Raw Photo Processor (RPP): First Impressions

Andrey Tverdokhleb’s Raw Photo Processor (RPP) is a Mac OS X application that in some ways seems rather retro in its concept. It’s a raw processor or converter, and that’s all that it is. It’s not a raw workflow program like Aperture or Lightroom. You can’t crop a photo in RPP. It doesn’t do a darned thing with jpegs. And you can’t do any digital asset management with it. How does this one-trick pony survive? By doing its one trick really, really well.

I’ve been trying RPP out lately and I’m impressed. Here are a few observations.

How you use it

When I process a photo in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, I don’t really have to deal with conversion at all. I can open and view raw files in Lightroom as soon as I’ve imported them into Lightroom’s catalog. Lightroom’s raw conversion software, Adobe Camera Raw (ACR), works more or less invisibly in the background, rendering images for display on my screen and, I presume, assisting when images are exported to another format (usually jpeg). And when I make an adjustment (say, increasing the contrast setting) Lightroom immediately updates what I see on screen. I remember when I first heard other people talking about ACR, I didn’t know what it was. I was using it without being aware of it.

Using RPP adds an explicit extra step to my workflow: conversion. That’s why I called RPP’s concept retro. Back in the days before Lightroom and Aperture and other “raw workflow” applications came into being, you put your raw files on the computer and then you had to convert them to tiffs or jpegs before being able to work on them in Photoshop. Now, with RPP in my workflow, it’s like old days once again. I have to leave Lightroom and open the raw file in RPP,  convert it (usually to a tiff file), then reopen the converted file in Lightroom again to finish editing it (cropping, adjusting exposure, color, detail and sharpness, etc.). Not only does this process take a little extra time, it also creates a fairly large extra file that would not be created if I never left Lightroom.

Actually, RPP’s user interface does allow me to make a number of basic adjustments prior to conversion. I can tweak exposure, color, sharpness, and even ask RPP to convert the image to mimic the look of certain types of film. But the basic point of RPP is conversion of the raw file. That’s why the RPP UI is so limited. It’s limited because it isn’t trying to do much.

The RPP UI (in its entirety)

Here’s a photo converted by RPP using the P160NP preset, which mimics the look of Kodak’s Professional PORTRA 160NC (Natural Color) film.

Converted by RPP using P160NP film preset.

If, like me, you are fond of Lightroom for its intuitive user interface and dislike using Photoshop because you don’t think in terms of numbers, well, then, like me, you’ll find RPP’s user interface a bit off-putting, especially at first. It’s frankly a bit scary and unless you’re a serious photo editing geek, you probably won’t immediately see the purpose of the various options.

The good news is, you don’t really have to do much with the user interface at all. Load the photo, click the Apply button (to apply the default conversion settings), then save the new file (as a tiff) back into the same folder where the original is stored. Synchronize that folder in your Lightroom library so the new file appears there, and finish your editing in Lightroom. Seems like a hassle, I know, and indeed, it isn’t necessary. After all, you could take what Lightroom (well, Adobe Camera Raw) dishes out and be grateful for it. But in my experience with RPP so far, the small extra effort usually pays off.

I should probably add here that, although I’m using RPP with Lightroom, you can use Lightroom with any additional software you like. Considering that DxO Optics Pro is also trying to be the best raw converter available, using RPP with DxO Optics Pro probably wouldn’t make any sense. But it would make perfect sense to use RPP with, say, Photoshop. It works well with Aperture, too. If you were really broke, you could use RPP with Picasa, although then you’d have to deal with Picasa’s dislike for tiffs, perhaps by saving your processed RPP output as jpegs instead.

RPP’s different approach to raw conversion: darker results

I don’t really understand the technical details terribly well and to use RPP, I don’t think you need to. I do notice a couple of things about RPP that distinguish it from the converter (ACR) that Lightroom relies upon.

The most obvious difference is that RPP’s conversions seem generally darker. Here’s a picture of yours truly. This is a png screenshot showing how Lightroom 3.6 displays the ARW (Sony raw) file:

Converted by Lightroom 3.6

It’s not a bad conversion, really. Here’s what the same raw data looks like, as interpreted by RPP. (This is a png screenshot made inside RPP.)

Even scarier than the first one, no?

What’s happening here, I think, is that RPP is maximizing dynamic range and moving as much data as it can into the middle of the picture. In any case, RPP’s conversions do often start out a little (sometimes more than a little) darker than the automatic conversions I see in Lightroom.(*)

RPP’s different approach to conversion: detail preservation

The other thing that’s clearly different is that RPP is recovering more detail, sometimes a lot more detail, from the raw files than Adobe Camera Raw is. This is a photo I took in Rocky Mountain National Park in summer 2010, with a Panasonic LX3. Here’s what I made of the photo using Lightroom alone:

Moraine Park, Rocky Mountain National Park. Processed in Lightroom 3.x.

And here’s the same photo, first converted by RPP, and then given a wee bit more post-processing back in Lightroom:

Processed in RPP.

