lightroom_cameraprofiles

Lightroom 3 vs Nikon Capture NX 2

Lightroom 3 Beta

I’ve been a Nikon Capture NX user for years. Which means that I’ve suffered for years. But not out of any sense of masochism, but rather in the pursuit of the highest quality in converting my RAW files.

As any casual user of Nikon software will swear (believe me, we all swear when using Capture NX), it’s not for the joy of the experience. And while the current NX2 might offer excellent image quality, I’m always on the search for something better that offers a more complete workflow. Enter Lightroom 3.

Even as a beta release, Lightroom 3 is impressive. While previous versions of Lightroom have offered a very appealing workflow, with the ability to catalog, edit, and process digital images fluidly in a single application, the image quality has long left something to be desired when working with Nikon NEFs. This deficit in image quality was something especially true when working with high ISO images – a fact of life for music photographers, wedding photographers, and anyone else shooting in dim and uncontrollable light.

Despite slow performance, memory leaks, and a maddening user interface, Nikon Capture NX and NX 2 have long provided the image quality standard to which I hold other RAW converters. While there are other converters like the excellent Raw Photo Processor that offer superlative detail, Capture’s balance of pleasing color and overall image quality kept me coming back.

With Lightroom 3 beta, I think that Capture NX2 finally has a real contender that matches Capture’s image quality in many ways, exceeds it in some, and offers the great user interface and workflow that photographers have come to expect from Adobe Labs.

Let’s take a look at how Lightroom 3 beta stacks up to Nikon Capture NX 2 at my specialty: high ISO live music photography.

Example 1: Steven Tyler, Aerosmith

Nikon D3 at ISO 800. Left: Capture NX 2; Right: Lightroom 3 – Can you spot the differences?

Color Reproduction

With Nikon Capture NX 2, I get brilliant color from my RAW files. The saturation, contrast, and gradations of the files, as rendered by Capture, have always made for accurate and pleasing images with zero work.

While previous versions of Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw allowed users to tweak and calibrate default settings, the results never stacked up to the effortless results of Nikon Capture – that is, until now.

The elves at Adobe Labs seem to have been working overtime, because the new camera profiles are excellent. Simply switching from “Adobe Standard” to “Camera Standard” applies a custom color profile to my Nikon D3 and Nikon D700 files that is very, very close to the proprietary profiles from Nikon. All samples shown here were converted using these camera standard profiles, and the results should be considered specific to them.

For all effective purposes, I’m getting all the goodness I loved about Nikon Capture’s conversions with none of the headache.

However, in comparing the new Lightroom 3 beta with Nikon Capture NX 2, Adobe’s latest release isn’t without flaws.

Blown Channels/Saturation

In live music photography, capturing lights in the frame is not only inevitable, it’s often desirable. With their singular saturation, these gelled incandescent PAR lights or LEDs are a surefire way to blow a color channel with a digital sensor.

Let’s look at how Capture NX 2 and Lightroom 3 handle this common effect in live music.

Nikon D3 at ISO 800. Left: Capture NX 2; Right: Lightroom 3

While the RAW conversion of both images is very close (as seen in the full frame of Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler), this detail of defocused lights shows the subtle difference between the two in the rendition of mono-color light sources.

More on this difference in super-saturation later. Let’s look at another example.

Example 2: Lil Wayne

Nikon D3 at ISO 1600. Left: Capture NX 2; Right: Lightroom 3

Again, this comparison shows a very close rendition between Capture NX 2 and Lightroom 3 beta. Skintones look very similar, while the starkest difference in the overall image is increased saturation in the smoke behind Lil Wayne. Even then, the overall rendition is extremely close.

Let’s take a look at how the two conversion engines handle detail.

Lightroom 3 vs Nikon Capture NX 2 at ISO 1600

Nikon D3 at ISO 1600. Left: Capture NX 2; Right: Lightroom 3

There isn’t too much to choose from between these two 100% crop examples, but there are some subtle differences.

To my eye, the Lightroom 3 file has a very slightly finer look in comparison to NX 2, while Nikon’s profile with NX 2 has a slightly deeper contrast. Both Capture NX 2 and Lightroom 3 are set to default sharpening.

Noise Characteristics

Nikon D3 at ISO 1600. Left: Capture NX 2; Right: Lightroom 3

This is a 100% crop from the image of Lil Wayne does a good job at showing the subtle differences in the rendering of noise between the two RAW conversion engines.

To my eye, Capture NX 2 renders a coarser, “fuzzier” noise profile than Lightroom 3, which renders a finer interpretation. For image quality, my preference is for the latter, which will enlarge more cleanly for larger prints.

Example 3: Karen O., Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Nikon D3 at ISO 4000. Top: Capture NX 2; Bottom: Lightroom 3

In this third example, the conversion from RAW to JPG is quite close between Lightroom 3 and Nikon Capture NX 2, but again with subtle and important differences.

Lightroom 3 vs Nikon Capture NX 2 at ISO 4000

Nikon D3 at ISO 4000. Top: Capture NX 2; Bottom: Lightroom 3

At ISO 4000, things get a little more interesting. As with all the previous examples, these two 100% crops show the image with no luminance noise reduction.

I always prefer to shoot without noise reduction in-camera, as I feel that image quality is best when NR is performed in RAW conversion or in post-processing.

As you can see from this example crop, the Capture NX 2 crop is much more gritty in appearance, while Lightroom 3 renders a much finer noise pattern. At ISO 4000 from the Nikon D3, the difference in the fineness of noise is even more apparent than at lower ISOs, with Lightroom 3 doing an excellent job.

Lightroom 3 vs Nikon Capture NX 2: Gradations at high ISO

Nikon D3 at ISO 4000. Top: Capture NX 2; Bottom: Lightroom 3

Continuing on the thread of channel saturation, we again see from this sample that Lightroom seems to have issues rendering a smooth gradation as color channels approach saturation. While overall digital noise is kept to a minimum with Lightroom 3 beta, in this example Nikon Capture comes out ahead for pleasing rendition of gradations, not only in this 100% crop, but as readily seen in the resized version above.

