Thursday, 21 July 2016

Olympus Viewer 3 vs Lightroom CC

I used to be an Aperture 3 user on the Mac. I preferred the Aperture user experience over Adobe's Lightroom, but alas, as we all know, Aperture is no more. So I've switched to Lightroom - right?

Well no, actually. I have played around a bit in Lightroom, and I 'own' it as part of my Adobe Creative Cloud subscription. But I don't actually have it installed on my computer at home - although it is installed on my machine at work.

Having been an Aperture user, I'm obviously not adverse to taking the less popular option when it comes to software. My workflow consists of Adobe Bridge and Camera Raw, with the final edits in Photoshop - all through my CC subscription. At the moment, I'm lucky enough to have the entire CC collection for a student rate. But that will end next year. And then I have some serious decisions to make. Because there's no way I'm going to pay Adobe around $50NZ a month to rent their software! No way.

I could go down to the 'Photography' package of just Photoshop and Lightroom for about the same as I'm paying monthly at the moment for the whole suite - but I really want to have InDesign, Illustrator and Premier as well - which bumps me back up into that $50 a month bracket. Damn.

So what's a man to do? Well if he's me, he starts looking around for alternatives. Cheaper (in the long run) alternatives. And they're out there. Adobe isn't the only kid on the block anymore.

When you're looking for 'cheaper' alternatives for a RAW converter, the first place you should really look is the manufacturers own software. After all, it comes with your camera. You don't get much cheaper than free folks!

Hang on though. Surely that means that it can't be very good? It'll be slow, and clunky, and produce fairly average images? If, like me, you thought that would be the case, then you'd be right - about two of those three assumptions. Yes, Olympus Viewer 3 is slow. Sometimes painfully slow. And yes, it's clunky. No UI design awards here. BUT - the images it produces... well that's where it gets very interesting.

When I was a Canon shooter I would occasionally come across a post from a photographer extolling the virtues of using Canon's own proprietary RAW processing software. But then you'd have responses from others saying things like 'slow' and 'clunky' and I'd quickly move on. I was using Aperture, was very happy with it, and saw no reason to change. But that was then....

Since I'm now in the market for a RAW processing programme, I though it might be time to look at Olympus's offering and compare it with the megalithic giant that is Adobe Lightroom. The results are very interesting.

Lightroom CC Tiff on the left, Olympus Viewer 3 Tiff on the right.
Obviously in any RAW software you can tweak and alter an image to your hearts desire. So all I did to compare "apples with apples" was to take the RAW .orf (Olympus Raw Format) file and 'process' it as a 16bit uncompressed Tiff file completely unaltered. Nothing was touched, nothing was changed, no slider was moved. I simply opened the RAW file in the respective programmes and saved them out immediately. I should also mention that I shoot my RAW images with everything in-camera set to neutral.

It may be hard to see from the internet resolution, so I'll tell you what I see on my computer monitor in the comparison above. First, the Tiff file from Olympus Viewer is much sharper that the one from Lightroom. Much sharper. Which is odd, and somewhat surprising, since I read somewhere recently that Lightroom adds about 25% sharpening by default to all its RAW conversions (since RAW images are 'softer' out of camera). So I was expecting that the Lightroom Tiffs would be sharper than Olympus's. But it just ain't the case.

Second, the colours of the Olympus rendered Tiff look more 'accurate' to me. And not just more accurate, but also more vibrant. Blues are bluer and whites are whiter, whereas the Lightroom Tiffs introduce a slight colour shift.

And third, and again surprisingly (to me at least), the Olympus images have a lot less noise apparent in the image. And I mean a lot. Noise in the blue of the water in the above magnified crop is practically non-existent in the Olympus Tiff (shot at ISO 200). Whereas the Lightroom Tiff had obvious noise.

Lightroom Tiff on left, Olympus Tiff on right.
Again, the above comparison shows the Olympus Viewer 3 Tiff to be sharper, punchier, and yet truer in colour rendition. And this was a trend that continued shot after shot.

Lightroom on left, Olympus Viewer 3 on right.
Sometimes the differences are subtle, but they are still definitely there. Olympus Viewer 3 just produces better conversions every time. And although initially this surprised me, when you stop and think about it, it makes perfect sense. RAW files are unique for each manufacturer. They encode them with their own 'special sauce' (so to speak) to differentiate them from others. So who best to 'unlock' that code than the manufacturer themselves. Adobe (and other third party software developers) have to reverse-engineer the RAW codes each and every time a new camera is released, which is why it sometimes takes a while for new cameras to be added to the Lightroom catalogue. They get their own conversion algorithms close - but not perfect. Olympus, of course, gets it perfect.

Lightroom on left, Olympus Viewer 3 on right.
Of all the examples, the one above perhaps illustrates best the benefits of using Olympus Viewer 3 over Lightroom. Again, these are straight, unaltered conversions of the same .orf RAW file. The colours are almost night and day different, and the results speak for themselves. I know which one I'd rather be using as a starting point for any further editing.

Of course you could tweak the Lightroom file to look like the Olympus file - you can almost do anything you like with a RAW file - that's the point of shooting RAW. But the Olympus software saves you that initial hassle by getting it right out of the box.

Final image, processed with Olympus Viewer 3 and edited in Photoshop CC
The final image is exactly what I wanted to portray with this shot. Yes, I could have got there by using Adobe Lightroom, but it would have taken a lot longer to fix up the colour and noise issues inherent in the Lightroom file, that simply didn't exist in the Olympus rendered file. It makes me wonder what software camera reviewers use when they give an opinion about the noise of certain cameras/sensors? Looking at the Lightroom Tiffs I would have said that the OM-D E-M5 Mk2 had a fairly noisy sensor - even at ISO 200. But look at the Olympus Viewer 3 Tiffs and it disappears.

So I may have become a convert to using Olympus Viewer 3 for my RAW conversions from now on? Yes, it is slower, and yes, it is clunkier. But at the same time it is also fairly intuitive and usable. And at the end of the day, the time you save not having to tweak the images further in Lightroom probably cancels out the slowness of the software.

I have also downloaded Corel's AfterShot Pro 3 RAW conversion software, which I will try against Olympus Viewer 3 next. But I have a feeling it's going to need to be mighty impressive to knock Viewer 3 off the top of the RAW Software perch. Very interesting indeed. 

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