Review of RAW conversion software

"A photograph is usually looked at — seldom looked into."    — Ansel Adams.
On this page:

Purpose

This is not an all around test of all RAW software available on the market for all formats of RAW files, but a more limited test of what can be done conveniently to improve the output from my Fuji S5 pro and my Ricoh GRd cameras. The former produces proprietary RAF files with a specific x4 dynamic range, while the latter produces 'standard' DNG files. Many programs can read those files, but a RAW file processor should be able to also provide a good default image as well as a smooth workflow for efficient work.

In testing with Fuji RAF files, I'm more interested in correct contrast and highlight/shadow details than other parameters. The reason is that the S5 is very capable on just about everything on its own, but its extended dynamic range capability is very open to software manipulation (and thus personal interpretation). Noise is virtually non-existent under 800iso, so I just don't bother with it.

As for the test with Ricoh DNG images, I pay attention particularly to what can be done when the highlights are burnt (a common occurrence). Also watching the noise, the color balance...

One important note, if you are going to shell some dough on a fancy camera with RAW mode and a RAW processing software, you must ensure that your screen is calibrated properly with something like a Buy at Amazon.comColorvision Spyder probe. It will make a huge difference particularly on cheap monitors.


Fuji software

Fuji FinePix Viewer

The Fuji S5 pro comes with FinePix Viewer, a classic (read 'devoid of any redeeming quality') image transfer and viewer program, and FinePix Studio, a basic RAW file editor. What is missing (and expensive) is the so-called Hyper Utility HS-V3 program for more advanced RAW processing.

FinePix Viewer is really limited in its moving/renaming capabilities (when will we see such a program with regular expressions renaming capabilities ?) and doesn't even show the exif info. The only 'processing' it can do is limited to rotating the images. I use it only to transfer the files before batch renaming them, and then again to pass the RAF files onto FinePix Studio, and if the camera had an actual USB Mass Storage communication mode (or if my 'puter had a card reader), I'd skip this step entirely. The program also has some mysterious greyed-out options in its menus such as 'PictureTheFuture' (no thanks, I want to photograph the present and with an active menu, thank you).

I tested version 5.3.60E. Here's a screenshot of FinePix Viewer in action.

Fuji FinePix Studio

This program is referred to as 'CCD-RAW Data Conversion Function' in some Fuji documentation. To put it simply FinePix Studio allows you to do the same thing to a RAF file than what you can do directly with the camera settings. In other words, when you press the [Menu/OK] button on the camera, you can change settings for: film simulation, D-Range, Color, Tone, Sharpness, Color Space and White Balance. But if you save a RAF file, you can change either of those settings afterwards in the FinePix studio program, with finer tone and white balance controls. The only limit is the D-Range: if you take the image with a D-Range of 100% (or the Auto mode decided that 100% ought to be enough), you cannot change it afterwards as only the information from the main photosites gets saved. So, yes, there are two types of RAF files produced by the S5, one weighting 12Mb, the other a hefty 25Mb. The former one is compatible with most imaging software, the latter is not.

To put it more bluntly, be careful if you use the Auto D-Range option, as it may save files without the full sensor information, not recoverable even from the RAW file. It's okay to use it if you take jpeg files, but I set the D-range to 130% when taking RAW files, just to be sure I can reprocess them in full later. Another minor limitation is that I haven't seen the simulated film type options (F1, F2...) in FinePix Studio. When using FinePix Studio, don't miss the [Show Warning] icon when manipulating contrast and dynamic range as it shows you which pixels are over/underexposed. I think there should be an option to show the separate sensor bitmaps as well.

FinePix Studio is a simple and very usable program, but I have a few strong gripes with it. In particular the strange fact that it saves 8-bit TIF files that are twice as big as the double-range RAF files ! How is that possible ?!? It's also slow and there's no way to compare two images: opening one closes the other. You can't even compare two settings on the same image: you get 10 seconds of blur before the new result so that you visually forget all about the original. I really, really wish there was a buffer holding the last view of the previous image to make quick compares. One more thing is that you cannot run FinePix Studio if you already have HS-V3 running; I've had the latter open for a week on the same image, trying to figure out how it works, and I wanted to do a quick fix on a set of new images, but apparently I'm outta luck.

Globally the user interface is OK, but as a GUI writer myself, let me make a suggestion: instead of having a on off [Camera setting][Custom setting] and then a slider that don't even show the camera setting, just use a slider and add an arrow with the camera setting on it. It will save screen real-estate and 2 clicks.

