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Raw to Cooked with the Nikon Capture Editor

White Balance Set Gray Point
White Balance Set Gray Point

White Balance Set Color Temperature
White Balance Set Color Temperature

Advanced RAW dialog
Advanced RAW dialog

LCH Editor Master Lightness
LCH Editor Master Lightness

LCH Editor Chroma
LCH Editor Chroma

LCH Editor Hue dialog
LCH Editor Hue dialog

Nikon Capture Curves dialog
Nikon Capture Curves dialog

Other Nikon Capture controls
Other Nikon Capture controls

When Nikon Capture was first released over five years ago, it was a $500 program with a limited feature set, but it was the only way to convert NEF files from the original Nikon D1 on your computer. By the time the D1x came out, the price for Capture had dropped to $199 yet the product featured a great many new features, undoubtedly spurred by competition from Bibble and Qimage. Since then, the price has continued to drop while the feature set has continued to grow.

Nikon has evolved a rather odd beast in Nikon Capture. Much as the ancient Greek chimera was composed of parts of different animals, Nikon seems to have built Capture from a somewhat jumbled collection of tools. Unlike Adobe Camera Raw which clearly was built with workflow in mind, the Capture user interface seems a bit more jumbled. All the important bits are there of course, they're just not arranged as well. Or at least it seems so to me.

Filled with both power tools such as the LCH Editor as well as more consumer oriented features like Red Eye Correction, Capture has something for everybody. The only problem is, everything is just there, with all tools presented more or less as equals rather than being placed in order or prioritized. It's up to the user to make sense of it all and find the tools that meet their needs. Hopefully I can help give you some place to start.

Nikon has tried to ambitiously position Capture as a stand-alone program that addresses every image editing need, going so far as claiming (and later retracting the claim) that photographers had no need of Photoshop if they used Capture. I beg to differ. My use of Nikon Capture is focused more narrowly on its capabilities as a raw file converter. Capture tries to be all things to all people and is capable of editing both raw (NEF) files as well as jpeg and tiff images. A large portion of the confusion most users experience in deciding how to edit images in Capture stems directly from this flexibility. Since this article addresses how to optimize raw images, I'm going to skip over many of the tools in Capture. In fact, for this week at least, I'm going to focus on just four tools: White Balance, Advanced Raw (which we looked at some already last week), the LCH Editor, and Curves.

Unlike Adobe Camera Raw, Nikon Capture will default White Balance to the "as shot" recorded value for NEF files from all Nikon bodies including the D2x. Of course, Nikon is actually responsible for how both raw converters handle the D2x since they decided to encrypt white balance data, giving Adobe the choice of either abandoning features such as highlight recovery that they view as competitive advantages, or of using the Nikon software development kit (SDK) to gain access to D2x white balance instead of directly reading the raw data. Personally, I don't think this was a good decision, not only because of the bad press Nikon has received for doing so, but also because Capture already provides better white balance controls than does ACR.

The White Balance control runs in one of two modes: "Set Gray Point" and "Set Color Temperature."

In "Set Gray Point" mode, you can use separate red and blue sliders to control the gain of each channel, or you can sample a portion of the image to be rendered as neutral gray. Sampling can either be done based on a single point or by averaging a selected are of the image. Pick your desired method, and then click on the "Start" button to begin sampling. The "Single point" option lets you select any one pixel with an eyedropper while the "marquee" option lets you click and drag a selection box (marquee) over a portion of the image to cause Capture to average the selected pixels for the basis of white balance adjustment.

Using the "Set Color Temperature" option gives you a pair of dropdown lists that let you select one of the preset color temperature settings such as "Daylight." "Flash," and so on. Rather than being all in one long list though, you choose a general setting from the first dropdown, and then (for most options at least) a specific setting from the second dropdown. The first dropdown also contains "Use Gray Point" to access the setting chosen by "Set Gray Point," "Recorded Value" to use the white point already saved in the file, as well as "Calculate Automatically" to average the entire image and let Capture determine the white balance on auto-pilot. Most choices also enable a Fine Adjustment slider to directly fine tune things.

In addition to Color Mode that we looked at last week, Advanced RAW contains other controls as well. The only one I'm going to talk about here though is the Exposure Compensation slider which does exactly what you would expect it to. To effectively use it, first turn on the Image >> Show Lost Highlights option (or use the keyboard shortcut and simply press the "L" key). This will turn the entire image black with only those areas showing that have at least one channel with burned out highlights. Areas where you have lost highlights will display in colors based on the channel or channels that are burned out. If all three channels are gone, the area will be white. Move the Exposure Compensation slider to the point just below where burned out areas start to show. This is basically analogous to the use of the Exposure slider in Adobe Camera Raw. When finished, press "L" again (or use the menu equivalent) to turn Lost Highlight mode back off.

For the Nikon Capture equivalent of the Shadows slider in ACR, we'll need to turn to the LCH Editor. LCH stands for "Luminance, Chroma and Hue." "Luminance," or "lightness," allows you to control the brightness of the image without affecting its color at all. "Chroma" is a fancy way of saying "saturation" and controls the intensity of color present without altering what color something is or how bright it is. And "Hue" allows you to change the overall tint of an image. The most important of these is Luminance which is accessed via the "Master Lightness" option in the dropdown list.

