Do different raw programs develop your camera's raw files the same? Do those programs treat various camera brands equally? Testing them side by side, the answer to both those questions is a definite no. Here's how Lightroom Classic stands up.
Sometimes, I start an article thinking this will be easy to write about, but then it grows, and I find too much information to include in one piece. That was the case for this article, which has grown into a series comparing Lightroom Classic with other raw development programs.
For a previous article, I downloaded several of those different programs, and some I already used. I decided to use this opportunity to put them through their paces and see what gave the best results. Moreover, would loading different cameras' raw files through these programs, without making adjustments, deliver different outcomes depending on the camera brand?
In this series of articles, I'll use the same images from different brands of cameras: Nikon, Canon, Sony, Fujifilm, and my OM System camera and how they look when opened under various raw development programs. The anecdotal evidence suggested that some programs performed better with some brands than others, and I wanted to see if this were true.
There are real-world tests intended as a guideline, giving you an idea of what to look for when investing in software. Minor differences can probably be ignored because they will be correctable in the software or plugins. However, there were some appreciable differences I came across, and it's these I concentrated on.
I'm not trying to develop the images for these tests to get the best possible final results. That, after all, is subjective. Instead, I started by looking at the details in the shadows and highlights and whether they were recovered equally using the adjustment sliders, especially how much noise was produced in the case of the shadows.
Of course, the results shown here won't be the only deciding factor in choosing a program. Price may be important to you – these were shown in the previous article – and you may find some programs more intuitive than someone else. Furthermore, each program has its unique features, and they might be necessary for some and not for others. In other words, it's perfectly okay for one person to love Lightroom (or insert another program name here) and another to hate it. The intention is not to tell you that any program is great or dreadful.
I'm using Lightroom Classic as a benchmark for these tests. I use it almost daily, so I am familiar with it. I find it intuitive, although I've met some who struggle using it; that's true of any program. It's also probably the most popular program. The layout is sensible too. Although not perfect, I consider it a good program. The cataloging was second to none, but others are catching up, if not yet overtaking it.
Lightroom Classic Test Results
Lightroom Classic and Nikon
Of all the cameras I tested, with Lightroom Classic, the straight-out-of-camera results were most impressive from the Nikon Z7 II. Close-up at 100%, the test image was clean of noise. There was no sign of over-sharpening, and the image result seemed to benefit from an increase in sharpening from the default. Highlights could be recovered, and shadows increased with little evidence of noise. If I were a Nikon owner, I would be pleased. However, in future articles, I will demonstrate that even better results are obtainable when it comes to fine detail.
Lightroom Classic and Canon
The Canon EOS-R results at default were slightly over-sharpened and benefitted from reducing the sharpening. Highlights were recoverable, but slight luminance noise was visible in the dark tones. When the shadows were increased, this was more clearly seen, and the noise reduction softened the image, thus requiring additional sharpening. With this in mind, when shooting with a Canon, I would be inclined to use a plugin for noise reduction, such as Topaz DeNoise or ON1's NoNoise. More concerning, the colors were inaccurate; I discuss this in a later article, and skin tones were dull at default values.
The following shot compares the straight-out-of-camera versions of a Canon photo with Lightroom (left) and DxO PhotoLab 6 (right). The skin tones are far more appealing with the default DxO result.
Lightroom Classic and OM System
Lightroom handles the OM-1 raw files poorly compared to other programs I tried. By default, there were many ugly artifacts in the image that were not in other programs. Even reducing the sharpening slider down to zero, there is a graininess that cannot be seen when loaded into ON1 Photo Raw or DxO Photolab 6. Removing this with Lightroom's noise reduction slider left the image looking muddy. That could be balanced with the sharpening slider, but that also reintroduced the noise.
Furthermore, increasing the shadows worked poorly, leaving a purple hue of chroma noise and not showing the detail.
Of course, one might blame the noise on the camera and the smaller sensor size. However, as you will see in future articles, this wasn't the case with some other programs I tried, plus the following two cameras with larger sensors suffered from detail issues too, when run through Lightroom Classic. My results seem to support the claim by OM System professionals that Lightroom doesn't do the OM System raw files justice.
Lightroom Classic and Sony
Similarly, the Sony a7 IV images appeared noisy at default values, which I could not see in other programs. Increasing the shadows accentuated that noise. In fact, increasing the shadows introduced more noise than with the OM-1, which was surprising because of the difference in sensor sizes. However, the OM-1 has a newer stacked sensor, which might account for that.
There was a stark difference between the flatness of raw file previews that were apparent in Lightroom and other programs. One can see a massive difference by placing the above image alongside the same image at default settings in DxO PhotoLab 6. Notice how dull the climber's face looks on the lefthand Lightroom conversion than the righthand PhotoLab version.
Lightroom Classic and Fujifilm
Images from the Fujifilm X-T5 didn't have any noise at default values. Still, the sharpening applied by Lightroom gave an odd painterly effect at default values, especially with the fine details of green foliage. The sharpening required reducing, but that seemed to soften more quickly than other brands.
Highlights were easily recovered, and shadows increased with little noise. However, it still seemed to struggle with the fine detail of the yellow/greens. I can only speculate whether this has to do with Lightroom having problems processing the greens from an X-Trans sensor.
What I Like and What can be Improved with Lightroom Classic's Raw results
Lightroom is a good program. I like its workflow, and it has a lot to be said in favor of it. The layout of the Develop module is excellent, and the raw results at default are not bad. However, neither are they the best.
I can already hear some screaming that these are just the default values with no adjustment settings applied. That is true, but here's the crunch: with some other programs, even those new to me, I could achieve better results than I could with Lightroom Classic, which I am reasonably familiar with. I found color, tone, sharpness, and noise control better elsewhere. Nevertheless, you will see in future articles, when I reveal those that did better or worse, that each other program has its advantages and disadvantages too.
I do like Lightroom Classic. Its library module is impressive, and for applying rapid developments, something I do for writing articles, I would happily continue to use it. The results are not bad. Furthermore, many people will be happy to address its shortcomings by opening their images into Photoshop and the various external plugins, especially the AI noise reduction and sharpening plugins. However, for my high-quality limited edition prints, I will now choose a different program to develop my raw files, and my conclusion will be in one of the follow-up articles.
The other limitation of these tests is that I have tried one high-end camera from each brand: what applies to the Canon EOS R might not to a Rebel T7, and less sharp kit lenses might give different results too. However, I hope these tests show that it is worth considering raw developing options other than the obvious ones.
Just as I always advise people buying cameras, don't take another's word that something they own will be the best option for you.
I should also stress that all the cameras performed well and can produce clear images with recoverable highlight and shadow details. They all stand up to professional standards; I would happily own and use any of them.
Perhaps the most significant learning point for me was that when we read camera reviews, especially when they look at detail and noise levels, we should consider the program the reviewer used to make their judgment.
I want to thank my fellow writers for generously sharing their images for me to play with: Used with the kind permission of Peter Morgan, Canon; Gary McIntyre, Fujifilm X-T5 and Nikon Z7-2; and Andy Day, Sony a7 III.