Digital Darkroom Software Review: RawTherapee

Program: RawTherapee (version 4.2.1)
Platforms Available Tested: Linux, Mac, Windows
Installation: normal download dmg & drag app to Applications folder (or wherever you like). Easy.

RawTherapee is a very powerful Raw file converter/developer…

And I’ll just leave it at that. If you don’t believe me, just dive in to the RawPedia, the most thorough and easy to use manual that I’ve encountered thusfar. It’s so good, in fact, that every time I go to check something, I find something new to try.

And that’s partly why I’m so behind in this project…

General Comments

First, the positives:

  • Like the open source app that it is, RawTherapee looks like an open source app. This is both good and bad: it’s good, because some actual human(s) made it, put stuff where it made sense to them, picked colors and icons and themes that were pleasing and or had some meaning to them, and included pretty much everything they thought they or their friends might need. It’s bad, because, for me, some of the locations of things don’t make much sense and there’s a ton of functionality that I’ve missed out on in the two weeks (off and on) I’ve spent with it.

I’m very thankful for the RawPedia.

  • It has pretty much everything you need to process RAW files in any way you see fit, as long as you’re willing to play around some, experiment, and RTFM, but it doesn’t do import, file management, etc. (or if it does, I can’t find it in the application or in the manual), so you’ll need to roll you own file management system.
  • Thanks to the Open Source underpinnings, RawTherapee has access to Pat David’s Hald CULT film simulations… BRILLIANT.
a small sample of film simulations

There are a relatively large number of these simulations, and unlike similar Lightroom plugins, Film Simulation in RawTherapee is built-in and free. MashaAllah.

It’s different from, but no less than the Lightroom edit I did last year, and if I don’t like this Rollei simulation, I can switch… to Fuji, maybe.

Good times, for sure, and would that there was a way to get this same set into Lightroom… probably is somehow.


Now, the strangeness, the things that require getting used to, the not-quit-so-positive-but-not-bad-by-any-stretch:

  • Some of the settings for exporting (particularly the location) are a bit difficult to decipher without the manual, so, again, RTFM.
  • The crop… It seems like everyone does it differently. At first, I thought (and read) that it showed the cropped-out bits even after processing and that there was no way to turn it off. But then I randomly clicked on some little, largely invisible buttons at the top of the screen, and… Can you spot the buttons? It was a full week before I even saw them.
  • Leaving the cropped bit behind isn’t a huge problem. The invisible buttons aren’t a huge problem. But the marching ants* stay behind… forever. I haven’t found a way to get rid of them. They’re a bit annoying.
Marching! Ants! Forever!This wouldn’t be a problem if I cropped at the end of the developing/processing process, but I tend to crop fairly early on, and so in RawTherapee I get to stare at marching ants for the rest of the time I spend working on the image.
  • Like AfterShot Pro, zooming works only in steps, and the handy Fit to Screen button (which I only just now found when I went to take screenshots…) appears to act on the original image, rather than the crop. Here are screenshots of 20%, 25% (top edge chopped off), and fit to screen.

The other option would be to get closer… not only would I get more pixels of negative to push around, I’d also get higher resolution. Of course, that would necessitate a redesign of the Scan-O-Matic 7000… maybe it’s time for a mark IV?

Not before this Raw converter testing thing ends, and not before I finish up that 47 year old roll of Ansco and put it through the R3 Monobath Developer that’s currently languishing in the film developing cupboard.

  • The history window doesn’t remember… well, I guess it does, but only while you’re working on the image. Once you navigate to another image, the history resets. There is a snapshot function as well, but it also resets when you navigate to another image. [According to the RawPedia, “In the future, the snapshots will be saved to the XMP sidecar file. For now, the history and snapshots are lost when you load a new photo in the Image Editor or close RawTherapee.” That’s great, but of little comfort, since I’ve effectively destroyed two nicely-processed images trying to test how it works. I got a tiff and a jpeg of the good one, so no huge loss.]

And that’s about all I have in the way of complaints. RawTherapee handled everything I threw at it, and every time it threw me for a loop, the RawPedia stepped in to save the day.

Test 1: Negative Conversion

Negative Conversion works easy, just a simple tone curve swap. But RawTherapee offers three or four things that other apps don’t.

  1. Two Tone Curves!Check it! Two tone curves! And they both have multiple options: Linear, Custom, Parametric, and Control Cage curve types; Standard, Weighted-Standard, Film-Like, and Saturation and value blending. I messed around with them all, more or less, and just… MashaAllah.
  2. There’s also a preset in the film simulations that, on advice of the RawPedia, I didn’t try, but that I might one day.
  3. And there’s also thorough instructions in the RawPedia for how to create a custom camera profile with Adobe’s DNG profile creator: purely a benefit of the whole Open Source thing. I did that and it worked fairly well for some images, but not so much for others. Blown highlights came out red for some reason (probably has something to do with the file I used to make the profile: it was a straight shot with no flash balancing; the files I tested these on came from a batch that had blue/green filters stacked on the flash to cancel out the orange base in-camera).

