Nikon Capture NX: Hands On and Second Thoughts
Well, the wait is over. Nikon this week made publicly available the 30-day trial version of the eagerly anticipated Nikon Capture NX. Since I had mixed feelings about it back when it was announced, I wanted to follow up now that I've actually got a copy. Capture NX represents a significant rethinking of what image editing is all about. Whether you like the results or not will depend in large part on what you think of what image editing has been about with programs like Adobe Photoshop.
Before I go into any details though, let me state first off that this week's PhotoTips article is being posted a bit late because I have rewritten it a few times. Since Nikon released it on Friday I've been playing with it and the more I do the more I change my mind about it. Nikon Capture NX dispenses nearly completely with the traditional paradigm of having to manually target your edits a desired portion of an image with selection tools and layer masks. To the casual user, Capture NX just seems to "know" what you are trying to do and helps out by automatically creating the needed selection mask. If, like me, you're an old hand at Photoshop, you will probably long for better tools to manually adjust selections yourself. If instead you've always been frustrated trying to use Photoshop and similar programs, Capture NX may be just what you are looking for.
From a workflow standpoint, Capture NX organizes things into what it calls the "Edit List." At the top of this list as step number 1 is what are called "Base Adjustments" which include all the legacy tools you've come to both love and hate from previous versions of Nikon Capture. For fans of Capture 4.4, everything seems to be here including White Balance, the LCH Editor and D-Lighting. All the new features of Capture NX get added to the Edit List starting with step number 2. As the numbering convention indicates, you should start with the Base Adjustments before going on to the new stuff. You may not need to do everything you used to since some things can be done more easily with tools new to NX, but the basics of Exposure and White Balance should always at least be checked on every image.
The real magic of Capture NX happens by means of something called Control Points, and they are indeed cool. You can create one in any of three basic types, affecting Color, Black / White / Neutral, or Red Eye reduction. When you do, Capture NX automatically creates a mask to limit your changes to nearby pixels similar to the point you clicked on. Just how nearby a pixel needs to be is controlled by the Size handle for that Control Point. Just how similar it has to be is determined by the interaction of all Control Points of the same type. If something ends up being affected that you didn't want to be, you can add another Control Point on it to lock it in place. Control Points seem designed to be good neighbors and not mess up each others pixels.
Indeed, this seems to be the key to effectively using Capture NX. As I've said, being a Photoshop junkie I find it frustrating that you can't edit the layer masks that each control point generates, but it seems you can usually get good results simply by using additional points on key sections of an image. New digital shooters and those who have only used Photoshop because there were no other good options may find this new editing paradigm a godsend.
As you create control points, they add themselves to the Edit List grouped by type. By default, all Color Control Points for instance are grouped together under the grammatically incorrect and singular rather than plural "Color Control Point" heading. Expanding this section reveals "Color Control Point 1," "Color Control Point 2" and so on. Each of these has its own settings that you defined while creating them.
If you want to isloate one group of Color Control Points from others, you can manually create a new Edit Step by clicking on the "New Step" button at the bottom of the Edit List window. The type of your new step will become whatever the next new editing action you take. For example, if you want to create a new group of Color Control Points, use "New Step" to create a new entry in the Edit List, the create the new point.
For those who can't resist tinkering with the selection masks Capture NX uses for each Control Point, there is a partial answer in the complement of selection tools present in the product. On the toolbar you can find the usual paintbrush, lasso and gradient tools, but they work somewhat counter intuitively to me at least. Although you can create any number of Color Control Points for instance, each with its own layer mask determining which pixels it affects and by how much, there is only one user-defined mask that overlays the lot of them. The settings for each point include a checkbox to "Show Selection." Checking it replaces the image on your monitor with the typical black and white mask display, much as one would see in Photoshop, but even when displayed you can't directly edit it. Instead, the paintbrush and other selection tools show up as red on top of the black and white mask. And no matter which Color Control Point within that Edit Step you select, the same painted red marking show up. Apparently, the paintbrush creates an additional mask that blocks the effects of all points in that Step together. Why they can't just let you edit the mask is beyond me, but I guess you're supposed to solve selection problems by creating more points rather than editing the masks.
Each Edit List step also does have a Feather option at the top of it. Clicking on it gives you a slider that allows you to soften the edges of how the effects of one point blend into that of another. If you find that transitions are too abrupt, you can increase the Feather setting to minimize or eliminate the problem.
No matter how well you like them though, Control Points aren't perfect.
