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Tacoma, US
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mklass Platinum Member As a semi-professional involved in all manner of photographic genres including portraiture, sports, commercial, and events coverage, Mick is always ready to help Nikonians by sharing his deep knowledge of photography and printing. Donor Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2014 Nikonian since 08th Dec 2006
Wed 23-Apr-14 06:54 PM | edited Thu 24-Apr-14 02:41 AM by mklass

I am doing what many have and am trying to work out the best workflow post-Capture NX2. One of the main frustrations has been to find a file format that is a efficient as CNX is in using NEFs. I don’t think there is anything, so it is a question of finding the compromises that fit into a workflow that I like.

CNX has the beauty of storing everything (edits, versions, JPG preview, ColorEfexPro edits) in the NEF, as well as reading the camera settings as Nikon intended. In addition to a single file to manage, the files were relatively efficient. A D7100 file might record at 24MB and expand to 28 after editing in CNX. A D800 file might go from 42 to 50MB. In addition, because ColorEfex Pro 3 for CNX is available, there is no need to create a new file, or significantly expand the size of the existing file, to use that plug-in. Plus, everything done in CNX2 recorded in the NEF is entirely “non-destructive” in the sense that you can go back late, open the file in CNX, and see every edit that you have done, and adjust any of them.

Going outside to use a different plug-in from Nik or OnOne is simply a matter of creating a TIF or JPG and editing it in that app. That obviously creates another file to manage, and “bakes-in” the changes. Once done, they can’t be reversed.

So in looking at the options, I wanted to find what was the closest to non-destructive and resulted in minimum files to manage. It was also important to me that the NIK and OnOne plug-ins be usable.

While ACDSee and Capture One might be good options, they integrate the plug-ins least (you need to use them exclusively in stand-alone mode). So I did not spend a lot of time investigating them. I also did not look much at PhotoNinja since it definitely doesn’t use plug-ins and you can’t print from it.

Some of what I report below may be erroneous, as I may not have found all of the tricks that are in the software that would allow a user to avoid the restrictions mentioned. If so, please correct me.

Lightroom will use the NEF’s directly, and store edits in sidecar file. Of course it doesn’t read almost all of the Camera settings. If you don’t like the NEF/sidecar combo, you can use LR to import and created DNG files, which do not use sidecars. If you are a stickler for preserving the NEF and don’t want to manage 2 files, you can imbed the original NEF in the DNG, about doubling file size. Overall, the DNG file size is not appreciably different that the NEF. Edits in LR are non destructive, along as you retain the image in your catalog.

The problem with LR, however, is that once you try to use a plug in, you are no longer editing in LR and your edits are no longer non-destructive. All of the Nik and OnOne plug-ins actually act as standalone applications, and require you to export a TIF, JPG or PSD from LR to be edited in the app. All of the edits that you make are then baked into the resulting file.

So, in using LR, you can maintain some non-destructiveness, as long as you don’t leave LR to edit with a plug-in, or do anything with the file outside of LR. Not exactly the level of convenience that you get with CNX2, especially if you like to use ColorEfex Pro, like I do.

Photoshop seemed like a possible alternative. It uses the same raw converter engine as LR (Adobe Camera Raw or ACR) which ignores most camera settings but has the ability to almost duplicate them. It does offer true non-destructiveness since plug-ins actually work within Photoshop, not as standalones on exported file, as with Lightroom. But there are some serious costs.

First, PS will read DNG files created by ACR or the Adobe DNG converters, but will not save changes to a DNG file nor export to a DNG. This seems really odd, as Adobe is the creator of DNG. Maybe I missed something in PS.

NEF edits do end up in a sidecar. But those are limited to ACR changes. Any real edits in PS require you to save the file as a PSD to assure “non-destructiveness”. That’s fine but PSD files quickly become HUGE, if you maintain the layers and SmartLayers necessary to retain the non-destructive aspect. Files increase in size by a factor of 10. For example, a 50MB D800e NEF edited in PS with 2 SmartLayers then saved as a PSD was 540MB! Frankly that’s is absurd. It means that on a 1 TB drive, I would get 2000 images, instead of 20,000. Or for every 5 weddings that I shoot, I would need to add another TB of storage.

I know “storage is cheap” but it is not unlimited or cost free. Managing and backing up that much space is expensive and time consuming. I doubt if you could do that in the Cloud.

And yes, you can “flatten: the layers in PS, but then you lose the non-destructiveness.

So why is non-destructiveness important to me? Three reasons:

  1. I may want to go back later, maybe much later, and look at an image that I like to find out what I did and use that technique on a new image.
  2. I may learn something now that would benefit an image that I edited yesterday, last month, last year or several years ago and want to adjust it.
  3. I may be working on an image, be interrupted, or want to let it sit for a day or two before finalizing it.

Without a “non-destructive image file, I can’t do any of that.

Another option is to use CNX-D to read all of the camera settings then make the base adjustments. It actually works pretty well, much like ACR. Then, to use plug-ins, simply export the file, much like LR, and do the adjustments then bake into the TIF or JPG. You don’t get all of the LR editing capabilities, but most of those are in the Nik and OnOne apps. You do get the Nikon camera adjustments.

That might not be a bad option, except that CNX-D is not quite ready. I tried it on a PC and found the speed wasn’t too bad, but I’ve converted to a Mac, and the speed is awful. So this choice will have to wait for the release version to see if it makes sense.

Of course I can continue to use CNX with integrated ColorEfexPro, as I have in the past. I works better on the Mac than on my PC. There are still some instances when I would need to export a TIF or JPG for editing in another app, but that is only about 5 % of the time. ( With the other options, I would be exporting to ColorEfex Pro about 40-50% of the time.

Also playing into this is that I want to continue to use PhotoMechanic as my image manager. It is far more capable and faster that LR, and does not rely on cataloging. NEF’s edited with ACR/LR/PS will not who the changes in PM, but DNGs will. By exporting JPGs or TIFFs from LR, I can manage the files in PM quite easily.

So I still have not decided on a final way to do things. I am unwilling to accept that the LR model is best and just put all my faith in LR. But I thought sharing my thoughts might help some others, as well as to give those who are more expert than I a chance to correct any errors in my findings about what can be done with different file formats using various photo editing applications.

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