Nikon’s Capture NX2 is a product made using technology licensed under contract by my favorite add-in vendor Nik Software. I decided to take time to see if Capture NX2 is more of the magic that seems to make the Nik Software products so great, or if it was merely the bastard step-child that is plagued with the problems that you typically see in software from hardware manufacturers.
NOTE: This is not a review of Adobe Lightroom 2. I am reviewing Capture NX2 and using Lightroom 2.5 as the baseline for comparison purposes.
Capture NX2 – The Pros
I’ll admit, Capture NX2 is cool! There’s some great stuff included in the box and the value seems too good to be true. In fact, the average Joe could easily argue that you only need Capture NX2 to save yourself the expense of owning Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom. Truth be told, you probably could, but at what cost? I’ll get to that later, but first lets look at what is cool about Capture NX2:
- It can read your NEF files. Yes, if you don’t have other software that can do this, then you’ll depend heavily on Capture NX2 as it is critically important to have a RAW file processor in your digital workflow.
- It can mimic your in camera features. Yes, it is true that when shooting RAW you can save lots of time if you can use software that mimics the results you could have obtained had you shot JPEG, and Capture NX2 can do that very well in its Camera Settings Panel. You can change the white balance, picture mode, in-camera sharpening and Active D-Lighting, on the fly and see immediate results which mimic what your camera would have done in JPEG mode – cool.
- Metadata and XMP/IPTC Support – Anything coming from or sponsored by a camera manufacturer should have this, but its treatment here is decent.
- Noise Reduction and Sharpening Support – While the Noise Reduction isn’t as good as Dfine and the Sharpening isn’t as good as Sharpener Pro, what is here is way better than what you find in Photoshop CS4 and Lightroom 2.
- Distortion Control – This feature seemed to work fairly well in its default form and would be useful for wide angle lenses.
- Color Control Point – This is the most powerful feature in Capture NX2 because it is the same thing you get with Nik Software’s Viveza, but unfortunately it doesn’t work quite as well due to subtle differences that favor Viveza. For example, Viveza features better negative control points and much better intelligent masking for large regions.
- Auto Retouch Brush – Photoshop calls this the Healing Brush and Lightroom calls it the Spot/Healing brush. While this version is slower, it works fairly well for touchups like removing the label on the apple in the picture above.
- UPDATE: Non-destructive editing of your NEF files – When I first used Capture NX and it would prompt me to save changes to my NEF files I’d say NO because I didn’t want to destroy my original. However, like DNG files, it seems that the changes you make are stored in the NEF file but without destroying the original as the contents of the Develop Edit List (see the curves histogram area in the image above). The only gotcha is that the changes seem to be additive so my files appeared to grow with each change.
Capture NX2 – The Cons
I’m a computer programmer by trade and any piece of complex software is going to have bugs – it’s just a fact that as software grows its impossible to test every permutation of the product. However, some products are more buggy than others. Now to be clear, when I say “bug” I don’t just mean software that crashes, I also mean user-interface features that just don’t work very well (i.e., text getting clipped, title bar controls getting hidden under panels, etc…). This product has these problems in numbers too great to count. It seems that every time I set out to accomplish a task, I discover a new bug I hadn’t encountered before. In fact, I’ve come to enjoy discovering that the latest quirk is as it amazes me one product could have so many easy to find bugs and still charge money for it! Here’s some other quirks I observed:
- Capture NX2 can be very slow at times. Many operations require waiting instead of real-time feedback, which for things like Curves or before/after comparisons is unacceptable.
- There seems to be a more aggressive highlight clipping alert in Capture NX2 than in Adobe Camera Raw 5.5 or Lightroom 2.5. This can result in making modifications that underexpose the image.
- It runs out of memory fairly easily on my 32-bit Windows Vista system with 3GB of RAM. It’s the only program to ever give me a Out of Memory error besides a few select Photoshop Add-ins.
- The UI docking story is horrific. If you don’t go mad switching between metadata displayed and not, then you are a very patient person.
