As most readers will know, a modern DSLR camera has the ability to store an image in either one of two formats – RAW or JPEG. The choice is made through a camera configuration setting. The JPEG file is print-ready, whereas the RAW requires processing on an external computer to convert it to a print-ready format – which is usually JPEG.
A RAW file is massive – consuming 50 to 100 times the space of the equivalent JPEG and since the RAW is useless without being converted, it is understandable that most newbies are puzzled as to why anyone should want to shoot in RAW. The Internet is full of debates on this subject but I won’t repeat them here. Suffice it to say that most professionals have to shoot in RAW, because clients demand it. Top photo competitions also demand it. The rationale is that manually converting from a RAW to a JPEG potentially produces a higher quality result than an in-camera conversion.
Consequently, most advanced DSLR users choose to shoot in RAW and process their images on a PC later. This processing requires the use of custom software – called a “RAW Converter” to transform the file from the camera into a more generic format that can be read by other applications (like Photoshop/Lightroom) or that is ready to print as it is (JPEG mostly, but there are others).
RAW Converters are available from many software vendors and another favourite debate on the internet revolves around which converter is best. However, comparing converters is not easy, since they all differ in their interpretation of “default” rendition. Furthermore, there are many aspects to the conversion that need consideration – noise, detail, colour and sharpness, to mention a few.
At the Canon Roadshow in Johannesburg early in 2015, Canon’s Roger Machin urged attendees to take a look at Canon’s own RAW Converter, called DPP 4, which is bundled free with every Canon DSLR. Traditionally, software that is bundled free is not class-leading and previous versions of DPP have not been user-friendly, nor have they been stellar performers. Nonetheless, one should re-evaluate one’s workflow occasionally and I decided to do so in the light of DPP 4.
Choosing a RAW Converter that suits your specific individual needs is not difficult – it involves evaluating it on the type of work that you do. This is what I did:
I chose a photograph that is typical of my work and that is also difficult to process – the Malachite Kingfisher below. The white tufts on the throat and neck wash out easily while the dark brown eye can easily merge with the pupil to a uniform black. My source image was correctly-exposed; in particular, the white tufts were well in to the fifth band of the histogram, but were not blowing out. All major RAW converters can manage simple images with ease. As an outdoor photographer, I need to be able to extract detail from images in non-ideal lighting.
My camera was the Canon 7D MkII which was set to save a large JPEG and a RAW.
Firstly, here is the large, in-camera JPEG. It is remarkably impressive, with good detail in the white plumage, and fair detail in the eye. Frankly, it is hard to do better than this with a manual conversion from RAW – extracting more feather detail can easily make the white look grey. When last did you check how well your processing skills compete against your camera? As we see here, a modern DSLR can do a superb job.
Here is an image that I processed from RAW, using Adobe’s popular ACR 8.8 converter. With tweaking, the white plumage can be made as good as the in-camera JPEG, but no better. The bird’s eye, however, benefited greatly from image tweaking and ultimately portrays much better detail, showing better differentiation between black and brown. This may not be obvious in the web-images, but the difference is obvious on my photo monitor.
In the RAW Conversion from DxO OpticsPro 10, the eye has as much detail as ACR, but the white is slightly inferior in its best efforts of rendition.
The RAW conversion from DPP 4 using lens correction was the best of the bunch, by far – with complete rendition of detail in the white plumage and perfect interpretation.
I exported this converted RAW to Photoshop for my final tweaking – here is the end result:
This picture shows a great conversion performed by DPP 4 and quite a bit better than the in-camera JPEG. There is good detail across the white plumage – even more than in the original JPEG and the whites still look white, and not a muddy grey. Furthermore, the eye responded well to a touch of selective lightening in Photoshop – just enough to show the bird’s expression, while retaining the black of the pupil.
There are, of-course, other factors to consider when evaluating a RAW converter – how well does it recover from a badly under-exposed situation? How well does it filter noise? What is its colour accuracy and contrast? None of these are as important to me as resolving detail, so I have not considered them. After three months of using DPP 4, it is consistently proving to be my best-performing RAW Converter. I do still use my other converters occasionally – ACR integrates well into my workflow and it is fine for undemanding conversions; DxO works well in recovering details in shadows, but it is also the clumsiest of these three to use. Choose your own criteria for selecting a RAW Converter.