My ideal raw coverter: a deductive approach

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sankos Senior Member • Posts: 1,661
My ideal raw coverter: a deductive approach

The question of which program is the best raw converter keeps coming up in various photography-related discussions.

Over the years I have tried several raw conversion programs. Here's an alphabetical list of them:

  1. ACDSee Pro/Ultimate
  2. Affinity Photo [AP]
  3. Aftershot Pro [ASP]
  4. Alien Skin Exposure
  5. Capture NX-D (or other camera-bundled versions of Silkypix)
  6. Capture One [C1]
  7. darktable [dt]
  8. digiKam [dK]
  9. DxO Optics Pro [DOP]
  10. Lightroom/ACR [LR]
  11. ON1 Photo Raw
  12. Photo Ninja [PN]
  13. RawTherapee [RT]
  14. Silkypix Developer Studio Pro

And here's how I arrive at my current favourite raw converters. It's a three-step, deductive approach.

A) One of the fundamental things I require of my raw converter is being able either to choose the input/camera colour profile or being able to tweak colours non-globally. Sometimes a given raw converter gives you pleasing colours for one of your cameras, whereas it doesn't cut it for another. Or you'd like to have a similar starting point for your various cameras and you'd like to equalize them somehow. Sure, you can tweak your colours with tools like Curves or HSL sliders/equalizers and make a preset of it, but they are usually only global adjustments (there are exceptions to this). Also, some converters allow you to apply those colour changes only to a rasterized file, and this is not ideal for my workflow (see point B). The following raw converters pass this test: C1, dt, dK, DOP, LR, NX-D, ON1 (with a caveat), PN and RT. With Silkypix you can choose from various colour profiles the program ships with but you can't use one of your own.

B) I want my raw converter to allow me an uncomplicated, fast, parametric workflow, without the need to rasterize the file needlessly (if I were e.g. a portrait retoucher or did compositing obviously this wouldn't apply). This means the converter has to have some localized adjustments available in the form of brushes or layers (to apply tonal, chroma and detail changes, such as local dodging/burning, local white balance, local NR/sharpening, local CA/PF/moire-removal, etc.). Unfortunately this eliminates such converters as NX-D, PhotoNinja, the main version of RawTherapee and DxO Optics Pro.

C) Continuing the point above: a lot of raw converters forget about post-resize output sharpening. I don't want to reach for another program just to downsize and sharpen my web output from a 20MP or 50 MP file. Currently only a handful of programs allow me to do this directly with raw files within one raw conversion suite: Lightroom, Capture One, ON1 Photo Raw and RawTherapee. The latter two fail some of my previous requirements, so ultimately I'm left with two programs only: Lightroom and Capture One (the free darktable has to be mentioned as a runner-up, being almost perfect as well).

As you can see these three criteria revolve around the question of a convenient workflow. Now, if I need ultimate image quality for my hero shots I may forego one of the three criteria, e.g. if the underlying demosaicing or noise reduction of LR or C1 introduce too many artefacts that are going to show in output and if I can't eliminate them within the programs, I may have a look at a two-program solution (e.g. LR → PS, C1 → Affinity, or using complete suites like ACDSee or ON1). However, a vast majority of my photography can be satisfied with relying almost exclusively on LR or C1, without any sacrifice to the final output. Quality and quantity are not always mutually exclusive.

So how do You choose your favourite raw converter? What are Your sine qua non criteria?

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