Raw Converter Software; From Adobe, LaserSoft, Bibble Labs, & DxO Labs

A dozen or so years ago digital cameras were just becoming a reality, although still pricey and limited in utility. Some of these cameras offered output file format choices that usually included JPEG and sometimes TIFF, and rarely raw. You chose the TIFF option as an option to the lossey JPEG. When the raw option was first offered it was in the standard .RAW format that could be opened with most image-editing applications. It contained the unprocessed data from the camera sensor. Although there was some incentive to get the most out of a digital camera then by using either TIFF or raw, the cost and lower capacity of memory cards often precluded their use. With early CompactFlash or SmartMedia memory cards, the small storage space only allowed a very few exposures.

As later model cameras began offering sensor chips with more resolution, producing even larger uncompressed files, and larger capacity memory cards became available, all of the manufacturers chose to develop and use their own proprietary non-lossey compression strategy as their raw save option. This required each manufacturer to develop and include software that could decode their new proprietary raw file format. Because the software was included in the price of the camera (although some charge extra for expanded utilities) it was an extra cost. In my experience, this proprietary raw software apparently received a somewhat limited budget priority because in nearly every example it was nothing but a bare-bones utility that offered little more than access to the raw file data.

Adobe's Photoshop CS2 Camera Raw has as its main attraction the fact it is an integral part of Photoshop and connects seamlessly with Adobe's Bridge, which provides preview thumbnail generation and image file management. Camera Raw is also easy to use, even though my experience is the auto adjust for Exposure, Shadows, Brightness, and Contrast seldom provides an ideal correction. This image was taken of a monk at a Tibetan temple in the heart of Beijing, China, by James Chen using a Nikon D70.
All Photos © 2005, David B. Brooks, All Rights Reserved

Intended or not, the state of digital camera raw conversion became an open invitation to software developers to step into the void and offer something more efficient, powerful, effective, and easier to use than the free utility shipped with digital cameras. Adobe was virtually obliged to move quickly and develop a plug-in Camera Raw capability that would support most of the different makes and models of digital cameras. If they didn't move on this and provide a free, convenient access for photographers to bring their raw images directly into Photoshop, one of the many third-party developers who make plug-ins for use with Photoshop would step into the breach and jeopardize a selling feature Adobe could use to its advantage.

The first of such companies, in fact, to offer raw converters were those who had software for scanners and digital backs. LaserSoft, with their SilverFast plug-in driver for scanners was already partway there; their SilverFast DC worked with digital camera JPEGs. Others were not far behind, including companies like Phase One with an adaptation of their software developed for their own digital backs for medium format cameras. Other independent software developers like Bibble Labs and DxO Labs have taken the challenge and approached it from different perspectives, offering their own take on what will serve photographers most effectively.

Bibble Labs' BibblePro 4.3 provides a browser from which you can select raw thumbnails. When you double-click on a thumbnail the image is converted and opened in a work space that provides access to a set of tools in their own free-floating windows. BibblePro 4.3 supports most raw file types and the interpretation on screen is clean, providing a foundation that can be efficiently adjusted for white balance, tint, contrast, and brightness, as well as sharpness and the removal of noise. Bibble 4 Professional full version for Windows, Macintosh, and Linux is $129, and Bibble 4 Lite for Macintosh is $69.

Four Different Software Solutions
I chose four different software options for digital camera raw conversion which offer both comprehensive capability and moderate cost (excepting Adobe's Photoshop CS2, in which Camera Raw is an included feature). To test I chose raw files made with digital SLR cameras that have comparable price and megapixel output: Canon's EOS Digital Rebel, Nikon's D70, and Konica Minolta's Maxxum 7D. I already had the use of a Canon EOS Digital Rebel; I enlisted the support of a friend with a Nikon D70; and borrowed a Maxxum 7D from Konica Minolta.

I arranged a studio test with electronic flash using a subject with two different color references. I made a series of bracketed exposures with each camera using the same focal length setting and aperture and varying the flash output to provide a bracketed range of different exposures. I then used the Canon and the Konica Minolta to photograph both the same and different subjects myself, and my friend, James Chen, supplied some raw files made with his Nikon D70 in Beijing, China.

DxO Labs' Optics Pro Elite 3.0 incorporates automatic correction to a maximum extent with the addition of simple, easy to use tools to make adjustments for individual image subject differences. Optics Pro Elite 3.0 is also unusual in that it allows you to add modules to accommodate specific lenses and provides specific corrections for optical deficiencies. Three different modes of functioning are provided--full manual, semiautomatic, and full automatic adjustment. Optics Pro 3.0 is $159 and the Elite version is $249.

