Adobe seems to have managed two major FAILs this year: a massive private data security breach and a surprise switch from boxed software sales to monthly licensing fees. To me, this is serious incentive to explore alternative ways to edit my images.
Although there are various commercial and shareware software packages available, in-camera raw processing has improved to the point that it is now a reasonable option in some scenarios. Sure it whacks your battery like crazy, and there are still huge limitations in performance, but some manufacturers are starting to include competitive options with their latest cameras.
The three I recently compared just happen to be the ones I currently have on hand, but they are also a cross-section of what the more innovative companies are producing these days. The Olympus OM-D E-M5, Fujifilm X20 and Ricoh GR are all very capable of producing usable JPEGs straight out of camera.
I’m not inclined to do side-by-side comparisons, since I tend to use each of these cameras for different types of photography. However, I’ll include some examples from each for you to get an ides of what they do best. Take my opinions of them as simply observations. Although I will point out good and bad aspects, these are purely with respect to how I use them for my own photography. Your mileage may vary.
First off, here is a set demonstrating my most used Olympus in-camera raw editing options. It is by far the easiest to use of these three cameras for processing. This is mainly because there are so few options.
The reason I switched to the micro 4/3 system is the amazing sensor on this particular camera and the way awesome lenses like the Leica 25mm f/1.4 and the Olympus M. Zuiko 75-300mm render colors.
Another reason is that the lenses are relatively tiny compared to the equivalent lenses on a full-frame or even APS-C crop sensor camera. The ratio seems to be approximately 1/2 the volume or weight, and I see very little drop in usable image quality. The small size of even a 600mm equivalent lens is a huge benefit when trying to get wildlife or longer range sports shots.
These were OOC JPEGS, only bordered and marked for web posting. If I had used Photoshop or Aperture to further fine-tune the image, I would have cropped a bit off the edge, and sharpened more thoroughly.
The Oly 75-300mm lens I started using a couple years ago totally changed the way I think when I gear up for nature photography. That one and the Leica 25/1.4 are my must have lenses, and they get me through almost any picture taking situation.
The surfing scene below is another decent example. It was further modified from OOC JPEG in iPhoto and SnapSeed on an iPad while on-the-go. I consider this totally necessary with Olympus images, since in-camera options don’t really offer much to personalize the look. However, image quality also suffers a bit when processed with apps. So, it is a trade-off.
The best aspects of the Oly include the following:
- Great image quality straight out of camera
- Essential controls are included to get a photo presentable quickly (auto exposure and slider for saturation)
- Very easy to use
The not so great aspects are:
- Lack of flexibility
- Very limited crop functionality and no straighten option
Olympus only includes the bare-bones (shadow adjust, saturation, cropping, and a few preset filters for color effects). These do an excellent job, but are quite limiting creatively.
The one camera that really got me interested in raw image processing in-camera is the Ricoh GR. It has the most flexible set of raw image processing options that I have seen.
You get exposure control, sliders for contrast and saturation, cropping and aspect ratio, a simple perspective correction tool, direct control over noise reduction and sharpening (awesome!), white balance controls that allowed me to get nearly identical results to custom WB in ACR or Aperture, and numerous more specialized filters including vignetting, color toning, and much more.
This is kind of amazing if you think about it. There is only the on-board processor to do this work. The level adjustments are not as finely detailed as in Lightroom or other off-board tools, but it has all the basics to produce really unique photos without needing to do further post-processing.
After some effort to learn the onboard tools, I have even been able to get outstanding prints with JPEG export. One limitation for editing is the screen, which is understandably limited to 3″. Once you see the picture on a large monitor, it’s easier to find any issues that you missed, but that does not mean the GR can’t get it done, you only need to look more carefully.
The following example is a comparison of a snapshot I took of a couple of friends in mid-afternoon sunlight during a bike ride into the hills. The harsh light was not good for skin tones, but after I adjusted the exposure, WB, contrast and saturation, NR and sharpening in camera, I was able to get almost indistinguishable results compared to a full Aperture and Photoshop treatment from RAW. I couldn’t tell the WB was off until I looked at it on the GR screen again after seeing the DNG file on my home monitor, but once I knew what to look for, it only took a few clicks of the on-board white balance tool to fix it exactly the same as in Aperture.
The other thing to note is that the GR is the only camera I can carry on a road ride with serious hill climbing involved. It is the first no compromise pocket camera that I have seen. The only trade-off is the small wide-angle lens, that is awesome in every way, but it is only the right perspective for snapshots, not for classier looking portraits.
I imported the Adobe standard DNG raw file from the GR into Aperture, adjusted the WB for skin tone, set the exposure to -0.23, used highlight recover at 1.11, set the black point at 5.0. I then opened it as a PSD file in CS6, used Topaz deNoise at the Lightest raw setting, added Alien Skin Exposure sharpen using 4s/6r, and then recovered some shadow detail utilizing the “25% narrow” shadow recovery preset.
