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Photo Ninja RAW Converter Software Review
by Jim Keenan -  6/3/2013

Photo Ninja is a professional-grade RAW converter tool. We took it for a spin and loved the results. But Photo Ninja is definitely not for everyone, and the $129 price of admission might prove a little steep for some folks. Here we give you the details of this handy RAW converter tool.

Photo NinjaRecently, longtime friends asked my wife and I to photograph the wedding of their eldest son. Now, weddings aren't my favorite subject by a longshot, but my wife enjoys doing them (probably because she never had to shoot one on film). Things were complicated by the fact that the son is a naval officer and, along with the bride, would be in white, with the bridesmaids in royal blue and the groom's attendants in black uniforms or suits. Couple this with an outdoor ceremony at 4:30 in the afternoon with the bride and groom backlit when viewed from the guest perspective and we knew we'd be facing nonstop high contrast situations. We shoot Nikons and have both Capture NX2 and Photoshop CS5 on our computers -- and CS5 has the complete Nik suite of software onboard -- so we already had some pretty decent RAW imaging ammunition at our disposal. 

A couple weeks out from the wedding date I was perusing a Nikon enthusiast site and noticed some favorable discussion concerning a new RAW converter program, Photo Ninja. If that name rings a bell, you're right -- Photo Ninja (henceforth PN) is produced by PictureCode, the folks responsible for the popular Noise Ninja noise reduction software. Checking their website, one of the case studies they used to illustrate PN's capabilities involved wedding photography and after looking over the entire presentation of the product, we added it to both computers. With the wedding now three weeks in our rearview mirror, we're glad we did. 

Overview
PN is nominally a standalone professional-grade RAW converter -- it includes a ..."streamlined, integrated browser that is handy for navigating through folders, opening images, and performing basic administrative tasks, all without leaving PN." PictureCode admits the PN browser is not a full-fledged version, but is still able to ..."display and edit ratings and color labels; display EXIF and IPTC metadata; perform basic operations like renaming, moving, copying, and deleting files; and you can mount and unmount CF cards and disk volumes." While primarily a RAW converter, PN does work with JPEG or TIFF files although filters such as illumination, noise reduction, and chromic aberration are more effective on RAW images - and highlight recovery only works on RAW files.

PN is usable as an external editor with applications such as Photo Mechanic, Lightroom, Aperture and Photoshop; as this is being written at the end of May 2013, the Photoshop application is a beta version with plug-ins. PictureCode's website contains more detailed information on specific operations in conjunction with these applications. Our wedding workflow consisted of converting our NEF (Nikon RAW) files to TIFF in PN and then using Photoshop tools to apply effects as needed to the TIFFs before delivering both color and B&W versions in JPEG format to the bride and groom's families. However, we didn't use the beta version PN with Photoshop plug-ins so we can't say how well that works.

PN is described by PictureCode as "computationally intensive and memory intensive" -- "it runs well on recent-generation dual-core processors with at least 4GB of memory." However, 8GB is recommended. Also recommended is a 64-bit operating system. While PN currently supports Windows XP, Vista, and 7 (32-bit and 64-bit) along with Mac OS X 10.6.8 or later (64-bit only), there are plans to discontinue support for the 32-bit versions at some indefinite point in the future due to performance shortcomings and small market share. My wife's HP laptop has an Intel Core i7-2630QM processor running at 2.00 GHz with 8GB of RAM; our desktop is an Intel Core i7-2600 running at 3.4GHz with 16GB of RAM and both computers ran PN easily, with the desktop being quicker.

PictureCode states that PN ... "supports most popular digital cameras with RAW formats based on a conventional Bayer RGB color filter array." Some cameras not supported or only partially supported include Foveon sensor models, the Fuji X-Pro 1, Fuji Super-CCD models (S2Pro, S3Pro), Phase One cameras and the SRAW (reduced resolution raw) feature in Canon DSLRs. Additionally, I'm gradually converting all my old 35mm slides and negatives to digital with a Nikon Coolscan 5000ED scanner, saving the files as NEF. PN doesn't recognize these NEFs either.