The remarkable thing here is, until I ran this photo through RPP, I thought that I’d simply lost the detail in the trees in the foreground. I wasn’t even too unhappy about it. It’s really a photo of the clouds from a receding thunderstorm, so the trees aren’t really all that important. But it was exciting nonetheless to discover that the detail in the trees actually is there in the raw file; Lightroom just hadn’t found it.

By the way, if you think that the clouds in the first photo are more dramatic, that’s fine. I don’t disagree with you. I could however match that look in the RPP photo, mainly by increasing the saturation; indeed, I have boosted the saturation and contrast in the sky in the second photo to a degree using a graduated filter in Lightroom. What I can’t do in Lightroom with ACR, is bring back detail that ACR doesn’t see.

NOTE: The last two examples and the examples that follow are not screenshots, they are processed shots. You’ll have to trust me that in every case I tried to make the best picture I could from the file I was working with. The point I’m making is, I got better end results starting with RPP than I did starting with an image silently converted by ACR.

When you see yourself in your daughter’s eyes…

Here’s another example, using a portrait of my daughter. Here’s the Lightroom/ACR version:

Converted by ACR (Lightroom 3)

Now I rather like this shot. Lightroom and ACR do a pretty good job with the skin and the colors. As before, the RPP conversion started out a bit darker and a bit flatter, but this time, I did a little secondary editing in Lightroom on the tiff file created by RPP, boosting the exposure and the vibrance a little:

Converted by RPP

If you compare the enlarged versions of these two photos, you may find it hard to decide between them. I did, at first. Part of the problem here is that this is a portrait and in portraits like this, we often prefer to have soft skin, rather than show absolutely every pore. The RPP version here is not quite as soft. But I can soften skin in Lightroom, after conversion, if I need to. What I can’t do is put detail back if it’s lost in conversion—like this detail in the eyes. Here’s a close of Catherine’s right eye (left side of the photo) as converted by RPP:

Converted by RPP. Look closely….

Look closely. You can see the photographer (me) reflected in the subject’s pupil. Here is what Lightroom comes up with:

Converted by Lightroom 3.6.

The pupil is simply too dark to preserve the detail of my reflection.

Do these differences matter in the real world, when you’re not looking at everything at 100%? Depends on the photo and what you want to do with it. May also depend on how picky you are.

If you’re just posting to the web, then maybe not. But I should mention that RPP has a couple of different conversion modes and one of them is designed specifically for converting photos for use on the web. It’s quicker and makes smaller files. So far I’ve mostly been working with the larger conversion options. Anyway, the details do matter if you’re printing, especially if you’re printing large.

And for some, perhaps many, photos, Adobe Camera Raw seems to do a very nice job and RPP may not offer much in the way of improvement. I will however mention that I have not yet seen RPP produce a result that is worse than ACR.

Real world processing

Here’s a portrait of Mrs Juanita Edwards at 95 years of age, sitting in the kitchen of the house she’s lived in since the mid-1950s. First, the jpeg created by my Panasonic Lumix FZ35 (used in raw + jpeg mode).

JPEG produced by the camera.

It’s really not bad. Most consumers would be quite happy with this result. Here’s Lightroom’s conversion of the raw (dng) file:

Converted by Lightroom 3.6.

I’ve worked a little with the raw file here to lighten the background and give the scene a lighter, airier feel that I think turns the snapshot into a real portrait. But there’s a problem here. It’s not really visible at this resolution on screen, but it does show up in a print — or if you zoom in. The conversion has created blotches in the face. Here’s a close up of the Lightroom conversion:

Converted by Lightroom 3.

The picture here appears less noisy, say, off to the side. But in the face, the blotchiness is pretty noticeable. Here’s a closeup of the conversion done by RPP:

Converted by RPP.

Seems noisier, but there’s more detail. That’s a common trade-off. In the print, the noise will disappear on its own, and the improved detail will make a cleaner impression. Here’s the larger version from RPP:

Converted by RPP.

Notice also that RPP has the colors right. The room is not in fact as white as it appears in the Lightroom conversion.

It’s not magic

Adobe’s a huge company and Lightroom is a widely used, highly respected program. By contrast, RPP comes from a single (very talented) guy I had never heard of before. Is it even thinkable that RPP could do a better job than the raw converter from Adobe? Am I perhaps imagining that RPP is better, just because I want it to be, or because it’s new and unfamiliar to me?

I doubt it. I’ve been using Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw for about five years, since the beta of version 1, and I’ve only been using Raw Photo Processor for a day or two, and yet I was able to coax quality out of several different types of raw file that I’ve never gotten from ACR. The difference appears to be real.

