Thoughts About D810 NEF Workflow

(commentary)

While dealing with the Adobe ACR/D810 workflow during August I realized something: why isn’t Nikon doing what some pros are doing?

Let me backtrack a bit. When ACR 8.6 came out, a number of us noticed that the camera-specific profiles (as opposed to Adobe Standard, which has its usual small issues) had some strange problems with certain D810 images. Moreover, ACR just didn’t seem to be optimized to Nikon’s color rendering. 

So what a lot of us do when the Adobe profiles don’t work for us is create our own. Plenty of ways to do this exist. You can use Adobe’s own DNG Profile Editor, you can use XRite’s profile creator, or you can use other tools such as QPcalibration (and their QP cards as a source). In other words, you’re not stuck with Adobe-supplied profiles. One small issue is that such profiles work best only in the light in which they were created. Thus, in Africa, I ran ColorChecker shots of the light to enable me to evaluate the Adobe rendering better and create my own profiles for that light (which was heavily hazy due to blowing sand, by the way).

So what if Nikon just created common profiles before they shipped a camera and supplied them on launch day? That doesn’t require Nikon giving away any information to Adobe, as they seem reluctant to do. It does require that they work a little closer with Adobe (I’m not sure that you can easily create profiles for cameras that don’t exist yet and test them, so you’d probably need to be beta partners in some fashion).

Of course, that doesn’t fully solve the problem some people have: without a converter recognizing the in-camera settings and knowing what to do about them, you can’t get raw conversions that match the JPEG out of the camera (and the embedded image in the raw file). Still, getting a better color match via profile is a step in the right direction. 

One site reader recently reminded me about Epson. It used to be when you bought an Epson photo printer you were up the creek without a paddle. Getting your on-screen output to match what was printed using the ink and paper you’d chosen required that you…wait for it…create your own paper profiles. A real pain in the butt if you use many papers or want to sample papers. 

Eventually Epson got the message from the pro community and started supplying pretty darned good ink/paper profiles with the printer. That still left a few issues with what software was doing the color management, but that was basically just a workflow refinement issue once you had all the proper profiles installed. And guess what happened when Epson did this? They sold more printers. Go figure. Gee, who knew that if you made customers' lives simpler that you might get more customers? 

So, Nikon, if you’re listening: either develop ACR/Lightroom custom profiles yourself that you ship with the camera, or find one of the many pros creating their own profiles to help you build them, and ship those with the camera. 

Funny thing is, way back a long, long time ago in a land long forgotten by current Nikon management, Nikon supplied a Photoshop plug-in that did the raw conversion using Nikon’s demosaic engine (which uses the in-camera settings). They apparently stopped supplying it because they thought that nobody would then want to buy Capture ;~). That’s despite the fact that the plug-in had limited functionality in terms of what you could change, much like ViewNX2 does today. So, that, too, is another possible approach: bring back the Nikon NEF Photoshop Plug-in.  

One thing I noticed about all the folk who complained about my complaint about workflow being crippled when the D810 came out is this: they seem to think that status quo is fine. It most decidedly is not. And I think it’s about time that the camera companies realize this.

Sure, we get a free, not-quite-what-we-want raw converter with our new cameras. Sure, eventually the third parties reverse engineer what’s different about the new camera and begin to let us create more optimal conversions in a workflow that we prefer. But is that all we expect? Mediocrity when the product comes out and a slow roll towards optimal? I sure hope not.

Moreover, this is one of those “create expectations” things that companies often get wrong. All of the new camera expectations these days tend to be tied up in features and hardware. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll take any technological advance I can get, but only if I can take advantage of it. I don’t have a V12 turbocharged, supercharged, race-tuned engine in my vehicle because what would I actually use that for? I don’t drive a lot to start with, and in the places where I drive such a technology wouldn’t actually provide a benefit while also likely producing a significant drawback (gas mileage). 

Of course, all us males—and it’s mostly males still buying cameras—are gear heads, so we do pay attention to all those new technology marketing messages.

Yet interchangeable lens cameras are part of and the center of a much larger ecosystem. Just as your vehicle needs good tires and can’t really operate without gas stations, roads, and so on, a camera is only as good as the other components that go with it: lenses, flash, and yes, software. 

I not only want the best camera I can get—currently the D810—but I also want the best lenses, the best lighting gear, the best support gear, the best subjects/locations to take photos, and once again, the best software that allows me to pull all of what I do into what you and my clients see. 

I’d think that Nikon would want the best possible images produced to show off what a D810 can do, and that they’d want that from day one, if possible. Early on in the digital age, Capture (not NX or NX2) was indeed the best way to get the most out of a Nikon NEF image. I fear that this turned into arrogance on Nikon’s part: “we produce the best DSLR and the software that gets the best image from them.” Early in the DSLR era workflows changed monthly as new options became available, though, and Nikon didn’t actually hold up the “best image” part of the bargain, either. 

My point about Nikon and what happened with the D810 raw files at its introduction is this: you can just wait for support to happen, or you can make it happen. Nikon is mostly doing the former, Capture NX-D excepted. What I am suggesting is that Nikon should be doing the latter. Seeding key third parties with information, sample files, and perhaps even product prior to introduction so that when they announce a product, they can point to all the others that support it.

I’ve done a lot of things in my career. One of the things I’m most proud of is my work as Senior Evangelist at GO: when the Penpoint operating system was announced, we had more third-party developers showing ready-to-ship software than any previous completely new OS. The message: “here’s the technology (Penpoint), and here’s what you can do with it (third-party software).” That’s what Nikon should be doing with interchangeable lens cameras: “here’s the camera, and here’s what you can do with it.” To make the second half of that message really resonate, you need lots of third-party support, including workflow the users want, third-party lenses, and much more.

Finally, let me point something out: Nikon makes most of their money selling bodies. The second biggest chunk comes from selling lenses. They make virtually nothing selling software, especially now that Capture NX2 is gone. They really have nothing to lose by supplying information, sample files, and perhaps even product to some key software vendors under NDA prior to introducing a new camera. Nothing to lose, and lots to gain. 

Having a healthy, thriving community that supports your product means that your product will be healthier, too. Apple discovered this back with the Apple II in the 70’s, then went all-in with the Macintosh in the 80’s. Microsoft replicated that with Windows. It’s not rocket science, it’s common sense. The more you have to shout about, the more the shout is heard. 

The D810 was a shout without any real echo or supplemental shouts. That really needs to change. 

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