PN is available as a DVD or download from the PictureCode website for $129; this license key allows installation on two computers per user and does not expire. Also included are updates for 12 additional months. After the initial year has passed, future updates can be purchased for $79 annually.

If operating system requirements, software cost, your individual camera or the fact that you just never shoot anything but JPEGs haven't caused you to move on by this point, let's open up PN and work up some images.

Performance
Having worked countless NEF files in both Capture NX2 and Photoshop's Camera Raw, the operation of PN was at once fairly intuitive. Upon opening PN, you're taken to the editor page which will be blank because you don't have an image selected. The initial editor page offers you access to preference and appearance settings, allows you to open an image or manage profiles, view settings, pending menu bars and panels and a general help section.

Clicking on "browser" allows you to navigate and display images from various files and folders; clicking on an individual image takes you back to the editor screen, which now displays a histogram on its left panel along with EXIF data on the individual image, access to presets and default settings and the individual tools available for manipulation of the file.

These tools include demosaic of NEF files, color correction, color enhancement, exposure and detail, black and white, Noise Ninja 3.0 noise reduction, sharpening, chromatic aberration, vignetting, distortion and geometry, and cropping. Indeed, these tools comprise the key features of PN. The browser can be adjusted to display images as thumbnails or as large as two images per line. Clicking on any of the images in the browser opens that image on the PN editor page -- here's what that looks like: 

 

One interesting aspect of PN is that default settings and global presets you may have added are applied to every image that you open in PN. Most significantly, "smart lighting" is a default setting on the editor page for images and I found it did a very credible job of fixing a lot of images just by itself. Here's a look at three early morning shots taken of the Daniel O'Connell statue in Dublin, Ireland. The image "AS SHOT" is the NEF file as it came directly out of the camera; "DEFAULT" is the way the image looked after PN opened it with default settings and "ADJ" included three quick slider adjustments for sharpening, shadows and highlights. 

 

As shot                                                 Default                                                 Adj

Working with PN for about a month now it's been my experience that the "smart lighting" preset is, in fact, pretty smart. There are a number of images that were relatively well exposed where PN opened the file as is despite the fact that smart lighting was enabled as a default. Then, there have been others where PN made a number of changes to illumination, exposure offset, highlights and contrast. The program seems more aggressive when the histogram indicates that either highlights or shadows have been clipped; if you hit the exposure fairly decently and/or have a subject where you don't have extremes in contrast, PN may take little, if any action by default. The O'Connell statue shots are a case in point: the image opened by PN with the default settings still had a little bit of clipping in the highlights and wasn't quite sharp enough to suit my taste. Two quick slider adjustments fixed both complaints and I brought up a little more detail in shadows as well. 

Once you're happy with the image you can choose to save it as a TIFF or JPEG image -- click on the down arrow with the small + icon below the tool list and you're presented with a screen like this: 

 

This screen allows you to select a name for the image, save it to a location of your choice and determine its format, size, quality, etc. PN is equipped with a batch option -- you can select a number of images in the browser and PN will save them using ... "the editor settings that have been saved or copy-pasted to the image's XMP metadata. If an image hasn't been edited and no settings have been copy-pasted to it, then the current global default preset will be applied." In practice, I found batch processing with PN to be the easiest I've ever used, particularly when utilizing only the global presets. Just highlight the images you want to work up, right click on one of them, hit "batch render" and stand back while PN does its thing. 

I mentioned earlier the PN's tools constitute the key features of the software, and one particularly intriguing tool is the "detail" slider found on the editor page in the "exposure and detail" panel. Moving the detail slider to the right increases the appearance of detail; moving left provides a smoothing effect without blurring. This tool is the product of a ... "sophisticated local contrast enhancement algorithm" and the one tool in this program that, all by itself, can breathe new life into a somewhat flat or dull photo. Here are two shots of the Memorial in the Japanese cemetery at the World War II Relocation Center at Manzanar. The camp is on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the Owens Valley of California, a site chosen for its remote location. The first shot is the NEF file straight out of the camera; the second is the same shot with only "detail" increased in PN. If you look closely the shots need to be straightened a little bit, but I deliberately avoided doing so to illustrate the dramatic effect that just "detail" alone can produce on an image. 