While any given Control Point casts its beam of influence in a circle around the point clicked on, not everything in life is round. If you are trying to make changes to something irregularly shaped, or particularly something that is much longer in one dimension than the other, you will likely need more than one Control Point to adequately cover it without intruding unduly into what surrounds it. Capture NX does let you duplicate Control Points so you can create one, then clone it and move the copies around to where you need them, but each remains an independent point. If you later find you overdid the saturation perhaps, you will need to edit the settings of each of the points you used. NX lets you hold down the shift key to select multiple points within a given Edit List step to change them altogether, but its not easy to remember which points pertain to a given edit since they are merely numbered, not named. Seriously detailed editing can therefore get unduly complicated. It would be great if you could link together all the Control Points that affected a tree, a river or what have you, and label them as such, treating them as a group for all future edits so long as they remain linked.
So much for Control Points. Let's move on to what for me is the main other new feature of the program.
Yes, the rumors are true: Capture NX does indeed have real color management. It's not without bugs though. At least on my test system only a small number of the installed color profiles show up in the list of available choices when converting or applying (assigning) color profiles. Changing profiles creates a new entry in the Edit List. Even if you merely open the Adjust >> Color Profile dialog and then cancel out of it without touching any of its settings, you will get an new Edit List entry labeled "Color Profile." Looking at what it contains shows a step that will apply (assign) the same profile the file already has — in other words, a do-nothing step. But apart from that, color management really does work. Thank you, Nikon and Nik.
As an actual raw NEF file converter, Capture NX truly hasn't changed that much from earlier versions. It does a good job, but all of the new features in NX work on any image file type not just raw files. It seems they just took the core engine of Capture 4.4 and wrapped all the new stuff around it. That's not necessarily bad of course since Capture has long been one of the better raw converters out there, but I had hopes of improved interpolation algorithms or something.
In terms of speed, Capture NX is a cut above its predecessors, so long as you are running it on an adequate system. Nothing will help you if you don't have enough memory or a fast enough CPU, but if you do, you will be pleased with NX. By caching aspects of the image display, screen refreshes have improved remarkably. Base Adjustments are still slower than in some other raw converters, but the new U-Point based tools are reasonably fast. As you move various sliders, edits still lag slightly behind your cursor, but not overly so.
The user interface for Capture NX looks much more modern than the old Capture 4 design. But looks are sometimes only skin deep and the GUI for Capture NX is no exception. Most of the changes are welcome, but there is at least one major inconsistency that bugs me: the small black triangle icons. Each step in the Edit List has one next to it. Clicking on it expands that step vertically to list everything underneath it. Once you click on the triangle next to the Color Control Point step for instance, the list of each number point can be seen underneath it. Next to each one is another small black triangle icon. But if you expected the settings for a given point to expand out underneath it when you click the triangle next to it, you'd be in for a surprise. Instead, a new completely separate settings window flies out next to the Edit List that can be moved around independently of any other window. Probably just me, but it would have been nice if they had used something visually different for things that produced different results.
In addition to the color profile glitch mentioned previously, the program does have a few other bugs but nothing major for something officially labeled as version 1.0. At one point I managed to create a corrupted NEF file that couldn't be opened again in anything but Capture NX (it liked it, but nothing else did). I'm not sure exactly what did it and I have not be able to duplicate the problem, but when you are writing settings back to your original NEF file as all versions of Capture do you would do well to have backups. At another point, my entire image disappeared and was replaced by a white screen but closing it and reopening it cleared things up nicely. I also managed to cause a Windows .NET error when trying to open a folder on a network drive, but by and large the program seems fairly solid, all things considered.
I'm not going to try to cover everything that Capture NX can do here. By now you may well have downloaded the trial yourself if you are a Nikon shooter. If not, you can do so from here. The Nikon Capture NX Users Guide can be downloaded from here in Adobe Acrobat PDF format.
So, what's my verdict on Capture NX? I must say I have developed a deeper appreciation for what Nikon and Nik Software set out to create, but I'm not sure it's for me. My workflow revolves around Photoshop and I don't see that changing because of NX. I'd highly recommend though that digital shooters who are not Photoshop fans take a good look at Capture NX. This may just be what they've been looking for.
Update 7/15/2006 - By the way, it's worth noting that as of the release of Nikon Capture NX, the pesky Nikon NEF Plugin is now officially gone. It no longer gets installed at all. Finally.
Update 7/16/2006 - More on how color management works in Nikon Capture NX here.
Update 9/01/2006 - Nikon today released an update for Capture NX labeled as version 1.0.1 available for download from Nikon USA for both Windows and MacOS as well as from other Nikon sites worldwide. It corrects several known bugs, and those who have become converts to the U-PointTM religion will welcome the fixes. Those who aren't so smitten by NX probably already uninstalled the product when their 30-day trial expired and aren't likely to find much in 1.0.1 to make them change their minds. If this sounds like you, wait for at least 1.1 before testing the NX waters again.