Thursday, May 13, 2010

RAW Addiction - My Story

Maybe there should be a Twelve Step program for photographers.

The Beginning
When I first started to get into photography a few short years ago I ordered my dSLR and bought Apple's Aperture 2 before the camera had even arrived in the post. I was listening to every podcast I could lay my hands on and reading every website and book (I could afford) that looked like it had some good advice to offer. I was going to hit the ground running and had already decided I would shoot in RAW despite the fact I hadn't even un-boxed my camera.

Actually lets start with a little bit of background first as this may help to explain my maniacal approach to anything new. I have worked in the IT industry for over 12 years but I'm a qualified electronics engineer by trade and spent many years working in the nuclear weapons industry (all morals aside the most exciting place you could imagine to work but the pay was bad). This means I love technical stuff ! My hobby has been riding and rebuilding classic motorbikes for many years but photography has started to replace this as I have got older and now have a family that takes up more time and money.

I'm a perfectionist to the point where it gets in the way of what I originally set out to achieve. Many of the motorbikes I've owned have spent months being stripped down and rebuilt instead of being enjoyed and ridden around the countryside. I have to do stuff myself to know its been done properly. Just this week I went out and bought a set of chimney sweep brushes to clean the flu on our wood burner because I didn't want to get someone else in who might not make a good job of it. Quality, its a state of mind and my mind gets into a state trying to achieve it ! I would recommend you read "Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance" by Robert M Pirsig, you may need to read it a few times to make sense of it (I read it about once a year), you won't learn much about motorcycles but you will understand more about "Quality" and what it can do the human mind when you have finished.

OK, back to raw converters....

When my camera arrived I was ready to start. I had read the manual several times already by downloading it from the Nikon website. Aperture was installed and setup ready to go. A few minutes of un-boxing and slapping on my 18-200 zoom and I was in the garden shooting the kids on the trampoline.

My first ever dSLR Photo

As you can see I could drive the camera but had no idea photographically speaking. I do give myself full marks for keeping the camera straight though !

Back in doors, out with the CF card and importing into Aperture. I had gone from a 3MP Casio "point n shoot" to a Nikon D300 shooting 14 bit NEF's, wow the image quality just blew me away ! For many months I was happy, I was spending time improving my work artistically and the technical side of it took a background place in my photography - life was good.

The First Temptation
I can't quite recall the exact moment it happened but I became completely obsessed with raw conversion. I think it may have started when I was introduced to Adobe's Lightroom 2. I was very happy with Aperture and learnt to use it proficiently. Lightroom introduced me to the "Local Adjustment Brush" and I was hooked. It was great, I could make so many more alterations without having to go anywhere near Photoshop Elements and create a huge TIFF file just to darken a sky.

I hated Lightroom though, after Aperture the interface to Lightroom was just plain crap. It was clunky, I had to switch from one module to another and couldn't even delete a photo if I was in the wrong place. Scrolling through images was also a pain, I had to stop and wait while the thumbnails were rendered and then I could I move on if they weren't the images I was after. I accidentally removed multiple files when I didn't mean too and there was no way to get them back apart from re-importing and doing all the develop work over again. It didn't "play nice" with my other Mac tools like Aperture either.

It did however give me my first experience of ACR (Adobe Camera Raw) and I loved it. I wanted ACR in Aperture though, if by some miracle Adobe and Apple had married then I would still be using Aperture today (probably).

The Slip
Lightroom gave me Camera Profiles, these I'm sure are what started me into my last 12 months of agony. I had been using Lightroom for several months now and managed to adapt myself to the interface somewhat. I could select Adobe's interpretation of the Nikon Capture NX look by using the Camera Standard, Landscape, Neutral and Portrait profiles. After playing with these for a while I realised that the Adobe Standard profile was actually giving me a pretty bad rendition of my files. The highlights were over exposed and the colours were over rich with Cyan, giving skies an odd yellowish hue and Reds were pushing towards Magenta.

I was using the Camera Standard profile for a while until I noticed that some files had some strange posterisation like effects in the shadows, Google came to my rescue and confirmed that this was an issue and it was just not just my eyes. I loaded up capture NX that I got free with my camera and had a look at what Nikon could do. The results were predictably very good but the interface to the software was designed by a monkey, in fact it wasn't designed at all. I decided right away that life was just too short to use Capture NX. It had shown me what was possible though and that had got me started thinking about the quality I was getting in Aperture and Lightroom.