Lightroom’s treatment of gradations near the point of clipping is easily the converters biggest flaw at this point due. With haze and stage haze in regular use at most shows, these types of gradients are not only common, but a fact of life for the music photographer. The artifacts displayed by Lightroom are a big step back in this regard, but one they should be able to easily fix by updating the camera profiles.

We’re getting about 95% of the goodness Capture gives us, but this is a big 5% to miss.

End Notes:

Clearly, Adobe Lightroom has come a very long way from its earlier versions in the third major release, even in its beta phase. Compared to Nikon Capture NX 2, which has been my RAW converter of choice since its release, Lightroom 3 offers some very real, if subtle, advantages in its conversion engine.

When considering the greatly enhanced workflow and user-friendly interface, Lightroom 3 should be in serious consideration by any digital photographer as a nearly one-stop shop for cataloging and RAW conversion.

Though Nikon Capture NX 2 still has some advantages in overall image quality, I’ll be will be keenly awaiting the full release of Lightroom 3 if they can continue to improve the RAW engine and camera profiles.

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There are 138 comments

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  1. amy

    very useful post, todd. specially for pointing out the gradients on the hot spots, and the noise. I couldn’t see the difference in sharpening though hahaha xD

    and just like Pat!, I haven’t upgraded Lightroom in ages… 3P

    • Todd

      Hey Amy,

      I think that the level of detail in the two shots is very subtle, and since these are basically using the “standard” sharpening settings, I wouldn’t but too much weight on them. Still, overall it looks like Lightroom has a slightly finer appearance, which I think would be good for enlargement.

      For smaller prints and especially for use online, it’s not going to matter at all.

    • Todd

      Hi Ryan,

      Thanks for the comment. Lightroom is only going to get better, and I’m eagerly looking forward to seeing Adobe tweak the camera profiles.

  2. LluisGerard

    That’s very interesting but, in fact, from LR2 we have “color profile”, well.. it’s working really well in my Nikon D300. That’s why I didn’t used NX2 anymore, I hate Nikon software, Mac Pro 8-core it’s not enough for it. What kind of computers are using in Nikon bro? that’s ridiculous!.

    • Todd

      Hey Lluis,

      Yes, even with a top-end machine, NX 2 is really only bearable; hardly ideal. For me, Lightroom 3 is the first release that combines camera profiles and an improved conversion engine to deliver very fine results at high ISO.

  3. Thomas D.

    Nice write-up that points out the improvements, but also the subtle faults of LR. I’ve used LR since v1, and lived with its image rendering shortcomings. I’ve just been pleased with how the workflow was so smooth and quick it helped me actually get my images fully processed. With v2 and v2.6 the profiles have gotten A LOT better, and the other day I went back to reprocess some older shots – what a difference! Images that had required quite a bit of tweaking, now popped from the get go. Can’t wait for further improvements in v3.

    Still, I really feel the blown highlights rendering can ruin the rendering of the whole picture, as shown in your examples. I always thought it was a limitation of the digital sensor to render that abrupt shoulder in the highlights, but NX seems to have fixed that with some fancy algorithms. The gradation to blown channel highlights are really pleasing in your NX examples, and something I would wish for in LR. Are you listening, Adobe Labs? :-)

    • Todd

      Hi Thomas,

      Great to hear from you, hope everything is well with you. When you showed me some of the features of Lightroom in September, I was impressed by the ease of the workflow. With the new beta, I think that the image quality of the conversions may have finally caught up to the superlative ease of use.

      Regarding the blown highlights and the gradations, I have gone back and it appears that it’s a problem with all the profiles in LR 3 except for the “Adobe Standard” – even the ACR profile produces a nasty halo in the shot of Karen O. The upside is that the RAW conversion engine is looking great and that at least with the Adobe standard profile, there’s the hope of buttery-smooth gradients in the instance of clipping highlights.

  4. zepouet

    Thank for this useful post. Probably the best compare between the two solutions. For the moment I continue with CXN2 but in the future…

    Good game.

  5. Sven

    Hi Todd,

    thanks for this post. I’m using LR quite a while and planning to install the LR3 Beta this evening. I cannot wait to see the improvements the so called elves have casted in the new (beta) release.

    Cheers Sven

  6. Mark

    Ive been using LR since Beta 1.

    Its fantastic, not only for editing photos but for the management of all my photos across 2 1TB dives. I can dip into my archives from 2006 in a snap.

    • Todd

      Hey Mark,

      Last night I imported 1.5TB of music photography into Lightroom, so I’m diving into LR as a cataloging tool. But from my use of the program so far, I think there’s a lot to like about the file management.

  7. ariel

    Hi Todd, based on the Karen O picture and the gradient, i believe switching to LR may be a wrong move. The gradient is the only macro issue, i mean, its the only one recognizeable by looking at the picture zoomed out. Even if theres improvement on fine detail, because it messes up gradients like this, if i were you i’d stick to nikon software (even having its usability issues).

    Currently i use LR to convert from raw, but have never compared it with the native software. I then use picasa to manage the pictures, it isnt aimed at professionals but its very fast, easy to use, and have a small footprint.

    • Todd

      Hey Ariel,

      You’re right, the gradient issue is the only macro problem, and something I’ll have to investigate further. I’m not quite ready to switch over 100%, and knowing how Lightroom behaves vs Capture NX in this regard is a nice piece of info that I’ll have to keep in mind.

      • karlbaxter

        The real problem of lightroom is that is clippping higlights that with this photo it may not pose a problem, but in portraiture, fashion, product photography it can be a real hassle, my experience with NX2 (latest version) and LR3 (final version) is that in every sense of the word the DR of the image is always narrower in LR3 regardless of the curve you use.

        I have since switched to capture one pro 5 and it is a much better conversion tool than LR3 is.