- The undo “step” system is the most confusing, horrible design I’ve ever seen. Frequently I’d go to a previous step to tweak a setting only to see my healing brush changes removed because I forgot that caused a reverse walk in the history stack. I absolutely despised this design. Lightroom is light years ahead with its history pane.
|Capture NX 2 File Browser||Lightroom 2.5 Library View|
There’s no comparison here as even Adobe Bridge CS4 has clear advantages over Capture NX2, and Lightroom 2.5 beats them both by a substantial margin. With support for easy filtering, advanced key wording, more batch editing options, superior triaging options, and fast search Lightroom 2 is the clear winner. The only advantage Capture NX2 offers is the lack of a requirement to import photos (which Lightroom needs for its database based file management system), but I found it to be useless as a file management system as it offers very little beyond what the operating system offers.
While I’m more experienced using Lightroom 2.5, I’m also spending a lot of time in Photoshop and Nik Software products so I didn’t feel totally lost in Capture NX2. With that said, I played around with various features and tried to come up with what felt like a good result in each product. This isn’t scientific because the products aren’t directly comparable. However, using the tools and my subjective opinion in each product, here’s my results: (click each for a larger version)
Capture NX2 Photo Edit
Lightroom 2.5 Edit
Capture NX2’s strengths were:
- A far superior healing brush solution. Lightroom’s spot version was terrible in comparison.
- Local edits were faster and more powerful.
- Its more aggressive highlight warnings were awkward to use but resulted in a less overblown image (the image above had no warnings in LR).
- Superior Noise Reduction and Chromatic Aberration control
- Easier to darken the exposure on the countertop at the top of the picture. Lightroom’s Gradient control sucks.
Lightroom 2.5’s strengths were:
- Speed – it’s always immediate results
- Sharpening was easier to use
- White balance was easier to achieve (which surprised me because NX2’s system is more advanced)
- Editing time was about 10% of that in NX2 which is partially my experience but a big part is the design of its Develop tab and presets
- Post Crop Vignette – I could add one as shown in the image.
- Undo persists across sessions, and snapshots allow for more experimentation
- Virtual copies offer flexibility for radical different interpretations or crop of an image without incurring any disk space overhead
- Support for add-ins
- Additional modules (print, slideshow & web) offer much more features
In the end, with a little more experience I could get better results with Capture NX2 than I did here. However, i don’t think I could get better results than Lightroom 2.5 except in the areas of local adjustments where NX2 clearly shines. I do think Lightroom will always be faster given its presets concept and easier to use interface. In addition, Lightroom has a larger series of plug-ins available for it which makes its feature set grow when paired with these third party products.
RAW Processing – In-Camera vs Capture NX2 vs Adobe Camera RAW 5.5
The real advantage people perceive as a benefit of owning Nikon’s Capture NX2 (or Canon’s DPP) is that they will get RAW processing designed by the manufacture and in theory the best possible result. To test this theory I did a comparison of my own using an in-camera JPEG taken with the Standard picture mode. I then opened the NEF up in Capture NX2 and Lightroom 2.5 (which uses Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) 5.5) and set the picture mode to Standard and simply exported minimal compression jpeg’s.
Below it is hard to tell much difference, but it does seem that the In-Camera version is brighter than the others with the darkest being the Capture NX2 version. You can click the images for larger file versions so you may do your own comparisons.
Capture NX2 Raw Conversion
|Lightroom 2.5/ACR 5.5 Raw Conversion|
To really tell if there’s much difference you need to look carefully at a 100% crop, and the reality is they are all pretty darn close. The In-Camera JPEG had more sharpening and less noise than the others, but that’s expected as RAW images have minimal processing. It appears to my eyes that the Lightroom/ACR version was a slight bit sharper, but that can be easily corrected in both products.
The net result is that I couldn’t observe any advantage in Capture NX2 over Adobe Camera Raw 5.5/Lightroom 2.5. Click the images below to see larger versions.
