference you may have to look at the files at 100% or more.
With Iridient X-Transformer, you can still use Lightroom and do a round trip with selected processed NEF files to incorporate the difference. The file comes back as a DNG and you then [Sync Settings …] from the NEF. If you’re interested, this video shows the process and Thomas Fitzgerald has a small e-book that shows you how to set minimal processing in X-Transformer and comes with some relevant sharpening presets. You can get X-Transformer as an indefinite trial that leaves watermarks.
I tried duplicating the output of X-Transformer and Capture One in Lightroom and found most of the difference is from increased clarity for the foliage. I found I could get similar effects by: (1) creating a gradient outside an image to create a mask for the whole image; (2) In Range Mask/ Colour, use the selector tool to select an appropriate green range; and (3) increase clarity considerably and sharpness a little for the selected foliage.
The bright yellow-green is the area highlighted as being “in focus” by the “Focus Mask” in Capture One and is mainly foliage. Rather than the image being in focus at a particular distance, this shows that Capture One uses additional clarity/ sharpening for Fuji files.
However, as of 13 February 2018, there is a new feature in Lightroom that addresses this issue (right-click to “Enhance Details”).
- If you encounter an error message “requires Windows 10 October 2018 or later”, this is because Microsoft aborted an update last year. In Windows, you need to go into Settings/ Update & Security/ Windows Update/ Check for Updates, select reboot when it finishes, and probably go back in there and select reboot again when your PC comes back up. This may take some time.
This creates a DNG beside the file in Lightroom, rather like Iridient Transformer. For the image above, I found a significant improvement with the new algorithm, better than Iridient Transformer and about as good as Capture One. I had to compare the differences at 100% but the differences were significant.
On my PC (which is fairly fast), it took 15 seconds for the dialogue box to load and it then predicted 15 seconds processing time but took 25. It will be slower on a standard or older PC. Most images will probably have little or no effect. It mainly applies to T-TRANS images where there is fine repetitive detail, particularly with foliage.
Like Iridient Transformer, to save time and space, you can run this on some of your final processed images,to get a new DNG version of your RAW file, and then copy the changes from the original file using [Synch Settings]. This might be most appropriate for an image you want to print large.
The file size changes (and implications for disk space are also significant). The original file is 22MB; the Iridient Transformer DNG is 56MB (2.5x); the Enhanced Details version is 104MB (4.75x); and the TIFF returning from Capture One is 137MB (6.3x), though all the changes are stored in Capture One, I can use JpegMini to reduce it to an 8MB JPEG (0.4x).
Monochrome conversion in easy in Lightroom and Photoshop, and also there are many obscure and complex ways to do it in Photoshop, but I use Nik Silver Efex Pro, both easy to use and versatile. I usually create virtual copies of a set of images in Lightroom, do a quick b&w conversion, and decide from them which to process in Silver Efex Pro.
You can process for HDR (exposure stacking) and panoramas in Lightroom and Photoshop. You can also process for focus stacking in Photoshop. It’s a good idea to explore these if you subscribe before investigating third party alternatives.
For HDR, I also use an obscure Polish program called SNS-HDR and may do manual blending in Photoshop or luminosity masking in Photoshop. I also have Photomatix but I haven’t used it for some years because it used to favour a grungy look I had little sympathy for. The new version looks better so I may reassess that. The other alternative is Aurora. I downloaded a trial to check it out but couldn’t get it to work. Too many options. You don’t need them all.
Apart from using Photoshop to process focus stacking, the main options are Zerene Stacker and Helicon Focus. I tend to favour Zerene Stacker because it has better correcting options. However, sometimes extensive manual adjustment in Photoshop is required and sometimes focus stacking just doesn’t work. Consider combining two images with a flower in front of a mountain. The flower is in focus in one and the mountain in the other, but in the image with mountain in focus, the out-of-focus flower will be larger than the in-focus flower in the other image. Consequently, you’ll get an out-of-focus area around the flower in the combined image that is not easy to correct.
There are many panorama software options apart from Lightroom and Photoshop including some free ones. I use Kolor Autopano Giga which is more powerful than Lightroom and Photoshop but is no longer available from Kolor (though still from B&H).
