|Adobe Camera RAW||Nikon Capture NX2|
If you shoot or are planning to shoot RAW, you are serious about digital imaging, and if you are serious about digital imaging, you need Photoshop.
If you do not yet own Photoshop, you will have to buy, beg, borrow or steal to get it. The good news is, however, you do not necessarily need the latest ($ 699) CS4 version.
If you already have a CS version of Photoshop, but ACR is incompatible with your camera’s RAW format, a practical way to make them compatible is through the DNG converter, which - in its current 5.5 version - supports al present and past Nikon DSLR’s, including the D300S, D5000 and D3000.
See my Nikon/ACR compatibility chart for more information.
I have shared the last 15 years of my life with Photoshop on a daily basis, have used Nikon View 6 and Nikon Capture 4.x on an important part of the 30.000 plus images I have turned out with different Nikons since 2003 (D1X, D200, D40, Coolpix 8700, Coolscan IV), and have tested all the mentioned programs at one point or another during the last 6 years as well.
Since the above is a frequently asked question, and even though I thought I knew the answer, I decided to give it a go, and downloaded a bunch of trials.
In these tests I compare the Adobe Camera RAW 4.6 converter (CS3) against Nikon View 6.2.7, View NX, Capture 4.4.2, Capture NX2, Phase One Capture One 4.8.2 Basic & Pro, using real-life images from the Nikon D200 and D40.
Although these tests are subjective, hardly exhaustive and – therefor - do not pretend to be scientific, I still think they allow for a number of conclusions.
I copied each individual RAW file as many times as necessary to create a separate one for every program tested, so to avoid eventual changes to a file by one program being carried over to the next.
I then opened these individual files in each of the programs tested, adjusted them to my liking, trying to use auto settings where available, and using in camera settings when possible.
All my cameras files come with Adobe RGB and a custom “vivid” color setting, which on import to any of these programs was converted to ProPhoto RGB.
After adjustment, all the files were saved @ 100% as a 16-bits TIFF with an embedded ProPhoto ICC profile, after which they were opened in Photoshop CS3 and copied/pasted to create one single layered PSD file to make direct comparison possible.
To facilitate you to compare these images for yourself, I took a number of 100% crops from each image, which were then converted to 8-bits sRGB, and saved as TIFF.
You can download these files through the links at the bottom of this page, or by clicking on the thumbnails included in this article.
Comparing these programs was far from easy, because each adopts cameras settings in a different way – or not at all – applies different tone curves, sharpening, plus a large range of fine tuning options the use of which, inevitably, results in files that are widely different and extremely difficult to compare, in spite of my efforts to keep them more or less in the same range.
The factors that have most influence on how an image looks at first sight are: tone curve, saturation and sharpening, and even how the programs apply these is impossible to control in a manner effective enough to allow a 100% objective comparison.
Therefore, I had to call upon my 30 or so years in graphic design and pre-press to try to “read through” the differences, and try to establish some common denominators to determine which is the “Champion” – if there is such a thing.
Of course, image quality is not the only factor to take in consideration. What might be, in theory, the “winner” application may – in fact – end last in the race, because of serious usability issues.
Unsurprisingly, the two versions of Phase One Capture One (basic & pro) turn out virtually the same conversions in terms of tone curve and sharpening; after all, their conversion engine is identical. The only difference between the two is the far larger number of “tweaking” options available in the Pro version, which may still generate noticeable differences between the resulting TIFF’s.
Nikon View 6 and Capture 4 conversions are equally hard to distinguish, while the same goes for the next generation products View NX and Capture NX2.
However, where there are considerable differences between the conversions from Phase One and Nikon, the Adobe ACR conversions are very close to the ones from Nikon, even if there are differences; most notably in color separation, contrast and fine detail rendition.
At first, I was quite disappointed with Phase One, until I realized that the standard tone curves that both the Nikon and Adobe programs apply are a little steep, and that Phase One was giving me more headroom and much more in the mid-tones, allowing me additional maneuverability once opening the files in Photoshop.
