Post-Processing Tools – A Comparison

I’ve written before about my Workflow and general Post-Processing of my photographs. Just yesterday, I read a post by Leanne Cole about a hands-on trial of ACDSee Ultimate 10.

I was severely tempted to buy it, but then I looked at the tools I already have:

ON1 Raw and ON1 Photo 10
DxO OpticsPro 11 (including FilmPack and ViewPoint)
Topaz Studio & Adjustments Pro Pack
Topaz Plugins Suite
Nikon View NX-i and Capture NX-D 

I have a few other stand-alone programs but they are aimed at specialized editing like HDR Express or PortraitPro Studio 15 or PortraitPro Body Studio.  Also the now discontinued but still available Nik Collection (recommended as a Photoshop and Lightroom plugin). By any metric I can think of, I’m awash with tools and not likely to need more . . . but, that might not be the case for everyone.

This post will concern itself with stand-alone editors and post-processors one might use to edit photographs and prepare them for publication on a blog or for printing. 

I’m going to use a photo I took in 2010 with my Nikon D200 and Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR. Why that photo? Well, I’ve never used it because I didn’t think it was worth sharing. 

I should also mention I have no association with any of the companies and products I link to below. They don’t even know I’m alive and everything I say is unsolicited and my own unpaid-for opinion. 

Before I proceed with the processing, let me show you the photo as output from its unedited RAW capture.

So, here’s the interesting thing we encounter in dealing with RAW files. The camera has various RAW modes. You can pick any one of them even after you’ve snapped the photo. If you use Photoshop to open a RAW file the first thing you see is the Adobe Camera RAW dialog menu. 

That’s a very powerful tool even before you start playing with the photo. Some of the features of Camera RAW are incorporated as options in Lightroom. In Camera RAW you have control over every in-camera setting and then some. You can essentially change your mind about what kind of in-camera processing you picked for your photo, anything from white balance to sharpening to adjustment curves to a whole lot of other stuff. 

The above photo was output from Lightroom using the Neutral color setting. It’s about the blandest version of RAW you can get. 

HOWEVER . . . different RAW processors will grab different versions of the RAW file, so depending what you use to open the photo, you might get subtle differences. Here are two different JPGs from the same RAW file as opened by different editors. I think one is from DxO and the other is from Topaz before I did any editing with either of those programs.

They look pretty close but the color temperature, brightness, contrast, sharpening and a few other parameters could be slightly different. While you can often set the RAW parameters to whatever you want, that’s not always the case, meaning that depending on the tool you use, you might be editing a photo from a different starting point than you would with another program. That might matter if you are going for a particular look; it might mean more work and compromises and there may be a limit of what you can get out of a given program. That’s why you will often read people rave and argue about which program is “better” . . . they are actually arguing about what “look” they prefer. 

Before hitting the individual programs, I should also mention one more thing: I seldom do local adjustments on photos. That means that 99% of the post-processing I do applies to the entirety of the photograph I’m working on. Some programs allow no local adjustments, some have a few features that will make use of brushes to apply local adjustments, and some go full-blown adjustments down to individual pixels. Depending on your needs and what you’re trying to accomplish, some of these tools are a better fit than others.

Topaz Studio

I’ll begin with Topaz Studio, their newly-launched FREE processor. Really, there’s no reason not to get this piece of software as it comes with all THESE features and you can then add their Pro Pack which adds additional capabilities. By the way, if you own any of their Plugins, they can be launched from within Studio and can be added in individual adjustment layers. 

Unless stated, the following photos (all but one) are processed with just the controls in the free version (I bought the Pro Pack but did not use any of the adjustments here). The free version has no local adjustments capabilities. Well . . . you could mask certain areas and have adjustments applied to just areas you select, but it’s not as easy as other programs. Then again, once you learn something, it seems easy.

My first edit attempt

I’ll have all of these in a gallery at the bottom of the post, but you can click on the photo for a larger version that will give you a better look at what was done. 

The above is my first attempt at playing with the program. For the record, I don’t read manuals or look at videos. I just start playing with sliders and stuff. For that first edit, I picked a saved preset and tweaked it.