One good thing is that the software remembers the custom settings of each image (in a RAG file that you should keep with your RAF file). You can customize all the pics in a directory and launch the batch conversion when you are done. It works exactly the same way in HSV3 and the settings are common between them.

You can copy settings from one image and paste it on a selection of images easily; which is a neat trick when preparing batch processing. But two elementary things you cannot do with it are: rename a file or crop an image. Sigh... Do people who write this software even take pictures or do they leave out crucial things like that to make you shell for the more expensive progs ?!? Another important gripe is that the program is not multithreaded when doing previews; meaning that even if you have a Blue Gene at your disposal, it uses only one core for its processing, taking a good 10 seconds to update any image. Fortunately it uses 100% CPU when doing the final batch processing. Talking of which, why is the rotation lost when saving to JPEG ?!? I'm getting pissed off at having to fire off yet another application to apply a lossless jpeg rotation afterwards. And I think I said that somewhere else, the color profiles saved in the jpeg images are ignored by Paint Shop Pro (you'll find a script to solve that below).

I tested version 1.0.1.1. Here's a screenshot of FinePix Studio in action.


Fuji Hyper-Utility 3

...or HSV3 or HS-V3 or whatever it's spelled. I wish camera makers would get their shit together and instead of selling you their own RAW file processor, that they would collaborate with Adobe or free software communities to bring out perfect and official modules for Lightroom, Gimp and others. It's easy, just put the specs on your website; you have nothing to gain from hiding how well the camera can work, only loyal customers to lose. Ricoh does it this way.

This being said, I purchased HS-V3 after arguing the price like a pit bull with its balls in a blender. On first try the program is similar in looks with FinePixStudio, but the interface is non-standard, something that always makes me look for a [Option][Use Windows Standard] and failing that, barf. Like here. How non-standard ? Well, let's just say that this is the first PC program where clicking a button is different than click and hold on a button, something I discovered in the manual. OMG, they've turned my PC into a Mac ! Guess what, I have 3 buttons on my mouse: USE THEM IN THE PROGRAM instead of inventing new user interface concepts for f$%ck sake !

This being said, the layout is very customizable (one or two images, thumbnails under or on the side, with our without info, plenty of default sizes for everything including the buttons, adjustable menu sizes...). Yet again I can't seem to be able to compare an image pre and post-processing like it's so easy to do with Lightroom.

One thing immediately evident about the layout is that everything is integrated in a single window, while FinePix Studio has multiple windows, making it vastly more convenient on a multi-monitor setup. Another failing that hits you in the face: if your filename is longer than about 8 characters, the program only displays the middle of it, without any way to see the rest (it's not on the window name or any place I can find). Truly loathsome.

One thing I soon understood is that HSV3 is not intuitive, you need to read the help file... which feels like a cold shower when after 24 pages they explain to you how to select a file in a folder. Time to curl up and cry. At this point I half expect them to explain how to plug the computer in. I must say that after a few hours of use I wasn't even at the level of use of FinePix Studio, lost between how to change the width of the menu sub-options, how to select an image (just fu**ing click on it like in every other f**king program) and other useless references !...

...and then I get to the end of the help file and I haven't seen a hint of a shadow of an image processing function ! Let me put it this way: I couldn't figure out what this program I paid more than 100$ for does ! Either I've had too much UpdatedChartreuse or something is deeply wrong here... You have to fish out the tiny [RAF] buttons in the lower right corner of the layout to access the RAW processing options (they are not even available from the menu). The batch processing one is for applying custom options to each selected image, the other one is for using common parameters to all selected images. Press them again to go back to View mode. About as intuitive as learning Basque.

After this crucial click, you have access to a Raw file editor very similar to FinePix Studio, with the following extras: cropping, more resolution choices (4246x2848, 4230x2820, 3024x2016, 2304x1536, 1440x960), access to film simulation (but here they are called F3a, F3b, F3c and Fujichrome, differently from the camera menu)... and well, that's pretty much it. Nothing like all the advanced image processing functions of LightRoom. And there are several catches: you can use trimming (=cropping) only at the nominal resolution (3024x2016). Also trimming causes version 1.1a to crash at every file if you save to JPEG !

Several things of note: first there's no [Ctrl-Z] to cancel the last operation; then the software author doesn't grok the different between Ctrl-click and shift-click for file/icon selection; batch mode adds a '_' at the start of the filename and '_1' at the end regardless to the fact that I like the way I named my own files thank you. It's so idiosyncratic it's bordering on idiocy.

But does it give good images ? Yes it does, in a basic kind of way (see below my notes about 3rd party software). Basically I use it to obtain a reference 'good' image with which to compare the other software. It's also very helpful in playing with the camera settings without actually touching the camera.

