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© Vincent Oliver 2006


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NIKON NX review
by Dierk Haasis


U Point the Way

Think global, correct local

Since 1959 Nikon has been known for two things: innovation and reliability. Their first 35 mm SLR changed the world of press photography, replacing medium format and Leica rangefinders. Over the years the F-series became synonym with rugged and reliable, cameras you could go through wars with. Some people claimed their F3, F4 and F5 could easily hammer nails into walls. And along came digital …

Nikon Capture NX’s main window with default lay-out

This is not a history test but a report on the newest of the newest, so let’s leave all the unnecessary explanations about what digital imaging differentiates from traditional film photography. I assume we all know that by now. Still, Nikon was quite innovative in the digital arts, too. They came up with the first mass-appealing 35 mm based dSLR, which they followed up regularly with new models incorporating new technology.

Nikon’s long-time association with professional photographers and serious amateurs lead them to develop an often praised scanning program. And they provided digital photographers with an equally praised RAW converter – Nikon Capture -, the image quality of which was never disputed. Other aspects did not get quite as much positive feedback, especially user interface (UI) and speed were often an issue.

It is now 2006, Nikon finally understands that they are very good at making cameras, lenses and film scanners, not quite as good with software development. They turn to Nik Software, specialist in image enhancing: “Could you program a successor to our successful Capture Raw converter?” Which Nik did, adding one major invention, the U-Point™ technology.

Before we take a closer look at this groundbreaking feature, let’s see what else Nikon Capture NX offers.

Nik to the rescue

First of all, Capture NX is still a RAW converter targeted at Nikon camera owners. It accepts NEF files from digital cameras for demosiacing and developing. As with other converters you change virtually all image aspects after taking the photo: white balance, exposure, colour, sharpness etc. Nothing new here. NX does not accept NEFs from a Nikon scanner it, does not support RAW images from non-Nikon cameras, you cannot put in DNGs. But you can put in TIFF and JPEG, you can even work on them non-destructively, as if they were NEFs!

Actually any TIFF or JPEG you work on non-destructively will have to be saved as an NEF. Obviously Nikon wants to push its own format as an alternative to Adobe’s DNG. Unfortunately the resultant NEF is not the same NEF as one created by, say, a Nikon D2x, which means you cannot convert it to DNG. If that was possible Adobe’s format could really become the new standard image format. Image editing would surely be totally different from the Photoshop paradigm.

Getting images into Capture NX. You can then label and sort them.

Really got a point

OK, now you have opened your image in Nikon Capture NX, done your global corrections – changed white balance, corrected for exposure deficits, optimised tonal curves – and still see some problematic areas. Some shadows are too dark or blue, highlight areas lack punch, the skin of your model doesn’t look quite right. Before you save a TIFF for further (destructive) work with your image editor of choice, discover the wonders of U-Point™, a tool making global corrections available on a local scale – without complicated masking and layering.

Setting a U-Point™ to brighten up the face

You simply click on the Control Point tool, click into the area you want to adjust, size the U-Point™ to define the region it shall control. Adjusting is the same, grab a point, slide it until the image looks like you want it to. Capture NX also offers a numerical input for more precise control, although this may only be sensible if you are a graphic designer with lots of experience behind you. The idea behind the set-and-slide method is to let the photographer work more intuitively, more natural.

Currently U-Point™ gives you the choice of RGB, HSB and BCS or all of them, so you can change brightness, contrast, saturation, hue or the individual red-green-blue channels. The size point will not just resize the main effect you set, it will also add an automatic, feathered mask making the transition of your changes very smooth and subtle – until you really take it too far. All changes done with a U-Point™ are subtle in the first place until you slide way off. This is ideal to brighten up shadow areas, not so good if you have to darken highlights.

Anyone for coffee?

One of the groundbreaking aspects of the new local correction tool invented by Nik is the ease of use. There really is not much more to it than written; one could even argue that it is easier to use than to describe. It’s definitely quicker to learn by trial and error than from reading! The only advanced catch is the possibility to define the colour your U-Point™ shall base its corrections on very precisely. Personally I don’t see why I should do this ass it is another remnant of a more mathematically oriented way to work, quite contrary to what Nik intends and accomplishes with U-Point™.

