Working other people’s files

From time to time I work with teams of photographers as an editor. It’s part of the ‘rich portfolio’ of roles that I have these days. 80% or more of my work is still shooting pictures and that’s great but for the other 20% of my working life I enjoy doing some other photo-related stuff. I’ve written before about teaching and running workshops and one of the workshops that I do is about sharpening up your workflow. For me the best way to help others improve their workflow is to sit down with them and go through how they work and then refine what they already do rather than to throw everything out and start again.

Editing other people’s work is a whole other matter. Imagine being in a deadline driven environment where you have several photographers all shooting RAW and where you have to occasionally grab their memory cards and do some of their edits for them. On one recent job I handled CR2 files from Canon EOS1DX, EOS5D MkIII and EOS5D MkII cameras as well as NEF files from Nikon D4S, D4, D3S, D3, D800 and D610 cameras over a two week period. Some of the cameras were left on factory settings and others had been set up by their owners to the point where none of the settings were left unchanged. RAW files obviously allow you to return the completely unchanged state but I am a believer in the idea that you trust the photographer to have made changes on purpose and to respect those changes wherever possible as you come to edit their files.

The old, old Nikon Vs Canon debate morphs into a NEF Vs CR2 debate. As a long-time Canon user myself I thought that I’d find the CR2 files far easier to work with and I was ready to spend far more time getting NEFs right. The biggest shock was that it was entirely the other way around. Files from the latest Nikon cameras can be easy to work with. Really easy. I realised after only a few hours that, as long as the in-camera settings weren’t eccentric, NEFs from the D4, D4S and the D800 were not only easy to work with (requiring relatively few adjustments) but that the quality was uniformly high. In contrast the imported CR2 files from all of the Canons looked a lot less impressive as they landed in Photo Mechanic and then in Adobe Camera RAW. On average, it took more clicks of the mouse (maybe 50% more) to get the CR2s looking as good as they should.

Needless to say, this was quite a revelation. It isn’t as if I hadn’t worked with other people’s files before but this was the first time that I had seen the results of so many different people’s work from so many different cameras in such a compressed space in time. The pictures were all coming from top class photographers and the end results were largely indistinguishable from one another but the route to get there was certainly different. There are way too many variables to draw any definitive conclusions from this but I can say the following;

  • Any reservations that I might have once had about the NEF file format are long gone
  • The results achievable from both NEF and CR2 full-frame cameras are on a par with one another
  • The idea that the colours rendered by Nikons and Canons are inherently different has a small toehold in fact
  • The RAW files from all of these cameras are incredibly versatile and you can get the desired results from either
  • Given the choice I’d go with the NEF from a well set up D4S as the file from other people I’d prefer to work with

Since that event where I worked all of these files side-by-side I have also had a long play with NEFs from a D810 and a D800E. They both require careful handling because of the absence of a low-pass filter over the chip. This gives greater apparent sharpness and a degree of “pop” that is hard to describe but on the flip side it is much easier to mis-handle the files and introduce noise and chromatic problems when using a RAW converter or Photoshop itself. To get around this you find yourself constantly switching between degrees of magnification on the screen to check the effects of any changes to contract, highlight, shadow, saturation or sharpening that you apply. I found this to have a significant slowing effect on my workflow but I also loved the quality of the images produced. The D810 is a camera that I’d happily add to my list of those producing desirable files to work with.

So, NEF Vs CR2? Out of the blocks the NEF files that I’ve worked with over the last few months streak into an early lead but the CR2s catch up along the back straight and they are neck and neck at the line. For now…

9 comments

  1. Having gone from Nikon to Canon i think the biggest difference in files that shocked me is the NEF seem to already have noise reduction applied to the raw data by the camera, whereas a CR2 seems truly raw. In fact an iso6400+ file from the canon looks blooming awful in a raw converter compared to a nikon file before you bring noise reduction up. Obviously a totally different philosophy.

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  2. That’s very interesting. The way I use Adobe Camera RAW means that any in-camera preferences can be copied as presets and applied as you import. Noise reduction and sharpening are the two things that I automatically remove because they are never properly optimised and so I never really saw what you did. Thanks for that though – I’ll check next time.

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    1. If you take a RAW file from the two easiest to compare cameras – the D4 and the EOS1DX – and then strip out any pre loaded adjustments in ACR the D4 is a fraction cooler, more contrasty with deeper shadows. Half a dozen mouse clicks and they are all but indistinguishable. Alternatively you can set the 1DX to match the D4 using Canon’s WB shift and picture style. A small toehold!

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  3. I always though that any in camera adjustments had no effect on raw files but you seem to say they do in “from a well set up D4S”. So what’s a “well set up” camera? How do you have ACR set to apply in camera preferences on import? For one client I shoot a lot of JPEGs with a Nikon specifically set to give the colour and contrast needed. But if I mess up somehow and have to process the NEF I have to start from scratch to get my look back. (The exception being Nikon’s own raw software which is aware of the camera settings.) There are a few camera specific controls in ACR/Lightroom, do you mean these? I find them less useful than I’d like.

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    1. Hi David – yes I mean that I find it very easy to replicate the custom settings applied by that camera to Jpegs as a camera default in ACR and that it works pretty well. If a photographer has gone to the trouble of setting a camera up properly then it is a good idea to respect the changes that they have made.

      Obviously some photographers set their cameras up really badly and for them you don’t bother.

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    1. As far as I can tell, none of the in-camera processing is carried over automatically. I do apply presets which mimic the photographer’s own settings but always have a look at the files without them just in case they are too extreme.

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    2. There is no such thing as in-camera processing of the original raw file. In the case of making a jpeg file, the raw data file is copied and simultaneously processed by the camera based on selected development parameters for WB, gamma, saturation, contrast, hue, etc, etc. If you are shooting jpeg only, the final step is deleting the raw file itself to save space.

      Most people keep this unprocessed raw file and bring it into a program that applies these parameters in your computer. If Nikon has parameters that require less fiddling, that is a positive but has nothing to do with “versatility” because the raw data is never altered. You can go back and do as much as you want with the raw file. Reduced versatility does occur if the image was not optimally exposed in the first place.

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