So the executive summary is: for about 100$ it's a clear ripoff. Even for 5$ it would still be. Now if you put it in the S5 box and open-source the code, we can talk.

I used version 1.1a (3.0.10). Here's a screenshot of HS-V3 in view mode and in RAF file edit mode.

It must be noted that there are a few other tools in the HSV3 package: just look in the HELPERS directory since they were too lazy (or ashamed ?) to make them appear in the [Start] menu. For instance there's a RAW file compressor that irreversibly changes the file size from 25Mb to 14Mb (or 12Mb to 9Mb in the case of 100% DRange): 60~70% compression, better than nothing, but why couldn't they integrate it inside the firmware of the camera ? No, strike that: it makes the files unreadable by anything else than the Fuji software (and you'll be lucky to get even that much), for instance Photoshop refuses to open files compressed thusly ! Nuff said.

There's also Studio Utility coming with HSV3 that looks identical to FinePix Studio not only by name but also by user interface (it's a confusion fest), except that this one is used for image acquisition. Connect the camera in [Setup][System][USB mode][PC Shoot Auto] or [PC Shoot Fixed] and you can control the camera from the PC, including a live preview. I couldn't tell the difference between both modes but I haven't used it for much else than a brief test. I'd say this is basically the only function that you get from the package that can be truly necessary to some people, for instance if you do time-lapse work.

Here's a screenshot of Studio Utility in action.



Third party software

The world of RAW file software is currently in exponential development with plenty of offerings and rapid changes. They all want to be the Photoshop of the future but since they all take just about as long to learn, it's hard to line them up and test them (to say nothing of their price)... Adobe Lightroom, Buy at Amazon.comBibble Pro, Buy at Amazon.comDXO Optics, Buy at Amazon.comCapture One, SilkyPix, S7raw (freeware), UFRaw, Silverfast, Helicon filter, RawShooter, LightZone, ACDsee, Raw Therapy... The thing to keep in mind is that the Fuji RAF format is proprietary and as such the other software makers are left guessing (although most of the file format is easy to reverse-engineer), in other words Fuji performs its own voodoo on the RAW data that nobody else knows about and should thus ensure superior results on Fuji software. Let's see if this holds water.


Adobe Lightroom

Until June 2007, the Adobe RAW module for either Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom was ignoring the smaller photosite info (so no dynamic range advantage) and to have some trouble when using AdobeRGB color profiles. This is fixed as of version 1.1 of Lightroom. Lightroom can do a lot more things on the image than Finepix Studio / HSV3 ever will, but it's also some kind of weakness: don't tell me you can actually know, understand and use every one of the hundreds of options available... Though there are some Lightroom options such as 'Vibrance' that you'll soon learn to miss from any other program (or the 'Clarify' from Paint Shop Pro, but that's another issue). The 'Quickdevelop' feature of Lightroom really shines in the ability to fine tune random settings by just looking at the histogram which is very readable.

There is one big difference between FinePix Studio/HSV3 and third party software in terms of usability: the Fuji software has exactly the same settings as your camera: the settings you can play with in the menus are the same settings available in the software. It saves some 'thinking' and tinkering time if you are already familiar with the camera. On the other hand, that's all you get. If you compare with Lightroom where you have hundred of settings that you can tinker for hours (days!). So if you are really anal about finding the perfect setting, you'll probably want to load the TIF resulting from HSV3 into Photoshop anyway for fine-tuning local areas of the image, so you might as well skip the middleman and use the RAW plugin for Photoshop/Lightroom directly.

Anyway, back to Lightroom. It can produce excellent images, potentially better than the Fuji software provided you spend several months learning all the options and you have a good grip on what needs to be done on each specific image. But my main gripe is that the program is messy and doesn't really know what it wants to be. Is it an image library a la Picassa ? A frontend for Photoshop ? A RAW batch processor ? A web publisher ? Or even a substitute for Powerpoint/Irfanview with its slideshow function...? Where you start the other programs by browsing to a directory and loading the files you want, here you 'import' them somehow into the internal database, for whatever it's worth, before you can process them; I can just never figure out how to open a file, and I still have no idea what happens if I rename a files or move it outside of Lightroom. Does the whole thing break if I move my images to a new disk ? Also I can understand a choice of dark interface in order not to interfere with image colors, but the various sliders and barely readable non-standard user interface gimmicks get on my nerve.

I tested two beta versions, then 1.0 and 1.1. Official Lightroom site and Buy at Amazon.compurchase.