I also use JPEGmini, which intelligently downsizes JPEGs to a minimum size without loss of detail, and can be a Lightroom export preset.
Alternative RAW Processors
The main reason people look for an alternative to Lightroom is to find a cheaper alternative that does not include a subscription. Personally I find the Lightroom / Photoshop subscription good value at $A170pa for the simplicity of the interface, the functionality it offers and the profusion of videos and books available. Of the alternatives, ON1 Photo Pro costs $A140 to purchase and $A112 to upgrade; Luminar costs $A99 or $219 with Aurora HDR (upgrade cost not specified) and DxO PhotoLab costs $A280 (Elite edition; upgrade cost not specified).
All of them are good RAW processors with some unique features though they all lack functionality compared to Lightroom so none is a true substitute for Lightroom or for Lightroom and Photoshop. This may change though. If you’re going this way to avoid a subscription, you may want to also purchase Affinity Photo as a Photoshop substitute which costs $A80 (no discount for upgrade). Luminar and DxO PhotoLab offer layers though, as a partial alternative to Photoshop and DxO PhotoLab offers Nik U-Point capability.
Another alternative is to use them as an addition to Lightroom because all of them allow round trips from Lightroom. The images must come back as TIFFs (or similar) which are about five times the size of a RAW file.
There are also free versions of Capture One for Sony and Fuji though they are fairly basic and don’t include spot removal.
Another alternative I’ve been ignoring is Lightroom CC, where you store your images on the Cloud, rather than Lightroom Classic CC, where you store images on your hard drive. It currently has less functionality but that will improve over time. The plan for this casts Photoshop aside and instead you have up to 1TB of Cloud storage space. The problem is that it loads all your images from your hard disk to the Cloud. That might be alright if you’re sure you’ll never have more than 1TB of images but if you do, storage space on the Cloud becomes very expensive. I suspect that for many people this is a financial trap.
If you cancel a subscription to Lightroom Classic CC, you lose access to Develop and Map tabs but everything else still works including Import, Export, Print and Quick Develop in Library. If you cancel a subscription to Lightroom CC, you’d lose web storage so you’d need to first ensure you have all images on your hard drive. If you cancel a subscription to Capture One, you can still use the free Sony or Fuji versions. You won’t be able to import files from other cameras but you’ll see all files already in the Capture One catalogue and can modifythem to some extent or export them but not print them.
ON1 Photo Raw
ON1 Photo Raw is a well featured application that comes at a reasonable price. It works as a browser so you don’t need to import images and it has useful features including layers, HDR and panoramas. It also has a good capacity to import a catalogue from Lightroom, say 80% effective for the images.
The main obvious drawback is that many users find it slow but there are also other issues that may be of more concern. It stores all changes in a database in a hidden location on your C Drive. You should set it to save changes to sidecar files, otherwise if the database becomes corrupted you will lose all those changes. There is no capacity in ON1 to back up the database. If you need to uninstall ON1 and reinstall it, you may find it does not uninstall cleanly so you should save a system image before you install ON1 for the first time. Since it is a hidden system file, I would presume an ordinary backup programme won’t be of use to back up the database, you would need incremental system images. You may also need to use Acronis to restore a system image to dissimilar hardware if you upgrade your computer and want to transfer the database.
Another potential issue is the since the database is a hidden file sitting on your C Drive, it will get larger over time and may tend to fill up your C Drive, causing performance issues.
So it may be cheap but there are some potentially significant issues to consider and it becomes less cheap if you also need to purchase Acronis.
For more information, see this review by Spencer Cox. I will update for other applications as other reviews become available.
I said at the beginning of this paper that this was just my workflow at the time of writing and that it changes. It’s changing as a consequence of writing this because I’m seriously considering Capture One.
Capture One is a different prospect to the other choices to Lightroom. It’s not cheaper, it costs twice as much ($A480, upgrade $210 or $380pa for subscription paid monthly). And then if you need additional functionality of Lightroom or Photoshop, it costs three times as much.
