An observation about the increasing importance of raw conversion software in critical photography.

I loved the way the light looked as it wrapped around handle of this white dish.
Shot at 6,000 by 4,000 pixels.

When I looked at the file at 100% (ISO 400) I could see colorful speckles of grain.

I ran the file through DXO Optics Pro and it handled the noise very nicely. 

I have a confession to make.  I thought cameras had gotten so good that I could just shoot Jpegs and be done with the whole mess of post processing. I know some photographers relish the butt time in front of the computer as much as the rest of us dislike it but, given a choice I’d rather work on a book or  talk a walk my city around and look at the real world.

I recently bought two Sony a77 cameras and, for the most part, I’m happy with the system I bought into.  There’s one thing that bugs me, though; the files have some noise in them, even at ISO’s as low as 400.  Now I’ve read Michael Riechman’s  comments about the noise and the cameras and I know he’s probably right.  We’re too busy looking at this stuff at 100%.  The images at 100% on our screens would represent huge prints and there’s no way we’d be standing so close to them that we’d even be able to see the grain.  But it’s like knowing how they make sausage.  Once you’ve looked at your files at 100% you’ve always got that queasy feeling when you think about big prints and fussy clients.  

And that’s kind of nuts because part of the lure of a 24 megapixel camera is the idea that you’ll be able to print large.  Really large.  In normal sized files I thought the images looked fine and to my clients there was really no difference between what I’d given them, file-wise, from last year’s cameras or the cameras I owned a few years before that.  But the tragic thing was that I would know. Compulsive behavior rears its ugly head.

Here’s what I think is happening.  I think most sensors are noisy little devils on their own and manufacturers pull the images off the sensors and then progressively slather on noise reduction as the sensitivity goes up.  At a certain point you reach a hinge point where you can either have nice detail, peppered with noise, or you can choose a smoother look and sacrifice the impression of finely delineated hair on striking blonde goddesses. 

The most egregious manipulation happens to Jpeg files and it’s horrible because once the camera spits them out they are well nye impossible to fix.  Once they are slurped and greased you can’t un-grease them even with the best software.  Why do manufacturers do this?  I think it’s really a question of how much per camera they want to spend on real time image processing in the camera pipelines.  The finer the control and the tighter the quality integration the more processing speed and buffering you’ll need.  And there’s always a calculus of intersecting value curves that yields the most effective, “I’ll buy it - curve” in the world of marketing.

Sony builds great sensor semiconductors and they are in use in many great cameras. Including famously noise free cameras like the Pentax KR5 and the Nikon D7000.  But they don’t seem to get where the tipping point is on noise and noise artifacts, or what constitutes excessive blurring of the files.  For most people it really doesn’t matter.  It isn’t a life or death issue.  It seems that Sony wants to build in super fast frame rates and big files with skinny buffers and the way they make it all work is with rudimentary “on the fly” noise treatment. Strictly mid-tier.  Nikon and Canon are either putting more effective processors and more complex noise reduction algorithms in their cameras or they have a vat of fairy dust somewhere with which they sprinkle their outbound cameras.  Either way, they leave Sony product in the dust.  Or so I thought...

After reading around the web and revisiting some of the product essays at Luminous Landscape I decided to make an all out effort to make my Sony a77 raw files the very best they could be and to pit them against the high ISO files I’ve accumulated from the Canon 5Dmk2 camera which I owned.  This might seem to be a “Sony-only” blog post but nothing could be further from the truth.  What I’m writing here pertains to a number  of cameras that have gotten a bad rap for high noise (although nothing will save a Kodak DCS 760C at ISO’s over 160....).

I’m going to boil it all down for you.  The way to creamy, dreamy files with good bite and low noise, even at ISO’s like 1600 and maybe even 3200 is to do this:  Turn off the high ISO noise reduction entirely.  All off.  Shoot in raw.  Yes, big, fat raw.  Then bring your files into a conversion program like DXO Optics Pro and handle your noise there.  Or in Capture One.  Even the Sony Image Data Converter program.  You’ll have much more control over the noise reduction protocols and you can offset the reduction in micro fine acutance with adjustments to all the parameters in unsharp masking menu.

I like DXO Optics Pro because, with my Sony a77, shooting in raw, the program will correct for the most common lens distortions, vignetting, chromatic aberrations, known sensor anomalies and other issues all at the same time.  I can override the noise recipes in the program and fine tune each file if I like.  It takes more time and the program is much slower than Lightroom.  I’m upgrading Lightroom as my next step so I can play with the same kinds of controls there and see who have the best combination of speed, convenience and image quality.

What I’m seeing now is that my a77 files are a pretty good match against the Canon 5D2 files up to and including ISO 1600.  The process of running files through DXO is more time consuming up to a point.  But in truth we’re keeping to our basic workflow and only optimizing files in DXO after the client has made a final selection.
We may shoot a thousand images in a day or two and after an edit we may be sharing several hundred with our clients.  We ingest the files in LIghtroom 3.6 (currently) and do quick global and “regional” corrections of the images before resizing them and batching them into web res images for online gallery display.  Once the client selects their images I run them through the DXO process and then send the files as Tiffs to PhotoShop for anything that requires selections, layers, or spot color corrections.  And of course, the obvious cloning, healing and retouching.  Starting with a higher quality file that’s geometrically “mended” is a load off my mind.  And it adds a lot of value to my new cameras.  At lower ISO’s they are more than competitive with cameras like the 5D mk3.  

While they probably will never come close to yielding a low noise file at ISO 6400 I rarely shoot at those settings anyway.  It’s a lot more routine to try and shoot at lower ISO’s in order to get the maximum dynamic range. That's why we own various lights.  And at ISO 50-200 the Sony’s are as good as anything but a Nikon D800 for total dynamic range and endless detail.  And at less than half the cost.

The whole point of my blog post today is to point out how critical software can be in grinding out the very best potential images you can get from any camera.  Some camera makers actually make software that shows off the best of their cameras.  Nikon is one that comes to mind.  And some make kludgy software that barely passes muster (like Sony).  If you know where the issues are you can experiment with the best solutions for their resolution.  Whether inside the camera or inside the computer the changes all come down to different software and processing choices.  Sony is betting that most people will find their fast throughput, lower quality solution adequate.  Thank goodness you can choose to take their raw data and make it much better.  If you couldn’t improve on the pictures then no one would bother making and selling the aftermarket processing software.  
In the next few weeks I’ll try to shoot some images that clearly show what I’m talking about here but in the meantime don’t take the limitations for your camera for granted.  The internal software of your camera might be like the cheap tires on an otherwise high performance car.  They’re relatively cheap to replace and you may be in for a much better ride.

Now I’m happy with my cameras.  With the right processing software they do exactly what I want them to do.