What I definitely do not like about Phase One is the kind of pinpoint sharpening artifacts it generates with the default sharpening, which is why I included a “nosharp” version in the attached files. Unfortunately, these are notably soft, even if this improves considerably with Photoshop CS3’s “smart sharpening” (try for yourself).
Both Nikon and Adobe appear to apply some kind of Gaussian blur to sharpening artifacts, which – therefore – appear less harsh and more film-like.
|Chromatic Aberration Reduction (click to download)|
|Sample 1 (Zipped TIF - 5.2 Mb.)||Sample 2 (Zipped TIF - 4.8 Mb.)|
Where the differences really start showing up is in how these programs combat Chromatic Aberration.
CA critical images (with extreme contrast transition areas) are definitely better off not processed with Nikon Capture 4 and View Editor 6 (see sample 1), although in images with less extreme contrasts they are as effective as the best "CA beaters" in the race (see sample 2).
ACR 4.6 gives very mixed results because of its manual CA correction; the auto CA correction from Nikon Capture NX2, Capture One Pro and, to a lesser extent, Nikon View NX and Capture One basic is far more effective, even if not perfect.
That said, it is still quite difficult to predict how CA suppression will turn out. An artificial light shot I did for a client this week, actually responded better to ACR's CA reduction than Capture NX2's.
1 – Image Quality.
Whatever criterion one applies, image quality of ACR never comes out on top, with the Nikon programs generally generating better fine detail, superior noise reduction, color rendition, saturation and contrast, while Capture NX2 and - to a lesser extent - View NX also have lateral and axial color aberration pretty much nailed down, meaning that CA is either very limited or virtually absent in the converted TIFF's.
This is not the case with Capture 4 and View Editor 6, which - on extreme images (sample 1) - suffered from the most noticeable CA of all tested programs, but - on the other hand - generated very good CA reduction and the best fine detail and color contrast in some of the more critical images in that aspect (sample 2).
Conversion and sharpening artifacts are virtually indistinguishable between the Adobe and Nikon programs, although the ACR conversion is noticeably “softer” than what comes out of the Nikon converters.
This is probably because both my D200 and D40 have their in-camera sharpening configuration set to medium high, which is “adopted” as standard in the Nikon programs, but not recognized by ACR.
When applying Photoshop's “Smart Sharpening” filter to an ACR image, it becomes virtually indistinguishable from it’s Nikon cousins.
Phase One is a whole different kettle of fish. The one thing that most notably distinguishes the Pro and basic versions is CA control.
In the Pro conversions CA is virtually absent – on par with Capture NX2 – while the basic version shows some minor CA. Basic is more or less on par with ACR, a tad inferior to View NX, better than Capture 4 and View 6 on critical images, but not quite as good on mild CA.
If you are not accustomed to the kind of “head room” even the most aggressive Phase One tone curves give you, you will be most likely disappointed with the “out-of-the-box” conversions.
They look softer, less saturated, “greyer” that anything that comes out of ACR or the Nikon programs.
However, when thinking about it, it dawned on me that Phase One is mainly geared to a professional workflow. These conversions are ideal for CMYK – pre-press – and give you unprecedented play room in Photoshop.
That does not mean they’re of no use to the home shooter; play room is always good and with PS levels you can make these curves easily as aggressive as ACR's, without loosing al the good that’s hidden in these – at first sight – “boring” conversions.
Still, there is one other observation I have: on both testing systems, previews were not consistent at all. Output may turn out quite different from the previews, particularly in color and saturation fidelity.
This is complicated, because it leaves you in the dark about what you’re finally converting to, and readjusting accordingly takes time and is far less precise than anyone would like.
2 – Speed.
If you habitually convert large numbers of RAW files, there is little doubt that Adobe Bridge/Camera RAW/Photoshop (with or without DNG) is your best bet, even if it takes the Nº 3 position in terms of image quality, in these tests.
This is not because ACR is exceptionally fast, but rather because Nikon Capture NX2 and View NX are excruciatingly slow, even on reasonably fast systems geared to image processing, such as mine.
