Saturday, 18 October 2008

Lumix LX3 and SilkyPix

Lumix LX3 test image, Kuala Lumpur, September 2008 f/2.8, ISO800
I used this for testing as it shows a lot of tricky image properties: highlights, shallow DoF, fine patterns in background, deep shadows

Previous posts on the Lumix LX3 itself here and here.

I said a while back that I'd write some thoughts on using Panasonic's SilkyPix Developer software together with my Lumix LX3, so here it is. It takes quite a lot of work to put these technical posts together, hence the delay. I'm using SilkyPix Developer Studio 3.0 SE: the bundled version that came with my LX3.

I was prompted to finally post this by the review of the LX3 at Luminous Landscape. I agree with pretty much all MR has to say, except 2 things: high ISO noise and use of the SilkyPix software. I'll come onto why later but first a definition (which may seem like a rant).

When I'm evaluating software, I have a clear idea and definition of what constitutes "intuitive". I do a lot of software evaluation, it's part of my day job. For me, if I cannot get useful output from new-to-me software in 2h without a manual, it's not intuitive. It may take you more or less time, you may want a manual or help files but this is my personal measure. Just because I wouldn't consider it intuitive isn't necessarily a Bad Thing but it is not a good sign in general consumer products. A couple of examples: Google is high on the intuitive scale - blindingly obvious what it does and how to use it, if you've ever seen a computer you'll be off with it. Adobe Photoshop, on the other hand, is as close to non-intuitive as possible; verging on the unusable. It's the only software in a long time (many years) I've needed instruction on how to even get going.
Just because a new piece of software doesn't work like similar products doesn't make in unintuitive, just as several products that work the same with similar initerfaces are not necessarily intuitive - copying bad practices just makes your product bad, not easy to use. So: intuitive software - easy to use without instruction, on the basis that you've never used something with similar intent. Bear that in mind for the rest of this.

Main editing toolsHover to preview: "Natural" is selected, "noise reduction priority" is previewed
That clear, this brings up one of my objections to Michael Reichmann's comments: that SilkyPix is unintuitive (he's not the only one to state this). For photo software I think it is as intuitive as can be. I've not yet resorted to the Help function or manual. Once you start it up, it is fairly clear how to load photos and then the basic workflow is presented in the main tools along the left edge. Each slider is fairly self evident, and the preset options are pretty descriptive. Hover the mouse over any preset to get the image to show as a preview before selecting, click to make the change. This is probably the easiest RAW development software I've used, SilkyPix's great strength but also its weakness - if you're used to other RAW developers, this is another new interface. It's very much not like Photoshop (very good thing) which means long-term PSers may not like it. I'd say to them: get over it. I will concede that not providing a readily supported RAW format is a big problem for this camera (and many others).

Top menu options: layout options highlighted

Along the top, one finds the various view settings. I use the multi-view or single-view. Interestingly, one has a full range of adjustment available on selected images in multi-view which is unlike any other photo software with this multi-image browser interface. This makes it even easier to use with no need to switch modes to make adjustments.

Sharpening (left) and noise reduction (right) are 2 separate but linked tools

2 quirks: first is that output of the final image is termed "develop" and you need to use the Development menu option. The second is that the Sharpen and Noise Reduction functions work on a split button, which took a little while to deduce. This is actually a good thing once figured out - Panasonic are inherently recognising the trade-of between detail enhancement and noise reduction, evidenced by the presets. Of course you can try going for heavy sharpening and heavy NR at the same time but don't expect great things.

Advanced tools

A couple of less obvious tools are the ones presented bottom left. I've not investigated them all but 2 handy ones are the curves tool for tonal/contrast enhancements and the aberrations tool. The latter is pretty good with a wide range of distortion and fringing adjusters. thing is, I've not yet found any issues with files from the LX3. I've seen talk on the web that SilkyPix is automatically adjusting the RAW files for aberrations, which would make this tool superfluous but I'm not convinced. On using the camera, the screen shows no distortion and more do the out-of-camera JPEGs. If there is software adjustment, it is (also) in the camera, which would be impressive enough. Certainly, switching off the aberration tool in SilkyPix has no effect.

How does SilkyPix perform on LX3 files? Very well. I've found 3 ways to use it. First to batch several RAW files with no adjustments to full 16 bit TIFF files for further work in other software. Second for fine-tuning individual images (not used often) and the third is to create 16 bit TIFFs fom the in-camera JPEGs for further processing. I'll come onto this last in a minute. This leads me to the other objection to Reichmann's comments: noise in the images. Yes, this is not a super low noise, high-end DSLR. However, don't praise the RAW feature for the ability to do further processing and then condemn to straight from camera results. At ISO800 and 1600 the files are very good after noise reduction. I consider RAW files in light of how I process them, and that includes noise reduction. I use Neat Image as a Photoshop plug-in and get excellent results. Noise is sufficiently consistent in LX3 RAW files (after TIFF conversion) that I've been able to create a standard setting in Neat Image, which means just a couple of button clicks to clean up the files. Shadow & pattern detail is still good and smooth tones clean up nicely. I reckon you could enlarge the results quite a bit, although I'd be happier at A4 (8x12") prints. Well beyond my expectations for a small sensor camera, as I've written before.

File open is a jpg (EXIF information first line), "Save as" coverts to 16 bit

Now to the last point for this post: JPEG to TIFF conversion. I'm not quite sure how SilkyPix works underneath but it is able to convert 8 bit JPEGs to 16 bit TIFFs. dcraw has a similar function. I've tried a couple of tests and this works very well. The resulting TIFF file is much more suitable for further adjustment than a JPEG, although not as good as a RAW file. I might even use this feature for converting other JPEGs to allow me to do more work on them.

3 output options (L to R): TIFF from RAW (with Neat Image NR & sharpening); JPEG from camera; JPEG from camera converted to TIFF The 2 TIFF files have had WB correction, the JPEG is straight from camera.

So there it is: Panasonic's SilkyPix Developer software and the Lumix LX3 provide a good combination for getting really good results out of the camera. I'm not claiming the RAW development is best in class, but the workflow is simple

1 comment:

  1. Suggestion:

    Converting a source JPG having only 8-bit color depth to 16-bits cannot add information, and seems to only invite the presence of *additional* (random) quantization noise ...

    Concerting (8-bit) JPGs to 8-bit ".BMP" (which can be smaller in size than TIF) works well for me - I wonder if it might (also) actually have a higher working signal/moise ratio?


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