And it’s not magic. The developer of RPP explains in the accompanying documentation that he doesn’t use some of the math shortcuts that are common in the more widely used raw converters. But those shortcuts are not there because the programmers at Adobe are lazy. Adobe’s approach is a reasonable compromise that achieves a remarkably high quality result, while at the same time allowing for changes to appear on screen instantly. In other words, ACR is fast. RPP, not so much. Some changes do not appear on screen automatically; you have to click the Apply button to see them. And RPP’s conversion isn’t instantaneous. It’s not slow, either, especially if you have a modern multicore Intel Mac. But the difference is sufficient that I’m not sure that I’m going to start processing all of my images in RPP.

Still, in a couple of the photos I’ve run through RPP, the improvement was pretty impressive.

Try it, and if you like it, buy it

The absolute minimum compliment that must be paid to RPP is to say that it’s an extraordinary piece of software coming from an individual. In my tests here (preliminary to be sure, but already fairly extensive) RPP more than holds its own against Adobe Camera Raw and the raw converter in DxO Optics Pro — two of the most highly respected pieces of software in the world of digital photography. (ACR is also used by Adobe Photoshop.)

If you’re happy with what you’re using now, well, you probably haven’t read this far. If you have stayed with me to this point, and assuming you’re on a Mac (because RPP is Mac only), I urge you to give RPP a try. If you do, be prepared to spend more than 10 minutes with it; it does take a wee bit of figuring out. The accompanying documentation however is very useful. Read it.

And if you decide, as I have, that you can find a place in your workflow for RPP, then by all means, contribute to the author. It’s certainly the fair thing to do, to pay for the software you use. And talent like this deserves support. If you make a donation, you’ll get a few extra features and also you’ll get a plug-in for Aperture and Lightroom that allows you to send your image files (via export) over to RPP from inside Aperture and Lightroom.

(*) Addendum 9/24/11: My guess about why RPP’s conversions seem darker was wrong. I give a better explanation in a follow-up post, here.

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4 comments on “Raw Photo Processor (RPP): First Impressions

  1. It really looks as though RPP – whilst having greater detail – also has a lot more grain. Have you turned down Lightroom's automatic Noise Reduction settings to zero to provide an accurate comparison – which would have a corresponding increase in detail and grain ?

  2. Damen: I don't see RPP adding "a lot" more noise. I confess I'm not sure what you are thinking of when you refer to Lightroom's "automatic Noise Reduction settings". I don't do any processing via presets on import. Once the image is imported, Lightroom 3's sliders automatically go to 0 for luminance and 25 for color noise. I don't routinely mess with these settings, although I have tried moving the color slider to 0 and haven't seen much of a difference. I don't have a custom camera profile for my cameras; not sure if that would make a difference.To be honest, I'm not terribly concerned about noise. I am always more worried about detail. I should add further that I'm testing nearly all of my results nowadays not by looking at the computer monitor at 100% or 200%, but by printing. I occasionally study my prints with a magnifying glass, but what I really care about is how the print looks from a normal viewing distance, in good light. And what I've found is that images converted (and given basic processing) in RPP are giving me better prints than images converted in Lightroom. Not always. Perhaps not even most of the time. But often enough for me to have added RPP permanently to my tool kit. I'd say that RPP does a better job of conversionabout one-third of the time. The other two-thirds of the time, RPP is never worse, but not noticeably better. What I'm doing at the moment is using RPP only when I'm not immediately as happy as I'd like to be with the initial results from Lightroom.Thanks for the comment.

  3. No problems – on my monitor at least (maybe because it is so large, but listen to me brag), the difference in noise levels is quite striking – I am not exaggerating when I say it seems like a huge difference on my screen (easiest to view in the Mrs Edwards shot, but also entirely visible on your daughter's face). Of course, this is based on an on-screen view rather than a print, so your point that this may not exist (or be as pronounced) in a normal workflow (and not subject to jpeg compression) seems reasonable. I also just checked some photos in Lightroom and found that I was wrong – I had thought the user-controllable default noise reduction was quite high, but I was mistaken. Yes, moving the sliders down to zero would be what I was wondering about. Of course, I suspect the default initial noise reduction in Lightroom (which is innate and beyond user control) is actually a fair bit higher … at least RPP gives the user full control here.Thanks for having taken the time to respond to my queries.

  4. I think it's always a problem to talk about noise (or sharpening, clarity, or color, or other fine points of digital photo processing) when the discussion is limited to the Web. When we view things on screen — and especially when we blow things up to 100% — they always look different than they do in print. And it's a painful fact of life that what my clients see on their (typically uncalibrated) displays can be quite different from what I see on my display. I'm not evangelizing for RPP. Have corresponded with the developer, who has been very responsive and helpful, but otherwise I have no connection with him. I paid for my license. And I feel free to observe that the UI for RPP is pretty klunky.Still, it has helped me get better results from a number of shots, so I continue to use it. I have the feeling I might get good results from DxO Optics Pro, perhaps as good as RPP; but I find DxOOP even more difficult to use than RPP, so I don't crank it up very often.Occasionally Aperture gives me better results. I'm not sure what's going on here. Could it be that every raw processor is better for certain kinds of photos than for others? Maybe.Thanks again for the comment!

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