Petteri's Pontifications
My musings about photography, mostly.
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Raw Shooter Premium Field Report

Raw Shooter Premium Field Report

The program that originally sold me on RAW was CaptureOne DSLR, from PhaseOne, the Danish manufacturer of medium-format backs. It not only took the drudgery out of RAW processing, but actually made a RAW workflow easier, faster, more fluid, and more efficient than a JPEG workflow -- with all the flexibility and improved quality you get from RAW into the bargain. Eventually, some of the original developers of CaptureOne left to start their own company, and came out with Raw Shooter Essentials. I suddenly found myself using RSE a lot more often than CaptureOne LE -- despite the fact that I had paid for the latter, twice over in fact, after having to buy after-market color profiles to correct pretty egregious errors in the color reproduction. When Raw Shooter Premium finally came out, I bought it without even trying it out first. While I felt that I certainly got my money's worth (at least at the introductory price of about 65 euros), I still had one significant niggle with it: while certainly not the worst on the market, color accuracy still left something to be desired. Not long afterwards, Pixmantec came out with Color Engine -- as far as I can tell, just a fancy name for a package of camera profiles from the Internet's official camera profile guru, Magne Nilsen of Etcetera.

RAW workflow programs are in my opinion the most significant development in digital post-processing since Photoshop. They make it possible to process pictures intuitively and in real time, in big batches at a time, seeing exactly what you're doing, and improving consistency and quality in the process. Spend a minute or two on one picture getting the white balance right, then click-click, apply it to every shot in the series. Spend another minute or two on another picture, getting the tone and color right, click-click, apply it to the rest. Then do little adjustments on individual images that need it, for exposure for example, kick them into the processing queue, and move on to the next batch. Enormously easier than wading through them one by one in Photoshop, even with the help of the widgets that have been tacked on afterwards.

defaults

"Ghost of the Cathedral," processed twice in RSP, then blended in Photoshop. Nope, a RAW workflow tool won't obsolete Photoshop -- there are still some sophisticated things you just can't do at one pass. But it does make doing the basic and most common work much, much easier.

In order to really work, a RAW workflow application has to get three things right: image quality, image controls, and workflow. It has to give you the controls to do what you want, the workflow to do it fluidly, easily, without making you wait, and without interruptions, and it has to deliver results that are at least "good enough" if not absolutely the best possible. Combined with the Color Engine, RSP delivers on all three counts (a few niggles aside), and even without it, it only falls a little short in one of the areas -- namely color accuracy.

It's pretty obvious that I like RSP. A lot. It's not perfect, and there's a definite learning curve involved, but once over it, it's clearly the nicest RAW workflow program I've used, and really leaves very little to be desired. So, what you're reading isn't as much a review as a field report -- my write-up on what it is that I like about it (plus a few things I don't), and how I feel you should proceed if you want to make the most of it. Pixmantec has the courage to do things differently, which means that their program is easy to misunderstand and takes something of an open mind to approach -- but after the initial hurdle, at least I have found it an immensely powerful tool to use.

The Raw Shooter Rationale

It's perhaps a bit presumptuous of me to weigh in on the rationale underlying the Raw Shooter design, since I have had absolutely nothing to do with the development, nor have I discussed it with any of the designers or developers. However, given the rather unique user interface, I feel that a short discussion of my perception of it is in order. If any of the Raw Shooter designers is reading this, please feel free to set me straight. And please fill in the subjunctives and conditionals in the text that follows -- I decided not to burden it with too many seems, appears, apparents, and in my opinions.

Most RAW toolkits are designed around the assumption that the photographer wants as "finished" a product as easily as possible, where "finished" is defined something like "looks like nicely-exposed slide film." The advantage of this assumption is that even a complete newbie working with the default settings will get very nice results right out of the box. However, the downside is that if you want to depart from this assumption, for whatever reason, you will have to jump through a few hoops to get there: the controls are there, to be sure, but there's a feeling that you're somehow going against the grain of the program when you want to produce something that looks different -- say, low-contrast neg, for example.

defaults

An EOS-10D frame, converted at default settings with (from left to right) RSP (with Color Engine enabled), Digital Photo Pro 2.0, and Adobe Creative Suite 2.

