Since the advent of the raw file for digital photography we have been faced with the task of optimizing the demosaic process. When we demosaic a raw file we convert the rudimentary numerical sensor data from our camera’s sensor into an image file. Seems like a relatively straight forward and simple process, right?
Yet with the ability to manipulate this information to an infinite degree it all begins to get quite complicated. Even at the very basic level there is white balance, contrast, tone, color correction that must all be addressed.
Over hours and hours manipulating the slider adjustments of our favorite raw converter we have come to learn the power that resides in the raw file. It has in many ways revolutionized photography. Most of us who take our photography seriously know this and shoot in raw regularly. And, as is to be expected, software developers have noticed this trend. The result is that today we have a lot of options available to us to address the raw conversion process (one of which is the subject of this review).
PictureCode is a software development company based out of Austin, Texas better known for their Noise Ninja noise reduction software. In September 2012 PictureCode announced the release of their newest product, Photo Ninja. Photo Ninja is a complete raw file conversion solution. For those who use Noise Ninja fear not, it is incorporated into Photo Ninja and past registered users of Noise Ninja are eligible for special upgrade pricing until December 31, 2012.
Photo Ninja is a totally new product featuring a full array of raw processing filters including: color correction, exposure adjustment, color enhancement, black and white conversion, noise reduction, sharpening, chromatic aberration correction, vignetting control, distortion and geometry adjustment, cropping, and demosaic of the raw file. In essence, it is a complete raw and image processor within a stand-alone program with a clean interface incorporating an image browser for file search and selection.
According to the Photo Ninja website the following camera raw files are supported:
D2000, D30, D60, D6000, 7D, 10D, 20D, 30D, 40D, 50D, 60D, 300D, 350D, 400D, 450D, 500D, 550D, 600D, 1000D, 1100D, 1D Mark I/II/III/IV, 1Ds Mark I/II/III, 1D X, 5D Mark I/II/III, PowerShot G1X, PowerShot G6. [Note: sRAW mode for Canon SLRs not yet supported.]
D1, D1H, D100, D2H, D2X, D200, D3, D3S, D3X, D300, D3000, D3100, D3200, D4, D40, D40X, D50, D5000, D5100, D60, D70, D700, D7000, D80, D800/D800E, D90, 1 J1, 1 V1, Coolpix P7000
FinePix X100, X-S1
Dynax 7D, probably other DiMAGE and Dynax models
M9, M Monochrom, D-LUX 5, S2, probably other models
E-M5, E-500, probably other E-, C-, and SP- models
DMC-FZ35, DMC-GH2, DMC-G3, DMC-GX1, DMC-GF5, probably other DMC models
K-01, probably other K- and *ist models
NX200, NX100, and probably other NX models
NEX-7, DSC-RX100, probably other DSC, DSLR, NEX, and SLT models
Additionally, Photo Ninja can process jpegs and tiffs. Processed raw files are output to jpeg and tiff formats. Photo Ninja can be used in conjunction with a variety of image processing tools including Photo Mechanic, Lightroom, and Aperture. A plug-in for Photoshop is due soon in version 1.1. While the integration is not totally seamless between these programs you can export processed files to Photo Ninja (as rendered tiffs) and in the case of Photo Mechanic it retains the tagging, color labeling, and ratings you have applied to the file.
Photo Ninja Interface
As I mentioned previously Photo Ninja has a clean interface with the program window defaulting to a dark neutral color and small white fonts. You can change the appearance to a light grey and font sizes can be changed as well. Within the program window there is the program menu at the top, a control to toggle between the Browser and Editor Screen, buttons to access a message log and news from the PictureCode server, and the current day and time. Below this is a second set of controls. There is a drop down which allows you to toggle between various open files sitting in the workspace. You have access to a fly out window which displays the file Metadata, and controls to zoom in and out, rotate the displayed image, show split panes, and close the active image. On the left a panel shows a histogram, the essential camera settings at the time of the capture, and a drop down for lens profiles. Below these items are the adjustment slider filters. At the bottom of the window is a directory tree with a strip of thumbnails of the images in the active directory.
While you can access your files using the thumbnail strip you can also use a browser displayed in the main workspace. Here is a screen shot of what this view looks like.
Photo Ninja Browser View
The general Photo Ninja workflow is not much different from all the other raw converters out there except that it has a few methods that are a little different. For one, when working with a filter you must confirm your adjustments when making edits by clicking on the Apply button. Conversely, there is also a button to cancel your adjustments. Secondly, each adjustment such as color correction, sharpening, etc. is accessed one at a time. There is no scrolling through a long series of adjustment sliders. With Photo Ninja the sliders for each process are hidden under a nested system. This can get a little frustrating in the long run and certainly does not promote quick adjustments. While Photo Ninja is a very good raw converter/image processor it is not one built on speed. It is slow to render adjustments, and while there is the ability to copy and paste settings over one or more files there is no true automatic synchronized batch processing for those who are working on a series of shots under the same lighting conditions. Bear in mind that Photo Ninja is in version 1 and some issues concerning performance and efficiency are to be expected. Hopefully these will be addressed in later updates.
I’ll be the first to say that Photo Ninja is an excellent raw processor when it comes to output. Once you get over the sluggish behavior of the interface and rendering process you immediately gain appreciation for the beautiful, almost jewel like appearance of your raw images.
Filter List Color Correction Filter
Color is well rendered and accurate, exposure control is precise – with outstanding highlight recovery and shadow enhancement. Details pop off the screen and gradations are very natural. I really like the distortion correction filters as well. You can correct for vertical and horizontal perspective, there is a fisheye correction tool, removal of pincushion and barrel distortion, and there is even a mustache distortion tool. These all work effectively. Of course, the noise control filter in the form of Noise Ninja 3.0 is outstanding.
