software

Image rescue software

sandsk_rescue_proI just thought that I’d post a very quick note about the free one year licenses that I got with two new Sandisk compact flash cards that I bought today. As someone who relies on their cards for a living it’s great practice to replace and update your cards so every few months I buy a couple of new ones.

Since I went freelance and got to start making my own purchasing decisions almost six years ago I’ve been buying ever larger and ever faster Sandisks. I don’t always buy the fastest or biggest but they tend to be faster and/or bigger than the last batch. Anyway, you get the idea.

This time it was a couple of 16 gigabyte 120 mbps CF cards that work nicely with the Canon EOS5D MkIII cameras each of which came with a one year license for the Rescue Pro Deluxe software. I was prompted to get a couple of new cards because my last one year license for the software expired a week or so ago. It struck me that this is quite a good way for Sandisk to keep me loyal and for me to keep up to date with the software. Every twelve months I need to buy at least one new card and by doing so I keep the software running. By buying two new cards, I now have two computers with valid licenses!

Everyone is a winner.

The joke here is that I haven’t ever had a Sandisk card go wrong on me. I have rescued a card belonging to a colleague (Transcend Card) and I have had some fun ‘rescuing’ a few very old and very small retired cards of my own.  Earlier today an ancient Lexar 512 Mb card threw up some images shot on a Canon EOS1D in 2003 and some more shot on a 1D MkII in 2005. A 2GB Sandisk card went through the process a few minutes later and that had some personal stuff from 2008 along with a couple of jobs from the same year. If I can find the right card reader in the loft, I also have a PCMCIA card dating from 1998!

This could become addictive…

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.

The constant software update dilemma

Back in the day we used to occasionally try out new chemicals and different printing papers. We used to experiment with new film stock when it hit the market and, on the whole, it was a welcome distraction from the day-to-day work. In the digital era we have to get new cameras a bit more often and we need to keep our IT current but the biggest battle and the largest dilemma is software. Because I teach a bit and because I am a complete anorak** I always have a look at new software packages as they become available.

menu_bar_screen_grab

Keeping up to date is not cheap. Upgrades are often necessary – especially when none of the software companies make their RAW converters backwards compatible when new cameras and new lenses hit the market. The move by Adobe towards the monthly or annual subscription model is very interesting and brings into very sharp focus the real cost of having the latest software. I have written before about making the business case for buying new gear and the same formula should apply to upgrading software. Every time I talk or write about these kinds of financial decisions, the same piece of music pops into my head… Bruce Springsteen’s song “Cautious Man” where there is a line that says:

“When something caught his eye he’d measure his need
And then very carefully he’d proceed”

lightroom_5_screen_shot

This week, to misquote the wonderful Fast Show, “I are mostly been playing with Lightroom”. To be more precise I have been looking at the new Lightroom 5 beta that Adobe have made available. This comes against a background of having experimented with pretty much every version of Lightroom since it hit the shops back in 2007 and found that I wasn’t entirely sold on the application despite seeing why others love it so much. And that is a huge part of the software conundrum – there are lots of options that achieve pretty much the same end result but get there via very different routes. If, like me, you shoot RAW pictures you need to have a way of editing, captioning, renaming, converting, saving, delivering and archiving your work. This can be achieved using a single application or you can use three , four or five different ones – it really doesn’t matter as long as your workflow is repeatable, flexible, efficient and accurate.

I will write a lot more about Lightroom 5 when I have really used it properly but I have to say that it seems a lot quicker than the previous version and the interface for Adobe RAW Converter is even closer to to the version that I use in Photoshop CS6 than ever – making using Lightroom a lot easier for me. I have also realised that Adobe’s efforts to create a programme for photographers to edit their work in are bearing fruit. The time has definitely arrived when I could easily do without Photoshop altogether and run pretty much everything from Lightroom. Of course that doesn’t mean that I want to… yet.

Adobe Photoshop CS6 Beta

Like half of the photo geeks around the world, I have downloaded and started to play with the public beta version of Adobe’s latest version of Photoshop: CS6. This is a major revision of the software in terms of the interface which looks a lot more like Lightroom than ever before and is also a lot less “freestyle” than those used to versions such as CS3 and earlier would be familiar with. We now have a fixed window rather than the floating elements of previous versions and this will take quite a bit of time for me to get used to. It isn’t that I don’t like it, it’s just that it is a change.