Raw Shooter's assumption is the opposite. It assumes that the photographer treats the RAW file like a negative. It makes very few assumptions about the final intended "look" of the picture. Therefore, the default rendering of a RAW picture looks a bit boring. It's pretty flat: there's significantly less contrast and vibrancy to it than in slide, in-camera JPEG, or the defaults with most of the competition. In particular, there's a lot of detail retained in the shadows. Some describe this in negative terms as "hazy." This approach has an advantage, though: it makes it easier to see what's actually in the RAW file. You see deeper into the shadows, further into the highlights, and wider into the color gamut. Increasing contrast or saturation are subtractive processes: both visually and mathematically, it's easier to increase than decrease them. So, the RSP starting point is something like a (very large) straight contact print on low-contrast paper -- it'll give you a good idea of what's in the "neg," but it's probably not what you want as your end result. That's where the controls come in.

defaults, detail

Detail from the above frame. Note the lower shadow contrast in the RSP frame. That's the "haze" some point out.

Controls and tools

Raw Shooter Premium groups different types of image controls into a few panels and tabs, controlled with sliders, buttons, and graphical widgets like a color wheel, curve, and histogram. The buttons aren't immediately self-evident, but once learned, they're quick and easy to find. From the user interface schemes I've used, Raw Shooter's is far and away the best -- it has a bit of a learning curve, as it's not quite like any other Windows application I've used, but once over the initial hump, it becomes extremely fast and intuitive. Somehow it manages to distil the complexity of image adjustments into a pretty small number of one- or at most two-dimensional controls that work very predictably and controllably, and in real time. Some of these controls are simple and familiar -- color temperature, tint, levels, curves, saturation -- but others package a lot of complexity under a simple slider. The latter include Shadow Contrast, Highlight Contrast, Fill Light, and the new Vibrancy. They are clearly more than just simple global adjustments. They're hard to explain, but they work -- by manipulating them together with the more traditional ones, I can get very close to an end result that would need much heavier Photoshop work, using multiple layers blended in different modes, or the Shadow/Highlight tool in it. Like anything, they take some getting used to, but once there, they're marvelous.

Punchy

A "punchy" rendition of the same frame, done with RSP. I pulled down the "exposure" control about 1/3 of a stop, bumped up shadow contrast a bit, and adjusted the black point to bring down the shadows. This is much "punchier" than I usually do them. Note how well the skin tones are kept under control despite the major increase in overall saturation. So if you want punchy, don't be fooled by the bland defaults -- you can make it as over-the-top as you like.

Another of Raw Shooter's specialties is noise control. Being a high-ISO shooter (you would be too, if you lived this far north!) this was one of the main attractions of RSE for me. Noise suppression is controlled in three dimensions: color noise suppression, noise suppression, and pattern noise suppression. Of these, I find color noise suppression the most useful, since it affects detail and tone very little, while getting rid of speckles, blotches, and color banding extremely efficiently. The banding I saw on my 20D in JPEG's or most other RAW converters was virtually gone with Raw Shooter, if I cranked up the color noise suppression control up. Personally, I don't use the other modes of noise reduction much beyond an occasional, light touch of noise suppression. Overdoing it results in a glossy, "plasticky" image, and both pattern noise suppression and noise suppression tend to do bad things in the shadows -- clumping up the noise and clipping the rest into black, which significantly reduces shadow detail and aggravates any banding that may be present. I can see that they would be useful if used selectively, for example to suppress midtone noise in flat areas like the sky. Noise on my 5D simply isn't a big enough issue to warrant such aggressive measures as this. On the other hand, I tried it on some ISO3200 pictures I had shot with the EOS-10D, and it didn't really help much with them either. Perhaps future exploration will find a use for these features, for example with very long exposures with "starfield" noise.

Noise suppression off

An actual-pixels crop from an ISO3200 frame shot with the EOS-5D, with color noise suppression turned up and other noise suppression almost to the minimum. The shadows need a bit more work in post-processing to get rid of the "noise haze" (for example, duplicating the layer, applying the Median filter, and applying it in Darken mode with a mask restricted to the shadows works very well). However, I like these settings the best -- detail is retained impeccably, and the noise pattern is very tight, fine, and almost completely non-chromatic. This is better quality than ISO400 film, and good enough for any print size at quite high standards.

