Software - RAW conversion

Supplied software

One of our biggest complaints about the the FZ30 was that the software supplied for processing raw files was (to quote the review) 'spectacularly useless'. Thankfully this has been fixed with the FZ50 by the inclusion of 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 much, much more tweaking on offer than you get with Adobe Camera Raw, for example, and compared to what you get with most cameras it's hard to complain.

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

The FZ50's JPEG resolution is very good, but you are losing something in the processing, and shooting raw lets you see just how much; there is a small, but far from insignificant resolution advantage whether you use SILKYPIX or Adobe Camera 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 detail-destroying noise reduction) will deliver real benefits in scenic shots containing foliage or other fine detail.

Adobe Camera Raw
RAW -> TIFF (Default)
ACR 3.5 Beta
RAW -> TIFF (Default)

ISO 100 Studio shot comparison (default settings)

As you can see from the 100% crops below SILKYPIX - by default - does a pretty good job of recreating the rather 'poppy' JPEP output (though with less obvious sharpening, which is good). As usual Adobe Camera Raw produces a more 'honest' result (that leaves a lot more of the noise in) - and one that has marginally more detail (as well as lower contrast and saturation). Of course SILKYPIX has enough settings and options to produce an image almost identical to the ACR version (the opposite isn't true; ACR doesn't have the same level of noise reduction on offer). The other downside of using ACR is that purple fringing and CA are more obvious (SILKYPIX is capable of almost completely removing them).

Adobe Camera Raw, RAW -> TIFF (Default settings, manual WB), ACR 3.5 Beta
ISO 100 studio scene 100% crops
SILKYPIX RAW -> TIFF (Default settings, manual WB)
ISO 100 studio scene 100% crops
JPEG out of camera , High quality setting
ISO 100 studio scene 100% crops

ISO 1600 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. Adobe Camera Raw isn't too hot on heavy noise reduction, and gives us a clue as to the problem we face shooting at ISO 1600. The JPEG output looks like a magic painting book that's been left in the rain; the SILKYPIX defaults produce a slightly more pleasant result, though even turning all the NR settings to nil doesn't preserve as much detail as you can see in the ACR example.

Adobe Camera Raw, RAW -> TIFF
Default settings, manual WB, ACR 3.5 Beta
ISO 1600 studio scene 100% crops
JPEG out of camera
High quality setting, STD noise reduction
ISO 1600 studio scene 100% crops
Default settings, manual WB
ISO 1600 studio scene 100% crops
Lowest noise reduction setting, manual WB
ISO 1600 studio scene 100% crops