A question from a reader of my Lightroom 2 book:

“I am a Nikon shooter and have been reading you book on Lightroom 2 along with Mike Hagen’s book on Capture NX 2.  Your book is excellent, you are extremely insightful and easy to understand.   After reading both books, it seems like Lightroom is the better program for importing, organizing and exporting photos, but that Capture may be better for processing NEF images.  What are your thoughts? Will this situation change when Lightroom 3 is released?   If you believe that Capture is better for processing NEF, what is the best way to integrate it into the workflow described in your book?”

Dear reader:
“Thanks for your email and for purchasing my Lightroom book. I’m glad to hear you’re finding it useful.

Your question is one I hear a lot, especially from Nikon shooters. Here are my thoughts.
First, some background: For a long time, camera manufacturers have offered dedicated software for owners of their cameras. In the beginning (say, 2003), this proprietary software offered distinct processing advantages over third-party products like Lightroom, Aperture, etc. because the camera mfg. apps were developed specifically to process files from those cameras only.

Along come Adobe Camera Raw, CaptureOne, Aperture, and then Lightroom. These apps are designed to read/render raw files from a wide range of cameras. Naturally, the question arises as to how well one of these apps renders raw images compared to the dedicated camera software.

Keep in mind that every raw converter (proprietary or not) renders raw files using different algorithms. If you take the same raw file and render it in multiple apps using default settings, you’ll get a variety of results. Some people swear by certain raw converters because they say they like the results, or “the look” better with one converter over another. And to this day, camera makers swear that their software generates the best renderings. This is especially true with Nikon and Capture NX.

While this argument might have some basis in fact, I have a different perspective, based on workflow AND quality.

First, I want one piece of software to process ALL my pictures regardless of what camera they came from. If I shoot Canon one day, Nikon the next and Phase One the day after, I don’t want to deal with separate apps for this.

Second, even if I only shoot with one camera (and expect to do so forever!) Lightroom offers some significant advantages over the dedicated software (or for-purchase apps like NX2 etc.).

When compared with the dedicated apps, Lightroom offers a much better interface, a much wider range of features and, maybe most importantly, the backing of Adobe, a software company not limited to supporting a single manufacturer. The product becomes better – and gets more development – by serving a much larger user base.

Finally, let’s talk about image quality. In my 20+ years in the imaging industry there has been no company that can even come close to Adobe’s capabilities in digital image processing and workflow software. Thomas Knoll, the inventor of Photoshop, originally programmed the Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) rendering engine around the turn of the millennium. Since then, this engine has undergone extensive development and upgrades from a wide range of leading experts. Simply put, when it comes to imaging, there aren’t many smarter people out there than those who work for Adobe.

Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw use the same core rendering engine. In the past several years there have been significant improvements to the way that files from all cameras and all manufacturers are handled in the software.

A couple of years ago, Adobe released the DNG Profile program. This allows Lightroom to render raw files almost exactly as would the proprietary software from the camera manufacturer, including in-camera picture styles. So using Lightroom you can make your files look just like they would in NX. This is done by selecting a Profile from the Camera Calibration panel.

Also, the upcoming Lightroom 3 includes improvements to the core rendering engine itself. Process Version 2010, as it’s called, promises to extract even more detail and quality from all raw files.

So all in all, I don’t see any reason to use anything except Lightroom. Though I shoot Canon, many of my clients shoot Nikon, and we’ve had this discussion and done testing many times. The bottom line is that using NX imposes significant limitations to your workflow, not just today but in the future, and if you know what to do in Lightroom, any difference in quality is negligible. All of my Nikon clients are happy with their results from Lightroom.

Which brings me to another point about converting your NEF files into DNG early in the workflow, which I recommend. But that’s a topic for another post (and is discussed in detail in my book).”

Please let me know if you have any other questions. I’m happy to help.

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