Capture One was designed for professionals and was originally for use with Phase One medium format digital backs and for sessions in the studio. It has a highly customisable interface which is both a good and a bad thing. I don’t think it’s very suitable for a beginner. Lightroom has all controls displayed on set screens and it is fairly easy to work out most functionality just from a general understanding of how it works. Capture One takes quite a lot of initial study and while the onsite videos and user guide are very good, there is not the depth of videos and articles available for Lightroom and almost no books.
The color editor is very powerful, much more so than HSL or the colour option in the range mask in Lightroom, more equivalent to Select Colour Range or Hue/ Saturation in Photoshop, but easier to use, probably more powerful and does not require conversion to TIFF or PSD. Skin tone controls are also very good and Capture One is also very capable for camera tethering.
Masking is very good in Capture One including fine tuning by using “Refine Mask”. It allows a degree of local adjustment not available in LR, especially in conjunction with the use of layers. There are also four kinds of clarity (and structure) can quickly give effects I don’t think are easily available in Lightroom or Photoshop. For some images I can extract more detail in Capture One.
Black and white conversion is also very good in Capture One. I’ve had some results I haven’t been able to get in Nik SilverEfex Pro.
There are also disadvantages. The Lightroom catalogue can probably be as large as you want but the Capture One catalogue slows down if it gets too large. I’ve read 35,000 and 50,000 but probably it varies. It doesn’t have a History, which is a significant disadvantage. It also doesn’t have Lightroom‘s Map, Book, Slideshow and Web modules, photo organisation is better in Lightroom and very few plug-ins are available. There is also no HDR, panorama or focus bracketing. You also can’t change an image’s Date/ Time if you’ve mis-set your camera when travelling.
Browsing and selection functionality is quite hidden in Capture One and requires significant research to work out how to set it up. Lightroom‘s interface is much easier to understand but Capture One is probably as powerful. (I’m still coming to terms with it). Similarly for searching and filtering.
The printing interface is much inferior to LR. You can’t do side-by-side before-and-after soft proofing, there are no gamut warnings and though you can define printing presets, they don’t include printer settings. I also much prefer Lightroom’s semi-automated output sharpening because you can’t see correct print sharpening on the screen and would otherwise have to work out a strategy for different papers by trial and error.
I expect to subscribe to Capture One. I will also continue subscribing to Lightroom and Photoshop because both have functionality not available in Capture One. It is likely to take several months to develop a new workflow partly or fully incorporating Capture One.
Using Lightroom and Capture One
I am currently using Capture One in conjunction with Lightroom and Photoshop. Capture One is a powerful editor but there are many things Lightroom and Photoshop do that it cannot. Also, there is no point trying to transfer my images over from Lightroom, so I maintain my Lightroom catalogue which I don’t need to split up. I’ve only been using Capture One for three months and I’m still feeling my way but it seems better for rainforest, live music under stage lighting and more complex local edits, especially involving colours, whereas Lightroom seems better for straightforward outdoor shots involving people.
Currently I use FastRawViewer and Lightroom for culling and selection. I import and process some of the selected images in Capture One. I either use Ratings to select images for edit in Capture One, or I first move them to a subfolder in Lightroom.
To export images back to Lightroom, I use a standard directory, then move the files to where they need to go. I at first grabbed the files in Lightroom by right-clicking the standard folder and choosing Synchronise Folder…, but it’s easier to define the standard folder as a watched folder and then the exported files just pop up in a subfolder (/File/Auto Import/Auto Import Settings, then /File/Auto Import/Enable Auto Import). Usually those files are full-sized prophoto jpegs, minimised in size with JPEGmini. No point to have TIFFs or DNGs, which are much larger. If I need to work on them in Photoshop, they will be TIFFs. They may also be TIFFs if I need to print them, though JPEGs are probably good enough there as long as I don’t change them much.
Luminosity masking is making a selection in an image from the lightness or darkness of a tonal range and using that to make a range of changes to the image.
ON1 Photo Pro, Luminar, Lightroom and Capture One have all recently incorporated luminosity masks and it’s been in Photoshop since the digital Middle Ages. It’s in Lightroom in a basic form as the “Range Mask” and similar in ON1 Photo Pro. Capture One has a slightly more flexible form and in Luminar it’s very basic.