I went back to Aperture, great tone curve, no weird shadows and that glorious interface ! I had forgotten just how nice it was to be connected with a single view of my images again. I missed ACR, I realised that Aperture could not compete with the develop tools in Lightroom. I also noticed that the colours from the raw conversion were not accurate either and Aperture only has a very limited adjustment for this (during raw decode) so it wasn't long before I was back to Lightroom and it bastardised interface.

The Insanity
The Adobe DNG Profile Editor. When this was released I was finally happy, I could make my own profiles and do it properly, I had control at last, or so I thought. I spent some cash on an xrite Color Checker and began creating my own profiles. I had invested in a D700 at this stage so had to make profiles for the D300 and D700.

I photographed the Color Checker and different lighting conditions and created dual table profiles. I was going to make these profiles great and share them with fellow photographers I had become acquainted with in my eternal search for quality.

I spent days making profiles, adjusting them, testing them on my images and then throwing them away with disappointment. How hard can it be to make a profile that will give me the colours and tones I see out of my window ! (Bloody impossible as it turns out as we will see)

For about six months all I did was worry, vent my anger on forums and spend hours going blind pouring over my images with dozens of camera profiles set up as presets in Lightroom. During this time I spent little energy in actually making my photographs any better with a camera in my hands. Some days I almost felt like giving up photography - this was getting quite insane really.

I tried capture NX again, I downloaded NX2 trial, I downloaded DXO Optics and Capture One all gave different results. NX2 was still ingratiated with the "monkey interface", in fact I think it got worse. DXO did a fairly good job but again the interface was bad, it looks like a free-be kids game you would get with a Mac Meal. Capture One, now this looked quite promising. The colours and tone curve were nice and the interface wasn't too bad. However, these tools don't manage your images in the same way that Lightroom and Aperture can with their integrated databases so I ruled them out. I was tempted to go down the route of using NX2 or Capture One to do RAW conversions to TIFF and then import and manage them in Aperture but this really grated with my 'non destructive, space conscious' workflow that I was keen to keep.

At this point I can imagine readers (if they are still here) thinking why didn't you just shoot jpegs (or hard drugs) and be done with it. Easy answer, I don't like the Nikon look and I can't afford to drink (I live in a wine producing region of NZ) and shoot hard drugs at the same time. Shoot a color checker with a Nikon camera in jpeg (or RAW and use NX) and look at the colours, especially the blues, they are so far out of whack its incredible. But people must like it as 1000's of Nikon shooters swear by NX.

Apple released Aperture 3. I bought the upgrade, dusted off my old version 2 copy from within the drawer and installed it. First impressions were great, second impressions had me rebooting my 'hung' Mac - not good - I have never had to this in my 5 years of Mac ownership !

Version 3.0.3 - finally Aperture 3 appears to be working. Its very good, really very good, I love the interface tweaks and the new full screen mode that allows you do practically anything in full screen is just brilliant. It has brushes, better in my opinion than Lightroom. It doesn't have a gradient tool, its incredible that I miss something so simple but it such a time saver.

The new raw demosaicing in Aperture is also brilliant except... the colours are still way off. There is still no way to correct this in the raw processing of Aperture. You could possibly do it in the colour brick and  apply it as a preset during import.

I have installed and trashed Aperture a dozen times since it was released. I can't make up my mind between Aperture 3 and Lightroom 3 (Beta2 at present). I love the Aperture interface and the new tools are excellent, for example, the retouch brush is light years ahead of the spot removal tool in Lightroom.

I had a brief reprieve from my raw dilemma while I concentrated my efforts on deciding whether I should use Aperture or Lightroom. Aperture is slower than Lightroom and this was starting to bug me a bit by then, I was contemplating upgrading my Mac but this idea was cut short by my sensible half (my wife). This started to tie me up in knots and I was getting nothing done with my camera. My smart album titled "This Week" was empty for the first time in ages. I was copying entire libraries over from Lightroom to Aperture for testing and generally wasting time trying to compare the two. (I know they can share the same masters but I'm a perfectionist and they had to be named right under each application, maybe some hard drugs would actually do me good)

I finally decided that I would stick with Lightroom. It integrates well with Photoshop, has a larger user base and support network and I have friends that also use it on Windows machines. Professionals seem to use it more too. That was it I was sorted, I took the camera out and shot some images.

Two days later I read on Joe McNally's blog that he used Aperture --- F***K !!! I re-installed it yet again ( I have to de-install it or I'll start using it again see). Now Joe is a bit of a hero of mine in the photographic world so his opinion has some weight with my stupidity.

Madness... I sat there thinking to myself "you are installing Aperture again and will now waste another day creating a catalog and importing images and playing" It had to stop, but not just yet, one more play with Aperture just to be sure :-)

Adobe hit back with a press release that they would include lens correction in the Lightroom 3 release. Thank God for that ! I had an excuse to dump Aperture and save myself further torment.

