Ok folks, it’s that time again – time to test the latest RAW converters to see how they fare when presented with a challenging image.
Since I last did this, I have moved away from Adobe products, so Lightroom/Camera Raw is not tested here. If you are happy with Adobe, then that’s fine, they are good products. Most of the ones I test here are better. But that’s just an opinion.
The tools I am testing here are being tested for their RAW conversion ability, and not for other features, although I will mention these in passing. But the bottom line, for me at least, is image quality. A tool can do all sorts of wonderful, fancy things, but if it produces less than stellar image quality then I lose interest in it.
These are the tools I am testing:
There are, of course, other converters out there. But the ones I have tested are all class leading in terms of image quality and features. I haven’t tested Capture One before, so I’m looking forward to seeing what it can do.
The main criteria I am judging these tools on is image quality. Some tools are faster than others, but speed is of far less interest to me that image quality. Cost is also an important factor here – a tool that is so expensive that only a privileged few can afford it loses value in my eyes. A professional who earns their living through photography may be able to afford the priciest tools, but most people who read this blog will be hobbyists, seeking to get as much bang for buck as possible.
Tool list and costs (as of August 2019)
Prices converted to GBP using XE.com on 8th August 2019
Ok, that’s quite a range of prices. Photolemur is by far the cheapest at 36.00 GBP. Capture One is by far the most expensive at 20.00 GBP per month forever or 299.00 GBP for a standalone licence. They also sell Style Packs, which are sets of presets giving quick edits to your photos. The prices are steep and presets are, well, presets. There is no substitute for developing your own styles, tailored to the needs of your images. Your mileage may vary.
Aside from Capture One, these programs only offer perpetual licences which, in theory, means you own the software forever. Capture One also offers a monthly subscription of 20 GBP per month, which is twice that of Adobe’s Photographers Creative Cloud subscription.
I say you in theory own the software forever because in practice you will want (or need) to upgrade the software every two years. Why? Because computers and operating systems change and camera manufacturers are releasing new RAW formats at an alarming rate. Software manufacturers are not stupid nor do they run as charities. The latest camera models and computer operating systems are all too often only supported by the latest version of the software and this means you have to pay for it. Usually, existing owners get a discount for their upgrade, but even then it’s not always a great deal. For example, when Exposure X4 was released, the new version’s price was raised and the upgrade cost the same as Exposure X3’s price!
There is a way around paying for an upgrade to get the latest camera models supported. Convert your RAW files to DNG using Adobe’s free converter and most of your software will happily work with the DNG file. DXO, however, won’t touch a DNG from an unsupported camera model. To be fair to DXO, their pricing isn’t too bad.
In 2018 Canon threw a curve ball – it introduced a new RAW format called CR3, and it featured a new compression method that they did not document. Decoding a RAW format is hard. Decoding a compression method is, well, terrible. And many companies have lagged.
To date, of the software under test, only Capture One and DXO can ‘understand’ Canon CR3 files and I shot the image I am using for the test with the Canon EOS RP – a CR3 file! Thankfully, Adobe’s DNG converter also understands these and so I’ve used the DNG file for the other software. In reality, there is no difference between the DNG and the CR3 files other than compression.
In this day of huge hard disk drives and massive SD memory cards I really think camera manufacturers would be better off spending their time developing better cameras than inflicting new RAW formats on us. It makes everyone’s life hard and forces us to wait for our favourite software to catch up (and often charge us for the privilege of doing so).
This is a purist’s RAW converter, with a built-in image browser that is actually rather good if somewhat limited.
The software doesn’t do local edits, doesn’t support layers and doesn’t have spot and dust removal tools.
All it does is convert RAW images. And my previous tests show it does that superbly.
Its noise reduction capabilities are class leading.
One common complaint is that Photo Ninja hasn’t been upgraded in ages. I recently spoke to the developers and they are working hard on the next version which will have a ton of new features. But, for now, Adobe’s DNG converter will be needed, and building a camera profile is hugely beneficial for new(ish) camera models. (If you have a standard colour chart, such as X-Rite’s Color Checker Passport, you can shoot a set of images of it and Photo Ninja will then build a colour profile specific to your camera. It’s nowhere near as involved as it sounds and the results are well worth it. For this test, I used a Canon EOS RP and provided Photo Ninja with a home-built profile).
