Friday 31 October 2008

In February 2008, I was introduced to Lightroom by a friend. Almost immediately, I realised this was a great improvement to my post processing workflow, but I was frustrated by the initial raw conversion (as have been a lot of other users). When Lightroom 2.0 was released, Adobe also introduced beta versions of prebuilt camera profiles for use with Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) which is used by Lightroom and Photoshop. The profiles were well received but my own testing left me disappointed. After much experimentation and asking lots of questions I determined why my results weren't good and now I find the profiles very useful.

As per my other blog entries (Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, Lightroom: Externally editing a raw file), I started using Lightroom in February. I had been using ViewNX, CaptureNX and PaintShopPro 9 which did a good job on the images but was quite clumsy. The two Nikon applications are also memory hogs and even with 2GB of memory in my PC, things were grinding to a halt very quickly. Lightroom had just about everything in the one package and included cataloging and keywording which I wanted but was too difficult with the other tools.

While Lightroom was wonderful for just about the whole process, I really disliked its default processing of raw images. Certainly, the capabilities of the raw processing in Lightroom are really no less that CaptureNX (and probably other tools), but my images did not look good to me on import. I found that if I chose "None" for Develop preset on import, the default settings resulted in my images having too much contrast. The other alternative was to import the images with a develop preset of "General - Zeroed" which gave me flat looking images. I struggled with this for some time and eventually went with shooting raw+JPEG and importing with the develop preset of "General - Zeroed". Having the JPEG present meant that I could use that for my initial evaluation of the images and once an image was selected, I could switch to the raw image for processing. I found a D300 preset on-line with which I was quite happy and used that as my initial conversion.

The NEF version of the same image as it appears in Lightroom when using "General - Zeroed", compared to the JPEG. Use the toggle button to swap between both images. The image looks quite flat.

The NEF version of the same image as it appears in Lightroom when using "Default Settings", compared to the JPEG. The image has too much contrast

The NEF version of the same image as it appears in Lightroom after applying the D300 MLK preset compared to the JPEG file. It is close to the JPEG, but cyan is not quite right.

Please note that I'm not saying that the JPEGs are "accurate" or even the best possible. I just found that they were better than with what I got from the defaults with Lightroom. They enabled me to get a good idea of what was possible from my shots.

I August, Adobe released Lightroom 2, which introduced a beta of Color Profiles. Included with the colour profiles were camera specific profiles which were supposed to very closely match the colours provided by the camera manufacturers' tools rather than the generic colours previously available with Lightroom. I thought this would solve my problems and I could finally get rid of the JPEGs. When I tested the beta profiles I found they made very little difference which disappointed me greatly. My images were still flat. I gave up on them and continued with the process I had devised nearly 6 months earlier.

The NEF version of the above image as it appears in Lightroom after applying the Neutral profile compared to the JPEG file.

I kept hearing how good the profiles were but couldn't work out why my experience had been so different. In addition to the colour profiles, Adobe had released the DNG Profile Editor. I thought that I could create my own profile that would better match the images "out of the camera". I bought myself a ColorChecker chart, took a shot and ran it through the chart wizard in the DNG Profile Editor and used it in Lightroom. My images were still flat. I thought the problem with my colour profile was that I needed to create a different tone curve in the profile to give better results. I started asking around on both the Adobe user to user forums and how to adjust the tone curve only to be shot down in flames. I was told that the purpose of the profiles was only to set the colour mapping. Any tone mapping should be done in Lightroom itself. I sort of accepted that but I still couldn't work out why my images were so flat.

I created a tone curve in Lightroom that gave me reasonable results. Using the Tone curve plus the appropriate beta profile made the NEF file look very similar to the JPEG - which was what I wanted as it meant I could just work with the NEFs, knowing they could look at least as good as the JPEG and in most cases made to look better.

The folks on the Adobe user to user forum were confused as to why I needed to go to all that trouble. The profiles should work with the Lightroom defaults. It was then that I realised that I had blown away the defaults way back in March because I didn't like them. I reset Lightroom to use its develop defaults, applied the "Camera Neutral beta 2" profile and "Hey, presto!", the converted NEF is almost identical to the JPEG - much better than I had achieved with the tone curve. Note that I used the Neutral because this is what I have Picture Control set to on my D300. There are other profiles for the other settings for Picture Control.

The NEF version of the above image as it appears in Lightroom after applying the Neutral profile and using the Lightroom develop defaults compared to the JPEG file.

For those Nikon people that have tried Lightroom but have been disappointed with how there raw images look, there is a solution. Using the profile that is appropriate to the camera settings you are using, plus the Lightroom defaults will make your NEF files look (almost) exactly as they do in ViewNX and CaptureNX.

I should mention one again that I'm not saying the camera rendered JPEGs or the results with CaptureNX are necessarily "correct", but for those people that like them, being able to get the equivalent in Lightroom is a great bonus.

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