Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Night Shooting Convinced Me

Processed with DxO Optics Pro ver. 9

Processed with Photivo, "Best Effort"
It took some after dark shooting with my EOS 5D Classic and the Sigma 50mm f1.4 lens to convince me - I absolutely have to bite the bullet and purchase the DxO Labs Optics Pro software. In previous posts, I was feeling that it wasn't making a big enough difference to be worth it, that I could use opensource (free) software like Photivo and Raw Therapee and do my RAW conversions just as well, and I even reasoned - what if you want all the characteristics of your lenses "sweet spot", instead of the perfect uniformity that Optics Pro delivers? I found the answer to that last objection, by the way - the Software has a Preset called "No Correction", which leaves the lens correction out, but still allows you to manually do everything else in terms of making adjustments to your RAW file.

But last night I had an opportunity to shoot some city lights, and I tried processing them in a few different ways. I also had my straight from camera JPEGs available, but these were all too dark to bother with for comparison. So here today, I will mainly show you a few examples, comparing what DxO pulls off, literally with two or three mouse clicks, compared to my best efforts using Photivo on the same RAW file, which requires over 20 mouse clicks Yes, I like Photivo a lot, but I've never revealed how much work is involved to actually get the results you're looking for. The DxO product could involve just as many mouse-clicks if you want to do everything manually, but the beauty is, you don't have to - it has plenty of Presets available right out of the box, and also, all of the film emulation types from their other famous product called "Film Pack" are built into optics Pro ver.9 at no extra cost. Although it's true that with Photivo, you can build and store your own Presets, for future "one-click" work, I've never tried this. But that's beside the point - DxO offers the same build your own capabilities, but out of box, it offers enough Presets to suit most any picture, and save you a mountain of work.

The issue is, the ultimate image quality I was able to achieve with DxO Optics Pro. I'm not sure why it took night photography to convince me that the difference is like night and day (pun intended!), but my best efforts with Photivo, in every case, could not match the amazing clarity and beauty of the Optics Pro software.

Here are some more:

DxO Optics Pro
DxO Optics Pro
Photivo (note - I rotated the DxO sample, but neglected to do so here)

I also used another opensource RAW Converter called Raw Therapee, which works more like Optics Pro, in that it is a RAW Browser / Previewer, and also has a lot of good presets "out of box". However, I do believe that all Opensource Converters are based on the same software "engine", or core application called "DC-RAW", and so the final look would be quite similar. I don't think I'm too far off in this opinion, because I was getting similar results:

DxO Optics Pro
Raw Therapee

DxO Optics Pro
Raw Therapee

DxO Optics Pro
Raw Therapee
JPEG From Camera, Un-altered

For this last one, I also included the JPEG, for comparison purposes, and also to demonstrate why you really need a RAW capable camera, so let's talk about that.

In extreme conditions, like night shooting, if you don't have a camera which puts out a Raw Data File, and only gives you a JPEG output, the camera is making a lot of compromises that aren't good. For instance, why did all my JPEGs come out dark? It's because I had 1 stop of under-exposure dialed in for these shots, to make the night look like it's really night. If you use normal, or even worse, the "expose to the right" method, your pictures will come out bright enough that you'd not think it's really night time. I always "expose to the left" when shooting at night, so that the dark really looks the way it's supposed to at night. But if you don't have RAW capabilities (the Raw Data file - might as well start stating it correctly here), you're camera, in it's own attempt to give you a seemingly noise-free image, will darken the JPEG output too much. On the other hand, if you do have a camera with Raw Data output, you can use a Raw Conversion software program to actually "re-expose" the picture, making it much brighter, more vibrant, -in essence, the way you want it to look, and not what the camera thinks will look best. Further, as digital noise is often the biggest culprit in night shooting, a good Raw Software will always have noise reduction capabilities, so that when you're "brightening" the picture (as opposed to raising the Exposure Value - there is a difference I won't get into here), some noise is bound to show up in the shadows. You can use the software to greatly reduce the noise, which it usually does by "smoothing" the picture details. You can have total control over de-noising, so as to not loose too much detail. So now you know how that works.

I must add, that DxO Labs Optics Pro version 9 has absolutely phenomenal noise reduction - advertised as best in business, it does more than just smooth out detail to get rid of noise. Just what that is must be their "secret sauce" - all I can say is that it works as good as they say it does, although it takes a lot longer to run, and will really rev up the cooling fans in your computer!

I'd better get back to explaining why you should have Raw Data file output (usually simply called "RAW"). I'll state it very simply - without it, you only get what the camera thinks it's best to give you, but with it, you can make your picture look far better, IN EVERY CASE - even using no-cost Opensource Raw Software. Sometimes you can make a JPEG look a little better using software like Photoshop Elements, or it's Opensource equal - GIMP, but in comparison, there's not really much you can do with a JPEG and still have it come out looking good. Of course you can use lot's of "fun filters" to transform your JPEG's into a totally different look, but to truly make your photo's look as good as possible, you need the Raw Data file, as well as a good Raw Conversion Software product.

I'm convinced now, that DxO Lab's Optics Pro 9 is absolutely best in class, although to be fair, I've never tried the most popular product on the market - Adobe's Lightroom. For a well informed comparison, read here.

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