In Photoshop it’s very powerful and potentially mind-blowingly complex. You can do it manually but it’s easier to use an embedded application, which you pay for or use in a very simple way for free. David Kingham provides a review of them which includes a very informative but very long video. I have TK Actions, which is the most powerful but requires significant Photoshop experience. ADPpanel is probably more suitable for most and Lumenzia is another alternative. They require a fair level of dedication so don’t feel compelled to explore one. Probably you don’t need to.
Switching RAW Processors
If you’re looking to switch to another RAW processor, your existing files may be a logistical issue. Each application processes files in a proprietary way and you may be able to export few changes to your RAW files unless you export a TIFF, at around five times the size of the RAW file. So if you have a lot of files, this may require more disk space than you have.
The best case is likely to be migrating from Lightroom to ON1 Photo Pro, which will import most Lightroom changes because it is designed as a Lightroom substitute with many of the same commands. Luminar is also working on a tool to migrate from Lightroom. Capture One imports only the most basic changes from Lightroom.
Except as TIFFs, I would think it’s most unlikely you’d be able to import any layer-based changes from ON1 Photo Pro, Luminar or Capture One to another RAW-processing application and obviously not where the functionality does not exist in the destination application.
Kolor Autopano Giga has recently gone bankrupt, is no longer available for purchase and will no longer be updated.
DxO Labs, which owns DxO PhotoLab and the Nik Collection, has declared bankruptcy but continues to trade and a new version of the Collection is due next year.
Aperture used to be the main alternative to Lightroom, but Apple abandoned it.
The camera market is declining due to smart phones and the same pressures will apply to photographic software. Also at present, China’s and Europe’s economies are not doing well, the US has a boom financed by ballooning debt and Trump is threatening a trade war not seen since the Depression, so a World recession or depression is possible. This would not help.
You would think that Adobe would be pretty secure though Kodak demonstrates that even the mightiest can fall. Phase One (maker of Capture One) has been around for a long time so you’d think they’d be secure though Fujifilm is clearly undercutting their medium format cameras and backs. DxO PhotoLab may be the most vulnerable since DxO Labs is already bankrupt. ON1 Photo Pro and Luminar might also prove vulnerable.
If one of these companies goes under, it might get bought out and maybe nothing changes. Otherwise, you probably have a program that will never be updated and at some point an operating system change might stop it working. You’d have to consider the security of your files.
Backing up is an essential part of every photographer’s workflow.
My data drive is a RAID 10 array which provides extra security but not an extra level of backup because the whole RAID array can fail. I use Acronis to backup to a Drobo and also have a set of backups on disconnected disks. I use CrashPlan for Small Business for my third level of backup, to the cloud (BackBlaze or IDrive is probably more suitable for most).
More on backing up for photographers in an article in this blog here.
There’s also an article in this Blog on Computers for Photography.
The wake of a ketch. Some images require subtle processing.
We’ve looked in this article at a workflow for processing RAW files primarily with FastRawViewer and Lightroom: FastRawViewer is the only program that offers an accurate view of a RAW file; Lightroom is powerful and enables bulk processing.
If you’re starting off I recommend the Lightroom/ Photoshop subscription combo. It is likely to be more comprehensive than the alternatives and more training materials are readily available. I can’t say there’s anything wrong with the other choices I’ve mentioned above though.
I suggest starting with Lightroom and only feeling your way into Photoshop when you find a need for its features. You can quickly come to a basic understanding of Lightroom and do a lot with that. Gradually you may come to understand much of what Lightroom can do. Hardly anyone fully understands Photoshop though many people have sophisticated individual approaches.
Effectively processing a single image is most desirable and it’s also important to have an efficient workflow. Digital photography often involves taking lots of image so it is most useful to have an efficient method or assessing and processing those images en masse. That is the main subject of this article.
Just as buying lots of cameras and lenses is not a substitute for developing your individual vision and getting out there and taking photographs, so buying lots of processing applications is not really a substitute for understanding the ones you have.
I’ll repeat what I said in the beginning: The most important thing in Photography is to use your own vision to produce an image the way you visualise it, not what the camera or computer decides for you, or what fashions dictate. Post-processing is a very important part of that.
I’ve tried to write this concisely for everyone at all experience levels.
Feel free to make comments or ask questions.