Since PictureCode is one of the pioneers in the field of noise reduction software it is no surprise that this latest version is one of the best on the market. The sharpening filter in Photo Ninja is excellent at bringing out detail without introducing halos. You can crank it up quite a bit if you like very crisp and fine detail. A really nice feature is that the sharpening filter is tied to Noise Ninja. If you enable Luminance Noise Reduction in the Noise Ninja filter the Sharpening filter will work in tandem with it by applying sharpening to the edges while intelligently avoiding smooth areas where noise can be the most problematic. The integration of these two filters works very well.
One of the filters that I think is designed the “right” way is the Vignetting control. You can achieve a very fine level of control with this filter by adjusting two rings (shown as the green circles in the screen shot above) to control the width of the light falloff and its gradient. The outer ring is called Radius at 2/3 falloff and the inner ring Radius at 1/3 falloff. If you set both rings to the same numerical value you essentially convene the two circles into one single falloff control. In turn, the wider apart you set them the more gradual the gradient of falloff. There is a third control called the Corner falloff which sets the intensity of the vignette. This filter is very well designed and with these three controls working together you can set a vignette to an infinite level of intensity and coverage.
Photo Ninja is able to use camera (sensor) profiles provided you use an X-Rite Color Checker patch set to take a series of shots. These are then analyzed in the profile builder. There is also the ability to make your own lens profiles. While I did not delve into these features of the program it is good to know that they are available.
Unprocessed RAW Image
Image Processed with Photo Ninja
Here are a couple of examples what you can expect from Photo Ninja. The first one of Ballycastle Harbor in Northern Ireland gives you a good idea of how well Photo Ninja can pull detail out of the shadows. I took this image as part of a series of incremental exposures for HDR. I picked one in the series that was exposed for the sky but left the foreground in deep shadow. It is easy to see how well the program preserves the highlights while being able to really extend the quarter tones to a level of a believable scene at dusk.
Unprocessed RAW Image
Image Processed with Photo Ninja
In this second image of a sculpture of the legend of the “Children of Lir” in same the harbor I purposely selected an image where the sky was nearly blown out. As you can see by reducing the highlights and preserving the mid tones Photo Ninja easily produced a well balanced image.
PictureCode Photo Ninja is a serious contender in the raw converter/processor arena. With little effort you can easily produce excellent images with great color, detail, and separation of tones. Even badly exposed raw files can benefit from Photo Ninja . Usually when trying to resurrect a bad raw exposure the results can suffer from a loss of contrast, color shifting, artifacting, and excessive noise. Detail can get lost and you end up with a mushy, uninspiring image. It seems obvious to me that the engineers at PictureCode set out to not only develop an excellent raw converter but one that can handle even the most challenging tasks.
While Photo Ninja is quite a capable raw processor it is not without its shortcomings. Since this is version 1 I am hopeful that PictureCode will address some of the performance issues I encountered during my tests. While certainly bearable in short sessions, the program does need to be improved in relation to the overall speed. While editing the animated processing icon seems to never terminate. It just keeps going, and going. The adjustment sliders suffer from a slight case of the "rubber band" effect where pulling or pushing a slider gives you a delayed response an then snaps back - behavior similar to that of pulling on a rubber band. I would also like to see a more robust batch processing and sync'ing feature. Finally, nested filters should be revisited since this just slows down the workflow with little to no benefit.
On the plus side I'm anxious to see the Photoshop plug-in that is scheduled in release 1.1. Hopefully in the near future we will see additional plug-ins for Lightroom, Aperture, etc. How about support for exporting to the PSD format? I really like the built-in camera sensor profiling feature although I did not have an opportunity to try it. It seems straight forward enough but time limitations did not allow for the testing of this feature.
Finally, the interface allows for enough customization to help you get comfortable using the program. I particularly like that you can customize the sequence of the adjustment filters to suit your particular workflow preferences.
I have tried a number of raw converters over the years and I am still hanging tough with my preferred tool, Adobe ACR. I think Photo Ninja is about to change this. I'm going to start incorporating it into my regular workflow. If PictureCode continues to improve on version 1 and addresses some of the rough spots in the current release they will have a real winner on their hands.
UPDATE - 12/21/2012
Jim Christian, Founder of PictureCode recently contacted me regarding my concerns about the speed performance of Photo Ninja. He pointed out that it is recommended to set the level of RAM in the program settings from 1/3 to 1/2 of the installed RAM. For my system, which has 16 GB, that means setting from 5 to 8 GB depending on how many memory hungry apps I run simultaneously. I set the memory allocation to 8 GB in the image cache in the Preferences dialog and tested the program. I saw a noticeable improvement with the issues I mention in the review. Additionally, Jim has made some changes in the latest release version 1.04b to further address this issue. He states:
"I tweaked the defaults in the 1.0.4b pre-release yesterday, so now it will use 30% of RAM on a 16GB system unless you have specified a different value. I think the previous 2GB default could be a little tight particularly for e.g. 36MPixel Nikon D800 images."
And in reference to the spinning icon issue and batch processing:
"The spinning icon just means it is processing parts of the image pyramid in the background. When the icon is red, it is updating what is currently visible on the screen. When it turns white, it is processing parts of the image that are off-screen at the current zoom level and/or at the 100% zoom level (so it will hopefully have less work to do when you go to render the file to JPEG/TIFF). Of course, you can keep working while it is spinning, and you don't have to wait for it to stop if you only want to update the XMP sidecar and close the image (via the "Done" button). If you render a 100% JPEG/TIFF, then it will wait for the processing to finish before it saves to disk.
Also, for what it's worth, we've had a lot of requests for batch processing and we're intending to implement it soon, as soon as we finish the Photoshop plug-in integration."
Thank you, Jim!