 

I found that relatively modest adjustments to the right (plus side) tended to produce realistic yet noticeable improvements in the image while adjustments out towards the extreme edge of the right produced dramatic images almost reminiscent of a high dynamic range conversion. 

Actually, as much as I love the detail control this is the control that is responsible, in part, for one pet peeve about PN. "Detail" is so good at its job that it can bring up imperfections in an image such as spots on the sensor that could/would have gone unnoticed before applying "detail." PN needs to add something like Photoshop's healing brush or NX2's auto retouch brush so that this minor chore can be accomplished in-house without having to resort to another program. 

PN also incorporates the latest version of Noise Ninja, 3.0, and among its features is a luminance noise reduction feature that is disabled by default but can be activated to providing a smoothing effect on images while still retaining acceptable detail. In practice, I was very impressed with this smoothing effect.

Elsewhere, PN offers white balance, exposure, brightness and tone, highlight recovery and color correction/color enhancement settings that can be enabled as defaults or adjusted and applied manually, along with a distortion tool that can do wonders with barrel or pincushion distortion, mustache distortion, fisheye distortion, horizontal and vertical perspective as well as a rotation component. 

With some 1800 pictures taken at the wedding and probably three quarters of them outdoors in high contrast situations the "exposure and detail" panel of PN got a good workout. The big three of exposure, brightness and tone are the "illumination", "exposure offset" and "highlights" sliders: "... the illumination slider applies a sophisticated adaptive lighting algorithm that compresses or expands global contrast while adjusting brightness"; "...The exposure offset slider simply scales the brightness levels in the image by a constant factor, effectively moving the white clipping point up or down" and "highlights" offers highlight compression via adaptive lighting. The illumination and exposure offset sliders can be set to operate independently of each other but they can also be linked to provide adaptive lighting while using the exposure slider to control overall brightness. In the same fashion, the exposure slider can be linked to highlights so that highlights are automatically adjusted as exposure is changed. 

In practice, when the defaults and global presets didn't get me in the ballpark as far as the exposure and overall brightness and tone I was looking for, I found that backing down the exposure offset and using illumination to provide the primary brightness for the scene followed by manipulation of exposure offset and highlights generally provided the results that made me happiest. My overall impression is that with regard to the exposure and detail panel, that the adjustments in PN seem to have a bit wider range than similar adjustments in Camera Raw or NX2, and they also seem to be a bit more discrete in their impact on their particular range of adjustment. 

I haven't had a chance to explore every capability of this software yet, but I can tell you that its performance so far has been so satisfying that I'm going back over files I shot years ago to see how PN can improve them.

Conclusion
Photo Ninja is one of the latest additions to the RAW converter ranks for digital camera images, a product from the PictureCode people that supports RAW output from a wide variety of camera brands and models. I've shot primarily RAW files for years now, relying on Nikon Capture NX2 and Adobe Photoshop CS5's Camera Raw 6.7, but Photo Ninja is now my go-to converter of choice. In an admittedly brief time with the software it impresses me as being quicker and easier to achieve a satisfying final result than my other two converters, each of which is a fine program in its own right. All three will remain on our computers but Photo Ninja will be getting the lion's share of the RAW conversion duties in most cases.

Photo Ninja is definitely not for everyone; first and foremost you probably don't want or need it if you're not shooting the bulk of your images in RAW. While it can be used to process JPEG or TIFF files the program really shines brightest in dealing with the format for which it was designed. System requirements might be a bit steep for a typical compact digital user or entry-level DSLR driver, but serious enthusiasts and pros will probably have or be willing to obtain the hardware necessary to get good performance out of Photo Ninja. As the name implies, Photo Ninja is a RAW converter and while it has a handful of tools to assist in the preparation and conversion of RAW images to more globally accepted JPEG or TIFF formats, it lacks the more all-encompassing photo editing suites offered in products from companies such as Adobe or Corel, among others. At $129 the price of admission might prove a little steep for folks who still have to go out and get some regular photo editing software but if you live to shoot RAW and have photo editing software already in place, do yourself a favor and check out Photo Ninja.

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