Capture NX2 Raw Conversion
Lightroom 2.5/ACR 5.5 Raw Conversion
Another comparison I did was on file size, and ironically the Capture NX2 image was the largest which implies the least compression, but I’m not sure what caused the difference (i.e., image data versus metadata –vs- a poor compression algorithm). The in-camera image ironically had the smallest file size despite setting the D700 to maximum quality. It also had the sharpest image, whereas the largest file from Capture NX2 was the softest (by a small margin).
|File Description||File Size|
|In-Camera JPEG||4,120,795 bytes|
|Capture NX2||4,242,144 bytes|
|Lightroom 2.5 JPEG||4,123,104 bytes|
When you start digging into the Capture NX2 to see what it really offers, you’ll find that Adobe Lightroom (and even Apple Aperture) offer similar features in a more reliable package. When paired with Nik’s Software’s Complete Collection for Lightroom (click link for product reviews), you have everything that is good about NX2 in a more robust environment that works faster and more effectively than what you can have with Capture NX2, albeit for a much larger price tag. With that in mind, the question becomes – should you invest in Capture NX2 at all? My contention is no. While NX2 is cheaper, Lightroom 2.5 is a far superior file management system which offers great speed and features (like persistent undos, snapshots & virtual copies) due to its underlying design which uses a database. In short, you get what you pay for. Capture NX2 doesn’t suck and will work if you can’t afford Lightroom but I don’t believe it offers anything unique like better RAW file processing.
There’s no mistaking that Capture NX2 is a decent value at over $100 less than Lightroom 2. To get parity with some of Capture NX2’s features, Lightroom owners would have to purchase Nik’s Software’s Complete Collection for Lightroom. Even with the discount on my Discount Coupon Code page, it is still $254.99 (as of the time of this writing - price subject to change) which is more than Lightroom itself. As a result, the better solution I recommend is a big jump up in price which will make some wonder if they should just buy Adobe Photoshop CS4? However, Photoshop wouldn’t include the Complete Collection and the combination of Lightroom 2 with the Complete Collection is one that would make Photoshop unnecessary for all but the most faithful Photoshop diehards. For some, price will be a major issue but I feel that the superior file management and additional features of Lightroom 2, even without Nik’s Software’s Complete Collection for Lightroom make it a far better overall solution.
I shoot Nikon, so I need Capture NX2
Those who are new to DSLR photography quickly learn that shooting RAW format (NEF files in Nikon) is a good thing because you are getting all of the data stored in the sensor so the flexibility of what you can do with white balance, exposure, etc… in a non-destructive way during post processing is fantastic. Of course, the first exposure any Nikon owner will have to RAW processing software is an ad for Capture NX2 in the box with their camera which might prompt them to check out the cool Capture NX2 web site. To the newbie, the site is really cool and you quickly learn about the power of RAW and U-Point technology (called Control Points on Nikon’s site). It’s really cool stuff, so you think – wow, I’ve gotta have this so I can make my pictures look great! Hopefully you’ve seen in this article, that isn’t the case as there seems to be little advantage to the RAW processing in NX2 versus Lightroom.
Sorry Ron, I already own Capture NX2 and I’m not switching
Okay, I know I won’t convince some existing NX2 owners to switch to what I believe is a better solution, however I think you’d enjoy your copy of Capture NX2 MUCH more if you considered owning Color Efex for Capture NX. Why? Well start by checking out my Color Efex for Lightroom review which also references another review. All of the features shown in that article as well as my digital reflector article can be accomplished using Color Efex Complete for Capture NX2. Unfortunately none of the other great add-ins found in the Nik’s Software’s Complete Collection for Lightroom are offered for Capture NX.
Hey Ron, I shoot Canon, what about Canon’s DPP?
I shoot Canon too and I won’t be reviewing DPP because it is a free product -- and that’s almost too much to pay for it. While it is great because it offers access to additional metadata not available in Lightroom (like AF point location) and much better file management than Capture NX2, it still sucks pretty bad. I applaud Canon for including it along with other more useful tools like the EOS Utility, but it doesn’t even come close to what Capture NX2 or Lightroom offer.