  8. Jason

    Fantastic comparison Todd. The finer noise pattern is a huge step forward in Lightroom 3 Beta (I’ve been using it since release). The overall chroma noise reduction is light-years beyond the quality of LR2, and luminance noise isn’t even enabled yet. I’m going to be very curious how that helps image quality in the final release.

    Still, the gradations from spotlights are a real concern. I’ve always thought the (for lack of a better term) ugly spotlights I’ve seen are the result of inferior equipment and technique. I’m not ruling those factors out, but in this example, Capture does a MUCH better job with the lighting.

    I hope Adobe’s managers read this, and work on what is a glaring omission in otherwise great image quality.

    • Todd

      Hey Jason,

      I never used Lightroom before because, to me, the results at high ISO were unacceptable. Lightroom 3 beta certainly seems to change that.

      Again, this is only with the camera standard profiles for the D3 and D700 that I’ve seen this with. I’d be curious to see if Canon profiles are similarly affected or are clear of these artifacts. Switching over to the Adobe standard clears up the issue from what I’ve seen, but then of course there’s the issue of color preferences.

  9. tim

    Todd, I’ve always felt that Adobe Camera RAW’s greatest shortcomings are dealing w/ highly saturated blues (tungsten and esp LEDs), and the tonal gradients that you mentioned above. Still, I prefer it to using DPP (Canon’s free RAW converter) for a variety of reasons, albeit using it in Bridge/Photoshop rather than Lightroom.

    • Todd

      Tim,

      In checking out the ACR profile, it actually produces among the worst gradations of all the choices, with a very abrupt shift in color. By comparison, the “Adobe standard” profile almost looks as good as the Nikon Capture default in NX 2.

      Hopefully Adobe will make the Lightroom profiles available at some point in ACR, too.

  10. Kevin

    Hey Todd

    Very useful write up, I’ve been starting to play with the LR3 beta in addition to NX2. Still not sure which way to go as shooting large numbers of images at sporting events is pushing me toward the LR workflow, but I do like the conversion/output that NX2 gives. I think my ideal world would be a LR type catalog bolted onto an updated NX2 interface (perhaps involving PhotoMechanic).

    We photographers never want much do we!

    • Todd

      Hey Kevin,

      I agree – Lightroom’s workflow and catalog management with Nikon’s RAW converter engine would be fantastic. To my eye, I prefer Nikon’s color and handling of saturated gradients, but I think that Lightroom 3 beta has the edge in rendering fine detail.

  11. Matthew Oldfield

    Todd – Interesting write up. I have used LR for a while now as I like the whole ‘user-bility’ of the software ie how easy it is for not-so-bright users such as myself.
    I do a lot of underwater photography and shooting in murky water and through a dome port means that the image quality at 100% is often degraded to the point that the difference in quality from the various RAW processing engines is just not noticeable.
    However one issue that I run it all the time is blown channels when shooting a ‘sun ball’ – the burst of light you get when including the sun in the frame. RAW engines just cannot cope with this and you get very obvious gradations.
    I was hoping that LR3 might do a better job in these situations but given the software seems to struggle with lights, it could be a step backwards for me. I will have to have a play and see how it behaves.
    Anyway, thanks for the info – some food for thought!
    Matt

    • Todd

      Hi Matthew,

      Just checked out your work – fantastic stuff, I will have to go back to your portfolio for a deeper look.

      I think that your situation as an underwater photographer and that of live music photographers is similar; we’re working in conditions that mean end image quality is already a few steps from ideal. Still, we both have to deal with blown channels and lots of gradients. From what I’ve seen, the “Adobe standard” does a much better in LR3 than all the other options, including the ACR standard, so you’ll have to check that out. Cheers.

    • Todd

      Vern,

      NX wins two out of these image quality challenges, but to my eyes, LR3 pulls ahead for fine detail and keeping noise very minimal. NX 2′s rendition adds a little more punch in the edges, but I think that LR3′s conversions would stand up better for very large prints.

  12. Stephen

    Great write-up Todd, as always. I’ve been a long-time fan of Lightroom and it is great to see the way the product has continued to improve and how Adobe has listened to photographers.

    In the beginning, I struggled because I was never happy with the colours and felt trapped between the terrible user experience of Capture / NX but the great quality and the fantastic Lightroom workflow but the average results. The best thing came when I found some user contributed D200 presets for LR. These give the photos a much closer match to Capture and work well with my D3 RAWs too. I’ve found the same thing with uneven graduations and trouble handling blown out colours and that is one of the very few times I would use Capture. LR3 looks very promising though!

    It’s a good lesson for why it is important to keep your original RAW files – with these improvements in processing, it’s exciting to think what may be possible from the old files…

    • Todd

      Hey Stephen,

      Thanks for the comment, great to hear from you. I think that if you’re a fan of Lightroom, the new beta is going to be right up your alley.

      But you’re right, RAW converters keep getting better and better. I recall the first Nikon Capture and what an improvement NX and NX 2 have been. Now LR3 actually has me looking forward to Nikon Capture NX 3.

  13. René Damkot

    Nice writeup.
    Glad it’s not only Canon raw files that had problems in LR 2 ;)
    No experience with NEF files in this scenario, but plenty experience with CR2.

    I’d be curious to see an example of the improvement of LR3 vs. LR2

    I know for Canon raw files, LR2 tended to obliterate all detail in certain cases.
    I did a blogpost on DPP vs. LR2 here. Curious wether you have the same experience with NEF files….

    • Todd

      Hi René,

      I think that you’re going to be much more satisfied with LR3 than with LR2. I know that LR2 didn’t do a very good job with Nikon files at high ISO, but LR3 seems to represent a huge improvement, matching and then exceeding Nikon’s software for a fine and minimal rendition of digital noise.

  14. Zepouet

    Hello Todd,

    A little question about your phrasis

    “I always prefer to shoot without noise reduction in-camera, as I feel that image quality is best when NR is performed in RAW conversion or in post-processing”

    Is it better to inactiv noise reduction in-camera ? I think “raw” allows to change it in post-processing ?

