What to Make of Adobe's New DNG Raw Format
I'm a Nikon shooter, so I generally refer to Nikon's NEF format when I need an example raw format. The truth is, there are countless different raw formats and variants, with each camera manufacturer having at least one. Late last fall, Adobe introduced the DNG ("Digital Negative") format which they hope will become a standard raw format that can put an end to this proliferation of proprietary raw formats. The potential is there, but for a variety of reasons, the jury is still out on the future of DNG.
No one can question the confusing mess that having so many raw formats has wrought. Nikon has tweaked the NEF format with almost every new camera release, and other brands are no better. One of the main motivations for Adobe coming up with DNG is to get out form under having to add support to Adobe Camera Raw for all these new variants. They have a vested interest and would truly be happy if everyone used DNG. But what about everybody else?
As of this writing, there are several software programs (including, naturally enough, Adobe Photoshop and Elements) that support DNG, but no cameras. Leica did just announce that they intend to natively support DNG in upcoming models. Given the financial difficulties they are currently in though, such a move may merely be a last ditch gamble for what they hope to be a competitive advantage. It's hard for me to consider it a ringing endorsement of the merits of DNG. Most companies who have endorsed DNG fall more into the realm of consumers or processors of raw files rather than producers of them.
If you own multiple brands of cameras, you might be interested in converting everything to DNG in order standardize your workflow. For most of us though, why bother?
With the growing number of raw file variants out there, there have already been reports of some products dropping support for older versions. I suppose it is inevitable at some point, but it's a bit unnerving that it has already started happening, even if only sporadically. You can always save copies of your current raw converter for future use, but operating systems of the future may not be able to run it.
Adobe has a reasonably good track record for developing open standards. TIFF, Postscript and PDF (Acrobat) are all mainly their creation. The last few releases of Acrobat have been rather bloated though, with features added that are of minimal use to most users. The last thing we need is a raw file format that is similarly bloated. In the short history of DNG, Adobe is already on their second release of the standard, so it remains to be seen if DNG is a standard that will stand the test of time itself and remain useful. Digital is evolving so rapidly, predicting the future is chancy.
One of the reasons why so many raw formats exist is because so many different sensors exist. Digital cameras are still very much in the innovation stage of development. Square pixels (both in the standard Bayer mosaic pattern and other color arrangements), rectangular and hexagonal ones, photosites that can sense all three primary color channels at once and those that can sense two ranges of brightness have all been used and I have no doubt that there are other patents and trademarks yet to come. Even though it is incredibly useful, this is not a mature technology yet. Given that a raw file by definition contain a dump of data straight from the sensor, it is hard to believe that a single format could accommodate such variety of sources.
For right now, I've mainly resolved just to watch and wait. As it is, I have no trouble reading my D100 NEF files. I have a D2x on order and while Adobe doesn't have support for it built into ACR yet, I expect they will shortly. I know a lot of people that are doing similarly. So are a number of major manufacturers. It's a bit of a "chicken and egg" problem. Until DNG has a critical mass of support, there's little motivation for most camera makers to support DNG.
Ultimately, a standardized format that still provides room for individuality should be a good thing. I'm just not sure it has arrived yet. In the early days of photography, every manufacturer used a proprietary mix of chemicals to develop their film. Somehow, we were able to standardize on a just a few different formulas without infringing on the creative freedom of Kodak and their peers. Whether DNG is a similar step forward or not, sooner or later we will likely achieve similar standardization for digital. Let's hope so at least.
We're making the future as we live it. Adobe is just trying to do the same.
To find out what's happening at the forefront of the movement for a standardized raw file format, be sure to visit OpenRAW.org.
Update 4/19/2005: Nikon has been doing some incredibly odd things lately such as encrypting the White Balance data in the latest update to their NEF format and claiming that photographers don't really need Photoshop since they have Nikon Capture. I'm not really sure what they're thinking, but they have forced me to rethink my position on DNG files. While I've been waiting for more positive developments like cameras starting to natively supporting DNG, Nikon has instead delivered a double whammy of negative developments. I trust that they will come to their senses in time, but for now they have convinced me to be a full supporter of DNG. If this concerns you as well, I urge you to visit Rawformat and sign their petition to let camera companies know that you care about standards. I still don't plan to convert my files to DNG just yet, but I now look forward even more fondly to the day when I don't need to mess with NEF.
Update 4/21/2005: Nikon has a change of hearrt? The page mentioned the day before yesterday where Nikon claimed that photographers don't need Photoshop has been pulled from the Nikon Pro website (the cached page is still available on Google). Maybe somebody whispered in their ear that this wasn't the smartest thing to say, I don't know, but I view this as a positive development. For more on this, drop by the newly launched Photoshop News website.
Update 5/26/2005 - The same fix that Shaun Ivory from Microsoft published for NEF thumbnails in Windows XP also works to create thumbnails for Adobe's new DNG format:
| Registry hack to add DNG thumbnails|
Windows Registry Editor Version 5.00
Update 9/05/2005 - More updates from the Nikon versus Adobe front. Nikon and Adobe have jointly released an overly diplomatic sounding press release stating, in part: "Nikon believes that the NEF file has provided important image quality through Nikon's pioneering developments. For the future, Nikon intends to cooperate with Adobe and other industry members in order to pursue its objective of providing images with better quality, convenience and usefulness to end users." Adobe has their own version of this as well.
According to Thomas Knoll in the Adobe Support Forums: "What this means (so far) is that Nikon has added to their existing SDK (which performs the entire raw conversion as a black box) a new 'mini-SDK,' which has the sole function of reading the white balance parameters from a NEF file (while still allowing the host application to do its own raw conversion). The upcoming Adobe Camera Raw 3.2 and DNG Converter 3.2 will use this Nikon 'mini-SDK' to provide 'as shot' white balance support for the Nikon D2X, D2Hs, and D50.".
Update 9/26/2005 - Adobe Camera Raw 3.2 is finally out for both Windows and MacOS. The new version includes support for "as shot" white balance for the Nikon D2x using Nikon's new "mini SDK" (Software Development Kit). No, Nikon hasn't stopped encrypting the white balance, they've just created a way for ACR to get at it while letting Adobe remain in control of everthing else. A definite step forward, but a small one.
Update 1/18/2006 - Adobe Camera Raw 3.3 and DNG Converter has now been released for both Windows and MacOS. Includes support for the Nikon D200 along with a number of other new cameras.
Update 11/10/2009 - Lots more info on the future of DNG from Adobe's John Nack. Be sure to read the comments not just John's blog post itself. The post is from 2008, but it's still relevant. Lots to think about.