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Software - RAW conversion

Supplied software

Like the FZ8, the FZ18 goes some way towards countering the endless arguments about Panasonic's approach to noise reduction with the inclusion of raw mode. As with other Lumix models the camera ships with a special (fully featured) edition of SILKYPIX, a rather quirky, though surprisingly well-featured, raw development application for Windows and Mac. The (on-screen) manual is very comprehensive, but doesn't really explain the features very well, and first-time users may find themselves overwhelmed by the sheer volume of options on offer. This isn't helped by the slightly dodgy translations and the plethora of sliders with names that don't really indicate what they actually do. But there is lots here to get stuck into, and the default settings produce perfectly acceptable results (very similar to out of camera JPEGs).

But then, after a lot of experimentation (and a good read of the manual) you'll discover that the SILKYPIX can produce far superior results - and can be fine-tuned to produce output that suits your own needs / tastes. In fact there's easily as much tweaking on offer than you get with Adobe Camera Raw, and compared to what you get with most cameras it's hard to complain. It is worth using SILKYPIX for the ability to control noise reduction alone.

You can save parameter sets (for some reason you put them in the 'cloakroom', but hey ho) once you've found out what works for you, which combined with batch processing and extensive output options (TIFF or JPEG), takes some of the grind out of the business of developing large numbers of raw files.

SILKYPIX has a comprehensive feature set, though the lack of any meaningful documentation (and occasionally incomprehensible menu options) mean it can take a while to really feel comfortable and to find your way around. It's not all hard work; drop down menus allow you to quickly choose presets for basic parameters (exposure, white balance, sharpness, tone, color and so on); a great starting place if you're new to the business of raw conversion.
The Color Mode menu offers presets that mimic different films (apparently 'Memory color 1 and 2' are designed to produce color that more closely matches how you remember the scene. Now that is clever). Dig a little deeper, beyond the presets, and SILKYPIX offers almost limitless tweaking opportunities, certainly enough to satisfy even the most advanced user. In fact you can easily end up spending way too long trying the different sliders....
There are comprehensive noise reduction options (NR gets five sliders of its own), though you'll need the manual to work out what does what (it's probably easier to just zoom in on the image and watch the effect each has on the preview). I must admit I had to reach for the manual when I reached this tab (whilst looking for the option to actually process the raw file and save a TIFF). Surprise surprise I was in the right place - this is where you 'develop' the raw files (and save your settings into the cloakroom, where they can be re-loaded for future images).

JPEG & RAW Resolution compared

Although the FZ18's JPEG resolution is very good there is a slight advantage to shooting raw. On the downside there's a bit of moiré at the very highest frequencies, but you're not going to see this in 'real world' shots, and the extra resolution (and control over noise reduction) will deliver marginal benefits in scenic shots containing foliage or other fine detail. Adobe's Camera Raw plug-in also eke's a little more resolution out of the files, and the output is marginally cleaner than that you'll get from Silkypix.

Looking at the RAW files produced by the FZ18 it's obvious they don't offer a 'great leap forward' in image quality over the camera JPEGs, but they do allow you to take control of parameters such as white balance, noise reduction and sharpening if you're unhappy with the camera's own settings.

As the crops below show the camera is by default applying quite a lot of sharpening during JPEG processing, and the raw files (using the default settings) look very soft by comparison - perfect for post-processing. You can of course use Photoshop or SILKYPIX to increase sharpness (though in the latter case, not by a lot).

SILKYPIX RAW
RAW -> TIFF (default)
JPEG from camera ADOBE ACR (4.3 Beta)
RAW -> TIFF (Default)

ISO 100 Studio shot comparison (default settings)

Using the SILKYPIX default settings produces output that has a similar 'feel' to the out-of-camera JPEG, though we were concerned to see stepping artefacts seen on some diagonals looking closely at raw files converted in either SILKYPIX or ACR. ACR's output is a little cleaner than SILKYPIX, but there are so many parameters to tweak in both cases it's not really valid to make such comparisons - that's the beauty of shooting raw; you can fine-tune the processing to suit the images you shoot, and your own personal taste.

SILKYPIX RAW -> TIFF (Default settings, manual WB)
ISO 100 studio scene 100% crops
Adobe ACR 4.3 (Beta) RAW -> TIFF (Default settings, manual WB)
ISO 100 studio scene 100% crops
JPEG out of camera , High quality setting (all settings default)
ISO 100 studio scene 100% crop

ISO 400 Studio shot comparison

At high ISO settings there's an awful lot of noise, and shooting raw allows you to make decisions about how much detail you're prepared to sacrifice in order to reduce the visible graininess. I should point out straight away that the out of camera JPEGs are very different to previous 'Venus III' equipped Lumix models, with none of the characteristic chroma smearing that made cameras like the FZ8 so ill-suited to high ISO work.

Looking at the ISO 400 output in RAW mode you can see how much noise reduction is being applied in-camera - and how this does reduce detail. You can get a little back by processing the raw images with lower NR, but you'll end up with a grainier image. Still, at least you have the choice.

SILKYPIX RAW -> TIFF (Default settings, manual WB)
ISO 400 studio scene 100% crops
Adobe ACR 4.3 (Beta) RAW -> TIFF (Default settings, manual WB)
ISO 100 studio scene 100% crops
JPEG out of camera , High quality setting (all settings default)
ISO 100 studio scene 100% crop

ISO 1250 Studio shot comparison

At very high ISO settings (ISO 800 and above) the raw output is so noisy that in most cases you're no worse off with JPEGs, as it is impossible to get as much luminance detail out of the raw files as the Venus III manages in-camera. Sure, the color information is all shot, but at least for low light social shots you're going to be able to recognize the people in the picture.

SILKYPIX RAW -> TIFF (Default settings, manual WB)
ISO 400 studio scene 100% crops
Adobe ACR 4.3 (Beta) RAW -> TIFF (Default settings, manual WB)
ISO 100 studio scene 100% crops
JPEG out of camera , High quality setting (all settings default)
ISO 100 studio scene 100% crop
Adobe ACR 4.3 (Beta) RAW -> TIFF (NR maximum, manual WB)
ISO 100 studio scene 100% crops

Real word advantages

After playing around with the FZ18's raw files a little it's obvious that when shooting at the low end of the ISO range there's not a lot more detail than you'll get in JPEGs, though in low light you can pull back some of the low contrast detail lost to noise reduction. The real advantage of shooting raw with a camera like this comes down to being able to adjust parameters such as white balance, contrast, sharpening and so on, and to tailor the output to your own needs.

As the crops below show we did find there is a little more dynamic range in the raw files, though don't expect to be able to get the highlights back easily; you will almost certainly need to do several raw conversions and combine the results (using HDR techniques) to get full shadow-to-highlight detail. But at least the option is there, and even a little tweak of the tone curve improves on the camera's own rather excessive contrast.

JPEG, 50% crop ACR 4.3 (beta), 50% crop
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