Weighing the pros of Raw

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Choosing a Raw converter

Because Mac OS X 10.4 has a built-in Raw converter, you can at least view most Raw images in Preview. But to edit that Raw data—which is really the point—you’ll need additional software. Here are some of the most popular options.

iPhoto Apple’s consumer-level image application (   ; part of iLife ‘06, $79) lets you work with Raw files just as you would JPEGs, making it easy to move between formats. iPhoto’s editing features are good but basic. To really take advantage of the Raw format’s capabilities, you’ll want an application with more-advanced controls.

Aperture Apple’s $299 Aperture (   ) improves on iPhoto’s editing features with more-refined control of your image’s white balance, contrast, noise reduction, sharpening, and more. In addition, Aperture’s organizing features are unmatched. Aperture also provides excellent integration with Adobe Photoshop, for times when you need to make selective edits or create composites. Although reviewers and pro photographers alike criticized the initial release of Aperture for the quality of its Raw conversions, Apple addressed the issue in its 1.1 update.

One of the advantages iPhoto and Aperture have over most other Raw converters (including Photoshop’s Camera Raw) is that they don’t separate the conversion process from the rest of your editing tasks. With other editors, you must first perform a Raw conversion and then edit. If it turns out that your Raw conversion settings weren’t quite right, you have to throw out your image and start over. Another difference is Apple’s approach to workflow. Aperture and iPhoto both take a managed approach, performing a lot of housekeeping chores for you. Although this can complicate integration with other applications, if all you want to do is edit and output photos, you may prefer this approach.

Camera Raw Included with both Photoshop CS2 (   ; $649) and Photoshop Elements 4 (   ; $80), Adobe’s excellent Raw converter supports a wide range of cameras and includes a thorough set of tools for refining the conversion process. Like Aperture, it can even recover some overexposed highlights from an image that might otherwise be useless. And for complex editing tasks, Photoshop is just a click away. Unlike Apple’s offerings, Camera Raw has a fairly manual workflow. You have to group images into folders and keep track of where they are. If you have a complex workflow involving different applications and types of outputs, then you might enjoy this level of control.

Lightroom At press time, Adobe’s Lightroom was available as free beta software. Lightroom also uses Photoshop Camera Raw for its Raw conversions, and provides an easier way of working with large batches of images. It’s too early to tell how Lightroom stacks up to the competition, but it shows a lot of promise and is worth keeping an eye on.

[ Ben Long is a San Francisco–based writer and photographer. He is also the author of Getting Started with Camera Raw (Peachpit Press, 2006). ]

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