All of these files were processed with Adobe's Photoshop CS2 Camera Raw, LaserSoft's SilverFast DC VLT (Virtual Light Table), Bibble Labs' BibblePro 4.3, and DxO Labs' Optics Pro Elite 3.0 installed on an Apple Mac G5. I made it a point to work with each software application separately on different days, without referring to the image results produced by the other applications. Each set of processed files were then saved as TIFF files in their own folders. After this stage of the processing was complete, I opened each file in Adobe's Photoshop Elements 3.0 and made any minor editing adjustments needed to produce an optimum result, then saved the result as a copy file so the original would be preserved for reference. Finally, a set of proof prints were made of the finalized files from which I chose the images that are included to illustrate this report.

LaserSoft's approach to digital camera raw file conversion and adjustment is an adaptation of their very successful scanner driver application, SilverFast Ai 6 and SE. This makes it a particular advantage to the many scanner users who have experience with SilverFast because the tools and functions are essentially the same. There is, in fact, little real difference between the raw data produced by a scanner's CCD and the raw data produced by a digital camera once the latter is translated and opened into a preview in SilverFast DC's work space. LaserSoft's SilverFast DC VLT has a price of $85 and provides support for 50 of the most popular digital camera makes and models. Photo of Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China, made with a Nikon D70 by James Chen.

Evaluating The Processing Experience And Image Results
It has been my practice over the last 30 years of reporting to avoid making head to head comparisons of products. For this report, I must admit, curiosity just got the best of me. And because doing this kind of test and evaluation was so completely new, I really did not have any expectations even as I did the work, as I did not want to involve even an unconscious, unintended bias. So when I laid out the final images side by side I was very surprised by the results. If the file names were not unique (and included an identification of both the camera and the software used) it would have been very easy to get them mixed up. There was that little difference between them.

Does that mean there are no significant differences between the three cameras I used for the tests? Not at all--each has its own raw character. For instance, the Konica Minolta Maxxum 7D files were a bit contrastier and more saturated than either the Canon or Nikon. It was evident that each brand is subtly distinct in how it reproduces color. However, once converted and adjusted to the same level of maximum black, white, and mid-gray point values, those inherent distinctions became indistinguishable.

My base-line photo test was done in one session in a studio with electronic flash lighting of a vase of fresh-cut flowers and both a LaserSoft ICC IT-8 target and a Macbeth ColorChecker. If I had three 35mm film SLRs instead of three digital SLRs, and four different slide films, I would have expected every one of the 12 resulting images to be distinctly different. Instead, the files from the Canon EOS Digital Rebel, Nikon D70, and Konica Minolta Maxxum 7D were processed with four different applications: Adobe's Photoshop CS2 Camera Raw, Bibble Labs' BibblePro 4.3, DxO Labs' Optics Pro Elite 3.0, and LaserSoft's SilverFast DC VLT. That the results are close to identical, with just slight variation mostly in the gray seamless paper background, says something very positive about the overall advantage of digital for photographers.

Maxxum 7D Conversions: All of the photography done for these tests was gathered in folders before any processing was attempted. Then I used each one of the applications consecutively to process all of more than two dozen files, saving the results in four different folders. Once all four applications had been used to convert and process all of the same files, I began to collect sets of one image, in this case made with the Konica Minolta Maxxum 7D, and put them together to compare the results from each of the applications. There were subtle differences in internal contrast and saturation and even less in color balance, but not enough to say one result was better than another.

Likewise, I found with each software conversion option, whether Camera Raw or BibblePro 4.3, I could adjust the image very close to the same maximum white and black as well as close to the same mid-gray (brightness). However, once I had made all the optimal adjustments and saved the file as a TIFF, there were some subtle differences when I opened each image with Adobe's Photoshop Elements 3.0. Some of the files converted and adjusted with Camera Raw, SilverFast DC VLT, BibblePro 4.3, and Optics Pro Elite 3.0 required slightly different amounts of tweaking with Photoshop Elements to be optimal for printing.

For instance, even though Camera Raw has its own histogram to optimize image levels, when the Adobe files were opened and checked with Levels in Photoshop Elements the image required further tightening of the gamut. The files converted and adjusted with SilverFast DC VLT once opened in Photoshop Elements required either no tweaking or very little. The files converted and adjusted with both BibblePro 4.3 and Optics Pro Elite 3.0 were in between, usually requiring just very little fine adjustment to be optimal.