Nikon View 6 is quite a bit faster than View NX (because it handles browsing, previewing and editing in separate applications), and Capture 4 faster than NX2, because the preview pane can be turned off, thus dedicating all available memory to editing and conversion.
However, that does not make them speed demons by any standard; compared to ACR or Capture One they are still considerably slower.
Also, the Bridge/ACR/Photoshop combo - even if it does not adopt personalized camera settings and tone curves - makes for very practical file management with well integrated IPTC/EXIF control, pretty good “auto” conversion and the copy/paste of “development” settings to allow better control over batch conversion.
All of which add - in a practical sense - to the “speed” criterion, because they make work flow faster.
This is where Capture One (Pro) has a slight disadvantage, although conversion appears to be equally quick or even quicker, depending on the capability of your system.
3 – Automation, user interface and usability
|Nikon Capture NX2||Nikon View NX|
|Nikon Capture 4.4.2||Nikon View & Editor 6|
Nikon Capture NX2 and View NX: Hate at first sight.
The pain-in-the-butt award in this category goes – without a doubt – to Nikon Capture NX2, with View NX as a close runner-up.
It is extremely rare to see software user interfaces get worse in next generation implementations, but Nikon have actually pulled off this remarkable feat.
Although slow, Capture 4 had at least an uncluttered interface and worked well in combination with View 6, allowed for customized tool palettes and updated previews reasonably fast.
None of this is true for Capture NX2.
Nikon decided to incorporate the Browser and View applications into the program, which is why previews take ages to come up, why you get a bunch of stupid and cluttered vertical palettes for “Folders” “Mega-data” and “Browser” which – to make things worse – over-pop and/or eat up a considerable part of the preview pane.
Furthermore, you get only standardized tool palettes: “Camera Settings”, “Quick Fix” and “Camera & Lens Correction”, none of which can be customized.
After that, there is a silly “New Step” button which allows more adjustments, but is a TOTAL pain in the buttocks because of the many – badly defined and/or duplicated – options it offers, and because it can neither be customized nor made “sticky”.
For every image you convert, you have to – again – wade through that same silly sea of options.
Nikon clearly do not understand the very first thing about user interfaces and/or workflow, which is why they blundered when including Browser/View capability into the Capture processing interface, for starters.
This is even more painful when we consider that image output is top notch.
On top of that, if you thought Capture 4 was slow, wait until you see Capture NX2: minutes may pass before anything happens, be that previews, modifications or saves.
And, even though saves appear to be slightly faster in NX2 than 4, the save advance bar may stay blank for quite a while, before suddenly speeding to the far end, leaving you in the dark about what – if anything – is happening...
The same goes for View NX: apart of being slow, there are no “auto” settings at all, having you guessing all the time what to adjust and how much.
Also, be sure to save your corrections, or else the conversion will take the original NEF, rather than the corrected version.
The other glitch I found is that I had to activate the “rescale” button in the save options, and manually set it to the original’s size, or else the program would, for some mysterious reason, DOWNSCALE the conversion. Don’t ask me why, ask Nikon…
|Phase One Capture One||Phase One Capture One Pro|
Capture One: Sense and Sensibility
Phase One is quite a bit more intelligent when it comes to the user interface, and its programs allow processing and adjusting Phase One, Nikon and Canon RAW files, DNG, TIFF and JPG.
The Pro version has an additional button for tethered shooting, but apart of that, all option buttons are identical, although in the Pro version the underlying tool palettes have a depth that goes even beyond ACR.
The Quick Adjustments palette contains indeed everything needed for quick adjustment, all tool palettes can be customized or hidden, there are “auto” settings for most of them, while the Pro version lets you add more tweaking options with a simple right click.
I like the work flow logic too: it goes in a linear mode from quick to detailed, and each adjustment palette allows for deeper fine adjustment according to the option(s) selected.
A palette for IPTC is included, while you may also create IPTC templates.
Furthermore, adjustments can be saved as “recipes” for future or batch use, and you can create adjustment “versions” of each file for easy comparison.
