Masking in Adobe Camera RAW

Subject masking in ACR 14.2

Spending a lot of my working life as an editor means that I get very worked up about changes to the software that I use. A couple of months ago I mentioned the fact that masking in Adobe Camera RAW 14 had become simultaneously better and more complicated. I have been asked to talk about what I mean and about why it is better.

In the past you could pick a linear gradient or radial gradient straight from the tool box and apply those relatively simple options to an image really quickly. You could also use a brush to painstakingly paint a mask onto an image in order to carry out local colour, tone or contrast corrections to the masked area. The two most common functions were quick and simple whilst the more complex functions were, well, complex. I grumbled about why you couldn’t have the best of both worlds because the method for selecting the simpler ones had changed from a single mouse-click to three mouse-clicks.

It turns out that in ACR 14.2 you absolutely can.


Post production is all about the details

Passenger on the top deck of a tourist bus passing through Waterloo. © Neil Turner

Passenger on the top deck of a tourist bus passing through Waterloo.
© Neil Turner

I’ve read a lot about the ‘instagramisation’ of photography. I think that means taking slightly dull images, applying filters and presets to them and presenting them as bits of creativity. At the right time and in the right place those kinds of pictures have value and can make significant additions to creative campaigns and can go a long way towards making some elements of social media and social marketing more visually interesting. I’m not talking about that here – this blog post is all about choosing between making decisions about individual pictures or letting technology take over and ‘improve’ your work for you.

If you are on Facebook or any other social media that has targeted advertising you will probably get as many ‘suggestions’ as I do for people selling magical presets or add-ons to make my pictures instantly better. That’s great – or at least it would be if I wanted all of my images to exhibit a sameness with each other and with those of so many others. Trying to reduce professional post-production down to a series of mouse-clicks using algorithms and actions developed for others isn’t, in my opinion, a very good idea. (more…)

Stage two of the RAW argument

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.

Screen Shot 2014-07-17 at 10.39.41

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.

Capture One Pro and other workflows…

One of the subjects that I teach is workflow. I know that I’ve mentioned that before but I thought that I’d remind you of that when I explain why and how I have been learning all about Capture One Pro – the professional RAW conversion, tethered shooting and image enhancement tool from Phase One. I am on version 6.3.5 (the latest available) and this is the first time that I have seen it since version 4 a few years ago.

Principally designed to make the most of Phase One’s own imaging systems, it also works rather well with the whole gamut of professional file formats. I have been using it for quite a few days now and I thought that I’d post some thoughts on here.

Before I get down to my opinions on Capture One Pro I need to say that every piece of software that I’ve used has needed quite a long time to get used to and anyone who does “full reviews” based on a few hours of use is kidding both themselves and their readers. I also need to make it clear that I paid for this software and that I have absolutely no ties to Phase One.

I have now used Aperture, Lightroom, Photoshop, Photoshop Elements, Canon DPP, Graphics Converter and a few others and Capture One Pro is probably the easiest of the lot to get to like. My knowledge of Adobe Camera RAW in Photoshop has been gained over many years and many thousands of edits and it has only taken me a few days to feel almost as comfortable with Capture One. I’m still learning more and the more that I learn the more I like it. That isn’t always true of new software packages – even if you really want to like them…

The workspace that I'm currently using on a 15" MacBook Pro

I like lots of things about the way it works, about the interface and about how good the customer support and instruction manual are. Every time I think that I’ve found a flaw in the feature set of this software I search the knowledge bank or put a note on Twitter and there it is – the answer that tells me that everything I wanted was there all along. That is great but there seems to be one feature from Adobe Camera RAW that I use all of the time that isn’t there with Capture One Pro – good and accurate profiles of all of my Canon lenses ready to apply corrections.

My first impressions of the user interface centred around my inability to find the tools that I actually wanted. I knew that most were there because the literature told me they were and a very brief exchange on Twitter with the workflow genius that is Nick Wilcox-Brown let me know how to find them and add them to my custom user interface or “workspace” as the application calls it. Better still, you can create a range of custom workspaces and save them alongside the suggested ones for dual monitors, simple workflow, black & white or even a replica of the previous version (5) of the software. Being able to customise the workspace is not unique to this application but I believe that they have implemented it really well.

All of the adjustments and all of the options have easily controlled and finely adjustable controls (mostly sliders) and I found myself easing very quickly into the Phase One way of doing things.

