Sunday, July 24, 2011

Post Processing Software Discussion

Up until now I've been using a post processing software produced by Nikon called Capture NX2. At the time I purchased it (an online download from the Nikon Mall) I figured since it was made by the same people who made my camera, it ought to be suitable for my post processing needs. It was also more affordable than the Creative Suite versions of Photoshop. I also did a trial version of Lightroom and did not take to it as far as user friendliness went.

A week ago I broke ranks with the Windows world, a realm I had steadily known since 1993, and went with a Mac Mini for my personal computer. I do not regret the move so far, and don't anticipate I will. While the Mac realm may have its own quirks, the infuriating factor to date has not been what I would occasionally experience with Windows machines and software. I want a machine that just works, that I don't need to spend an inordinate amount of time maintaining because the OS itself is sloppy about how it processes information. I also had heard about a photo post processing software made by Apple named "Aperture". While it did not come with my new Mac, it was an $80 download from the Apple store. I've been using it a week and the more I use it, the more I see that my Capture NX2 (CNX2) days are behind me.

How do the two programs compare? Let's start with photos, then I'll go into the user friendliness comparison. Here's a shot of the abandoned Stuckey's featured in an earlier blog entry. This one was processed with CNX2:

While I like the shot, the more I've studied it the less I liked how it was processed. It's not all software fault, of course, as I'm the one who must make choices when doing post processing work. However, what I have noticed between using CNX2 and Aperture is what's in the toolbox. I'll get into that more in a moment. Meanwhile, here's the same photo as processed in Aperture:

I should mention before proceeding further that you can click on any photo I post in this blog, and it should go to a full screen view for your perusal.

Now, to some, the differences between the two shots above may appear subtle. I would agree they are not vastly different, but when you work closely on a shot during post processing work, you get intimately familiar with its lighting, color, saturation, hue, sharpness, etc. A big part of what I'm getting out of photography in general, and one of many reasons why I like the pastime, is that it trains my eyes to see things that otherwise I might never notice. It's been often said that the devil is in the details. From my standpoint, noticing and reveling in detail is what keeps life interesting. As children it comes natural for most of us; as adults the daily grind tries to beat it out of us, or at least cajole us to confine it to a specific area of study.

I digress. Pertaining to the two processing software differences, the big ones for me are how each one handles burning and dodging abilities. Burning is selectively darkening a photo; dodging is doing the same but lightening the pic. In CNX2, it uses "color control points" where you pick a spot on the photo you wish to alter, and then enlarge or shrink the sphere of influence around that spot before moving on to burning, dodging, altering color intensity, saturation, etc. While it works decently, Aperture accomplishes these same two tasks with brushes, where you can apply the amount you want exactly where you want it, and it can be set to respect edges in case you don't want it to spill over into other parts of the shot.

The second abandoned Stuckey's shot is more lively to me. It gets me closer to what my vision was for taking and working with this shot. I wanted it to appear like a postcard, which typically are sharp shots somewhat overly saturated in color. The irony in this case being the lively colors are contrasted against the decaying structure and gasoline island canopy. I can imagine warping back in time to when this Stuckey's was fresh and new, hired by the owner to take a similar shot for potential customers to see what a desirable roadside pit stop the place is.

The first shot, as processed, doesn't play up that irony as well. It sides more with the gloom of decay and forlorn abandonment. If that's what I really wanted to show, there are plenty of ways to both shoot and process such, including returning to the site under less intense lighting conditions. 

Other differences between CNX2 and Aperture are that whenever a "step" is added in CNX2, you better do all you want to do with that step before adding another one. Otherwise, if you decide to go back and tweak settings in an earlier step, the software undoes all subsequent steps and reverts back to the one you're working on. Until I got Aperture, while I found this quirk mildly bothersome, now I find it downright annoying. Why? Aperture does not punish you like this. If you start out tweaking exposure, contrast, and brightness levels, for example, and then move on down the step sequence, but later decide to go back and tweak with an earlier one, you don't get slapped for not thinking to do it earlier like you would in CNX2. That's refreshing. It also helps me not lose track of where the photo is and what I've done to it. Having my work revert back and forth can break the train of creative flow sufficiently that it's easy to make subsequent choices in perhaps an overcompensating fashion because what you thought you had you may think somehow got permanently changed or deleted.

The main thing I'm dealing with now as far as transiting from Windows to Mac, and from a Windows based post processing software to Mac based, is file handling. That's just a learning curve anyone would face going from one OS to another, but it's pretty noteworthy. Regardless I expect it will become as seamless as my 17 years of Windows experience became.

While many people still regard Photoshop as the standard bearing post processing software, I have yet to feel the pull toward it. Ken Rockwell, in his review of Aperture, states he prefers the Apple software to Photoshop, although he has both. My brother told me about a professional photographer he knows who regards Aperture as superior to Photoshop (and much less expensive!). It would seem Rockwell may lean that way as well. As for me, it outshines the Nikon software and my limited experience with Lightroom. So at this point I don't feel like I'm being held back by not riding on the Photoshop bandwagon.

Rockwell, in many articles he's written for his site, stresses the importance of taking pictures over any post processing software. While I agree with his sentiment, it's also true that great photographers like Ansel Adams loved their darkrooms and found working there just as much a part of their creative process as taking the actual shot. While I don't think it's wise to take crummy to mediocre photos with the idea they can be saved in post processing, I also know that a decent shot that in my mind isn't exactly what I want can get pretty close with our digital versions of darkrooms. What Rockwell likely is saying is for learning photographers like me to spend a lot of time working on how to take a great photo, so that when working with it in post, that's just icing on the cake vs. heroic salvation efforts.

With Aperture, that part just got easier and more enjoyable for me. Your mileage may vary, of course. Happy shooting and processing!


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