Note: I’ll repeat this until I’m blue in the face. Some of these will look like little has been done to the photo. That’s because WordPress is a blog site and not a photo-sharing site. If you enter the gallery at the bottom and scroll through the photo in full-screen mode, you’ll easily see differences. Also, clicking on the individual photos will give you a better version of the photo than what you see above.

This next version is arrived at by duplicating the first edit version into a new layer, playing with it, and then blending it with the original edit. 

My second edit attempt

It may look the same, but it’s not. Here’s the next iteration. 

Third version

From here, I tried one of the effects . . . 

Monochrome effect

. . . and then converted it to B&W . . . 

B&W version

For a free program, I thought it was pretty good. I threw the third version into Impressions and got this . . . 

Impression PlugIn – not included with Studio

Again, for a free editor, it’s not bad. It looks like you could quickly process the photos from a single session by saving the preset you like for one photo and applying it to the rest of the photos. You can also mark your preset public and it will be added for everyone to use. Similarly, you can use presets other people have come up with and shared. 

ON1 Photo Raw 2017 and ON1 Photo 10

So, ON1 decided to compete with Lightroom and Photoshop by offering ON1 Photo Raw 2017. I am a big fan of their ON1 Photo 10 Suite and use it regularly and extensively. Again, my usage of Photo 10 is usually limited to applying effects, but it does have the capability to perform local adjustments, gradients, make use of multiple layers, etc. etc. etc.  

Photo Raw was designed from the ground up as an all-in-one photo organizer, editor, RAW processor, and effects app. Personally, I’m not happy with the new version. The changes removed some of the functionality with how I used the program, so I’m still using Photo 10 for most of what I do. I own Photo Raw but have not found it useful to integrate into my workflow. 

That said, if you are looking for an all-in-one solution, Photo Raw might be for you. Until June 21, they have a great deal on the pricing (HERE) . . . but, I got one better for you . . . they are giving away the Photo 10 Effects module for free HERE. Yours to own, forever.

It’s only the Effects module whereas the full Photo 10 suite includes other stuff, but hey, the effects module is what I use 99% of the time. 

So, using the deer photo, here’s what I could do with Photo Raw . . . 

First edit . . . not quite what I wanted . . .

. . . so I tried again from scratch . . . better, but still not quite . . .

. . . so I started over and after a while, I stopped with this.

So, here’s why I am upset . . . they imported all my saved presets from a couple of years of working with previous versions BUT THEY DON’T GIVE ME THE SAME RESULTS!

Here’s my preset as it works in Photo 10 . . . 

To be fair, like any new tools, there’s a learning curve involved with embracing it. They have lots of instructional videos showing what the program can do and it looks very capable. 

However, I typically do global effects so unless I change my whole workflow, I’ll probably still mostly use Photo 10 Effects (which you can get for free).

Nikon View NX-i and Capture NX-D

If you are a Nikon shooter, you should get both of these FREE programs (HERE and HERE).

View NX-i is my program of choice for organizing, cataloging, and cleaning up my photos. When I need to download photos from the camera to my PC, View NX-i is the program I use. Sure, I then load the files into Lightroom catalogs for processing, but all of the organizing and filing is done through View NX-i. 

Am I suggesting you do the same? Nope. I’m just telling you what I use. 

As far of NX-D, that is a basic RAW editor. By basic, I mean that it does a lot, but has no localized adjustments. That used to be a feature of the previous version, NX2.

Nikon has discontinued support for Capture NX2 although they still list it HERE. You can’t actually buy it, but if you really want it, third party resellers might still offer the boxed version. NX2 had U-Point adjustments capabilities which allowed very precise local adjustments to the RAW files. 

However, read THIS article before considering NX2 because you won’t be able to use NX2 for the newer RAW files unless you convert them into something NX2 can understand (that’s what unsupported means . . . Nikon is not updating it to read the new files). This is my interpretation of what’s going on, but I urge you to do your own research or ask the Internet. That said, if you have editors you like, forget NX2 . . . but you should still consider NX-D.

So, why would you want Capture NX-D? HERE is an excellent article as to why you should have it. 

