Ten years ago the “should I shoot RAW” debate was raging between all kinds of photographers. Slowly but surely the vast majority of us have moved over to the RAW camp having realised that you not only get better quality but can also save time if your workflow is good enough. OK, so you only get 300 images on an 8 gigabyte memory card but memory is cheap these days and all of the other advantages of shooting Jpegs (unless you are offloading files straight from the camera) have disappeared one by one.
So that’s stage one of the RAW argument out of the way.
So far, stage two has appeared to be a whole series of “my RAW converter is better than your RAW converter” arguments played out endlessly across social media. Proponents of one system produce videos that “prove” their point of view on YouTube and then those links are posted on Facebook, Twitter and who knows where else until someone else comes along and “proves” the exact opposite. Some of them even try to sell you expensive and largely pointless plug-ins and actions that promise to take your photos and turn them into masterpieces in a single click of a mouse. Is it all valid comment or is it just hot air? I’m leaning heavily towards the latter.
Buying, learning and mastering every single quality converter would be expensive and mind-numbingly dull. Few of us use any software to anywhere near its limitations and some of the claims for various applications go largely un-challenged.
A few years ago people started to talk excitedly about Capture One as being a gold-standard amongst RAW converters. It would have been around version four that I persuaded my then employer to send me on a one-day course to learn the basics of the workflow. It was good. It was actually very good and I bought it (well, my employer bought it for me). Fast forward to version six and I wrote glowingly about it on this blog saying that I really liked it despite a few flaws. Well of course that was comparing it to Adobe Camera RAW in Photoshop as it was then. Both applications have upgraded since then as have Aperture, Canon DPP, Nikon Capture, DxO and a range of others. Each of them has advantages and disadvantages that skilled users of each piece of software can and will point out to anyone who will listen. Those skilled users can also get the very best out of a file using their chosen converter. Capture One Pro 7 is wonderful but so is Adobe Camera RAW 8.5 and so are lots of others.
And here is the first major conclusion – as long as you have the RAW file, you can endlessly go back and rework those files with every new and supposedly better application you try or buy. For the record, I don’t believe that there is anything other than a tiny difference between the best of them when it comes to image quality if the person doing the work has the skills and experience to get the most out of the files or the software. The old “this application is better at recovering highlights” comment that you hear so often is not only subjective but largely a thing of the past. As new versions come out and as new cameras present us with new variants of the RAW formats then differences do become apparent. A quick upgrade to your chosen application and those problems go away again.
Here is the second major conclusion and the principle piece of wisdom that I want to impart: It’s all about the interface. How you interact with the application has a greater influence on what you get out at the end than anything else. Application A does a great job but so do Applications B and C. If you are comfortable with B then choose B and don’t stress about the relative merits of A or C until such times as B can no longer deliver the quality from your files that you and your market demand. Changing workflow and moving to a new RAW converter is painful, time-consuming and throughly depressing (unless you are a geek like me). My heart goes out to the Aperture users who are facing having to do just that at some time in the near future now that Apple have announced that they are stopping development.
As software gets better, the files we process through that software gets better and our workflows become more embedded someone, somewhere will do some “testing” and pronounce that they have the perfect workflow and Groundhog Day will be upon us for the zillionth time.
I sometimes end up working with other photographers files and the difference between types of files is astounding. Canon 5D MkII files next to Canon 5D MkIII files require different handling but the difference between those and something like a Nikon D4S file is astonishing. Not better, not worse but different. Different to the point that you have to tweak your technique. Using the exact same software, workflow computer and set-up the two types of file react very differently to the same treatment. This, ladies and gentlemen, is my third and final major conclusion from stage two of the RAW debate – Not all RAW files are created equally so don’t assume that you can work the same way with them.
Bring on stage three please.