In a perfect world, raw files would be as light as JPEGs. Even better yet, every camera manufacturer would use a similar and open format such as DNG. Unfortunately, as we all know, we don't live in a perfect world. However, one company named Dotphoton is about to change it all!
Changing it all may sound presumptuous, especially as there hasn't been much evolution in terms of raw file format since digital cameras have been around. Most raw formats are proprietary, aren't well optimized, and aren't designed with perpetuity in mind. But Dotphoton is genuinely about to break most of the issues raw files present while retaining all the benefits.
Enter the World of True Lossless Raw Compression
You've probably already seen or heard of lossless raw files. Many companies offer this option, Nikon being one. However, even with this option, my D810 files are still quite large and make archiving a pain as well as a costly business expenditure! I've even come to ask myself multiple times if keeping raw files was making any sense and if I shouldn't just keep the final file.
But a few weeks ago, I was introduced to Dotphoton Raw. What it offers with its solution is a way to compress raw files while retaining all useful data. So you may think this is too good to be true, and that compression is just like what's already available in camera when enabling the lossless compression. Well, the result is actually very far from what you've ever seen. Files can be compressed to a third or a fifth of their original size!
On the left is the original raw file from my D810 (NEF file), it takes over 40MB on my hard drive. On the right is the compressed raw produced by Dotphoton Raw and it's only around 12MB. This is one example, but in my testing over the past two to three weeks, I haven't had a file that wouldn't get compressed by less than three times.
Is It Truly Lossless?
Now, let's answer the question that you should be asking: is there truly no loss of quality with this compression system? Well, it seems like it! I couldn't say yes or no for sure, but it definitely feels like there is no difference. What I can tell you about are the different experiments I've done so far.
When Dotphoton gave me access to its app, I was extremely excited and compressed files from my last shoots, then opened them up in Capture One. At first, I thought it was too good to be true. So I looked closer at the files in Capture One and started looking for differences. After pixel peeping for a bit, I noticed a slight difference in certain colors and how they were rendered. The shift is very minimal, but still present.
On the left is the same original file as before, with L.A.B. values sampled on different areas. On the right, the compressed file with the same areas being sampled – and yes, these are precisely the same points on the images as they are placed automatically by Capture One. As you can notice, there is a difference, but it's minor, and I doubt most people would even see it without color readouts. From what I understand, the problem lies in how Capture One interprets DNG files – yes, the compressed files are DNG, but more on that later. The difference in Capture One probably won't bother +95% of photographers, and Dotphoton has told me that its team is working to improve the color rendering with Capture One. So hopefully, we should see an improvement on this side with the upcoming updates.
So I brought my files into Photoshop, opened them up with Camera RAW, no adjustment, selected ProPhoto RGB and 16 bits to be sure to get a fair comparison. I then placed the compressed file as a layer on top of the original and changed the blending mode of the compressed file layer to difference so that I could see if there was any difference. All sample images gave me the same result, a fully blacked out image, meaning there is absolutely no difference between the two layers. And that was the case even if I tweaked the images in Camera Raw with similar settings.
From Proprietary to Perpetuity and Interoperability
There is a lot of debate on the web as to whether to use DNG or not. I used to rely on DNG when I was using Lightroom as it saved me a bit of space on my hard drives. But when I moved to Capture One, I stopped bothering with it as the saving wasn't all that great.
However, there are other advantages to DNG format, and they are often overlooked. It's an open format, designed to help preserve digital images, and offer a file format that can integrate into different workflows. For companies and professional photographers who want to archive files so that they can be preserved for decades to come, it's easy to understand that DNG is the superior choice compared to camera manufacturer proprietary formats. If you look at Canon, since 1997, they've moved from CRW to CR2 and are now transitioning to CR3 while DNG is still DNG since 2004.
Isn't It Too Perfect to Be Real?
That's what I thought right away. How can it be possible to save space, get a better file format, not lose any data, and no one is talking about it? If it's not better known, it's probably because Dotphoton is a young startup. It was created two years ago, and Dotphoton Raw is being released this week.
It also comes with a few limitations. First, it's not compatible with all cameras out there as the magic behind it is apparently different for each camera. So far, the most popular cameras are supported:
The company is also working hard to add any other relevant cameras, and you can even vote for the ones you'd like to see being added first. In the upcoming weeks, we should also see the Fujifilm GFX 50S/R, Nikon D750, and Canon 1DX mark II added to the list of supported cameras.
For professional working with Phase One or Hasselblad medium format cameras, unfortunately, it's not supported yet. However, I've been told there would be another dedicated product tailored explicitly for MFD systems, but no estimated release date was given to me. Hopefully, we can see it being integrated right into digital backs! It'd be an absolute dream to see such a solution being available directly into a camera, especially with digital backs now offering a resolution of 100 or even 150 megapixels.
Another development we should see are plugins for better integration with the different photo editing solutions on the market. One example I hope we'll see improved – and from what I understood should be improved – is the integration with Capture One and Lightroom. The workflow with Dotphoton Raw isn't bad but isn't the best when shooting tethered. The problem is, the compression app is a standalone solution. Meaning when shooting tethered, at the end of the session, you have to take all your camera raw files and put them through the Dotphoton Raw solution to get the compressed DNG. Then import these back into Capture One or Lightroom and copy/paste the settings you had previously applied. For wedding photographers or anyone who doesn't shoot tethered, the workflow won't change much though. It's just a matter of letting the app convert your files, which require a bit of time, but it's quite reasonable, and then import them into your photo editing software of choice.
At the time of writing the article, the Dotphoton Raw solution isn't available for everyone. It will be released the week of 27th May for $49, tax not included, per year.
What I Liked
- Ease of use.
- Storage space saving.
- Choice of DNG format.
- Pricing is very attractive when compared to the money you would otherwise spend on hard drives and storage solutions.
What Could Be Improved
- Lack of camera support – should be improved within the next couple of months.
- Lack of Windows support – should be supported once MacOS growth is stable.
- Integration with Capture One or Lightroom when shooting tethered is not the best – future plugins should help.
Dotphoton Raw is so far the best thing I've discovered this year. I haven't been excited about an app, solution, or even product in general for quite a while. It's not perfect yet, but for a first release, it's very stable and showing great opportunities for the future. I genuinely can't wait to see how it's going to be evolving with future plugins and updates.