Time for a short list of likes:

  • Customisable user interface
  • Easy to learn how to use
  • Extraordinary range of functions
  • Tethered shooting
  • Fantastic image quality
  • Value for money
  • Web contact sheets
  • Output of files to specific sizes

… and dislikes

  • Cannot find profiles for my Canon lenses
  • The sessions menus
  • Applying adjustment “recipes” seems hit and miss
  • The way that it handles IPTC metadata (I know that the sister app Media Pro does that better)
  • Speed of processing batches of files
  • Not recognising the simple tags that I can apply in camera or by using the ‘tag’ function in Photo Mechanic

That is a short list of dislikes and you have to actually use it to decide if you agree about the sessions menus – the way that Capture One likes to create a virtual time bubble for each job in much the same way that Aperture does by default. I may be doing something wrong when I’m trying to create, save and apply “recipes” which are a great idea (again shared with Aperture and others) that allow you to copy all of the adjustments that you have applied to one image to one or more others as well as keeping that set of adjustments for future use/adaptation. Sometimes the recipes worked and other times they didn’t.

My background is in news and editorial photography and IPTC metadata is a fundamental requirement for me and it forms a big part of my own workflow and the personal workflows of people that I work with when I’m doing coaching. Capture One Pro handles IPTC and is compliant with all of the IPTC fundamentals – it just doesn’t do it very well. The same can be said for quite a few image processing applications and I still love good old Photo Mechanic for the speed, accuracy and flexible way that it handles everything except RAW conversions and long term storage.

My final dislike is the speed when processing batches of files. On a two year old Apple MacBook Pro with an i5 2.4Ghz processor, 8GB or RAM it takes 50-60% longer to process a batch of 36 CR2 images from a Canon EOS5D MkII than Adobe Camera RAW inside Photoshop CS5 does. Individual files are shot through in almost the same time but batches are slower. I tried very hard to be scientific when comparing like with like but I am prepared to be proved wrong on this.

This isn’t really a full review – just some thoughts on an application that I am sure to have to teach very soon. Several people have already asked what advantages Capture One would give them over Lightroom or Adobe Camera RAW in Photoshop and, to be honest, I couldn’t really name any. If you already use and are happy with either Adobe product for processing RAW files then it doesn’t really make sense to spend more money and get Capture One Pro. BUT (and it is a but worthy of being in upper case) if you are looking at designing a new workflow for news and editorial work from the ground up and you don’t already have licenses for anything else I would strongly recommend getting Capture One Pro and using it in tandem with Photo Mechanic. Between the two you have a solid, reliable and well priced set of options that will, without doubt, deliver the goods. That would leave you in need of an archiving option and for that Phase One’s Media Pro might be a good solution. There are those who’d argue that between the two Phase One applications you have everything you’d need and they would be right but there is no getting away from the fact that Photo Mechanic does what it does so well that it is worth the money and then some. The same goes for Capture One Pro too.

Re-working old files

With all of the time that I have spent recently trying to get used to the beta versions of Photoshop CS6 and Adobe Camera RAW 7 I have been having quite a few conversations on forums and over email with others going through the same process. One conversation led me to think about even older versions of the software and how I used them and in turn that got thinking about finding an old CR2 two file that I was never truly happy with and having another go with the up-to-date version of ACR. Without looking at the original “finished” JPEG I grabbed a CR2 file from 2008 that I remember being unhappy with and gave it “the treatment”.

©Neil Turner/TSL. May 2008 - RAW file straight out of the camera

©Neil Turner/TSL. May 2008. RAW file Converted with using .xmp settings from 2008 in Photoshop CS5

©Neil Turner/TSL. May 2008. RAW converted today using ACR 7 in Photoshop CS6 Beta

Whilst I was doing the conversion it became obvious to me that I wasn’t really comparing versions of the software – it was that my taste in the way images look has changed. I have no doubt that knowing far more about converting RAW files than I did four years ago helps enormously. You can also factor in the improvements in the adjustment tools available as well but the sum total of all of that means that the newer version is far more subtle and (in my eyes) far better. I made use of the fill-light and the graduated filters. I used a much warmer white balance and my approach to both noise reduction and sharpening has moved on too – although you’d never notice that from these 620 pixel samples.

So there we go. If it wasn’t blindingly obvious before, it is now. RAW conversions depend on a mixture of software and taste and this little experiment has proved to me that my tastes have changed and so, therefore, must the tastes of other people. The final conclusion has to be that every time you create a new folio, make changes to your website or supply a picture you have to make a choice between re-working the files to bring everything up to they way you like things now or leave well alone and allow your images to be “of their time”. Fat chance of the latter happening here…