Is Software Becoming More Important Than the Camera?

His site is listed in THEME’s live News Feed: Kirk Tuck’s Visual Science Lab, one of my favorite photography blogs when it comes to the ins and outs of subtle narrative, hands-on technique and the state of the photography industry. Kirk Tuck not only knows how to use a camera, he’s also a gifted writer and storyteller. His blog posts read like short stories. Here’s someone who lives photography. He walks the talk, sharing worthwhile insights and raising legitimate questions; among them questions not every photographer wants to hear. Recently he was asking, “How much is quality determined by your camera’s sensor and how much is determined by your software?”

In essence the question is about the ubiquitous smartphone that already killed the point-and-shoot camera, that’s about to eradicate the compact camera and is even making the life of serious gear more complicated. Thanks to the help of software solutions, these modern-day darkrooms of our digital era, any camera today is capable of churning out respectable images.

The photographer will always matter and make the difference, but at the click of a few buttons and thanks to filters, presets, Instagram and whatever even the most desolate digital files can be turned into something nice to look at. No classics are born this way, but in no time at all a visual look is achieved that eats your heart out, you Mozarts and Einsteins of the bygone days.

Kirk Tuck, it goes without saying, talks about more serious stuff: DxO Optics Pro, the piece of coding I like most in my computer. With the Nikon Df DxO forced me to own the upgraded Elite version, but even though this camera produces velvet-smooth images, every cent spent for Optics Pro is a cent well spent. Why?

It makes something very good even better. Who in one’s right mind wants to refuse that? Even in the early days of Optics Pro, says Kirk Tuck, “While the Photoshop of the time did okay, the trial of D.O I downloaded pretty much blew me away and clicked off every checkbox on my list of needed file improvements.”

This software is so powerful, he says, it makes the Panasonic GH4‘s smaller system look on par with mighty full-frame. Granted, the GH4 is a heck of a camera. If it only would have a bit more soul… Here’s Kirk Tuck on DxO working his GH4 files:

I couldn’t hit the keys fast enough. Once I had the program and the modules for the Panasonic camera and lens loaded I went through the whole image fine-tuning process with one of the RAW files. Once the process was completed I was looking at a file that was much sharper, smoother and happier than the full-frame files I’d been pulling from Sony cameras in Lightroom. The GH4 files yielded absolutely wonderful files that stood up well at 100%. Clearly better than previous generations of cameras I’d owned.

Now, camera and software are making the difference — which means, when thinking about upgrading, it makes a whole loftof sense to not only think about the camera when buying new gear, but to always have the camera’s potential in mind, a.k.a. how todays post-processing solutions turn default ISO, sharpness and whatever values into flexible parameters.

You buy a camera with maximum 12,800 ISO? Software turns it into a 25,600er.

I still use Photoshop for the obvious stuff like corrections down to pixel-level and so forth. But certainly DxO Optics Pro is such a well-thought-out, powerful IQ enhancer no other competitor I’m aware of comes close to. The workflow is easy and intuitive, the price reasonable and every few weeks an update irons out minor bugs and adds new camera and lens profiles.

Digital photography today has reached a point where about any camera can handle literally any job. Photography today has a lot to do with the right handling in the right software. This means, as sad as it sounds, if we’re concerned about image quality down to each pixel we’d better be more concerned about the right image processing.

It makes no sense to upgrade to every latest series of a D4, 5D or whatever. But it makes a lot of sense to keep abreast of post-processing developments. The right software makes even an older generation camera look like its latest incarnation. Especially DxO seems to squeeze every last drop of resolution and pixel information out of these fine sensors. For a fraction of the camera’s cost.

This is not to say that running the files from a full-frame camera wouldn’t result in even better images. Just ask yourself: how perfect is perfect enough? Cameras today provide data files with enough information potential to make the smartphone look like a DSLR.

But don’t ask what’s more important: ultimate image quality or the pleasure of working with a great camera that might not be perfect, but has soul… Well, software solves this riddle, allowing anyone to enjoy the best of two worlds.

For more visit Visual Science Lab.

  • DiBo

    100% right. A lot of people just stick to something like f.i. Lightroom, just because others do. The same strange behavior that people drives to Operation systems and other “standard” software choices. With my software background I’ve done a lot of comparison work – to be honest this started after Fujifilm X was part of my gear and I discovered how difficult RAW conversions became with these cameras. A lot of people would be surprised to see that NOT that the most obvious mainstream choice reveals the best of their cameras. Going to particular solution often delivers sharper results, better colors and dynamics, less artifacts. The only issue is that when you work with a mix of very different cameras, only a tool like Lightroom, Aperture or C1 can provide you a universal, balanced workflow, it’s almost impossible to keep up with a few RAW-developers at the same time. So there’s the choice for me… or you standardize your camera gear, or… your software, both is very hard to do.

    • That’s one of Optics Pro beauties, the “modules.” Be it RAW, JPEG or TIFF, the software downloads the body and lens modules required. Standard presets make life easy, yet “essential tools” allow fine-tuning and customization. IMHO this “particular” solution is very universal…

  • Perceptivelight

    I also could not agree more. Originally I bought an Oly EP2 as a carry about and after using it for awhile I realised that m43 was giving me results that were just a bit better in some regards than my ‘professional’ FF kit. M43 was the first system to be designed from the ground up as wholly digital, meaning that the sensor and lens characteristics data are passed on to the RAW processor directly. Now that we are in the 6th or 7th generation of m43 the results combined with ‘out side of the box’
    software like DXO are really proving the value of this fully integrated approach. The current version of DXO 9 also fully integrates with Lightroom making it comfortable for many. I use it in conjunction with Bridge & photoshop and turn ACR off without any problems.

  • Starting from a perfect exposed negative in the analog/Ansel Adams days, it has been the same. The difference made the processing in the dark room, development, paper, 10 different exposures on one image, even different contrasts on one image by using Ilford Multigrade!
    Read Ansel Adams “The making of 40 photographs”.

    Today it is the same. If you have a good RAW with perfect exposure and focus, you can do anything in post processing like before, ok. today it is much more and you don’t have to use tee anymore for a sepia tone picture :-)

    I use the Sony A7R most of the time with all kinds of lenses from Leica M and R to Nikon and Canon. I don’t know the DXO, but I think, the main advantage of DXO is, that you get perfect profiles for you camera and lens combo?

    I use Lightroom since the first beta version and have some 60.000 images in my catalog. Switching to a new program without a perfect conversion tool (how will this handle all the special tools and functions of LR anyway?) is just no option. But I would like to consider DXO as a plug in – but without the profiles???