Recently, I kicked off a new series of articles comparing the software provided by camera manufacturers with one of their most popular third-party alternatives, pitting Canon Digital Photo Professional head-to-head against Adobe Camera Raw. Now, I'm back with the second in the series, in which we'll take a look at how Adobe's raw processing rivals that offered for free with Nikon's cameras.

Nikon ViewNX-i version 1.4.3's user interface.

There's a bit more to discuss this time around, as Nikon offers a choice of two different raw processing apps for free -- the somewhat inconsistently-named ViewNX-i and Capture NX-D. As in the previous article, I'll be limiting discussion mostly to each application's user interface and image quality in the interests of keeping things to a readable length, and won't be addressing features like image management, tethering or printing.

The ground rules

In this article, I'm comparing Adobe Camera Raw 12.4 alongside Adobe Bridge 10.1.1 versus Nikon ViewNX-i 1.4.3 and Capture NX-D 1.6.3, all of which are their current versions. My computer is a 2018-vintage Dell XPS 15 9570 laptop running Windows 10 version 1909.

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To level the playing field as much as possible, I've once again aimed to reproduce the look of already-processed images from our galleries, without any prior knowledge as to the recipes behind them. I've chosen images from the Nikon Z6 for use in this comparison, since it's similar in price and resolution to the EOS R used in the first article, and has been around long enough for Adobe to fine-tune its support.

Adobe Camera Raw version 12.4's user interface.

To avoid getting too far into the weeds, sharpness and noise reduction were left at their defaults, while lens corrections were enabled for all three apps where possible.

Adobe Camera Raw doesn't allow built-in corrections to be disabled at all. ViewNX-i doesn't allow you to change whether or not distortion correction is enabled, and just abides by what's set in the raw file. Only Capture NX-D allows corrections to be enabled/disabled (although even it prevents disabling distortion correction for certain lenses).

Images processed in ACR were saved at JPEG quality 11, just as used in our galleries. For NX-i and NX-D, I saved at JPEG quality 86, producing similarly-sized files.

The main differences

Click or tap for the full-sized ACR version; here for ViewNX-i version

Of course, the most immediately obvious differences between ACR and NX-i / NX-D are their camera support and price tag. You already paid for NX-i and NX-D when you bought your Nikon camera, so it's effectively free. While it only supports Raw files from the company's own cameras, you can expect full Raw support for every Nikon camera to be available pretty much immediately upon release.

By contrast, ACR comes with a recurring subscription fee. While it supports a vast range of cameras from many manufacturers – including every single interchangeable-lens Nikon camera made to date – that support can sometimes take a while to arrive after the release of new models.

It's also sometimes more limited than that in first-party software, especially for Coolpix compacts. While Adobe offers 'camera matching' profiles for almost every Nikon ILC, for example, it's not available for a fair few compacts, including the relatively recent Coolpix A1000.

As for the differences between ViewNX-i and Capture NX-D, we'll describe those in more detail when we look at NX-D on the next page. Suffice it to say that NX-i is the simpler, more approachable of the pair, however.

ACR is a little cleaner, but NX-i is approachable too

Click or tap for the full-sized ACR version; here for ViewNX-i version

For the remainder of this page, we'll focus solely on ViewNX-i. Although its interface isn't quite as modern as that of ACR, it's still pretty clean overall, with relatively few controls on offer. Some features like sharpening are combined into a single easy-to-use slider, while others like noise reduction are controlled entirely automatically.

The selection of controls available to the user is sometimes a bit odd, though. For example, I'd wager that most NX-i users won't have the first clue what "axial color aberration" means, nor will they find any tooltip explaining it if they hover over the control. Yet several more common (and easily-understood) attributes like distortion and vignetting corrections cannot be controlled by the end-user.

The selection of controls available in ViewNX-i is sometimes curious. For example, there are controls for more obscure functions like aberration and diffraction, but none for more easily-understood variables like distortion and vignetting.

The good news is that, with fewer controls on offer, Nikon gives you access to everything up front. Editing functionality isn't hidden behind buttons or under menus. Nor is it strewn across multiple tabs of controls, as in some applications.

Instead, you'll find all available editing tools grouped together in a single, relatively short scrollable panel. And sliders move smoothly rather than in large steps, so making fine-grained adjustments is easy.

Like ACR, modern features like support for 4K displays, touch-screens and pen control are pretty good, although if you switch between 4K and Full HD displays -- especially while NX-i is running -- you'll often have to resize panels or perhaps even restart the application entirely so it redetects the screen resolution before you can get to work.