    Beyond the awful gui, CXN2 has a real advantage : U-point technology. I think it is a nice function, copied into LR (from cnx2) but not so powerful.

    I hope Nikon would pay a great graphist to make more sexiest cnx2 gui. Black style ?

  15. Martin Goodman

    Until Adobe released the custom camera profiles for LR, the default ACR profiles handling of saturated graduations was awful and unusable. “RAW Shooter” by Pixmantec also had exactly the same problem. When they released camera profiles it changed everything. Pixmantec was subsequently bought by Adobe and the technology integrated into Lightroom. Unfortunately it took until LR2 until Adobe added the camera profiles!

    Here is a comparison I did a while back between NX1 and LR2, just when the Beta profile came out for LR2. These are conversions using default settings in both programmes, showing the Beta 1 profiles for LR against ACR & NX1. (D3 @ ISO 2500)
    http://i83.photobucket.com/albums/j298/MartinGoodman/LR2vsNX-4148web.jpg

    Here is the finished image processed in LR2 using Beta 1 camera profile. As you can see, with a bit of tweaking in LR2 you can get very close to the Capture NX results.
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/silverspark/2916353727/

    Has anyone tried making their own custom camera profile and is it any better than the included ones?

    Looks like I’ll have to check out the LR3 beta. Is it much better over LR2 with camera profiles?

    • Todd

      Hey Martin,

      Thanks for posting a link to your comparison of NX and LR2. I haven’t tried using custom profiles – in the past, it seemed like universal tweaks were always problematic for me. While they might work for one image, they never seemed quite good enough or as “easy” as just using Nikon software.

  16. DingBat

    I for one can’t stand LightRoom’s UI. I prefer Capture NX for editing for that reason. As a DAM application LightRoom is okay.

    • Todd

      I think both NX 2 and LR 3 have some good points about their user-interfaces. For one, I like the sub-level presets for WB in NX 2 and the ability to tweak the red-blue balance. On the flipside, the full scale of color temperature in LR 3 is super quick.

    • Todd

      Hey Diana,

      Thanks for the comment. The settings I used in LR3 are the with luminance noise reduction at 0 and chrominance noise reduction at 25. The noise reduction algorithms of Lightroom are quite good and render a very fine grained pattern – very film-like, if you ask me. Of course, part of the story here is also the Nikon D3.

  17. Diana @ Mayhem Media

    Nikon, indeed. I am becoming increasingly disgruntled with my Canon gear. But a change is so costly! I’m still struggling to afford Lightroom, but will try some chrominance reduction in my Canon software and see what happens. Thanks!

    • Todd

      Hey Diana,

      Honestly, I think that Nikon and Canon are quite close in terms of their DSLR offerings for the cameras that have overlap in specs. Sometimes Nikon is on top, sometimes it’s Canon. Previously, Canon had been really dominating high ISO performance until the release of the Nikon D3. With the D3s, Nikon is doing quite well, but I wouldn’t at all be surprised if Canon comes out trumping them the next product cycle.

  18. Sorin

    Hy there, great reading.
    Just one question, although you said that luminance noise reduction was set to 0 in LR3, how on earth did you manage to get such a clean shot @ISO4000 ? Are you shure there is no luminance noise red applied? I try to work with LR3 but noise is far worse than NX2 as in LR3 beta there is no way to apply luminance noise red.

    Thanks a lot!

    • Todd

      Sorin,

      Luminance noise reduction in Lightroom 3 is disabled – or at least with a blanked out slider that is set to zero – and these have not been further processed for noise. What camera are you working with with NX and LR3?

  19. Jamie

    Brilliant post, Todd.

    The LR vs. debate has been on my mind for a while. Alas, LR2 always won for its beneficial workflow despite its shortcomings with noise reduction / colour rendition etc. etc.

    I shoot with a Canon, but I hope the story with LR3 is much the same for me, especially with the camera profiles – I know the Canon profiles in LR2 are way off, to the point that I usually settle with the generic ‘Adobe’ setting. Terrible, really.

    Anyway it’s great to see such a good quality comparison :)

    Cheers!
    -Jamie

    P.S. Like the new wp theme.

  20. Luc Meisel

    I use Aperture, Now I have a feeling that after this article, it isnt’ going to hold up well for raw conversation, anyone , know something about that, I just got the d3s, but haven’t tested it in the woods yet.

  21. Chris

    Great review. Looking forward to checking it out when Lightroom 3 hits the shelves. Love the user friendliness of Lightroom, but agree the processing has sucked a lot up to Lightroom 2. Still stuck with it, though. The syncing ability to other photographs is amazing.

  22. Alexander

    Stop trying to compare different raw processors in default setting. Results will be comparable. But try to make adjustmens like contrast and curves. LR will make _bad_ colors instead of Capture NX. So Capture NX still unbeaten in terms of quality.

    • Todd

      Not all quality is absolute. Capture produces the most pleasing color, but there are still real advantages of Lightroom – default settings and all.

  23. Tronam

    I’ve been a user of Lightroom for a long time now and have always loved its overall workflow for keyword tagging and photo organization, but have only occasionally been satisfied with its image quality. If I was a wedding photographer the time saved by bulk editing within LR/ACR would most likely far outweigh the IQ disadvantages. I can certainly get good quality images out of LR, but since I do this for my own personal satisfaction I almost always do my editing in Capture NX2 instead. I know its workflow feels a little alien to Adobe product users, but I love it, warts and all. Not only is it totally non-destructive, but when you combine masking and selective U-point tech with all the tools and each step having its own opacity/layer effects, the possibilities are amazing. I often find it quicker and easier than working with layer masks in PS, but everyone’s mileage can vary. It generally runs well for me with a modest PC (4GB RAM and 2.3GHz core2duo), although it can definitely grind for a bit sometimes with many edit steps if they’re running behind an image resize layer.