UFraw

I tried UFraw which is a bit tricky to install on Windows (first GTK+, then Gimp and finally UFraw); I haven't tried it on Linux although it's a possibility (a choice you don't have with Fuji). It is based on the open-source DcRaw code. It also claims to open a lot of different RAW formats which I haven't tried. UFraw is a Gimp plugin but also works as an independent program.

First of all it has a clean interface. It handles color profiles correctly and also uses the info from the small sensors. I didn't see a batch processing option which is inconvenient, also the zooming is poor (only a %, not even a 'fit to window' or 100%), there's no cropping option and the exif info is forgotten along the way. There are some nice looking histograms, but you can't act directly on them and I'm not actually sure what they mean...

The default settings produce sub-par images, but they improves a lot with some [Auto] functions and manual tweaking although I couldn't quite reach the level of quality of HSV3, particularly for color balance and sharpness although on that last issue the documentation explains that it should be much better (I must have missed something). One more thing is that the Fuji software can extrapolate to produce a sharp 12MPix image (it's not really an extrapolation since there really are 12 million sensors on the CCD...) and I couldn't do that with UFRaw. In the end I find the program is very fast but limited.

I tested version 0.11. Link to UFRaw's site.


S7raw

S7raw is another free program meant to handle only Fuji RAF files. The interface is quite a bit more complex than UFRaw, although it stays clean. The zoom is quite nice and can be docked or undocked (but strangely not the other sub-windows). The program can perform a lot of advanced functions such as lens distortion, cropping, color channel mixing... There's a batch option but the settings are the same for all the images. The good thing is that it can extrapolate images in the same way than the Fuji software. What's missing is profile support and indeed the profiles are dropped during conversion, which is a big drawback. It's the only non-fuji program I've seen which can read compressed RAF files.

I tested version 0.4.5. Link to S7raw page.


Ichikawa SilkyPix Developer Studio

SilkyPix is a commercial program with a free version, which I've tried. The UIR is non-standard and so dark I was left wondering if there was anything at all on my screen at first ! You can apply settings directly on the thumbnails without even opening the images which I find very convenient for instance to even out settings on a sequence of images. Unfortunately this doesn't work if you select more than one. The program has batch processing (it remembers settings in .spi files placed in subfolders), color profile support, it remembers exif, allows trimming (pay version) and, most important, handles the small sensor info of the S5 properly.

It handles file names very intelligently: if you have File.dng, File.tif, File.jpg and File.spi, if you rename the dng file from within the program, it will rename the others as well. Conversely, if you use Explorer (or a batch renamer) to rename all the files (including the spi/spe, a tedious but sometimes necessary process), it will still remember the settings (try that with Lightroom !). There are advanced batch-renaming functions of thumbnails and auto-renaming for saved files which I've never seen anywhere else, very useful, but there are some inconvenient limits on the max number of characters you can use and the format organization (instead of concatenating 3 fields with various formats, just make a single one with all the options)). There are a number of 'engrish' typos in the program menus which are of minor importance; and instead of expressing shortcuts as 'Parameters(P)' they could more simply do 'Parameters', I guess this originates from the original japanese program. You can completely redefine all the shortcut keys, another way to speed up your workflow.

The set of basic functions (exposure, WB, contrast, color, sharpness, noise reduction) is complemented by fine tuning functions which are unfortunately unavailable in the free version. There is a grey exposure / white balance tool for when you insert a grey / white chart inside one of your images. You can copy/paste settings between images (the usual ctrl-C, ctrl-V), memorize and quickly jump between multiple presets (very convenient) and define classes of actions (called 'Tastes' here). You can do arbitrary rotation and perspective correction, which is excellent to correct a tilted horizon and which I haven't seen in any of the other progs. The color controller has an interface I've never seen before, very intuitive. There's also a lens aberration correction (nowhere near as complete as the reference DXO Optics as it doesn't contain a lens database, so I guess its use is limited unless you know how to calibrate it) and lots of other goodies which I discover as I go.

When browsing images, you can set it to display only RAW or RAW+TIF (default). I prefer the 1st solution as this way I don't see duplicates. Other custom options include an unsharpen filter on save (why isn't it part of the main workflow ?). I'd like to see the fabled 'vibrance' for Photoshop and 'clarify' from Paint Shop Pro for local color and contrast enhancement. The program is written to handle multicores properly (including quad-cores, but then the bottleneck obviously becomes the I/O rate) and you can lower its priority when batch processing (although it does nothing to reduce the I/O load). As such, actions are extremely fast (they happen even before you click on a button or menu), also thanks to efficient bufferization (the immediate preview is a bit blurry but quite usable, while the precise one takes a few more seconds). The program never makes you wait.