Try to get anything like that out of Lightroom’s manual.

With the first two options, it’s just like others: all the sliders are reversed, and some of them don’t quite behave as expected. But with the third, the sliders work like normal. Brilliant.

So on with the Negative conversion…

Long before I found that RawPedia article, I was happily rolling along with the usual Tone Curve swap method. The rest of the notes assume that workflow.

  • Presets are easy to set, and the UI makes it obvious that you’re saving a file.

Presets

  • It’s also very easy to copy/paste settings and to batch process with presets, profiles, and/or copied settings.
  • Conversion is fairly easy, but there’s so much to play with:
    • In the RAW panel alone there are options for:
      • sensors with a Bayer array (Demosaicing; Raw Black Points (Red, Green 1 (lead), Green 2, Blue, and the option to link Greens); Preprocessing (Line noise filter, which seems to sharpen up and bring out details in things I didn’t know were even in the image; Green equilibration: no idea what it does, really); and Chromatic Aberration (Auto-correction does a good job, but it left a slight red outline on some edges)).
      • Options for Sensor with X-Trans Matrix (untested): Demosaicing and Raw Black Points
      • Raw White Points
      • Preprocessing (Hot pixel filter [auto-selected]; Dead pixel filter; Dark-Frame; and Flat-Field)
    • The Color Correction panel just boggles the mind… I won’t even dig into the array of options there.

In an attempt to get a bit more familiar, and to just have some fun, I played around with this shot a bit…

It might be a bit red, but it looks like film, which is good, since it was shot with the FG and Nikon 75-150mm, reversed, on Porta 400 film, and ultimately processed with a preset for Polaroid Polachrome.

Back some years ago, I had a part time job shooting product shots of old film lenses and cameras for this guy. He scoured pawn shops for camera gear and flipped the equipment on eBay. My job was to make product shots of old film cameras and (mostly) manual lenses with a big old digital camera that put out files just barely big enough for the ‘Bay. I found it a bit strange to be shooting proper (old film) cameras with digital one, something like a… I don’t remember the term, something like a Mise en scène, but not that… something from my Cultural Studies days. If Dr. Lutterbie is reading this (probably not) maybe he can remind me.

Even stranger: I now shoot with an old film camera, scan analog negatives with a digital camera, and—in this case, anyway—process those digital files with filters to make them look more like film. Sheesh.

So how did the droplet image turn out?

Not bad. The frame numbers are a bit yellow/red, but everything else looks as expected. I don’t remember much about the conversion. I think it took me awhile… This is the first image I process in these reviews, and I just kept playing with sliders and playing with tone curves and not reading the manual. And this leads me to a couple of problems:

  • It’s a bit difficult to get the white balance set correctly. There’s an eyedropper tool, but I find it hard to pinpoint the right spot, and very slight changes in sample position result in drastic changes to the white balance.
  • With some options—highlights come to mind—there are multiple locations for the same sliders and multiple ways to modify the settings in addition to the sliders. If only there was a manual or something… Oh. Right. And that may be the biggest problem for me.

With complex conversions, and after a couple of years with it, I’m far more confident in and comfortable with my Lightroom skills, despite its enforced limitations and assumptions. As mentioned above, with RawTherapee the spot white balance seems off somehow. I also have great trouble with the shadows and highlights, the whites and blacks, and getting the black point set to black, and it’s not just because everything is backwards when converting negatives.**

But that’s negatives… how does it work with ORFs and NEFs?


Test 2: ORF Conversion

Lets start this out with a comparison: RawTherapee vs. Lightroom default Import processing.

Hummm. One of these looks more saturated and contrasty and ready to blow up on Flickr, the other looks like the greenhouse did when I was there and is ready to accept whatever modifications I care to throw at it. So $10/month, $79 to upgrade, or $149 gets you pictures that are all ready to go, more or less. To be honest, my pictures are probably not worth that much. And to be honest-er, I found a generic profile for the D7000, the LX-7, the old Fuji (that I only ever shot jpegs with), and the C-5050, and I was able to get Lightroom to recognize and use profiles from the D7000 and LX-7, but couldn’t figure out how to get it to see the C-5050 profiles. It’s something to do with folder naming: the D7000 profile needed to be in a folder called exactly NIKON D7000, but can’t figure out where to put the C-5050 profile.