  24. Yosef

    Hey Todd, came across this article from a google search and wanted to say THANK YOU for the in-depth write up! I appreciate the time you spend in comparing the two. Like yourself I have used NX2 and although I loved the color quality and image quality I got from my RAW files, the program was just incredibly slow and a pain in the butt to use. I switched over to Lightroom 2 and also had a chance to play around with LR3. I have noticed also that the sharpening tool is much better in LR3 as well. One question I had for you is the histogram in LR2 and LR3. Am I the only one that finds it difficult to read b/c the histogram doesn’t reach out to the highlight end at all. It just bunches up but there still is a small gap there. Also how do you read the color channels in LR3? in Capture NX2 you could isolate or see it clip but it doesn’t work the same way in LR3. Your thoughts are appreciated. Thanks.

  25. John @ JargaPix

    Hey Todd. Great write up! I stumbled onto your site through a google search for “Nikon D700 LR2 color workflow” I recently traded in my 5DII for a D700. I”m pretty happy except for the color rendition in LR2. It seems a bit weak. I’ve tweaked a few things here and there and it looks ok now. I’m using D2X Mode 1. I never had an isssue with the 5DII files but then again I never used Canon’s sofware to have a unbiased comparison.

    I was prepping to load up NX2 since it’s free for 60 days but I figured it would be a bit taxing on my system. MBP DualCore 2.6 w/ 4Gb RAM.

    I’ll give LR3 a go and see how that stacks up w/ LR2 and how it processes the D700 files.

    Great images by the way! I’m dreaming to win Metallica’s Fan appreciation so I can snap images @ the show!

    Good Luck!!

    • Todd

      Hey John,

      Thanks for the comment. LR2 never really satisfied me for colors, though the custom profiles are much better than the stock. If you want to see how NX2 would convert the files, you might want to check out Nikon View NX – it has a very simple RAW converter that will have the same colors as NX2 with a lighter footprint.

      For all but the issues I point out, LR3 is quite good. The only other issues I’ve encountered is that LR3 does not do a very good job with extreme exposure compensation (say, +2ev).

  26. David

    Thanks for the great comparison. The thing I’m very curious about is how Lightroom processes files captured with in-camera Active D-Lighting. In high contrast situations, I find ADL an effective tool.

    With ADL, the camera preserves highlights by slightly underexposing the image and digitally lifting shadow areas. The current version of Lightroom has difficulty rendering this underexposure. Has Lightroom 3 corrected this issue?

    I would love to use Lightroom, but I continue to use CaptureNX because of this problem.

  27. Tronam

    Since Lightroom performs its own RAW conversion and doesn’t read any of the .NEF format’s proprietary metadata aside from white balance (and I’m not even sure it reads that properly), it is highly doubtful that we’ll ever see Lightroom acknowledge any of the ADL settings. This isn’t usually that big of a deal though because the camera is already underexposing the image to preserve those highlights and Lightroom will reflect that. What LR won’t do is automatically lift up the shadows to compensate, but you can mimic some of that with the Fill Light tool. I know it doesn’t look the same, though. There’s something more natural about the way the camera and Capture NX do it.

  28. David

    Thanks Tronam, I appreciate the feedback on this issue. Despite this problem, Lightroom 3 is such a good product, I may still integrate it into my workflow. Perhaps one of these days Nikon will move into a non-proprietary format such as DNG.

  29. Yosef

    David, Do you know if there is any chance that the “levels” feature in Photoshop, Aperture and NX2, is going to be in LR3?

  30. David

    @Yosef – No, I don’t see the “levels” in LR3. The levels function seems to be integrated into the develop module. By dragging the histogram and using the adjustment brush, the “levels” feature can be replicated. Although not exactly the same, LR3 provides a very nice feature set for adjusting photos.

  31. John Hurd

    Great analysis Todd. When Lightroom manages a clean gradation on spotlights then I may think about jumping ship from NX2. I miss NX2 having the ability to use 3rd party plug-ins too which means I usually have to edit in Photoshop Elements to use Noise Ninja and Virtual Photographer. I also need Photoshop for decent cloning. On the plus side for NX2 though is it’s flag ship control point technology which I would miss.
    Ultimately I hope that Lightroom will soon be able to offer an ‘all-in-one solution so I don’t have to run from one software to another. Any hopes on that happening soon?

  32. Stephen

    Thanks for the post.

    Though, how is anyone getting their images to look ANWHERE NEAR the Nikon Software?

    The amount of images I make has dropped dramatically because I have had enough of sitting in front of a computer getting square eyes and pulling my hair out.

    I think I have read just about everything posted on the web related to this, including making your own profiles etc. – NOTHING WORKS.

    The Nikon software results are far superior.

    This is my last call for help on this issue before I throw everything out of the window, then start a ‘Back-To-Analog’ revolution, so I can quit wasting my time with Adobe vs. Nikon.

    Please help.

    Thanks again.

    • Tronam

      Photographers who take their images seriously have never been able to escape post processing work, regardless of the medium. The main problem these days is the distinction between RAW conversion, post processing and photo organization. While I think that Lightroom comes closest to reaching that panacea of fulfilling all three roles, I still prefer the image quality of Capture NX for RAW processing and much of the PP, only bouncing to Photoshop for any serious retouching. It’s probably always going to be like that and I’m alright with it because I’m using the best tool for the specific task at hand and I honestly enjoy the non-destructive nature of NX2 a lot. The U-Point technology makes most selective editing tasks much quicker than manual masking in Photoshop. There’s a lot of untapped power there when you consider the opacity, layer effects and ability to also *exclude* with every single effect. The only time performance becomes an issue for me is if I have tons of edit steps.

      My typical workflow has me first importing all images directly into Lightroom and hard drive folders with a Year/Month/Day hierarchy. I can then keyword tag them to my heart’s content, organize sets and collections, easily perform image comparison for sharpness etc. When I want to actually edit an image, LR quickly takes me to its actual location where I can double-click into NX for editing. If you set up NX’s “Open With…” option for LR, it will then re-import back into Lightroom’s hierarchy for further organization.