For them who don’t bother with reading words, it boils down Nikon doing a better job of rendering their own RAW files than any given third party (including Adobe). In fact, you get the same EXPEED engine that’s in the camera. 

It’s not the slickest of programs or interfaces, but it does a good job with photos.  

You can save your adjustments and apply them to any or all of the other photos. For example . . . 

Same adjustments as the previous photo (except for the crop)

You can see why I never shared these photos . . . boring, boring, boring. 

I should mention something about the way I cropped the first photo . . . the eyes of the two deer fall on the thirds of the photo. If you don’t know what that means, don’t worry about it. I say that not out of arrogance; I say it because if you are really interested, a quick Google search will give you tons of information on the Rule of Thirds. 

OK, continuing.

DxO OpticsPro 11 (including FilmPack and ViewPoint)

DxO OpticsPro 11 is a program you should use with kid gloves . . . small adjustments produce big results and my one pet peeve with the program is that many times what I see on the screen is gentler and more nuanced than what I see once I export the processed photos. I’ve learned to do less than what I think I need, but it makes for a sometimes frustrating experience.  

That said, it’s the first program I go to if I need to absolutely salvage photos I completely screwed up. DxO knows how to coax data from the RAW file. There are a lot of posts on this blog tagged with the DxO moniker for them who want to look for them, and not just when I screwed up the photos. 

Anyway, here’s one of my presets from DxO . . . 

DxO edited

One thing with photos . . . the perception of them can be affected by the presentation. Here is the same photo with two different frames. 

Eh . . . maybe they all look the same. 

One more thing . . . DxO offers two other programs DxO Filpack (filters for simulating various color and B&W films) and DxO ViewPoint (for straightening lens distortion, especially in wide-angle shots). 

Examples of my application of FilmPack can be found in THIS post (it’s a long, long, . . . long post; before clicking on the link, empty your bladder and allow yourself a good chunk of time . . . or do like most people and skim) and here is a quick example of ViePoint in action. 

Original as shot

Deskewed with ViewPoint and converted to B&W

So, now we come to my main post-processor . . .  

Lightroom and Photoshop

I own a copy of Lightroom 5 and the Adobe Creative Suite 5. They are both still loaded onto my computer. However, I pay $9.99/per month for Adobe’s Creative Photographer  Plan. I occasionally think about paying the full $49.99/per month for their whole suite of products, but I have little use for all that power unless I decide to fully unleash my creative talents . . . eh, it seems like more of a bother than it’s worth. 

So, what do you get for about $120/year? You get the latest versions of both Lightroom and Photoshop. My upgrade path used to be every two years for Lightroom and every three years for the Suites. The Photographer plan is a heck of a deal and frankly — unless you just hate Adobe or you never do anything with your photos — I can’t see why someone would not avail themselves of it.  

True, you can still buy Lightroom outright for about $80 (depending on the sale) but you’ll be doing that every few years just to keep up with the versions and advances in photo editing tools. If you wanted to buy Photoshop . . . well, you can’t, but when you could, you’re talking multiple hundreds of dollars. 

My current workflow has me doing most of my editing with ON1 and then putting the finishing touches with Lightroom, but you can straight-out edit and process the photo just using Lightroom. 

Lightroom editing of RAW file; no other processing.

Pasting the processing from the previous photo onto new photo

Now, I like adding borders to my photos (something not many people do) and Lightroom doesn’t have the . . . OK, OK, you can trick Lightroom into adding a border, but it’s a pain and I think it messes with the output of the photo because you end up having to Print-To-File.

Frame added in Lightroom

People who use Photoshop to edit files usually do a lot of creative stuff involving layers and local adjustments and stuff. I generally don’t do that. For the purpose of this post, I used Photoshop to process the RAW photo. Here’s the result.

Processed with Photoshop

Go ahead and open it up . . . it’s a very nice rendering. People complain about Photoshop, but that was literally a half a minute with a couple of tools. There’s a reason Photoshop is the 800-pounds gorilla in the room. It’s fast and powerful. 

And, if I want to add a frame . . . I have an action for that . . . 

Frame added using one of Fred Miranda’s actions

And there you have it . . . all the tools I have that I can edit photos with.