One of Raw Shooter Premium's most powerful features is the new Appearances menu. It is very easy to "can" groups of settings under a single "appearance," and apply it to one or more pictures just by selecting it. It is especially nice that Appearances can be set to affect one or many image characteristics, and can therefore control different aspects of the image without overriding or interfering with each other. For example, you can create a set of different white balances from reference shots, and use them like in-camera presets. While it's an unusual decision to leave the presets out of the regular controls, I understand the rationale. However, it would help with the learning curve if the program came with the standard "Daylight," "Cloudy," "Shade," "Incandescent," "Fluorescent," and "Flash" preconfigured, instead of making users run around taking pictures of coffee filters under various kinds of lighting. However, the Appearance menu tends to get awfully crowded awfully quickly, and it becomes hard to remember which appearances affect which settings: it would be good if there was some way to reorganize them, for example in a series of menus or sub-menus. Like bookmarks on a web browser, perhaps.

Man Against Machine

An image converted with a "Punchy Hi-ISO" Appearance that I stored. I use it for dusk and night streetscapes, where I want to emphasize the light and color. The only thing I did outside RSP was to add a touch of sharpening for the screen, since it came out a hair soft from RSP when I converted it to my desired output size. Better this way than a hair too sharp.

Workflow

The good folks at Pixmantec have clearly worked hard to make Raw Shooter -- both Essentials and Premium -- something that's fast to work with. User interface responsiveness is truly exemplary -- everything that can be done in the background, is, and never seems to slow down the user-triggered actions. You can zoom in and out, use a magnifier to pick up detail, and see almost any change you make with the sliders take effect in real time. It's extremely quick to zap tweaks between pictures, copy them to the clipboard, or paste them in selectively or as a whole. The control and tool set are geared around the same goal: to make it as quick as possible to "can," customize, and automate repetitive tasks. The new features, Appearances and Custom Curves, make it possible to literally get Raw Shooter Premium to adapt to your way of doing things. The more you use it, the faster things will get, and not only because you'll stop fumbling with the controls. Once you've got a few Appearances stored, it's incredibly easy to get the results you want, with great consistency in series too.

The Wild Bunch

"The Wild Bunch." A picture converted with one of the "black and white" appearances I've saved (for the purposes of this article, done with no further processing other than a sharpen -- normally I would tweak it a bit more, although nothing very drastic). I'd very much like better control over black and white -- it's possible to do stuff by manipulating the white balance and tint controls, and even tint the "print" with the "tone" control, but it feels like I'm flying blind -- I go back and forth with the sliders until I get something I like. A "filter effect" control, for example -- being able to set the color and density of a simulated filter, with the output going into monochrome.

Premium adds a few other features to Essentials that will nicely streamline the workflow: the crop tool, the rotate tool, and the possibility to set output resolution. Cropping and rotation work very nicely -- in particular, the rotate tool allows you to drag a line along the horizon, and will rotate the picture to fit that. The crop tool can be set for different aspect ratios (you can add your own to the menu too, which is very nice), and even composition gridlines for those of us who like the Rule of Thirds. Pity you can't turn it off when cropping, though.

The output resolution feature is a little more problematic. You can set the scale factor or the pixel dimensions, and mark which takes precedence when moving between pictures. However, it's in a separate tab and is applied globally, meaning that you can't store it as an Appearance. This is a pity, because you would want to use different levels of the other settings for different output sizes -- more or less sharpening or noise reduction -- and it would be handy to be able to store and recall such settings as bundles. It's not that useful for batch processing either, since in that situation you would normally be processing to some set output size, regardless of, for example, cropping. Technically, the feature works well enough although not spectacularly -- downsampled images are just a bit on the soft side, which is good since it's easy to sharpen them to any desired degree, while upsampled images look actually pretty good, unless you want to go really big in which case it's probably the best idea to use a specialized tool like QImage.

What I would really like to see in this feature is the possibility to save the output size along with other settings as an Appearance, and a way to specify the output size by the larger dimension. For example, if I'm processing pictures for a Web article like this one, I want them at 600 pixels at the larger dimension; if I'm processing them for Flickr, I'd want them at 1024 or 1200 pixels at the wider dimension, and if I'm processing for large prints, I might want them at 6000 pixels. It would be handy to be able to set these parameters as easily as the various correction and adjustment settings.
Up-rez by 150%

An EOS-5D image up-rezzed by 150%. This will give 300 dpi on a 55 x 37 cm print -- pretty big indeed. Mostly artifact-free, nice edge retention: not a bad job at all. In fact, it looks more detailed than native-resolution crops from my compact digicam.

In a nutshell, the Raw Shooter Premium user interface is good. In my opinion, it's currently the one to beat. The experience of using a really well designed user interface -- and I don't mean the appearance; RSP is short on chrome and looks frankly ugly -- is not something that's easily communicated in writing. Unfortunately, it's not something you can get a whiff of by downloading, installing, and playing with it for fifteen minutes. You do need to give the program some time, and let your fingers get used to the controls, as it were. Once you do, it will respond to your commands as fluidly as... well, a really well-designed camera. However, like with cameras, it's not at all a given that Raw Shooter is the right tool for you -- it's designed for a certain type of approach, but the approach is by no means the only valid one, and it's not at all suited to certain ways of doing things. So as much as I like it, I'm sure that not everyone will, no matter how much time they spend with it. Unfortunately, the only way to find out if it'll work for you is to try it out for long enough that you can make up your own mind in an informed way.

Image quality

The latest generation of RAW conversion tools have raised the bar of image quality extremely high. Raw Shooter Essentials broke new ground in detail extraction when it originally came out, but the competition has at the very least caught up. For this reason, Raw Shooter Premium is no longer the image quality standout RSE was. I cannot honestly say that the results I get from RSP are, on balance and on the pixel level, any better than what I can get out of Digital Photo Pro or Adobe Camera RAW (except in one minor area, CA correction.) However, once I found the settings that worked for me, they are no worse either, which is no mean feat. The advantage that RSP brings to the table is a great deal of control over the processing parameters directly related to image quality. It is possible to balance detail extraction against noise control, get a great deal of control over sharpening, and so on. The flipside is that because it lets you do whatever you like, it helps a lot if you know what you're doing: someone new to RAW who doesn't have much experience correlating appearance on-screen with appearance in print will likely get a few near-misses before getting hits, but that's the price you pay for the added control. I don't want to get into a fight over which RAW converter is capable of the absolute best quality at this time, since I honestly don't know -- as far as I can tell, in the right hands all the major players are capable of extremely good quality. So, I'll just say that I am entirely satisfied with the pixel-level quality of Raw Shooter Premium, and leave it at that.

Many Worlds

"Many Worlds." A demanding image to convert, with channels and highlights all over the place, and lots of low-key zones where it's hard to maintain detail. I have no complaints... other than the stairstepping in the red "Bio" text, which strangely appears even when I convert it to this tiny size. I've seen this stairstepping in a few places where there's a strong contrast between red and neutral; not enough luminance detail in the other channels for Raw Shooter to bite on?

Raw Shooter does still stand out over the competition in one particular area: correcting lateral chromatic aberration. It does it quietly, with no user input, and very effectively. Lateral CA simply disappears, as if it never happened. Since this is a very common problem especially with wide-angle lenses, I love this little characteristic -- even if it is possible to "disappear" it in the 8-bit processing phase fairly easily. Hardly a deal-maker, but a very nice feature nevertheless.

Color Engine -- worth the price?

My opinion? Yes, it is, if you have one of the cameras supported. No, the difference isn't dramatic, and yes, you can probably get pretty close to what you want even without it, by manipulating the various controls you have at your disposal, but it does make life a lot easier. You have a more accurate baseline to start with, and the color seems to "stay put" better e.g. when you mess with the white balance. Without it, there's an element of push-me-pull-you to the processing: get the skin tones right and the greens will look a little off; get the reds right and the sky looks just a bit weird. Until you find whichever combination works for that particular picture, and you're set. Without Color Engine, Raw Shooter errs on the side of drabness, and some odd things can happen when you punch it up. With them, the starting point is perhaps a touch too vibrant for my taste, but pull it down, and the color stays very much under control. I can appreciate the amount of effort needed to make good profiles for a large variety of cameras, and Magne Nilsen hasn't gotten his reputation for nothing -- but I do still feel that Pixmantec would do well to bundle Color Engine in, and be done with it. It's easy to feel cheated if you just paid for something, and then have to pay more to get what really should be right out of the box. Still, an officially supported product is better than completely third-party profiles. Color is hard, but it's very important -- critically important for some applications -- and it shouldn't be left for an afterthought.

My advice? If you've bought RSP and have one of the supported cameras, go ahead and tut-tut at Pixmantec for not getting it right in the bundle, but do yourself a favor and get Color Engine too. It'll remove one worry and make life simpler, and certainly won't hurt the end result -- even if you end up making creative decisions that would make a colorimeter weep.

With and without color engine

A photo converted with identical settings other than the profile -- internal on the left, Color Engine on the right. The one on the right is both more pleasing and more accurate (the color of the pashmina is bang-on in the one to the right while it's significantly off to the left.)

So, what's not so hot?

One area that Pixmantec has neglected -- and that I suspect will somewhat needlessly cost them customers -- are "dummy modes." Raw Shooter does have a few "Auto" buttons -- for estimating white balance, exposure, or both -- but in many cases they make things worse, even much worse. Even with some pictures that should be pretty easy, really. Similarly, there are no presets for the standard white balances, and the preset Appearances are nondescript in their names and somewhat strange in their effects. This means that someone who's not already pretty experienced at looking at pictures and manipulating controls to nudge them in a particular direction will almost certainly make a royal mess, and has nothing to fall back upon. These people are most likely to give up in frustration before they get to the point where they can start using the program effectively. This is not their fault. It's a shame that you have to be either pretty experienced or pretty nerdy to be able to get into Raw Shooter and really leverage its power: Pixmantec would do well to ease their learning curve by improving the Auto modes and adding some easy-to-understand Appearances, such as the basic white balance presets and intuitive, simple ones like "Vivid," "Landscape," "Portrait," and so on.

The question I ask myself of a program intended for the general public is, "Could my mother use it?" As it happens, my mother is an excellent photographer and was the first in the family to go digital, so it's quite likely she would surprise me, but frankly I think that no, she couldn't use RSP as it currently is. The learning curve is too steep. It's a shame, because it could do wonders for the pictures she shoots with her 300D.

Shosta

My father as a young man, photographed by my mother Kerttu Kelomaa-Sulonen. Slide digitized with the EOS-5D, converted in RSP.

The bottom line

Yeah, I like it, as if you couldn't notice by now. Raw Shooter Premium is capable of extremely high quality, a few minor niggles aside such as the red-channel stairstepping in some problem images, and it delivers the quality with a unique and at this time unbeatable set of controls. No other product I've used makes adjusting images so easy and so fluid yet so controlled. The extra features over Essentials are not cosmetic -- it really makes a significant difference to the efficiency of the workflow to be able to can Appearances and customize the processing preferences in other ways, as well as to be able to crop and straighten pictures in the conversion phase.

But is it good value for money? In my opinion, not without the profiles in Color Engine. It's annoying to have to buy two things to get something as fundamental as color right, but the combination is, in my opinion, excellent value. It can deliver completely professional results much more efficiently and fluidly than anything else I've used. Without color engine it's still good, and if you don't do color-critical stuff you might not even miss it -- but if you do, you will get moments of frustration without it, and it will make a difference to the end result. My suggestion to Pixmantec would be to bring more cameras under the Color Engine umbrella, and once the Pentax and Minolta users are happy, just bundle it in and raise the price to $129. People will feel better about it. And my suggestion to everyone with a compatible camera who likes the Raw Shooter way of converting files, is to bite the bullet, gripe if you must, and buy Color Engine as well. I don't think Pixmantec is selling them separately to gouge us for money: good profiles are hard to make and one way or the other we, the users, will end up paying for them, and if accurate color was something of an afterthought, this is what we end up with.

Is it for everybody? No way. The learning curve is steep, and many people will give up before they get familiar enough with the rather unique Raw Shooter way of doing things to be able to really leverage its power. I would not recommend Raw Shooter Premium for anyone who's new to RAW processing, or uncertain about their patience in learning a new tool. Indeed, for people who prefer working with photos one by one rather than series by series, or low-volume shooters in general, Raw Shooter may not be the right tool at all; Adobe Camera RAW is much easier to master for that type of thing. However, since Raw Shooter Essentials doesn't cost anything, that's definitely worth at least a shot -- if you spend an hour or two with it, you'll probably get a feel for whether it's worth the effort to learn, and perhaps later upgrade to Premium. Raw Shooter Premium and Color Engine don't even try to be everything for everybody, but if you're the kind of somebody they had in mind when making it, they are most definitely something.

Snapshooting

"Snapshooting" -- converted with my "Punchy Hi-ISO" Appearance and click white balance.

You can download two of the Appearances used in this article here. They're very much a work in progress, so use at your own risk -- and if you find them useful, adapt them further for your uses. They are in the public domain; attribution not needed if you want to do stuff with them.