DXO Photo Lab
Another purist tool, DXO is a supremely good RAW converter. It has recently added image browsing to its feature set, although it is far away from being a Digital Asset Management tool.
It also has a full set of local edits and features one of the best methods of making selections in images.
DXO understands cameras and lenses better than any other tool – it removes chromatic aberrations and distortions automatically. It also sharpens the image selectively, according to the lens’ strengths. Of all the tools tested, it is the only one that can do this, provided it supports your camera and lens combination.
DXO’s noise reduction is class leading.
Exposure X4 is both a DAM (Digital Asset Management) tool and a RAW converter. It features an excellent image browser and can become a controller for your entire workflow. In this regard, I would not be without it. However, this test is about RAW conversion…
Like Exposure X4, Capture One does a lot more than RAW development. But it is also a fully featured a RAW converter. However, it’s pricey. Do the results justify the costs?
Luminar 3/Luminar Flex/Photolemur
These are all the same tool, as far as RAW conversion is concerned. Luminar 3 offers very limited DAM capabilities, Flex can be used as a plugin with Photoshop (etc) and Photolemur is an automatic version of Luminar, converting RAW images according to what it thinks each image needs.
Ironically, Affinity Photo is the second cheapest software here and yet it is the most powerful image editor. It is every bit as good as Photoshop for image editing. But what about its RAW development?
Last time I spent a long time detailing each tool’s settings and how I used them, and so forth. This time I will concentrate on the result from each converter. I know that this is a test of my skills with the software and the software’s abilities but I will try my best.
I have some conflict of interest here – Luminar/Photolemur/Exposure X4 will pay me some commission if you buy their software as a result of this test. The others pay me nothing. But, as I think you’ll see, I have been fair in my assessment of the tools.
The test image
I took this image in June 2019 in gorgeous light in the UK Lake District. It is a challenging image in that there are deep shadows in the trees and some lens flare in the middle of the image.
One thing I was looking for from the converters was to lighten the trees on the right without losing the picture’s atmosphere – it needs to retain the moody feel.
Despite it being ugly, I was not bothered about whether the Converters could fix the lens flare. Affinity Photo has an excellent inpainting brush which will fix it. This problem doesn’t quite fit the ‘dust spot’ category, so I expected the tools to struggle a bit with it.
I also wanted to emphasize the clouds – they are already dramatic. I wanted to keep or enhance this during the process. This could introduce noise, so I was interested to see how well the tools controlled that.
Viewed at 100%, there is a touch of chromatic aberration in the image – particularly noticeable on the geese when zoomed in:
Rather than waffle on for ages about how I used each tool, I’ll present the overall results first:
[Best_Wordpress_Gallery id=”3″ gal_title=”Basic Results”]
It is easy to spot that Photolemur’s result lags behind the others in terms of quality and detail. Being a totally automated RAW converter, it could not correct the sloping horizon or remove the lens flare. However, it has nicely brightened the trees, but the result is soft and it has not corrected the chromatic aberrations.
For me the biggest surprise was Capture One’s result. I had heard so many good things said of it and I enjoyed working with it, but I couldn’t get the dramatic skies or details that I achieved with DXO, Photo Ninja and Luminar. Maybe it’s my lack of experience with the software, but I spent a long time with Capture One and explored every option and this was the best result I could get from it.
Exposure X4 is much improved. Last time I tested it, it just couldn’t recover details from the shadows. Now it can. It lacks chromatic aberration correction, however.
Affinity Photo produced a distinctive result, one I find pleasing. It could not, however, remove the chromatic aberration, despite having a setting for them.
Here’s how each tool did:
[Best_Wordpress_Gallery id=”5″ gal_title=”Chromatic Aberration”]
I would rate the tools as follows for CA removal:
Equal Last: Exposure X4, Photo Lemur and Affinity Photo – they either have no CA removal tools or failed to do so.