The final palette – “Process” – gives a summary of the adjustments made, allows for up-scaling (200% max.), activating or deactivating sharpening, plus a simple process advance bar.
Any modifications made to the files are saved separately to the Capture One database, which saves a lot of tweaking when reprocessing the file later on.
View options, unfortunately, appear to not be sticky. I like my thumbnail palette on the right hand, but every time the program starts up, it returns to its default position at the bottom of the pane.
|Adobe Bridge CS3||Adobe Camera RAW 4.6|
Photoshop/Bridge: Pro Workflo.
When it comes to user interfaces, it is hard to beat Bridge/ACR/Photoshop. Like it or not, you get what you pay for.
Bridge is slow when generating previews – especially for RAW and heavy PSD files – but once it’s done, you can batch adjust IPTC data through a template (slow too), copy/paste “develop” settings from one image to others, and adjust file info for one file or as many as you want simultaneously.
Batch tools let you create contact sheets, merge multiple files into a 32 bits HDR or stitch them into a Panorama, create a web gallery, plus a handful of other options, including batch processing all files in a folder.
Bridge can be configured to handle not only RAW, but also TIFF and JPG files through Camera RAW, which makes a wide range of tweaking options available to any of these files, depending on what version of ACR you’re running.
Those who have read my Adobe related articles before, know that I’m a critic of Adobe when it comes to innovation in Photoshop, however, this criticism does not apply to ACR.
Every new main version adds more tweaking options – useful or not – and I just found that installing the DNG Profile Editor, also installed a whole bunch of camera specific color profiles in ACR, which I believe to be an interesting improvement.
Opening a file in ACR CS3 lets you correct almost anything: exposure (± 4 EV!), color, hue, saturation, tone, split-tone, straighten, crop, clone out dust bunnies, reduce red-eye, rotate, define color space, bit depth, upscale up to 200%, etc., etc., etc..
The only thing it lacks is automatic CA correction, because even if you try hard to get it right, most of the time it is not quite it. Furthermore, it combats only lateral CA, not axial.
All changes are saved either to the Bridge database or to XML “sidecar” files, which means that all your corrections are kept without modifying the original RAW files.
After that, it’s Photoshop. I simply can’t do without it. Point proven by the fact that all the tested programs allow you to open processed files straight into Photoshop, without saving first.
Verdict & Economics.
Nikon were never very good at software and user interfaces. You would expect they’d do better now they’ve teamed up with NIK on Capture NX(2).
However, the contrary is true.
Both View 6 and Capture 4 – even if slow – had good usability, a pretty clean user interface, customization, handled previewing separate from processing, while Capture also included Camera Control for tethered shooting.
In View NX, Capture NX and later, Nikon completely cocked up the user interfaces, managed to make the programs even slower than they already were, giving us absolutely nothing in return in terms of usability and customization. To make things worse, they then went on to strip Camera Control out of Capture.
However, there is a catch:
In my tests, Capture 4.4.2 is the top performer in terms of image quality, color contrast and fine image detail. Close runners up are Capture NX2 and View NX, both of which also beat the rest of the bunch (with the exception of Capture One Pro) hands down when it comes to CA correction. They are also, together with View/Editor 6, only second to Capture 4 in terms of image quality. Capture 4, on the other hand, has the worst in group CA correction performance on extreme high contrast transition areas, but is good to very good on all other images.
Free: Nikon View/Editor 6. Relatively fast, uncluttered user interface and very basic RAW conversion, close to top notch image quality, poor to fairly good CA performance. Imports custom camera settings.
The browser opens NEF, JPG and TIFF files in any image editor available on the system (configurable). Can browse and preview JPG and NEF images from Nikon DSLR cameras produced after the D2Xs (D80, D40(X), D3, etc.), but Editor 6 can not open or edit the NEF’s.
Free: Nikon View NX. Slooooow, terrible user interface, better than View 6 RAW conversion options, no automation, close to top notch image quality, good CA performance. Always saves modifications to the original NEF (can be reset to recorded values). Imports custom camera settings. Opens NEF’s from any Nikon DSLR ever produced.