Edit: the profile I had was apparently for a slightly different model, the 5060 or something maybe, and so while RawTherapee would happily use it, Lightroom wouldn’t.

The D7000 profile is much flatter than the Lightroom default, and if I stay with Lightroom, I’ll try to figure out how to make it the default. And so Lightroom is a bit more customizable than I give it credit for, maybe.

Anyway.

Given the numerous options, it seems obvious that RawTherapee can handle just about anything, and output good results.

So with the ORF rolled up nicely, you can guess what’s next…

Test 3: NEF Conversion

and it went just fine.

I got a decent selfy that I won’t use beyond these tests…

As did the Black & White conversion. I made this one before I hit on the film simulation thing, and I like what I was able to get. Granted, I also like what I was able to get out of Lightroom, though that was a color picture.


Final Thoughts

RawTherapee is a great piece of software with a rather steep learning curve that I didn’t really master. I got some things down, and if I spent 6 months using it for all my RAW work, I’d likely get comfortable with it quickly, and I might end up doing that.

The only real complaint/issue I have with it is the lack of a Library panel like in Lightroom or Darktable or Aperture. If I were going to move to RawTherapee, I’ll need to find a good Library software. I can import with Image Capture, and use something like Automator and a folder watch service to rename them, and probably even with my naming scheme. But I’ve really gotten used to the album thing in Lightroom (and Aperture and iPhoto before it), and need something like that in my workflow.

I fully plan to keep RawTherapee around, and I’ll probably use it to export high bit-depth tiff files that can be further massaged in something like Lightroom (maybe Lightroom, even).

If you’re a photo person—and if you’ve read this far you must be—and you shoot Raw, give RawTherapee a try. It’s free, fast-enough, and just about as powerful as it can be.

But do expect to spend some time with the RawPedia… it’s indispensable.


So I decided that I needed to play around some more, and so I did… I found some things about exposure compensation that I didn’t expect, mostly by trial and error, and mostly because I didn’t really understand the process in this post. Tone curves work better than the Exposure slider, but can’t do it alone. Tone curves + White Point do a bit more. Tone curve + white point + lightness slider + highlights + exposure slider gets the job done, mostly.

It worked in this one, more or less…

It’s not the best picture ever, and there’s something off with the colors, and the contrast looks a bit low, maybe… and with a tiny bit of playing around, I found the answer.

When I first worked the picture, I kept trying to boost the contrast, but all that I seemed to get was a boost to the whites. I tried again, but this time, I got the whites where I wanted them with the contrast, then dropped the blacks waaay down and boosted the shadow compression. That gave me this one:

Much better. I think the white balance might be a bit off, but it’s not bad, and I learned something too: the toolset in RawTherapee works differently than the one in Lightroom.

Alhamdulillah.

With this one, I got happy with it, but then got it loaded into this post and noticed the grain, and the washed out, low-contrast look, and the two blown highlights in the leaf in the upper left:

So let’s see how well my new-found skills and RawTherapee’s noise reduction works…

Better. Much more detail in the stems and baby leaves in the upper center, much better contrast overall, maybe a bit too dark in the leaves in the lower left and right corners, and the blown bits are still blown, but nicely muted now.

Again: RawTherapee is very powerful Raw converter. Alhamdulillah. And I think it’ll be staying in my Applications folder. How it will make it into my workflow remains to be seen: I still need to find a replacement for Lightroom’s library system, and I’ve not yet seen anything that matches it, something with user-defined or arbitrary, drag-and-drop collections/albums/whatever and metadata-defined collections based on camera, lens, keywords, or other metrics. So far, the tools tested didn’t include anything like that.

And with that, I think I’ll leave off with one last look at the Unnatural Crazy Daisies, this time with one or another of the film simulations and some additional playing around.

Next up: darktable or DigiKam. It might be awhile: Ramadan is just a week or so away and I’m a bit busy. I might just decide to use darktable for all of Ramadan, just to see if it’s up to being used on a more permanent basis.

Allahu Alim. All I know is that I’m tired of sitting on the computer all night playing with the same images over and over again, and ready to start shooting more. I still haven’t finished even one roll of that Ansco film, so I haven’t tried to develop it with the R3 Monobath that’s sitting, all sealed up, in the developing cabinet. And just recently, my Dad gave me his Graflex Graphic View model 1 and told me to “do something with it,” so shooting more (and processing film) needs to take precedence over playing with computers and software. That stuff doesn’t really matter, as long as it can get the job done, and so far, most of the softwares I’ve tried are capable of converting negatives and jazzing up images.

*The ants in RawTherapee don’t really march, but I got used to calling them that in Adobe products… what do they call them in Open Source, I wonder?

**Tone curves work much better than sliders.

 

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