A usable image needs to be sharp, full of detail and noise free. Let’s see how they did (there are some JPEG artefacts in these images that should be ignored):
[Best_Wordpress_Gallery id=”8″ gal_title=”Noise”]
Both Luminar and Photolemur are perceptibly softer and less detailed than the others. That’s not to say that they won’t respond well to being sharpened but I much prefer to start with a sharp image than to have to force sharpness later.
Regarding detail and sharpness, DXO Photo Lab and Photo Ninja produce the most detail and they are almost indistinguishable. Both achieve this almost automatically. With DXO, a degree of sharpening is automatic and its Clearview filter really enhances images. With Photo Ninja you use its Detail and Sharpening tools, both of which are very simple and very effective.
Affinity Photo produces good detail, as does Capture One and Exposure X4 is not far behind either.
I would rate detail as follows:
- DXO Photo Lab / Photo Ninja
- Affinity Photo
- Capture One
- Exposure X4
- Luminar / Photolemur
I suspect Luminar and Photolemur’s ability to brighten shadows may be at the cost of sharpness and detail, but I may be wrong. With Photolemur, you get what you get. I tried hard with Luminar to display more detail, but it has the same underlying engine and I couldn’t improve on things.
Pushing the detail in the sky added some noise to the images. The RAW converters can all deal with noise, although in Affinity you have to add it as a filter afterwards…
I would rate noise reduction as follows:
- Photo Ninja
- DXO Photo Lab
- Capture One
- Affinity Photo (when applied as a filter afterwards)
- Photolemur (although the image is as soft as a marshmallow)
- Luminar (again, too soft)
- Exposure X4 – fiddle as I might with the settings, the noise remained. It also took forever to respond to every change, so my patience ran out.
I would add that I don’t think noise reduction is a deal breaker. There are plenty of other tools that do a fantastic job of removing noise after RAW conversion. I always use either Topaz Labs AI Clear, or Topaz Labs Denoise AI as part of my workflow, so I rarely let the RAW converters remove noise. Some converter’s algorithms, particularly DXO’s Prime Noise Reduction, are painfully slow and it seems redundant to perform a noise reduction step twice.
Some tools tried to remove it, others offered no image healing. None of the ones that removed the fare did it as well as Affinity Photo’s Inpainting brush, so I would perform this as a post process step rather than during RAW conversion.
The final result
It’s somewhat subjective to rank the software as my own tastes come into play. But this is how I would rank them:
- Photo Ninja and DXO Photo Lab (almost impossible to decide which is best)
- Affinity Photo
- Capture One
- Exposure X4
I prefer Photo Ninja’s overall look – it has a look all of its own that is, to my eye, the most realistic. DXO Photo Lab is fantastic and its Clearview filter is astonishingly powerful. When I work on my own images, sometimes I prefer Photo Ninja, sometimes I prefer DXO. There’s no easy way to say why this is – it’s just a matter of taste.
Affinity Photo surprised me – it produces quite a different ‘look’ to the other tools, but I like what it can do. It really is a one stop image editing shop. And it’s the second cheapest tool reviewed here.
I expected Capture One to better – it hasn’t produced as dramatic an image as Photo Ninja or DXO. If I were using it, I would think of further editing the image in NIK Viveza to add better structure to the clouds. As Capture One is by far the most expensive of the converters, having to use another tool to complete the job feels wrong.
Exposure X4 is a huge improvement on X3 – it now recovers shadow detail far better. Its noise reduction is too slow to be useful, although that’s not a deal-breaker. X4 features the best DAM (Digital Asset Management) of all these tools and a host of other useful features. It is an integral part of my workflow, but not for RAW development.
Luminar is a great RAW converter as far as features go. It (along with Photolemur) have the most effective shadow adjustment – it works incredibly well. But the image output is too squishy.
This image exposed Photolemur’s weaknesses – you can’t expect too much of an automatic RAW converter, but it usually does better than this.
If you are thinking of moving away from Lightroom, then I would recommend a combination of Exposure X4 (for DAM) and either Photo Ninja or DXO Photo Lab (or both).