Screen shot of the main window

 

To be honest, my main use of Photoshop is Adobe Camera RAW. I use it to convert the RAW files that I shoot into whatever file format the job requires, fine tuning the colours, composition and various other elements as I go. At first sight Camera RAW 7 is very little changed from Camera RAW 6xx that I use every day in Photoshop CS5. At least that’s what I thought until I used it in anger on a proper edit.

Screen shot of Adobe Camera RAW 7

 

If you look closely at the main adjustments palette to the right of the window, you suddenly see what the changes are and what they will mean for every day workflow. Gone are the labels such as Recovery, Fill-light and Brightness to be replaced with a set including Highlights, Shadows and Whites. So far, they seem to perform very similar functions when used on every day files but I have only edited two sets of pictures (neither of which have been “live” jobs) and so it may well be that I have missed something. Here are the two palettes side by side:

Adobe Camera RAW adjustments palettes from CS5 (ACR6) on the left and CS6 beta (ACR7) on the right.

 

I will continue to play with CS6 and ACR7 as long as the beta phase continues and I’m sure that I will come up with plenty more observations. I only use Photoshop as an optimisation tool and I don’t do any serious retouching or image manipulation with it so don’t expect an in-depth assessment of layers, filters and content aware fill from me – there are plenty of other photo geeks out there who will be able to blog about that kind of stuff!

In praise of Photo Mechanic

Every software package has its fans, its designers and its detractors. If we all loved the same system then there would be no choice. I wanted to blog about Photo Mechanic and to say how much I like it. That isn’t to say that the others are rubbish – that would childish and purile – just that I find this one application suits me and what I do extremely well. So what is Photo Mechanic? I thought that the description on the company’s own website was hard to beat:

Photo Mechanic is a standalone image browser and workflow accelerator that lets you view your digital photos with convenience and speed. Photo Mechanic displays your “thumbnails” in a familiar “contact sheet” display window. Photo Mechanic helps you find the best photo amongst several similar shots in a preview display that lets you flip through a group of selected photos at high resolution.

Photo Mechanic’s super fast browsing enables you to quickly compare multiple images and select the best ones from a sequence. Its powerful batch processing, full support for image variables, IPTC and Exif metadata, make it the perfect tool for any digital photographer.

Before this becomes an advert and a love-in, there are a few tiny issues with the current (4.6.8) version that I’d love to get sorted. The trouble is that we quickly revert to the “love-in” because the team at Camerabits who design, code and sell Photo Mechanic are second-to-none when it comes to listening to the views, issues and suggestions of their customers. Got a problem? Email Camerabits and nine times out of ten they sort it the same day and the other one out of ten times sees a resolution in the next upgrade.

Screen grab of a Photo Mechanic "contact sheet" window.

Anyway, what do I use it for? Photo Mechanic is the package that I use to import RAW images from my memory cards, edit out the bad pictures, IPTC caption, batch rename, edit again and then send the selected RAW files to my RAW converter of choice (which happens to be ACR in Photoshop CS5.5 but that isn’t important right now). Once the files are converted there they are right back in Photo Mechanic where I can save them to a separate folder, create HTML web galleries, burn discs, FTP or email images to clients or pretty much whatever I might need to do with photographs.

I can hear people saying that there are plenty of packages that can do all or some of the above and even ones that remove the need for a separate RAW converter – all true, but that misses the point. I want my workflow to be fast, repeatable, adaptable and generally hassle free. I want to rely on the trackpad or the mouse as little as possible and have a good, strong set of keyboard shortcuts instead. Bingo – that’s what I get from Photo Mechanic.

In an earlier post I talked about how teaching helps you to get your own practice right and this is very true with using software. If I had to work without Photo Mechanic tomorrow I have a good knowledge of Apple’s Aperture and a very good knowledge of Lightroom and I would never try to dissuade anyone from using those packages. Having had to buy and learn other software has made me appreciate what I have.

The Camerabits website says that version 5 of the software is due in the early part of 2012 and that there will be a separate but interconnected cataloguing application available too. That’s two things from my wish list sorted out – all we need now is a version of Photo Mechanic for the Apple iOS and that would be another thing ticked off that list.