      I suppose this could be considered a little convoluted, but I think we can sometimes take for granted how much power we have at our fingertips these days. I’d much rather have the flexibility of all these specialized tools rather than be stuck in a one stop shop environment because ultimately it’s about the image quality for me, even it might take longer.

  33. Ellis Vener

    “it is highly doubtful that we’ll ever see Lightroom acknowledge any of the ADL settings.”\

    Nikon’s Active D-Lighting is applied in camera before the signal hits the in camera EXPEED processor, even for NEF. it is an “on the fly’ analog-to-digital adjustment applied to the signal, based on input from the 3D Color Matrix II metering reading of the scene, athe start of the pipeline between the photo sensitive receptors on the CMOS and the EXPEED.

    people like to argue about this but unless the Nikon digital engineering team lied to me and a room full of other people during abreifing at Nikon’s Sendai plant that is how it works.

    So Active D-Lighting settings are “burned in’ to the raw data. While you can modify the settings in Capture NX2, all that means is that you are reprocessing the original raw data.

    • Tronam

      All that technical jargon translates into this: Your camera analyzes the lighting in the scene. If the contrast (difference between dark and light) is very high or extreme, Active D-Lighting tells your camera to underexpose your entire shot by 1/3 to 2/3 of a stop in order to preserve some of the highlights and then it applies a D-Lighting post-process that will lift up the shadows (along with whatever noise is hiding in there). The end result is a picture that has less overall contrast, more visible shadow detail and better preserved highlights. This is supposed to more closely mimic the dynamic range of our eyes and how we see the world.

      To Lightroom the end result is simply a normal RAW file, but one that has been slightly underexposed. The problem is that while we can increase the exposure and raise the Fill Light/Recovery sliders to mimic the effect, Adobe does not have access to Nikon’s proprietary tone curve, so the result won’t be the same. Frankly, Nikon’s ADL simply looks better. Don’t get me wrong, I love Lightroom and use it every single day, but Nikon’s ADL, color reproduction, RAW conversion and sharpening are simply better.

      I use LR for file management, keywording and general editing, but my keeper images always go through a heavy NX2 treatment with some occasional followup Photoshop edits. They’ll then get re-imported back into the LR library.

      I somehow doubt we’ll ever see the best of all worlds, so I’m not holding my breath.

      • Ellis Vener

        “and then it applies a D-Lighting post-process ”

        no ACTIVE D-LIGHTING is not applied “post-process”, using ACTIVE D-LIGHTING settings the gain on individual photosites ( AKA sensor pixels) is being adjusted prior to it hitting the camera’s EXPEED processor.

    • Todd

      Hi Ellis,

      I always remember seeing your name on the photo.net forums and always appreciated the advice you so willingly dispensed, so this comment means a lot to me. Thanks very much for taking the time to join in the discussion here. Cheers.

  34. Taylor Mahaffey

    Todd, very interesting. Thanks for doing all this and writing about it. The original lightroom had an amazing workflow, but it just couldn’t make my NEF files look as good as capture NX. I figured LR would catch up, and it looks they have. I will have to give it a try.

    Shooting with a D90, I have horrible noise at anything above ISO 1000. Then I have to push shadows and exposure in post causing even worse noise. Capture NX2 noise reduction is like Gaussian blur all over, just horrible. Neat Image and noise ninja were my Heroes, along with blur tool BY HAND in photoshop. Now maybe lightroom can just be my one stop shop.

    Luckily, I don’t worry too much about gradients because I tend to like my photos surreal and a little abstract, usually with a lot of editing, color changes, and selective sharpening. With a D90 I can make my pictures look as real as yours without a lot of white light! Your site is def a inspiration and a great tool!

    • Tronam

      Compared to the full frame sensor bodies like the 5D/1D/D700/D3, the D90 will absolutely produce more noise at equivalent ISOs, but few cropped sensor cameras (APS-C/DX etc…) can match the D90′s color reproduction and dynamic range in this class. Some noise is acceptable, especially in exchange for a sharp image and I’ve found the D90′s to be quite “photographic” and easy to manage. It can even contribute to the perception of added sharpness. The important thing is that up to 1600 ISO, it maintains color saturation better than any of the other cropped sensors I’ve used so far. Make sure to use NX for the RAW conversion though, as Lightroom really smears the fine detail terribly, particularly with high ISO images.

  35. Taylor Mahaffey

    I meant: With a D90 I ( can’t )make my pictures look as real as yours without a lot of white light!

    Damn iPhone autospelling.

    • OnlyMe

      Well, it seems you running commercials for adobe! Lightroom will never catch up with the quality of Capture NX2 and you know it! Better buy yourself Photo Mechanics and use Capture NX2 to edit the photos you select in Photo Mechanics or use the ViewNX2 software that does the same! I had lightroom, but I sold it and got myself a real program for my NEF files!

      The joke is on you for trying to prove that lightroom is great (LOL)

  36. Paulo Brandão

    Hi Todd
    great article man… I lived with this topic in my head for a 1 year :)
    I´m not professional photographer, but i want the best of the 2 worlds.
    I love landscape photos, so the problem is no the same, but…
    I think…
    Lr3
    best noise reduction for raw converter (is this true?)
    best catalog management, for shore

    Capture NX2
    best raw converter for my NEF
    (if you manage your settings in camera, like color, sharpening, d-lighting ,etc)Capture is the only one u can read from camera.
    So when u start to edit your files, u have 2 steps ahead with NX than LR
    The profiles in LR can´t be exactly the same :(

    Post process,
    you don’t need Photoshop. Capture is more powerful than LR3 in post process
    you have masks (so ease tu use) u have the best control-U (best tool in the world, love it)etc

    Have u already try put settings in your camera to “0″
    NX and LR start in “0″ and than export the raw?
    thanks again

    (sorry for my english :) )

    • Todd

      Hi Paulo,

      I agree – NX2 is still the most likely the best overall RAW converter for Nikon from what I’ve seen w/ regard to the pleasing colors and contrast. For detail, I think LR3 is starting to match or exceed, especially at high ISO.