Master Lightness works essentially like a standard Curves dialog but operates on the raw (linear) data before conversion. We've already set the white point via the Exposure Compensation slider, but the black point still needs to be set, and the Master Lightness control allows us to do that. First, go to Image >> Show Lost Shadows (or use the keyboard shortcut and simply press the "S" key). This will turn your entire image white except where shadow detail has been lost in one or more channel. Such areas are color coded based on the channel or channels that have lost detail in much the same way as the Show Lost Highlights did for setting the white point above. With this mode turned on, move the small black point triangle towards the right until you just start to see colors showing up. Since it is normal for shadows to fall into blackness, it's not as critical to avoid lost shadow detail as it is for lost highlight detail.

On the right hand side of the Master Lightness dialog in the LCH Editor are a number of useful buttons. The top one that looks like the universal "No" symbol of a circle with a diagonal line through it will temporarily allow you to see the image without the effects of the choices you've made here. Click on it and hold it down with your mouse to see the unaltered image. Let go and the settings will be reapplied. The button below that with a histogram icon on it toggles the LCH histogram to display either "before" or "after" values. Note that the "after" histogram seems to be based on 8-bit values and will show gaps when it shouldn't. You can confirm that things are actually just fine via View >> Find Tool >> Histogram. Capture actually has three histogram displays as we'll see when we get to Curves shortly and all but the LCH Editor one work correctly so the gaps aren't really there. Turn off the Show Lost Shadows mode when you are finished setting the black point.

To control overall brightness, use the middle (gray point) slider in the LCH Editor Master Lightness dialog or simply grab the curve itself with your mouse and pull it up or down as needed. You can control contrast by adding multiple points to form as "S" curve as well. The button on the right that looks like a cross-hair will let you add points to the curve by clicking on the image much as you can with curves in Photoshop.

The two bottom buttons on the right reset either just the Master Lightness setting, or all LCH channel settings.

"Color Lightness" allows you to selectively control the brightness of individual colors by dragging up and down to form a lightness curve by color. Personally, I don't find this to be very useful as such edits are more easily done in Photoshop later.

The "Chroma" option of the LCH Editor though works quite well for controlling saturation. Unlike the Luminance settings which Nikon chose to split into Master Lightness and Color Lightness, the Chroma control allows you to affect overall saturation and individual color saturation, all in the same control. Like Color Lightness, you can drag up and down to affect the saturation of individual colors, but you can also use the small triangle control on the right to move the entire curve up and down. Most of the same right-hand column buttons we found on the Master Lightness dialog can also be found for Chroma. Keeping the Exclude Gray checkbox at the bottom unchecked tends to produce the most natural looking results by allowing any changes made to continuous tone areas such as the sky to more smoothly transition from color to another.

After making the adjustments we've talked about so far to optimize your image, you can use the Curves control to fine tune things. The dialog lets you adjust each channel (red, green and blue) independently, something the LCH Editor does not. You likely won't find much need to adjust the composite RGB channel here, but occasionally it may be advantageous to tweak individual channels.

When done optimizing an image, you can use File >> Save to record the settings you chose as part of the NEF file itself. Since the file is raw though, the actual data captured by the camera is never altered. All that gets changed is the instruction list of settings to be re-applied the next time you open an image. These settings will also get used if you use File >> Save As to save your image in a non-raw format such as jpeg or tiff, or when you use Image >> Open with Photoshop (8-bit or 16-bit, but preferably 16-bit) to transfer the converted data directly into Photoshop for further editing.

Overall, I find the workflow in Adobe Camera Raw to be much more streamlined and easy to use, even given that ACR does not utilize most of the settings chosen in-camera. Still, Nikon Capture can produce excellent results that may even exceed the quality of results possible in ACR when working on a "problem image." My preference is to use ACR for most images, but I'm glad I have Capture available also for when I need it. Nikon has provided users with a lot of power in the LCH Editor in particular. And I didn't even mention such controls as D-Lighting, Image Dust Off and Noise Reduction. If only Nikon had spent half as much time on organizing these controls and making them easier to use and more consistent in operation, Nikon could have a real winner in Capture. I don't really need Nikon Capture for editing jpegs either, so a bit more focus on the core task of raw conversion would be a good first step. As I mentioned in closing last week, they sure do make great camera and lenses though, and that makes everything else worthwhile.

Update 02/22/2006 - Nikon has just announced the successor to Capture 4.4 will be called Nikon Capture NX and will feature a number of new innovative features including the cool U PointTM technology Control Points. You can really see the impact that Nik Software had on the new version, although I'm unsure whether all this belongs in a raw file converter. Let's hope some of this finds its way into future Nik plug-ins for Photoshop.

Date posted: August 14, 2005 (updated February 22, 2006)


Copyright © 2005, 2006 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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Related articles:
More Than a Bit of a Difference: 8-bit Versus 16-bit
Raw to Cooked with Adobe Camera Raw
Troubleshooting Nikon Capture Problems

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