Understand that, often, the files you see above are the beginning. I tend to play with saturation, effects, brightness, contrast, etc. etc. a lot more than I did above. For instance . . . 

And there you have it, a comparison of various editors. 

One final comment . . . I calibrate my screen using a colorimeter. Basically, I make sure the colors on the screen are rendered as close to the true colors as possible. Lots of things affect what you see on the screen. Ambient light, how dark or well lit the room is, what you were looking at a few minutes before, whether you’re wearing contacts, whether your glasses are tinted, the degree of colorblindness you might have, etc. etc. etc. 

Let’s say I take care of all of those factors, there’s still one important factor I can’t control. Be it on big-ass monitors, laptops, iPads, tablets, or phones, most people don’t color-correct their devices. Not only that, unless they choose a photo setting (if available) the manufacturers of these devices have them set at a fairly high brightness. AND, some tend toward warm (red) and some toward cool (blue). 

I — or you — can color correct the crap out of a photo, but the person who looks at it with their uncalibrated monitor will probably not see what you see. 

For the majority of the people, it will be close and in the end, all that it matters is that they like the photo, regardless how it was created or post-processed. 

Here’s the gallery of photos in the sequence they appear above . . . 

That’s it. This post has ended . . . except for the stuff below.


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About disperser

Odd guy with odd views living an odd life during odd times.
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7 Responses to Post-Processing Tools – A Comparison

  1. oneowner says:

    Post processing is probably more difficult for some photographers than actually shooting the photos. There are a lot of choices as you mentioned and it can be difficult to find the right application for a particular file. I have some of the plugins that you mentioned but I haven’t been using them very often. I do use LR CC for processing and cataloging and PS for any additional work that can’t be done in LR. I like using presets and it’s easy to make them in LR. Presets are especially nice when working on a series and you want to keep a consistency to the look of the files. I also like some of the tools from NIK but I think they are being abandoned by Google. Too bad. Silver Efex Pro is a great b&w plugin.
    When I look back at some of my older photos I realize that I had a problem with knowing when to stop processing. It’s easy to go overboard and when I was new to digital it was very exciting to be able to push pixels without any effort. HDR is a good example of a great tool that gets overused.

    Liked by 1 person

    • disperser says:

      I vacillate between a light and heavy hand when it comes to processing. I think that — looking back at my stuff — I go somewhat in phases. I noticed that the processing when I got the D200 got a little heavier. I think it might have been because the RAW files out of the D200 were not as well saturated and rendered as they had been with the D100.

      I reverted back to lighter processing with the D7000, but I still have presets that do more than perhaps I should, especially on flowers. Still, at any one time, my mood and the subject dictate most of what I do.

      Also, now that I have the artsy plugins, I’m less likely to push a photo since I know that eventually, I will do a rendering with more visual impact.


  2. Oh, you have some cool tools, programs, effects, “toys”, etc. Emilio! Does all of this keep you outa’ trouble?! (Just teasing you! :-D )

    I don’t find these photos boring. The deer are dear and beautiful. I love their eyes!

    I think it’s fun, and interesting, when you show us how you “effect” and “play” with your photos.

    I know nothing about photography…except do I like what I am looking at. And when it comes to your photography, I DO like what I’m looking at!

    I’m sorry I know so little and can’t jump into the discussion about the technicalities. etc. :-(
    HUGS!!! :-)


    • disperser says:

      Thanks, diem3, and no need to jump into the technicalities.

      I wrote this primarily for people who might be looking for information on the tools. Even that is a bit presumptuous since there are a lot of reviews out there. That said, the reason there are soo many reviews is because each person has different requirements for what they do. Perhaps someone will find the above useful.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. AnnMarie says:

    I noticed the difference in the photos as I read along, but they really popped once I went through the gallery. I could then, very easily, choose the “best” effect for me. As always, the freedom to choose from the contrasting elements is what makes it fun.


    • disperser says:

      That’s one of the conundrums I face . . . I spend time getting a “better” photo but the reality is that few people venture past the photo embedded in the text and for those, I could do almost anything and it would look OK.

      Then again, I look at them too, so I’ll still go for something that I like regardless if the majority of the people notice or not.


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