      As for setting the converters to defaults, that’s essentially what I did for these comparisons.

      I’m very interested in seeing how Adobe polishes LR3 for the full release.

      • Paulo Brandão

        Thanks again TOD
        i use LR2 and nx2, so after read your post i start to reset my control defaults in camera and see what´s going on. Lr by default put some values
        in sharp an noise!
        You right i will wait for cs5 and see what’s final LR3 brings to the market :)

        1 question, if u can reply shore
        HAVE YOU, OR ANY OF YOU GUYS convert your raw to DNG to work in LR2 or LR3?
        or you work with nef by default in LR? that´s my second question after LR vs NX :) Adobes big reason is DNG is open raw format for all suite and can live forever :)

        thanks again

  37. Eric Piercey

    I just installed 3.0 beta 2 last night and my first impressions are: a) That I’m loving the NR improvements (luminance finally actually does something discernible to the naked eye) and b) Nikon RAW conversion seems much closer to Nikon’s own native conversion, sans in-camera effects of course. Thanks for the info.

  38. MrPete

    Thanks for this detailed comparison!

    It will be interesting to see what Nikon’s next release looks like. I’m assuming they are not so stupid as to sit on their hands :)

    Dreaming for a less buggy, much faster NX3 experience. The user interface is already really nice, once you get used to it… :)

    • John

      I’d like some sort of warning when cache is running low.
      I’m fed up of spending 20 minutes editing a shot and then, when I go to save it, being told it can’t be saved due to ‘Insufficient memory’. Even if I empty the cache and then close everything else on my PC I can’t save it.
      A decent clone tool would be nice too – and it would be great if Photoshop plug-ins were compatible. I dream of the day when I don’t need to export most shots to Photoshop Elements for finishing from NX.

  39. Matthias

    Hey Todd,

    great work you did here. Did you send these comparisons to Adobe as a feedback to the LR3 beta? IMHO this is the feedback the elves need to make LR3 perfect.

    cheers,
    /matthi.

    • Todd

      Hi Matthias,

      I have not sent Adobe any info, but they do seem to be listening; the recent v2 camera profiles for the Nikon D3 and D700 did fix the highlight gradation issues. The profiles aren’t 100% perfect, but it’s great to see they’re still working on them. Thanks for the comment.

  40. Tronam

    Lightroom is the center of my photo workflow, but I still use NX2 for the final editing of my top keeper images. Not only is the color generally better, but Nik’s U-Point technology is brilliant on so many levels and deeply integrated into the entire application’s workflow. Viveza for LR/PS fills some of those gaps, but in NX2 it applies to every single non-destructive plugin and layer effect with separate control over the luminance and chrominance channels. It’s great for selective sharpening and noise reduction. The possibilities are endless and I find myself being able to simulate many commercial PS plug-in effects by simply combining native NX2 layer effects.

    Even so, it’s not without its problems. The crop/straighten tools are terrible and the gaussian blur effect in particular can easily bog down an entire project to a snail’s pace. Adjusting layer order annoyingly requires copy/delete/repasting them, but is often not possible in some circumstances because they won’t line up correctly if any previous layer shifted the pixels (i.e. resizing, cropping, straightening, distortion correction).

    Lightroom 3 has been great so far, especially in its sharpening and noise reduction, but I just can’t see it completely supplanting NX2 for everything. There are some things the camera manufacturer’s RAW converter software has to offer that can’t be totally replaced.

    • Todd

      I will definitely be purchasing Lightroom 3 and doing some tests. Been too busy with shooting, but should expect to check out the official release shortly.

  41. indi

    german:
    geht mir genauso: habe testfotos (in etwa vergleichbar zu den obigen) gemacht und da war alles ok (LR 3 beta 2).

    der größte vorteil von LR ist die kamerakalibrierung. nx 2 und diese ätzenden nikon-styles (orange, rot und blau immer zu luminant und fast übersättigt) kann man zwar korrigieren aber es leiden dann auch immer die korrekten farben darunter. und man kann definitiv kein profil (z.b. mit colorChecker-chart) erstellen und in nx 2 abspeichern. das ist nicht professionell. in LR dagegen ist das sehr wohl möglich. oder man verläßt sich einfach auf das acr-setting und alle farben sind wunderbar.

    *********************************************************************
    english:
    the same with me: i shot some test-photos (camparable to those shown in the article) and had no issues with them (LR 3 beta 2).

    der biggest advantage of LR is the cameracalibration-feature. nx 2 only has those uggly nikon-presets. you can correct colors (to avoid this nikon-typical orange/red/blue-oversaturation and over-luminance) but then all ohter colors will suffer under these settings. however, with nx 2 you will never get “real” colors. you can NOT import your own camera-profile (eg. colorChecker-chart) in to nx 2. that´s not professionel! what a difference to LR! import your own profile or just rely on the measurements which adobe did and you finally will get “real” colors.

    • Todd

      Good point – it is very nice to get the option to use Adobe’s camera profiles and then tweak them yourself. You get a great starting point with familiar color profiles, but more flexibility.

  42. David Medina

    Wow… that is sad commentary for Nikon capture NX2 to say that LR 3 matches NX2 image quality. In my experience, LR 3 does a poor job interpreting Nikon files of the D700 & D200. That is the main reason I stopped using LR 3 for Aperture 3, which in my opinion does a better job interpreting Nikon NEF files.

    We have done extensive test and NEF files come alive on Aperture 3 while they fall flat in LR 3.

    Plus, Aperture 3 has better tools, better brushes, recover blown highlights better. Overall result of Aperture 3 is better than LR3 reducing substantially the times I have to go to PS for basic photographic corrections.

  43. alex

    Just wondering if you had a chance to test these files out again with the final version of lightroom 3?

    Another thing I love about capture nx is the distortion fixes. While lightroom 3 has some distortion fixing, its missing a lot of profiles. It has such a small number. Capture NX 2 still gives me the best distortion free pic for my lens.

    If you find a profile for the 24mm 2.8 af-d lens for lightroom 3 let me know.