The user interface is non-standard, dark (can be changed to grey or white) and looks kind of simple at first glimpse but there are plenty of innocuous buttons that open tabs and sub-tabs so that you never really know what's gonna happen when you click something, but the learning curve is very quick. You can dock/undock the control tabs (good for multi-monitor freaks). The free version can save only as JPG but the pay version can do 8 and 16-bit TIF. I find the only thing missing is the ability to play directly with the histogram as with experience you can usually directly tell what needs to be done to an image just by shifting cursors around. Overall I must say I like this program very much as it offers about as much if not more functionality as Lightroom in an easier to use package with plenty of possible customization.

As for the image quality, it is already excellent when loading the image. I usually fine-tune by increasing the Dynamic Range in the Highlight controller for the S5, or by lowering the 'color deflection' two notches for the Ricoh DNG images otherwise they are a bit too purple. And in both cases I often raise the contrast. The color itself is very good. As for the sharpness, the basic settings are not all that impressive, but I've never like this kind of sharpening anyway. The unsharpen mask available as a saving option is more interesting to give a uniform feel to your images but being outside of the normal workflow it's a bit harder to control properly.

And finally, they have very good customer service. While not even being a registered customer, I emailed them about some of the minor points raised above, and I got an answer within a few hours.

I tested version 3.0.10.1. Link to SilkyPix website, with free reduced version an full 14-day trial.



RAW file conversions in action

As for other RAW processors, I can't test them all. Some don't support my lenses (DxO), some seem to have faded from the limelight (Capture One), most are too expensive and I've already bought several I won't be using any more, and overall they are very time-consuming to test properly.

Raw image processing tests
The image shown here was chosen because it's a tricky one: it has flash + daylight, is quite backlit with hard to bring out shadow details, the sky is completely burnt in 100% Dynamic Range but has some faint colors at 400%. And finally it presents some skin tones.
HS-V3
Excellent default image, hard to improve upon. It basically mean that you can trust the S5 to save good quality default JPGs. I lowered the contrast and brought out the darks a little bit in the tweaked version.
Lightroom
Sky on the default image is burnt out. A bit of tweaking brings out an excellent sky but the shadows are a bit greyish. I'm sure it's possible to do better.
S7raw
Pretty good results even without tweaking the parameters. But the color profile is wrong resulting in an AdobeRGB profile being mistaken for an sRGB (the mistaken conversion is displayed here 'as-is', resulting in a lack of saturation).
UFRaw
The default image (not shown here) if quite bad, but a simple click on [Auto exposure] brings this one, still too dark and with a cartoonish transitions on the sky. A bit of tweaking brings good shadow details, but the overall color cast was wrong no matter what I tried. The final resolution is also half of the other 3 programs.
SilkyPix
The default image is already good but with burnt out sky. I couldn't tweak the curves to my liking with the limits of the free version, so I used the trial of the pay version and got excellent results easily.

Recap

SoftwareFinePix ViewerHSV3LightroomS7rawUFrawSilkyPix
OSWin/MacWin/MacWin/MacWinWin/LinuxWin
Fuji S5 RAF supportYYFull since June 2007YYY
Ricoh DNG supportNNYNLimitedY
User interfaceStandardCustomCustomStandardStandardCustom
Overall usabilityAveragePoorAverageGoodAverageVery good
Multi-monitorYNN?NNY
Color profilesMaintainedFull supportFull supportNoFull supportFull support
CroppingNYYYNY
Arbitrary rotationNNNNNY
Image quality 'on load'GoodGoodAverageGoodPoorVery good
Image quality with available autoN/AN/AGoodGoodGoodVery good
Image quality after manual tweakingVery goodVery goodGoodGoodGoodExcellent
Amount of tweaking necessary for best imageNot muchNot muchLotsSomeLots?Not much
Workflow efficiencyGoodGoodGoodLimited batchNo batchGood
Retains infoRAG filesRAG filesInternal databaseNoNoIn subfolder spd/i files
PriceFree (with camera)About 100$About 300$FreewareOpen-sourceAbout 100$
I like****************

Conclusion: So what to use ? Well if it isn't obvious from the table above, you can read my S5 workflow notes...


Shell scripts

I wrote this shell script to find RAW files which do not have an associated TIF file, meaning that I most likely have forgotten to process them. Applies to all brands of RAW files. Read the comments at the beginning. See here for more info on Cygwin.

This one assumes a workflow of RAW —> TIF —> JPG and checks to see if the JPG is indeed newer than the TIF.