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Going raw with the D1  
Saturday, April 29, 2000 | by
Capture, QImage Pro and Bibble all show different aspects of the potential of the D1's .NEF file. None, however, includes an interface and controls that a fast-moving photographer is likely to find optimal. Only partially supported, or missing altogether, are four things:
  • The ability to correct for exposure mistakes, even serious ones. The .NEF file captures perhaps 9 stops of shadow to highlight detail, similar to garden variety colour negative film. Processing the .NEF data into a photo with proper brightness and contrast trims down this 9 stop range to perhaps 5.5 stops. This is generally not a problem if the scene is properly exposed; when it's not, however, the ability to tune the .NEF decoding to correct for over or underexposure is a must. Sound radical? It isn't: Kodak/Canon pro digital camera users have this capability today, in an easy-to-use interface, and it's great. Qimage Pro and Bibble offer a tantalizing taste of what's possible, but lack the picture-by-picture controls of Kodak's acquire software or Photo Mechanic. Imagine being able to click on a picture that's 1 stop overexposed, drag a slider to apply -1.0 of compensation, and see lost detail and proper contrast be restored. Sound radical? Again, it isn't: I just described Kodak's exposure compensation feature, a feature that has saved more photos by digital photojournalists than we'd all like to admit.

  • The ability to change the colour setting after the fact. To get the best colour from the D1 right now, it's mandatory to choose the appropriate colour setting before the shutter button is tripped. If the colour setting selected is way out of step with the illumination, the picture may be difficult, if not impossible, to colour correct. What if it were possible to choose the correct colour setting after the fact, fixing the colour in one step and thereby avoiding a world of colour correction hurt in Photoshop? Does this too sound radical? Nope: as with exposure correction, Kodak/Canon pro digital camera users have this capability today, and it's as easy as making a selection from a popup menu. It's not clear whether D1 .NEF files have the same potential, because the raw data is colour corrected in the camera as the .NEF file is created. However, given that the .NEF file contains several thousand shades per colour of data at that point (as opposed to the 256 shades per colour of the camera's JPEG and TIFF modes), it might well be possible to significantly improve the colour, given software with the capability to do so. Bibble and Capture both include the ability to adjust the neutral point in decoded .NEF files, and this appears to be somewhat effective at fixing colour setting errors. There are limits to each, however, and it's not clear to me if those limits are due to the in-camera colour correction of the .NEF file, poor implementation of the neutral point setting features of the two programs, or the fact that each appears to decode the raw file first, then apply a new neutral point. And neither is capable of doing what I'd like in addition: changing a picture that was shot on, for example, the Cloudy setting, when Incandescent would have been the better choice. This is possible with a Kodak/Canon raw file, and I want it for the D1.

  • An interface that makes exposure and colour fixing of .NEF files a breeze. The model to use is Photo Mechanic, which, when pointed at Kodak raw files, offers the right set of buttons and controls to perform picture-by-picture (or batch) correction. Kodak's own acquire plug-in and TWAIN driver are also very good. In case it's not clear, neither Photo Mechanic nor Kodak's software will decode D1 .NEF files (though Photo Mechanic 2.0 Pro/Lite for Mac now handles D1 JPEGs).

  • A Mac version. Of the four .NEF decoders cited here, only Capture runs on the Mac. The other three will all run from within Virtual PC, but this is hardly an acceptable solution for anything other than playtime use of each program. My hope is that Nikon, Michael Chaney or Eric Hyman will hook up with Dennis Walker of Photo Mechanic to produce the ultimate .NEF decoding tool, suitable for use by photojournalists.

During a recent seminar, as I was describing the capabilities of Kodak's software to a room full of mostly D1 shooters, one photographer interrupted to make the very good point that one could sidestep the current .NEF decoding quagmire by using a Kodak/Canon pro digital camera instead. This is true. In fact, Kodak's raw file format support is perhaps the single biggest advantage that their pro digital cameras have over the D1. If you're about to purchase a pro digital SLR, I would encourage you to factor in to your decision the capability of Kodak's cameras as I've just described them before selecting a system.

It should be noted that switching the D1 to write .NEF ("2.7r") files requires a different shooting approach than what you might be used to if you've shot nothing but D1 JPEGs until now. Specifically:

  • D1 .NEF files are about four times larger than JPEG Fine files. This means they take 4x longer to write, 4x longer to preview on the camera's LCD screen, and a card will hold 4x fewer images. If you have Sandisk cards, you'll find the read and write times of .NEF files incredibly long. Writing .NEF images to an IBM microdrive will also be slow, though previewing and copying off the card should be fine. Lexar Media and Hitachi-based cards like those from Delkin will perform much better overall. See February's CompactFlash report for more on card speed.

  • The D1's 21-image buffer can only hold 10 .NEF files at a time, owing to the fact they are twice as large as any other format at that stage in the processing.

Fewer frames per burst and longer write and preview times means it will be impractical to use the .NEF format in some, perhaps many, environments. BUT, there are plenty of shooting situations where the exposure and colour fixing potential of the .NEF format would outweigh its disadvantages. One example relevant to photojournalists is this: covering a presidential candidate. It's not uncommon to spend much of the day peddling backwards as the candidate glad-hands his way around town. In that scenario, it's likely that a photojournalist will find himself shooting under fluorescents one minute, TV sun-guns the next, followed by daylight outdoors then sodium vapor in a parking garage. All the while that photojournalist is walking backwards and trying to keep a TV photographer's elbow out of his ear. This shooting situation is rife with possibilities for both exposure and colour setting error. If the D1 is set to write .NEF files, and software existed that could quickly and effectively fix overexposed, underexposed or off-colour frames, then the photographer could shoot in that scenario with much less fear that important pictures would be lost to technical mistakes. It's also a scenario in which a photographer is likely to spend more time being ready to take a picture than actually blasting away with the motor drive, so the lowered buffer capacity and other .NEF hiccups would not necessarily be a hindrance.

Given that the D1 is clearly the camera du jour, with many thousands in the hands of photojournalists and other pros already, I think it's important to start demanding software that unlocks the potential of the .NEF file for photographers on the go. The camera is already writing the raw file; it's the software for processing that file that needs to catch up. If you agree, I would encourage you to contact the authors of QImage Pro, Bibble and especially your local Nikon technical rep. In my opinion, until the optimum .NEF program is developed, the D1's greatest potential is unavailable to many D1 shooters.

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