    • Todd

      Hey Alex,

      Have not had a chance to test out the official release of Lightroom 3, but I am using it regularly now.

      Overall, my initial thoughts remain. LR3 offers a great workflow and image quality that is in many ways as good or better than NX 2. The one thing that has me coming back to Capture NX 2 is the color rendition for critical work. I still think that NX 2 is the best way to go for more pleasing color. So for my work, I process live shots in LR3 and band portraits and other critical work in Capture NX 2.

  44. Hector Reyes

    After installing LR3, I was very optimistic that I would be able to use it as my editor of choice. However, from the very first pictures I brought in, the quality of the image from LR3 to NX2 was a no contest win for NX2. I use a D90, but the bare RAW file opening in LR3 is a representation which I would have to edit JUST to get it to look close to the quality that NX2 begins with. Sports shots the worst! I will hope that NX3 brings the management and interface ideas of LR3, but for myself and NEF, I dont think its even a choice. Thanks for the great review, I wont give up on LR3 and might just use it as a cataloguer like you mentioned.

    • Tronam

      I used to feel that way as well, but quickly discovered that much of this initial disappointment stemmed from too much dependence on Active D-Lighting. I no longer use this feature because I’d rather not depend on it to arbitrarily compensate for my improper exposures and don’t like the global noise increase it introduces in the shadow areas of the image. With ADL turned off, the differences become less obvious, especially if you use the imitated Nikon color profiles in Lightroom. Now that I have a color corrected monitor, I’ve actually come to find most default raw NEFs in NX2 to be biased towards way too much yellow and have started preferring the default Adobe profile instead. It seems to be a more neutral starting point for color and contrast in most cases. Opinions vary of course and I love the U-Point tech in NX2, but I’ve pretty much weened myself off of it for most general editing.

  45. Dave

    Thanks for doing this.
    I was hoping it would be clearly better than Adobe (ACR & Lightroom). But Adobe seems determined to not fix their problem with banding in gradations. So at least NX2 gives me a choice.
    Thanks again!

  46. Johan Dahlfors

    You got some great info here!

    I have been battling these gradient issues with Lightroom and it has never struck me before that I should test the images with these gradient issues in Capture NX instead. I always thought this was due to the sensor in my Nikon D200, not something that Capture NX could fix.

    I have noticed the same thing with the incandescent lights, they can blow out in very unpleasant ways. Same thing here, I this was the sensor on the D200.

    Thanks man, now I’ll have to go back to Capture NX and see how that will treat the images :)

  47. Derek

    Todd,

    Thank you for the information and time you put into the write-up. I have been using LR since it first came out. I am currently using the new beta 3.3 since I needed support for the new Nikon D7000 I just got. I have had many discussions with others as to which was better at RAW/NEF files, but I had never seen such a great comparison. I have always liked the results I get with LR and the camera specific profiles.

    Thanks again for the info!

    Derek

  48. Marie Glynn

    Thank you so much for leaving this post up. I have Lightroom 2.7 and was wondering whether or not to switch to Capture NX or upgrade to Lightroom 3. I learned a lot from your post and am very impressed by your dedicated responses to so many replies. Thanks for your generosity in sharing your expertise.

    I’m upgrading to Lightroom 3. :) :)

    • Todd

      Hey Marie,

      Thanks for the comment. If you’re going to buy Lightroom, now is a great time to do so – Lightroom 3 is on sale for 50% off at Amazon.com.

  49. Markus

    Hello,
    take a look at the first crops of Karen O. at Iso 4000!
    Do you see the outburnded lights in the face with LR3?!!!
    That’s the mail problem with LR3

  50. Dean

    After years of frustration with the NEF conversion in LR2 I was thinking of switching to NX2. After reading this article, I have a clear choice in mind.
    Thankyou heaps!

  51. Attwood Studios

    This information is what I was looking for. I don’t see significant improvement in image quality over NX2. If I was doing high volume on steady basis the LR3 organization and editing would be a plus….but I’m looking for image improvement with NEF files and there just doesn’t seem to be enough to justify another RAW processor on this machine. Thanks Todd for the great review. I’ll continue to take the punishment of NX2 – for the results it gives.

  52. Carl

    Thank you for the analysis. I’m glad I’m not the only one who has been flummoxed by gradients in LR3 (ver. 3.5 / Camera Raw ver. 6.5 on OSX 10.7).

    I recently returned from Alaska with 10GB of Denali National Park images shot mostly with my D700. So much contrast between snow, mountain, and sky. I didn’t realize just how much the blue channel would be clipped in LR — I converted all my NEFs to DNGs without realizing just how much I would regret that later when I couldn’t go back in to NX2 with all the shots that contained sky.

    e.g.,
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/cantone/6068339768/sizes/l/in/photostream/

    I got serious strong gradient banding in the skies with LR 3.5.

    LR3.5 wins in the NR and management capacity
    NX2 wins in practically every other IQ contest (to me)

    – Carl

  53. Marie Glynn

    Carl,

    Thank you for YOUR post. I’ve been following this thread since before I could understand all of it. I have been using the NIK plugins but may just switch to NX2 after rereading all of the above.

    Marie

  54. Jerry

    Nikon Capture NX is very slow but I’m still using it. You said that you used default sharpening in both programs. What is the default sharpening in Nikon Capture? There is no default sharpening in Nikon Capture. I never use any software sharpening (both in the camera and afterwards and I alwasys shoot NEF’s) because I hate the artifacts that come with this technique.

    I think it’s best to compare software like this WITHOUT any sharpening at all and let us compare the results at 100 percent without the artefacts.

    I like Nikon Capture because I alwasy see at first what my NEF look like straight from the camera (I also use no enhancements in the camera, normal curves, normal saturation, no sharpening, no D-Lighting)

    I agree with you that the noise reduction feature in Adobe products is better than in Nikon Capture. (I also use zero sharpening when I use Noise Reduction, in any software).

    Please do not use software sharpening, at least while comparing software.


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