Simple Questions, Simple Answers

Should I use JPEG or raw?

If you need an immediate out-of-camera file (sharing, client, etc.), JPEG done right is just fine. If you are looking to process the image downstream, then use raw, as it preserves all the available data. Want more? See this or this. What's "done right" mean? Well, try this article.

Which post processing application should I use?

Adobe Lightroom Classic CC solves most problems (both processing and organization). It also has the most training available. But...yes, Adobe's profiles and math leave a bit on the table from what you can get out of a raw file at times, so you can do better. These days we have a plethora of choice, and it's nearly impossible to anoint one program better than another because of these two critical words: "it depends." For example, which raw converter produces the best color? It depends. Thing is, virtually everything has a free trial period, so spend some time figuring out which one works best for you. But you probably won't accept that answer, right? Okay, DxO PhotoLab is usually the program I steer people to after Lightroom these days, as it has excellent noise reduction and really good profiles for most cameras/lenses. Another strong choice is CaptureOne. 

Should I use Adobe's Super Resolution or Gigapixel AI on all my photos?

No. I'd only recommend using the upscaling products when you actually need to upscale (e.g. you don't have 300 dpi for the output size you're creating). Make sure you're not just into bragging rights (psst, wanna see my 100mp image?). Make sure you're not pixel peeping (look at your output at its output size!). 

Which is better, Denoise AI, Prime, Dfine, or something else?

Everyone always wants to boil things down to one choice (witness these common questions). Those of us who perform image processing for a living—or probably more accurately, a part of our living—use multiple tools, not one. The reason has to do with how each of them performs and what the results look like for different problems. Since I’m writing about noise reduction here, Nik Dfine works quickly and produces a reasonable result on most images. DxO Prime is slow (and slower if you don't have the right computer horsepower and want its best efforts), and cleans most noise up really well, though Topaz Denoise AI sometimes gives me better edge acuity as well as clean tonal ramps.

So which tool I use for a task basically comes down to two questions: (1) Do I need it fast or can I tolerate slow? (2) What's the output going to be and what product produces the attribute I most need? From this you should surmise that no single product answers both questions for me (or you) all the time. 

Do I need Photoshop?

No, maybe, yes. For the vast majority of you, the answer is no. I can do 95% of my Photoshop CC work in Lightroom Classic CC (but I don’t); you might be able to do even more. 

The maybe answer comes about when people start trying to do things that either require (a) editing individual pixels or (b) would benefit from complex masking (e.g. luminosity masks). You can mimic the latter in a lot of products these days, and a product such as Affinity Photo, which is a very affordable Photoshop "clone" can get most people 100% of the way they need to go with both (a) and (b). 

But boy, when it comes to getting down and dirty with the pixels and making them do exactly what I want them to do, it's really only Photoshop that gets me there. There's so much complexity, options, subtlety, advanced techniques that are opened up with Photoshop I could probably spend the rest of my life just describing all the strange things I've done with the program that I don't know how to do with something else. It seems that all of us who take the time to dig deep into Photoshop are always discovering interesting and useful techniques that we didn't know about before (or are the outcome of interactions we accidentally triggered).

So, here's a simplistic way of thinking about things: Apple Photos is a Bachelor's degree (assuming you actually study it fully; it can do a lot more than you think). Lightroom is a Master's degree. Photoshop is not only a PhD, but also a lifetime residency program.

Do I need to calibrate my monitor?

Yes, you should. I'd also argue that once you've done that, you should take a known source (e.g. ColorChecker) and follow it throughout your workflow. You can mess color up in the camera, in the processing, and in the printing. Just calibrating your monitor doesn't tell you where things are going south. 

What's the best way to create panos?

Probably PTGui, but it's on the geeky side; prepare to learn. Moreover, you really need to pay attention what you're doing in the field with the camera/lens, too, if you're going to produce the best possible panos.

Should I use Active D-Lighting?

This question came up as a response to my "You Want Great JPEGs?" article. (Other cameras have different names for this function, such as DRO; Active D-Lighting is a Nikon term.) The answer is maybe. First, there are two things that would indicate you should skip Active D-Lighting: (1) you're shooting NEF+JPEG; and (2) your scene is lower in contrast than the dynamic range of the camera. 

#1 is a problem because Active D-Lighting (ADL) uses underexposure to preserve highlight data. Your raw image will be underexposed, by as much as 1.3 stops. You don't want that. Settle for the correct NEF exposure and a JPEG with blocked up shadows. Because by the time ADL raises the deep shadows, it may be putting in a four stop correction. If you have the raw data, you'd rather keep your shadow boost lower than that. 

If the scene doesn't exceed the range your camera is capable of (#2), you don't need ADL. You might want to move shadow information upwards and highlight information downwards, but you have more control over that in post processing than you do with ADL. With ADL in JPEGs, it's one and done, and it may not be done the way you want. 

That said, when taking JPEGs only, I sometimes set my Nikon's bracketing function to ADL bracketing (2 shots, Off and High). In a high contrast scene I just flip bracketing to On and take two shots. 

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