The white balance control flying out from the main corrections palette

Virtually everything else in Capture NX works the same as in former Capture versions (and in many other RAW converters). This is good in so far as not much has to be relearned. Which is bad, very bad.

Anybody who has worked with Capture 3 or 4 knows the two big liabilities of the program: image rendering and processing is slow. You cannot only brew yourself a cup of coffee if you want to batch more than 10 files at a time, you can go on a holiday to Africa, plant your own coffee, see it grow and harvest it. I haven’t stopped the time or compared it to Capture 4 but my guess is that any speed improvements Nik put into the underlying algorithms is annihilated by the decision to use Microsoft’s .NET Framework 1.1 as the code base. Whatever you do in NX is slow as if your action has to filter through several layers of gels and then back.

This is especially bad when using U-Points™, with their rather small resolution – small slides will give big changes – and the slow speed of the program you get very unexpected results. When zooming into the image to better see what you do the sliders get jittery, and since the resolution of the points does not change with the image you now get huge changes with small movements. Sorry, boys, back to the drawing board, this is unacceptable!

The second problem taken over from former Capture versions is the UI, and again using the .NET Framework exacerbates it. Freely positionable panels are a good idea, particularly with image editing programs. The full use may be reserved to those having multiple-monitor systems but even on one CRT/TFT repositioning a panel can help. RAW processing may perhaps not be the ideal platform to go palettes. This has to do with the rather linear work-flow RAW processing needs: you do need to follow a specific path – from white balancing through exposure to tonal corrections.

Setting the bar – tool bar minimised

pixmantec’s RAW Shooter line or the very new RAW Therapee show how to go with fixed-position panels without losing flexibility and screen estate. With NX you can – after some trial and error clicking and guessing loosen all palettes from the main window and transfer them to a second monitor, which then has close to no space for anything else anymore. All palettes can be (and sometimes do so automatically) minimised to very small grey bars. When first trying the program out, the most important palette, containing such vitals as white balance, exposure compensation, sharpening, was nearly invisible.

Stretching it – palettes and tool bars on one monitor, main window on a second one

What’s the deal?

Capture NX is a very mixed bag, bringing us a completely new, totally intuitive and easy to use method of correcting images. On the other hand the UI is far from intuitive and easy to use, dark grey on light grey is not the best choice for readability, the icons used are far from obvious, the palettes are too much and not as brilliant an idea as one would assume. That numerical input fields are shown greyed out is very unfortunate since this is usually a sign of a purely informational field instead of an editing element. Adding to these design decisions is the slow speed of image rendering and UI-rendering. I am not a programmer but I have worked with enough applications to know that adding another layer – in this case the .NET Framework (same with Java Runtime environment) - is not a way to speed things up.

All the information you need, extra palettes for EXIF and IPTC data

 

Even though Nikon again changed the manufacturer’s metadata for NEFs from the upcoming D2xs, hopefully the firmware upgrade for the D2x will not do this, to make it incompatible with existing third-party converters, it shouldn’t take much time for Eric Hyman, Thomas Knoll and others to decipher and support it with Bibble, ACR etc. As it stands at the moment, Capture NX is a very good idea, poorly executed.

Nikon NX and QImage colour mangement screens

What’s with colour management?

There’s something very odd with Capture NX’s colour management. Yes, it is there and you can choose your profiles. It’s just, Capture’s list is missing a lot of my profiles. As you can see, Nikon’s list gives me exactly two colour profiles for my Epson 2100, the one it was delivered with and the newer, better one downloaded from Epson USA. As the listing in QImage shows I do have a lot more, for all the papers I normally use and then some. These profiles reside in the correct, default directory Windows has for colour profiles.

Whatever happens here, if Nikon wants Capture NX to be the one tool a photographer needs and uses he must have the choice from all his profiles

© Dierk Haasis, 2006

Click here for official
Nikon NX press release


 

16 August, 2006

© Vincent Oliver 2008 www.photo-i.co.uk
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