As my photos get backed up and burnt on to a DVD, I thought I might just do a quick cataloguing of the software I’ve found useful for developing my photographs and what each does. I’d also outline my workflow as I present each software in the order in which it appears in the workflow. Just to set the context, I use Microsoft Windows 7 for my imaging tasks, and my camera is a Nikon D90, so I do use a lot of Nikon software.
File Management and Archival
1. Nikon Transfer (Freeware)
This is the program that detects photos on external media and transfers them to a local disk or other external media. I’ve tried connecting the camera through its own USB interface and through the built-in card reader on my computer, but I find that the San Disk card reader that came with my Extreme III card gives the fastest throughput. Anyway, so Nikon Transfer is launched when the SD card is inserted and the nice thing about this software is that
- It allows simultaneously downloading the photos to a secondary location, which in my case happens to be just another disk partition but can also be an external USB drive (I’m contemplating doing the latter, going forward)
- It detects which photos have already been transferred from a batch and skips those (configurable)
- It allows manually selecting the photos to be transferred. I don’t normally use this option but I’ve needed it once or twice so I thought it might be worth mentioning.
My folder hierarchy for transferring these photos into is like this:
Camera Model/Name > Year > MonthNumber-MonthName or EventName
E.g. D90\2010\09-September, or Vesper\2010\MulaniWedding, etc.
The RAW files get dropped directly into those folders and the converted JPEGs go into a subfolder. I drop the camera-wise separation for permanent archival.
2. Nikon View NX2 (Freeware)
ViewNX 2 is a recent release from Nikon and Nikon Transfer now comes bundled with it. ViewNX 2 allows rating and tagging photos, while also allowing for conversion of RAW files into JPEGs or 8/16-bit TIFFs. It has also started offering the basic photo editing options that are available in Nikon cameras’ retouch menu. I primarily use it to select the photos that I want to develop. The way it allows files to be compared at 100% zoom and the way it can filter the film strip on rating ranges makes it extremely easy to do so. Here’s the rating system that I’ve evolved for myself over the months:
- 5 Stars: Awesome snap! Convert, retouch and upload to Flickr. Send for a medium/large print too.
- 4 Stars: Awesome snap! Convert, retouch and upload to Flickr. Send for a small/medium print too.
- 3 Stars: Good snap. Convert and retouch. Likely upload to Flickr. Maybe send for a small print.
- 2 Stars: Acceptable snap. Convert, maybe retouch. Unlikely to be uploaded to Flickr or printed.
- 1 Star: Not that great. Just meant for keeping. May not even be converted to JPEG.
- 0 Stars: Delete.
Please note that while I ruthlessly delete items based on the star rating assigned as above, I do it only on the primary working copy. The backup copy is always there, just in case I need to revert on my decisions. It doesn’t happen often but on the rare occasion that it does, it’s good to know that you’ve got all the shots with you.
When I’m done with all the processing, etc. for a month or few months, I copy the finished and shortlisted content to a more permanent backup solution (DVDs, in my case).
Nikon Capture NX 2.2.4 ($180): This software is all that I use for developing my images. Why? Here are a few reasons:
- It’s arguably the best converter for Nikon’s RAW files, giving rich tones, smooth gradations and excellent detail
- It recognises all the camera settings used while taking a photograph and applies them as a starting point while developing the image
- It has in-built lens correction features like distortion control, CA control and vignetting. Really awesome to have this if you’re shooting with Nikon’s own lenses
- It’s got the U-Point controls that make selective retouching really really easy, without requiring you to drop into complex layer masks, etc., which I could never get the hang of
- It saves all the development and retouch settings right within the NEF file. The ability to retain the exact settings used to create a JPEG is amazing!
- It supports multiple edit-versions of the same file. You want a full colour as well as a monochrome version of the same snap? Sure, your NEF can carry multiple sets of editing steps all in itself
- I’ve come to love the very functional interface. Though a lot of people say it’s not as great as Aperture or Lightroom, I disagree. I’ve tried LR3 and I didn’t like it as much as CNX2. Yeah, batch conversion is a pain so if you do a lot of batch conversions, you might have to get something else or use View NX2 if you can live with its glacial speed of conversion and limited retouching support.
While Capture NX 2 handles development and retouching of single images, some times you need multi-image solutions for panoramas and HDRs. Here are the tools I’ve found useful for these applications:
1. Picturenaut HDR Imaging (Freeware)
Picturenaut HDR is not the best HDR creation software out there, but it gets the job done for me. On the positive side, it’s got a very simple interface and it’s very fast. On the negative side, it doesn’t do image alignment too well (despite the option being present). If you want the super-saturated, artificial-looking, sick HDR shots, just select “Bilateral” tonemapper, set saturation to the max, set contrast to the min and you’re done. I don’t like that, so my workflow is a wee bit more involved.
My HDR workflow is to create 16-bit TIFFs from the bracketed shots and “Neutral” Picture Control setting via View NX2. I then load the TIFFs into Picturenaut and through some juggling with “Adaptive Logarithmic” global tonemapper. Flying by the histogram (I’m now pretty good at interpreting histograms ), I get the HDR tonemapped as best as I can. The output is saved into another 16-bit TIFF. I load that TIFF into Capture NX2 for local enhacements and, thanks to the 16-bit depth, I get to recover amazing detail and colour from the shadows, if needed.
2. ArcSoft Panorama Maker 5 Pro ($80)
While trying to make this panorama out of 14 images, I spent hours breaking my head with Hugin. Hugin is Free Software, and it’s supposedly highly capable. I would’ve recommended it but unfortunately, it failed to work for me on MS Windows 7 (64-bit). ArcSoft’s Panorama Maker 5 Pro is a nifty little tool. All I had to do was feed it my 16-bit TIFFs and click one button to generate the panorama! Since panorama stitching doesn’t give a perfectly rectangular image, the tool offers a crop suggestion to crop out all the jagged edges and thereafter you can save your panorama.
I saved it as a 16-bit TIFF again, and retouched it in Capture NX2 to remove some issues caused by uneven exposure in the source images. Oh yeah, remember to always lock focus, white-balance, picture control mode and exposure (aperture, ISO, shutter speed) while taking multiple shots to make a panorama. This tool also includes a little tutorial on capturing individual shots for a panorama. Thoughtful.
3. HDR Alignment Tool v2.0 (Freeware)
Since Picturenaut doesn’t do a great job of aligning bracketed shots, I found this neat tool that allows you to put 2 control points on a pair of images and then re-aligns them. If you have a bunch of images, you need to set 2 control points for each pair in the sequence (1-2, 2-3, …) and this tool will finally yield an aligned stack or re-aligned individuals. Unfortunately, it doesn’t to TIFF output.
While the above mentioned software is what I’ve used so far, here are a few honourable mentions to conclude the post:
- Flickr Uploadr for Windows/Mac OS X: Excellent tool for managing your Flickr uploads. Never upload a photo without the right title, description or permissions!
- UFRaw: Before moving to Capture NX 2 and Windows, I used Ufraw for my NEF conversion. It’s an excellent tool, but the underlying dcraw converter doesn’t do a great job handling colours and noise reduction. If GNU/Linux or F/OSS is your thing, UFraw is highly recommended.
- The Gimp: Also for F/OSS buffs, the Gimp is a highly capable image editor. I suppose it’s indispensable for any imaging workflow on Linux that involves non-trivial retouching.