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Photoshop is expensive, and while many are happy to fork out a monthly fee for Adobe’s revised Creative Cloud system, others will always turn to free software first. One thing is for sure: if you’re the proud owner of a camera that shoots RAW, you really should be taking advantage of it, because RAW is better than JPEG in certain cases.
I’ve trawled the Web for the best free RAW processors for Mac OS X, though many of these have Windows versions too. Be aware that though these are designed to edit RAW image files, that doesn’t make them good all-round image editors in general. This software is simply designed to process RAW files, uncompressed exposures into something that can be viewed, shared and edited in standard software.
It turns out RAW files are pretty useless on their own. You can’t print them, the image you see is just a preview and they’re way too big to bother sharing as is, so instead you’ll need to process them first. This is a good thing, because it means your camera manufacturer has to provide you with something to process your images.
This usually comes in the form of first party (and sometimes third party) software on a CD, but most can also be downloaded from manufacturer support websites. Not so long ago you might have had trouble getting Mac-specific software, but thankfully this is no longer the case. This software certainly isn’t necessarily going to be as complete as Photoshop (which uses Adobe Camera Raw), and rarely does it even come close to Lightroom or Aperture standards.
But that’s ok, because something is better than nothing. You can find the relevant support website for downloading your manufacturer’s recommended software below:
- Nikon (ViewNX)
- Canon (Digital Photo Professional)
- Sony (RAW Viewer)
- Olympus (Olympus Viewer)
- Panasonic (SILKYPIX)
- Pentax (SILKYPIX)
- Sigma (Sigma Photo Pro)
The software on offer varies in quality, but most does just fine for first-pass editing. Once you’ve adjusted your image you’ll probably want to throw it into an editor of your choice for further adjustments to be made.
The following are a selection of free third-party RAW editors for editing RAWs that have come straight off your camera, on your Mac.
A true cross-platform editing monster, RawTherapee is available in 64 and 32 bit flavours for Mac OS X, Windows and Linux (including binaries for Ubuntu and Gentoo, to name but a few). The program stuffs a lot into its cost-free package, including a very high quality processing engine, multi-threading and a huge range of supported cameras and manufacturer filetypes.
Also featured are some rather special demosaicing, denoising and enhancement tools, though you should expect to spend some time inside of the manual in order to get to grips with everything. There’s a surprising amount of depth here, and while the interface does look a little cluttered compared to that used by Adobe’s Camera Raw, it’s only a matter of familiarising yourself with the sheer number of things you’ve got to play around with here.
Other highlights include a tone-mapping feature for creating HDR-like photos from a single exposure, a range of tools for correcting lens distortions and a nice side-by-side before and after view so you can see what all those tweaks have achieved. You can even batch edit, and there are an exhaustive list of presets to fiddle with (and you can create your own) too. Simply too much for me to fit into this description, download RawTherapee and wallow in its free and open source goodness!
A very simple editor, Raw Photo Processor actually hides quite a lot of power beneath its number-heavy interface. The main thing to note here is that RPP doesn’t use sliders, instead favouring a numeral-first approach to changing parameters like exposure, contrast and even white balance. It’s a little confusing to start with, but that doesn’t mean it should be instantly discounted.
In addition to supporting a wide range of cameras, the application boasts a 4-channel white balance adjustment complete with histogram and implements compressed exposure compensation which, according to developer Andrey, is important to “preserve highlights in more film-like style instead of clipping used in traditional linear exposure compensation.”
By far the biggest thing many users will struggle with is the interface, which depends largely on a keyboard to adjust values before hitting Apply (Command+R) and seeing the changes take place. Once you’ve worked with it for five minutes, it becomes rather methodical. It’s worth noting that this package really claims to be different to the usual processors, including the pricey Photoshop, particularly for recovering badly underexposed images. That is as good a reason as any to give RPP a shot.
GIMP on OS X
Just what it says on the tin, GIMP on OS X is a version of the popular image editor known as GIMP ported to OS X. It’s still actively maintained, with full compatibility with OS X 10.8. Before you rush to the comments section to tell me that GIMP doesn’t do raw processing, think again because GIMP on OS X comes with the rather fantastic UFRaw plugin pre-installed and ready to go out of the box.
That means you not only get a standard image editor in the form of GIMP, but a free RAW processor that integrates nicely too. Simply open a RAW file with GIMP and the UFRaw plugin will launch, allowing you to manipulate exposure, white balance, contrast as well as applying curves and various greyscale models. I’m not a massive fan of GIMP myself, but UFRaw left me rather impressed with the relative ease with which results can be achieved.
If Raw Photo Processor is for those of you processing with mathematical accuracy, GIMP on OS X with UFRaw is aimed more at users who want to move the sliders around and experiment with the UI. Being able to drop your image straight into GIMP and crop, straighten and export straight up is a nice add-on – and that’s coming from someone who gets headaches just looking at the GIMP interface.
Steer Clear of Picasa
It’s true that Google’s free image editor Picasa does process RAW images, but that’s where the good news ends. Picasa does not invite you to get hands on with the RAW conversion process, it merely converts your 12 or 14 bit image into a standard 8 bit JPEG, before offering up the usual enhancements you can perform on any old image. The conversion is done before you get a chance to edit anything, so if you’re only editing your RAW files in Picasa, you might as well be shooting in JPEG.
Picasa was designed to make working with RAW (and image processing in general) easy. