Raw and Raw Conversion
The Sony Alpha NEX-7 is provided with the following software:
- Picture Motion Browser 5.2 (Windows) - An easy to use and fast image
cataloging and browsing application with a fairly unique calendar based animated interface and - new with version 5.2 - an interface to display images on Google maps.
- Image Data Lightbox SR 2.2 (Windows / Mac) - An image browsing and workflow
application designed for rating and selecting images from a large collection. Provides synchronized
side-by-side comparison of images.
- Image Data Converter SR 4.0 (Windows / Mac) - A further development of the previously
seen Image Data Converter SR, provides advanced RAW conversion capabilities, adjustments
include Creative Style, Sharpness (including overshoot / undershoot tuning), Highlight Color
Distortion reduction and Noise Reduction.
Image Data Converter 4, the RAW converter that is bundled with the NEX-7, is relatively simple compared to most third party packages but nevertheless offers all the usual conversion parameters and is easy to use. It provides for the fine-tuning of brightness, color, white balance, sharpness, noise reduction and tone-curve and also lets you choose your preferred Creative Style, reduce the effects of vignetting and change the in-camera setting of the D-Range Optimizer. There are no browsing, tagging or catalogue functions.
Image Data Converter certainly provides a powerful tool for manipulating your RAW files, with additional fine control over such things as DRO, white balance and noise reduction. Unfortunately though it's painfully slow to update the preview image to reflect your chosen settings (which it also does in an oddly disconcerting fashion, progressively redrawing square tiles of the image radiating outwards from the center). It also locks up and refuses to do anything else while saving a RAW conversion, although at least it doesn't take too long. So in terms of workflow it leaves something to be desired, especially if you're trying to work your way through a large number of images.
As is normal in our reviews we like to compare the supplied raw conversion software, any optional manufacturer raw conversion software and some third party raw converter. As is often the case, the only converters available at the time of writing the review are the manufacturer's software and Adobe Camera Raw. Here we compare these two converters to the camera's JPEG engine to see how each of them pulls detail out of the images.
- JPEG - Large/Fine, Default settings
- IDC - Image Data Converter 4
- ACR - Adobe Camera RAW 6.6
Sharpness and Detail
Image Data Converter by default gives slightly softer output from RAW files compared to the NEX-7's in-camera JPEG processing, but it does provide a better starting point for further adjustments, including sharpening and white balance fine-tuning. The actual detail rendered is much the same, though. Adobe Camera Raw gets more detail out of the NEX-7's raw files at its default settings and it does a distinctly better job of the fine detail in the brown feathers - apparently due to less-aggressive smoothing from noise reduction.
|Sony Image Data Converter 4 ->JPEG (Default settings)
ISO 100 studio scene 100% crop
|Adobe ACR 6.6 RAW ->JPEG (Default settings)
ISO 100 studio scene 100% crop
|JPEG out of camera, High quality setting (all settings default)
ISO 100 studio scene 100% crop
Here we can see that Sony's supplied Image Data Converter software is extracting similar levels of fine detail to the NEX-7's JPEG engine, but default sharpening is relatively low by comparison, and colour moiré is more visible. The camera's JPEG output is slightly more heavily sharpened, making everything look crisper (but if you sharpen the IDC file, actual detail rendition is virtually identical). At default settings, ACR treads a path somewhere between the two in terms of sharpening, but manages to extract a fraction more detail from the files than the others, and without the level of moiré patterning which Sony's Image Data Converter has introduced. With careful further sharpening, the ACR conversion gives the best - and most - detail rendition.
|JPEG from camera||Sony Image Data Converter 4 (RAW)|
|Adobe Camera Raw 6.6 (RAW)|
Real world advantages
Shooting RAW offers, as always, a wide range of real-world advantages with the NEX-7. You can adjust such things as white balance, sharpening and noise reduction at your luxury after the event, tailoring the settings to suit each specific image. It's also possible to recover blown highlights to some degree, although the NEX-7's generally-reliable metering makes them quite rare. In the examples below we offer a flavour of the kind of things you can do.
Sony NEX-7 + E 18-55mm F3.5-5.6 OSS, ISO 200, 26mm, F8
|Camera JPEG (default parameters)||RAW + ACR; USM (200, 0.3, 0)|
|100% crop||100% crop|
In this example, we see the deleterious effect of the NEX-7's JPEG processing on fine, low contrast detail such as grass; in the shaded regions noise reduction has smeared away the finest detail. Processing the RAW file with minimal sharpening in ACR, then applying a small-radius unsharp mask, renders these regions much more convincingly.
Sony NEX-7 + Carl Zeiss 24mm F1.8, ISO 3200, F4
|Camera JPEG (AWB, default parameters)||RAW + ACR|
In this shot we're looking at the NEX-7's somewhat unsubtle high ISO noise reduction in comparison to Adobe Camera Raw. The out-of-camera JPEG shows some unattractive, blotchy low-frequency chroma noise, along with unnatural-looking transitions between regions which it thinks count as detail and has decided to sharpen, and those which it thinks are noise and has smoothed away. Developing the RAW file using Adobe Camera Raw, with a moderate level of chroma NR and luminance NR turned right down, results in a less 'digital-looking' image.
The NEX-7's high pixel count means that this RAW conversion has a relatively high degree of luminance noise 'grittiness', but you can always tone this down if you prefer, and reach some kind of middle ground. It's also possible, of course, to generate conversions with several different NR treatments and layer them together in Photoshop, for example in this case to generate smoother tones in the sky while maintaining detail in the foreground.
RAW files for download
Don't just take our word for it - take a look at the NEX-7's raw files for yourself, and run them through your own software and preferred conversion settings. Here, we provide you with a selection of raw files of 'real world' scenes, and if you want to take a closer look at the NEX-7's studio scene shots, you can download original raw files from our Compared to (RAW) page.