Nikon Capture 4.4.2 (not commercially available anymore). Faster than NX2, slower than ACR and Phase One, uncluttered, customizable user interface, automation, advanced RAW conversion options, best in class image quality, good CA performance except on critical images.
Optionally saves modifications to the original RAW (keeps original camera settings, marked with *). Imports custom camera settings and dust-off reference images.
Includes Capture Camera Control for tethered shooting and advanced camera control from the computer. Cannot open or edit NEF images from Nikon DSLR cameras produced after the D2Xs.
The program is still available for download, although not as a trial. You might still try to get you hands on a registration key, because it is most definitely a valid option for use with compatible cameras.
|Nikon Capture 4 Camera Control|
$ 180: Nikon Capture NX2. Slow, slow, slow, horrible, cluttered user interface cannot be customized, extended RAW conversion options, automation, soft proof, only second to Capture 4.4 in image quality, top of class CA correction, imports anti-CA from supported cameras (D3(X), D300(S), D700), imports dust-off reference images.
Optionally saves modifications to the original NEF, which appears to increase file size by ± 20%, can be reset to recorded values. Imports custom camera settings. Opens NEF’s from any Nikon DSLR ever produced.
If you want/need tethered shooting, Camera Control Pro will set you back another $ 180.
But then again, Photoshop does not have this function at all. If you don’t work in the studio or do location work on a regular basis you probably won’t need it.
Truth is, it is a little hard to learn and get used to. However, once you understand the why of its “soft” output, you will appreciate how forgiving its conversions are. They leave a lot of room to play with in Photoshop.
Image quality in general is extremely close to Nikon’s; the only thing I truly don’t like are the “pointy” sharpening (or demosaicing, not sure) artifacts it produces. You might want to try deactivating sharpening in the conversion options, and leaving that to Photoshop.
However, I’ve also observed that some fine detail may get lost this way, so maybe the best alternative is to turn down default sharpening to your liking, and save it as a default instead.
The basic version is most definitely a valid and economical alternative for an ACR upgrade. Camera support, although a little behind Adobe and Nikon, has always been flawless, and paying € 99 for speed with an image quality that lies between Capture and View seems like a pretty good deal to me.
Also, Phase One currently offers a free upgrade from Capture One v.3 to v.4, while updates for new cameras are free as well.
Definitely not a business model Adobe or Nikon are likely to adopt anytime soon…
Remember, however, that you still may need some version of Photoshop for more advanced image editing, but then, that goes for the Nikon programs as well.
€ 99 (± $ 140): Phase One Capture One Basic. Fast, logical, uncluttered user interface, automation, better than basic RAW conversion options, close to top notch image quality, decent CA performance. Saves modifications to database. Does not import custom camera settings. Can also process DNG, TIFF and JPG files, does not yet open NEF’s from the very latest Nikon DSLR’s, but surely will in the near future.
€ 399 (± $ 560): Phase One Capture One Pro. Fast, logical, uncluttered user interface, automation, very advanced RAW conversion options, top notch image quality, top notch automated anti CA including purple fringe reduction, tethered shooting.
All tool panels can be customized with a simple right click to add any adjustment option you like. Thus, you can gear Pro 100% to your personal preferences and work flow.
Saves modifications to database. Does not import custom camera settings.
Can also process DNG, TIFF and JPG files, does not yet open NEF’s from the very latest Nikon DSLR’s, but surely will in the near future.
You pay a lot, but also get a lot in return. Even if Photoshop suffers from bloat and an incomprehensible lack of innovation (no tethered shooting, no real HDR, etc., etc.) ACR is evolving constantly and Bridge – even though not revolutionary – proofs that Adobe understands what (professional) photography and work flow are all about.
ACR’s image conversion quality is good, even if it takes a backseat compared to Nikon and Phase One, in my opinion. Still, it is important to remember that in real-life use, the differences are not staggering.
The only way to decide if they are important enough for your reality, is by taking a look at the samples or – even better – trying out everything yourself.