On-board the GR, I generated an OOC JPEG to match the one above using multi-P AWB, NR weak, -0.3eV exposure, WB +1 for A and G axes, 5 Vivid, 4 Contrast, 6 Sharpening, and no NR (Weak NR on the GR isn’t needed until you get above ~200-400 ISO or underexpose and are pulling up the shadows).
For non-people shots I would up the contrast further to 5 or 6, sharpen at 7, and leave Vivid set to 5 (the basic GR color rendition looks good to me).
If you look really closely, the OOC JPEG has a little heavier sharpening and the color tones are slightly more saturated. The slightly lower contrast and saturation with finer adjustments and very weak sharpening applied in CS6 made the post-processed version my preferred one, but just barely. It is easier to see the saturation and contrast difference in the background foliage. I don’t think anyone would notice the difference in a small print.
The best aspects of the Ricoh include the following:
- No noise at base ISO (there really is an advantage to bigger sensors)
- Most comprehensive in camera raw editing I have seen in any camera
- Very true to life color rendition OOC. This is even better than the Oly or Fuji, which tend to stamp their own character on the colors. I would rather have the more correct Ricoh colors to start with, and then add my own personal touch. (Tip: If the multi-point AWB fails – it does for me once in a while – try the regular AWB one position lower in the menu, works every time!)
- Very compact, really fits in your pocket
The not so great aspects are:
- The GR has a fixed 28mm f/2.8 lens, which is great, but in camera cropping to 35mm and 47mm equivalent frames doesn’t change the basic character of the wide angle perspective
- Would be even better for editing and posting images in real-time with wi-fi file transfer like the newer E-M1 and X-E2 have, although I don’t really mind using the Apple connector kit when I’m traveling with my iPad.
One thing that I love about the GR is the “Daido” setting (Moriyama). It produces a perfectly filmic dramatic monochrome photo. Take a close look at the grain in the snap below. Also, notice how the shadow areas not only have subtle detail, but there is none of the digital posterization that you usually see with this kind of super high contrast filtering.
Suffice it to say, it is starting to get very hard to justify shooting Tri-X and renting a darkroom just for this look.
Fujifilm also offers a more complete set of in-camera tools than Olympus, but some are a bit heavy-handed implementations, and you need to be sparing with the various adjustments to avoid an overworked looking file. That said, the X series seems to be second to none in the OOC JPEG category, and the controls are pretty impressive.
I won’t get into the details of the processing for these since there wasn’t much to do. The OOC JPEGS used the yellow filter B&W setting. My preference is to use the compensation dial for what it was intended, and not use the higher DR options from Fuji. These were at 100% DR by default. Although, I did end up needing to fix these in Photoshop in the color versions, it was mainly because of the extremely contrasty lighting and needing to bring the actors faces out of the shadows in many shots. If the exposures had been a little better, OOC JPEGs would have been an option even for the printing.
Honestly, in my opinion, the monochrome output from the X20 is amazing for this size of camera. It is a really tough choice between the GR and the X20 for getting this contrasty back & white style. The Fuji has the advantage if you need its equivalent of a full-frame 28mm to 112mm lens, but the GR wins for pure image quality.
The only thing I don’t like about the Fuji image processing is that it is easy to get over processed looking files if you are not very careful. Plasticky looking faces and cross-hatched digital graininess must be avoided. However, once you ease up on the NR (-2 always for me), as long as you capture a good image to start with, there seems little reason to spend a lot of time post-processing from RAF files once you get home, the OOC JPEGs may be good enough.
The best aspects of the Fuji include the following:
- Can just about equal the OMD if used at base ISO with good exposure
- More flexible B&W conversions than the other cameras (color filters)
- JPEGS have a unique look that makes a good impact on viewers
The not so great aspects are:
- Best IQ only at base ISO, although I can use it for B&W up to ISO 800 or a little higher. Similar to the OMD, but not as much room for error with exposures
- Easy to get over-processed looking photos, especially with underexposed image files
- Small, but not quite pocketable
If I wasn’t so happy with the Oly and GR for my larger sensor captures, I would try one of the other Fujis — maybe an X100s or X-E2, and I am sure the dynamic range and color depth, not to mention the higher ISO performance, would far exceed the little X20. That said, at base ISO and with a perfect exposure, the images from this 2/3″ sensor and lens combination can match the OMD with an equivalent kit lens up to 11″x14″ and maybe even 16″x20″ prints with an ideal photo.
I would really like to see something more similar to the excellent GR raw editing in an interchangeable lens camera from Ricoh/Pentax around the size of an OM-D E-M5.
Well, that was a longer post than I intended to put together. I hope it helps those of you out there hunting for a camera with more advanced in-camera raw processing functionality.