The Tale of Two RAW Processing Engines

I am going to preface this post by saying that my experiences and observations should not guide your purchasing decisions. This post is about my experience only and that you should try the software for yourself and make your own decisions.

It’s fair to say that 6-7 years ago, after Apple discontinued Aperture, Adobe Lightroom was pretty much the only gig in town for combined digital asset management and adjustments.

That wasn’t too bad, until Adobe changed to a subscription model for Lightroom. No longer could you just buy the software and have access to your images for as long as the application worked on the computer – if you cancel your subscription to Adobe, you cancel your access to all your RAW adjustments and metadata, unless you can find a tool that will help you extract them or permanently save a copy of the adjusted image.

I also recently discovered that your subscription is an annual contract, paid monthly. If you cancel prior to the end of 12 month contract, Adobe will charge a break-contract fee of 50% of the outstanding monthly payments. Joy.

Fast forward a few years and there are now some more options out there, with On1 Photo RAW looking particularly appealing for features, price and price model (buy once and buy upgrades as you want to, but no subscription) and a easy migration path from Lightroom.

In fact I really wish I could say I was using Photo RAW right now, but I was to discover that not all RAW processing engines are equal.

Consider this image below:

Yes, I know it is horribly underexposed (it’s actually a small part of a panorama – visible on Flickr). If you click on the image and look at the larger version, you will notice a very subtle difference between the two RAW files.

The black point in the lower image from On1 seems to lose more of the dark details than the image from Adobe. It’s easy to suggest that loss of detail is marginal, until you then try to pull out the shadows with exposure adjustments:

I have kept the adjustment sliders in place for both applications for comparison and the loss of detail on the darker components of the image in On1 becomes a lot more pronounced. Interestingly, the pink hue cast by the sky is also lost – though no colour or white balance adjustments have been made.

I did attempt to pull the shadows out more in On1 Photo Raw, but unfortunately it only tried to enhance the black. On the upside, I was fully able to replicate the colours in the better exposed areas of the photo – The issue I was experiencing directly relates to the grossly underexposed areas of photos. Additionally most other photos with appropriate exposure were fine.

I think it’s worth saying that the On1 Support Team were fantastic and agreed with me that unfortunately this is a difference in their RAW processing engine and promptly refunded me.

Where to from now?

Well I definitely haven’t given up on the idea on On1 Photo RAW in the future. I will be following their forums to see if improvements are made to the RAW engine (hopefully before November 2020 when my Lightroom “contract” falls due again).

A couple of things I am considering:

  • Exporting all photos with adjustments made in Lightroom so I at least have a “master” image.
  • Taking more care to take bracketed exposure of images and blending images rather than relying on the ability of the RAW engine to pull out details in underexposed areas of the photo.

I’ll also need to review how On1 Photo RAW handles night photography, which are going to be dark due to the nature of the photo.

6 thoughts on “The Tale of Two RAW Processing Engines

  1. How did you test it?
    How did you stop on those values in order to compare those two images?
    I am following closely OnOne (I have their Plus Membership for a few years now) and I have never seen such a bad result. Maybe there was a mistake somewhere.
    Can you make that raw file available to me (see my email) and I will try my luck on it?

    1. Hi Eugen,
      I have to admit I was surprised. Surprised enough that I went and reinstalled the app in trial mode and then attempted to develop my aurora photos in it only to experience similar issues.
      Yep, happy to do share off-line – will organise something over the weekend 🙂
      (Just for transparency, I know Eugen 🙂 )

      1. You did make me try both Adobe and OnOne Raw 2020 and I did my best to do a meaningful test on the same raw image.
        The best camera profile (you have to use a profile by design) seem to be “Camera Neutral” and that is supposed to be created by the camera manufacturer but yet, we still don’t know how accurate is on Adobe or OnOne.
        With all the settings at 0 and the same value for White Balance there is a difference between how those images look – Adobe is visibly more red-ish (or OnOne is more yellow-ish).
        I don’t know what to think about this result – either I miss something or indeed there is a difference between how the image is developed.
        But your issue was more about shadows and the overall aspect which was a lot worse.
        Looking forward to test your raw image.

        1. Got the image and tested it on Adobe, OnOne, Afinity and Capture One
          Quick and dirty test where Adobe, Afinity and Capture One performed very well – I was able to get about the same look on every one of those.
          Unfortunately OnOne was as bad as in your example and I have no idea why – maybe is not that good at dealing with *.dng files as opposed to camera raw files? Would be interesting to see what happens when you try the *.CR2 file.
          Money wise Afinity seem to be a good option.

    1. Hi Ewan,
      I certainly know of capture one, but there are some features missing and the price is a bit eye watering when you are not making much income from sales. That said, I have a work colleague who has a copy and I will be getting him to experiment with the RAW as well.
      Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to leave a comment! 🙂

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