There is, however, one thing that Adobe definitely need to improve on: at least in ACR 4.6 (CS3) CA control is outdated compared to the competition, and I’m unaware whether or not this has improved in CS4 (ACR 5.x).
All Nikon programs and Phase One offer some kind of automated CA reduction and, even if their levels of effectiveness are different, at least Capture NX2 and Capture One Pro work extremely well.
Free: Adobe DNG Converter. An excellent solution if you have a camera that is not compatible with your current Photoshop/ACR version.
Simple batch conversion of RAW files. Works only with folders, not individual files. The resulting Digital Negative files open in any version of Photoshop CS1 and better.
Image adjustment options depend on the version of ACR you are running. The latest version of DNG Converter (5.5) opens NEF files from all Nikon DSLR’s, including the D300S, D5000 and D3000.
Free: Secondary ACR updates (v.4.4, v.4.6, etc.). Primary upgrades (v.4.0, v.5.0, etc.), on the other hand, require a Photoshop ($ 199) or PS Extended ($ 349) upgrade.
The current ACR 5.5 version is only compatible with Photoshop CS4, Elements 7 and Lightroom 2.
$ 699: Adobe Photoshop/Bridge CS4/ACR 5.5. (PS Extended $ 999)
Bridge is rather slow on RAW preview generation, but ACR is pretty fast for conversion, has an outstanding tool set, batch options and user tools, a user interface second to none, extended RAW conversion options, automation, image quality slightly inferior to Nikon and Phase One, manual, thus poor to decent CA performance (at least CS3/ACR 4.6), depending on the type and level of CA present in the image.
Saves modifications either to the Bridge database or to XML "sidecar" files. Does not import custom camera settings. ACR 5.5 (CS4 ONLY) opens NEF files from all Nikon DSLR’s, including the D300S, D5000 and D3000.
If you are a casual user, this is not an easy decision to make. Each of these programs have their own advantages and disadvantages and the choice for a particular one depends largely on the type of work flow you have, the kind of money you are willing to spend and your general quality demands.
Unfortunately, there is no easy trade-off: it’s either speed and ease of use, or top notch quality, or a freebie. You can’t have it all.
If money is not an impediment, you may actually end up using 2 programs: one for speed, general conversion and one for the occasional top quality conversion of some of your outstanding or very demanding images.
If you have “legacy” Nikons as well as last generation, you might even end up gearing your post workflow to your cameras/image types, rather than programs.
During this testing period, it has become clear to me that there is no such thing as “the best”: almost every image has a different program to make it truly shine.
Of course, that is hardly a practical approach to processing massive amounts of images, which is why I will stick with PS CS3/ACR 4.6 as my primary RAW processor and will probably upgrade at some point in the future, hopefully when Adobe’s gotten CA correction under control.
Since all these programs (including Photoshop CS4) can be downloaded as trials, I would not spend a single cent until trying them all, if I were you.
If you think that goes too far, I encourage you to at least try Capture One, because it is faster, has a far better user interface, is more customizable than any current Nikon program, and more economical than Nikon Capture NX2 or a ACR/Photoshop upgrade. When you consider that your time is money too, you can include the Nikon freebies in that equation…
One thing is for sure: the € 99 price tag for the basic version is a tough act to follow, especially if you consider that it will probably outlive various Adobe, Nikon upgrades, and already offers the best value for money among the tested commercial programs.
Let’s just hope that Phase One add support for the latest Nikons sooner rather than later…
Hard to decide? You’ve got that right…
You might also want to read:
Got a new camera? Problems with Photoshop or Camera RAW? Check out Nikon Capture NX-D. FREE!
How the DNG Converter makes your RAW files compatible with any version of ACR
Samples (click on the thumbs to download)
Fine detail rendition
Comment from: [Member]
Thank you Ivan, for taking the time to comment.
For those with Macs, RAW Developer, by IridentDigital, is a $125 application with a well deserved reputation for high resolution conversions of RAW files. It supports most RAW files, and is updated frequently. And it exports 16-bits per channel.
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