My Lightroom Workflow – pt. 5 (or The Shocking Truth About RAW)

5dmkiicomparison.jpgHas this ever happened to you? You have a photography workflow that actually works like a well-oiled machine. Shoot -> import/tag -> select/prune -> rate -> post process -> export. Lather rinse repeat. Wonderfully reduces the hassle of getting lost within those thousands and thousands of images. All from within one single application. Maybe two if you count an external image editor that gets involved every now and then, but then nicely hands the edited image back to Lightroom.

And then.. all of a sudden things “happen”, for example in the shape of new cameras and you realize that Lightroom has its shortcomings in one or two areas. Or is that so?

Let’s explore my little adventure involving Lightroom 2.2 and the new 5D Mark II.

This article is not about the shoot -> import/tag -> select/prune -> rate parts of the workflow, it’s also not about the export. Maybe a bit about the overall workflow and integration options, but generally it’s about the post processing and more specifically about the noise reduction that is involved.

But let’s start from the beginning. In order to understand how Lightroom interacts with the myriad of different RAW formats out there (yes, NEF, CRW, CR2, etc. are quite different animals, even though they’re all called RAW), you need to understand that camera manufacturers don’t freely provide information about the inner workings of their RAW formats to just everyone. And that includes Adobe. And Apple. In order to support a RAW format, Adobe and Apple (and others for that matter) have to do some level of reverse engineering. They’ll have to dissect every new RAW format bit by bit, understand which part of it means what and then do some very sophisticated guesswork on how to interpret the file in order to make it into a proper photograph. Which explains why a RAW development of the exact same picture through Adobe Camera Raw (ACR, used by Lightroom) will most likely look a bit different from what Apple does with Aperture, and what the camera manufacturers do with their own software.

If you are shocked now, try to see it this way: for us mere mortals who don’t wear lab coats every day (well okay, I’m not writing this for the super geeks out there), there is nothing absolute about photography anyway. Actually there shouldn’t be. You make photographs to stir emoutions, you want to tell a story, you want to make others go OOOOOOH and AAAAAAH! You don’t want to white-balance that sunset to death. No sir. What comes from a camera’s sensor will always be interpreted in some way. In the analog world different film stock has different looks. Fujichrome Velvia 100 for example produces more saturated greens than Kodak Max. And the same is true for digital cameras, sensors, the camera’s internal processing or software that interprets the image in some way.

In short, RAW processors have their own personality. And obviously the one that we can expect to get us the results closest to the way the camera manufacturer intended the images to look is the RAW processor that comes with your camera. This processor has been written with the exact knowledge of the RAW format’s inner workings. For Nikon that is Capture NX, Canon calls theirs Digital Photo Professional (DPP).

Adobe has tried to closely mimic the look of all sorts of different camera presets by supplying Lightroom with camera profiles, and they’re doing a pretty good job with this getting very close to what the camera would produce in a JPG with the same setting or in a RAW file developed with the camera manufacturer’s own software and the according settings. You can read more about that in part 2 of this series.

One area of post processing where Adobe cannot really do an as good job is with the noise reduction. Moving up into the higher ISO ranges, you’ll start seeing more and more noise in your images. Noise is a fact. It happens if you let the camera amplify the light that it captures. I like to compare it to your stereo at home. If you amplify the signal too much, you get noise. Try it by cranking up the volume without playing a CD and you’ll hear noise. You’ll hear less noise if your amplifier is built from higher quality electronic components. Or if it has some form of noise reduction built in.

In digital cameras noise typically is a function of pixel size. If you stick more pixel sites onto a sensor without making the sensor bigger, your individual pixel sites will have to be smaller and you’ll get more noise. Unless you make the electronics better and more precise.

And with the 5D Mark II Canon seems to have done just that. More megapixels (21 instead of 12) at the same sensor size, with the same or less noise at the same ISO settings. Hooray!

But here’s an interesting high-ISO observation: If you shoot RAW + JPG at the same time and if you then use Lightroom to compare those two, you will see that the JPGs even at ISO 3200 are super smooth compared to the according RAW files. And now that we know about the reverse engineering bit, that’s almost to be expected. Obviously Canon has built very effective noise reduction algorithms into the 5D Mark II. Algorithms that are super fine-tuned to all the secret specifics of their own RAW format, whereas Lightroom has to make do with a certain level of guesswork.

And this brings us back to the workflow. Bang! Someone has just tossed a big old oily wrench into our smooth running clockwork. Is everything futile? Will we now have to incorporate DPP into our workflow and take away from the elegance that Lightroom has brough us?

Well, yes and no. Are you using Lightroom now? Or do you use your camera manufacturer’s RAW processor? See, fact is that if you’ve been relying on Lightroom up to now, you’ve already lived with a certain level of compromise anyway. I myself have been more than happy to use Lightroom for each and every single one of my pictures up to now and I’m not going to change that. I’m not willing to change that! The convenience of having every single step readily available within my workflow solution of choice for me is totally worth a comparably small sacrifice in noise reduction quality that only applies to a fraction of the images I take. Let me remind you that we are still only talking about images in the higher ISO range. With today’s high-end cameras, ISO 1600 almost belongs to the low-ISO range.

“But how big is that sacrifice and what can I do to minimize it?” I hear you ask.

detailselection.jpgI like the look of Canon’s JPG noise reduction right out of the 5D Mark II. So in order to keep the convenience of Lightroom and at the same time get the benefits of RAW, the task at hand is to find a way in Lightroom get rid of the noise in the RAW files to a level and in a way that visually is as similar as possible to what the camera does with the JPG images at its default settings. This is my decision. I could as well try to mimic the maximum strength noise reduction setting or anything in between. Most important here is that I find the settings in Lightroom that produce something that I like and that is useable for me.

And this is where I love the way the developers were thinking when they implemented Lightroom. Lightroom actually lets you set up individual default processing settings for different ISO levels and even for specific individual cameras based on their camera serial numbers. Or in clear text: I can tell Lightroom “If you import an ISO 6400 image from Chris’ 5D Mark II with serial number 12345678, then apply level x of luminance noise reduction, level y of chroma noise reduction and slightly sharpen the image with settings xyz to make up a bit for the lost sharpness that was introduced with the noise reduction”.

And guess what: it works. In fact it works so well for me that I now happily run the majority of my high-ISO images through this process and not even think about it.

Will I see differences if I 1:1 compare what Lightroom does with what the camera does to the JPGs, or with what DPP does to the RAW files? Heck, yes. Is the difference huge? No.

In the end I can breathe a sigh of relief, stick with Lightroom and use DPP only for those 3 images a year where I really need it.

PS: The big trick obviously lies in finding the right level of noise reduction and sharpening to mimic the original manufacturer’s processing as closely as possible. Watch this space for “How to set up noise reduction and sharpening in Lightroom”.

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Author: Chris Marquardt

Chris Marquardt is an educator and podcaster. He wrote Wide-Angle Photography and is the co-author of The Film Photography Handbook and Absolut analog. He's the host of this podcast and a few others. Chris teaches photography all over the world. He is a regular on the TWiT Network.