Well the Aperture v Lightroom debacle was over so I sat back and thought about what I had been doing with my photography for the past six months.

"Nothing Useful" was what came to mind and I realised what a waste of my effort all this had been. I took the kids out armed with point n shoots and went out for the evening to console myself.

When we returned I looked at my images, I hadn't really improved much for the past 12 months and my creativity had been crushed up and put into some small shelf at the back of my life. I looked at the kids photos and they were great. Kids have such a great way of looking at the world without all the adult baggage we carry around. In my case it was even more poignant as they couldn't care less about colour, sharpness, noise reduction, Aperture, Lightroom, Capture One, pixels, brushes, gradients and all that other crap that gets in the way.

They just went out and took photos of what they liked and the results were great. The photos were what they wanted and they didn't care about the technical stuff at all. It was fun, we all enjoyed ourselves and it made my photos look quite boring and staid despite my obsession with quality raw conversion and post production tools.

We get so bogged down in the technology of digital photography thinking it will make us better or produce better results. It won't, only you can make better photographs. Your camera and software are just there to carry your vision not to create it, they are the transport not the destination. I'm sure many of you already know this but how often do you you believe it ?

The kids favourites from that evening...

So I shoot jpegs now and don't worry...

Ha ha not really - I'm a techie at heart and that won't change. I still shoot raw as I do believe it affords me more leeway when I stuff up. I use Lightroom now as it has all the tools I require and I have finally got used to the interface.

I have trashed all my custom profiles and settled on the Adobe supplied Camera D2X Mode1 profile which is close enough for me. Ironically I never tried the D2X profiles throughout all my testing which is a shame as I really like it.

Wasted Energy ?
So has the last 12 months really been wasted ? At first I was quite depressed when I asked myself this question but after a while I realised it was actually a very important lesson and I think it will make me a better photographer in the future.

It was a long and frustrating journey but it has taught me what is important in photography and also in life in general to be honest. So it wasn't wasted and I feel if I can share this story with others it will actually be a positive experience overall.

As I stated earlier in this post I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance about once a year, I think I finally understand what Mr Pirsig was on about after my last 12 months of insanity.

As from the time of this post I have now been free from RAW addiction for a full 24 hours - It's going to get better now. You can sort of tell these things.


  1. Ah, thats me in a nut shell! All around the houses for months. Eventually settled on CNX2 as raw processor and Idimager as my DAM. Happy now or at least until something new comes along!


  2. Oh the seductive interface of the beautiful Aperture ... yet the efficiency of Lightroom 3b with its clunky interface has made me very unproductive too. I also thought if I just followed the lead of Apple and up graded to the newest and fastest machine I might be happy. Well I tried a super machine at the Apple store with Aperture 3.03, and two files of mine. I got the same spinning beach balls and sluggish performance as on my 2 year old iMac.
    Now with the additional bonus of PS CS5, I will learn to live with the library structure in Lightroom and the need to switch between modules because it really does work. I noticed that the latest Live webinar from NAPP featured Dell machines instead of Apple.
    Change is good.

  3. Forget the hard drugs, pot makes you just not care much better ;) Nice article.


  4. Thanks for your comments. Its good to know I'm not the only one who has these problems. I think if you start out with Lightroom the interface is fine. Its when you move from Aperture that it seems awkward, especially if you have used Aperture for along time. I have become quite an expert with Lightroom now and I'm much happier with the interface. The changes in LR3 have also helped a great deal in this area. I can get stuff done in Lightroom faster than Aperture too, its just taken longer to learn.

  5. Really great article!
    Makes me happy that I shoot jpegs and don't care.

    I only use Lightroom as a management tool and hardly ever touch the develop panel.


  6. A great blog. We all go through crazy antics trying to improve upon what we think we have...yet, as your children proved, just go out and have some fun.

  7. You made the right decision to stick with Lightroom. I've tried Aperture and found it hard going, but then I've been with LR since it was called RawShooter. A professional photographer friend of mine gets far better results than I do using Capture One though - ho hum.

    BTW Nik, I've been to Greytown and it's not at all monochrome, but what a great place to write about colour from! (my partner is a Kiwi, from Nelson)

  8. Thanks Roy, I still get an overwhelming urge to use Aperture some days, I really can't understand why, I think it must be the interface and the common sense file management that seems so lacking in Lightroom.

    I installed Aperture for my wife to use instead of iPhoto (I know it was for me to have another play too) but she was quite happy with iPhoto after some testing so I have removed it again now.


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