ACR is still the speed champ, but ViewNX-i isn't that far behind

Click or tap for the full-sized ACR version; here for ViewNX-i version

ViewNX-i isn't quite as fast as ACR, especially when it comes to previewing changes as controls are adjusted. Still, it trails Adobe by only around a third in terms of final rendering times, which is much better than some rivals. All six images in this preview took ViewNX-i around 26 seconds to batch-process, compared to 19.5 seconds for ACR.

And while image previews aren't adjusted in near real-time as in ACR, they never take more than a second or less to catch up to your changes, and render in a single pass. The accuracy of that preview isn't perfect when viewing full images, so for the finest adjustments you'll want to switch to a 1:1 view instead, but it's certainly good enough to get you close.

Unfortunately, there's no indicator to show when the preview is updating, which is a bit frustrating when making more subtle adjustments.

ACR gives you much more control, especially over shadows and highlights

Click or tap for the full-sized ACR version; here for ViewNX-i version

As noted previously, ViewNX-i offers a smaller selection of controls than does Capture NX-D, and the same goes doubly when compared to Adobe Camera Raw. A particularly surprising omission in an app aimed at less-experienced users is the lack of a one-click auto control to help get everything in the ballpark. Much like ACR, ViewNX-i includes slider control over brightness, contrast, shadows and highlights.

NX-i also has D-Lighting HS and Color Booster sliders, the latter replacing the separate saturation/vibrance sliders offered by Adobe, and providing a choice of people or nature modes for some control over skin tones. Sharpening control is likewise limited to a single slider with no fine-tuning possible. And Nikon's app lacks ACR's sliders for texture, clarity, dehazing or black-points and white-points entirely, as well as its noise reduction and curves controls.

The D-Lighting HS slider makes it really easy to recover shadow detail, but I found its interactions with the shadow protection and contrast sliders in particular to be a bit difficult to predict and control. With D-Lighting HS set in the upper half of its range, as little as a 2-3% change in the contrast slider could have a pretty major effect overall and badly block up deeper shadows. This was particularly true of the shots inside the aircraft hangar, as well as the backlit model shot.

The fixed noise reduction is too heavy-handed by far

Click or tap for the full-sized ACR version; here for ViewNX-i version

With less challenging scenes, though, I thought ViewNX-i did a pretty good job in most respects. It yielded pleasingly lifelike color with relatively little effort, and I found myself preferring its rendering of foliage and skies in particular over those of ACR.

The fly in the ointment is that its noise reduction – which, remember, can't be disabled – is quite heavy-handed. This is particularly noticeable in portrait shots, where much fine detail is lost in things like hair or thread patterns in clothing, and skin can end up looking unnaturally plasticky. This, more than anything else, will push more experienced photographers to either Capture NX-D or a third-party alternative like ACR.

ViewNX-i's default noise reduction can lead to slightly plasticky-looking skin.

If your shot doesn't have much noise to start off with, though, ViewNX-i can extract about almost as much detail as can ACR. (And can appear a little crisper at default settings, thanks to slightly stronger unsharp masking).

Final thoughts on ViewNX-i

Click or tap for the full-sized ACR version; here for ViewNX-i version

Less experienced photographers might, perhaps, find ViewNX-i to be a bit less intimidating than Capture NX-D or Adobe Camera Raw, and it's certainly capable of providing decent results if you can live with its noise reduction performance. Performance is decent too, especially in terms of final rendering, although Adobe still takes the win handily in this respect. But for many, the limited controls on offer and the heavy-handed noise reduction will push them to Capture NX-D or a third-party alternative instead -- and rightly so.

Nikon ViewNX-i

Pros Cons
  • Available free with your camera
  • Excellent support for Nikon's cameras from launch day
  • Realistic color with minimal effort
  • Impressive shadow recovery from D-Lighting HS
  • Decent performance, albeit still not as good as ACR
  • Only supports Nikon cameras
  • Lacks many controls offered by ACR and other rivals
  • Selection of controls doesn't make sense for less-experienced shooters
  • No one-click auto control
  • Can't use distortion correction if it wasn't enabled at capture time
  • Denoising robs fine detail and can't be disabled
  • Interactions between controls can prove challenging

Adobe Camera Raw

Pros Cons
  • More modern user interface
  • Supports a vast range of cameras from many brands
  • Great performance and accurate real-time preview
  • Great image quality overall
  • Holds onto more fine detail than ViewNX-i
  • Does a great job with highlights/shadows
  • Recurring subscription fee with no perpetual license option
  • Camera support can take a while to arrive
  • Less pleasing color than Nikon's software by default
  • Leaves significantly more noise in images by default

And with our Nikon ViewNX-i vs. Adobe Camera Raw comparison complete, it's time to see how Capture NX-D fares against its third-party rival. Continue reading on the next page!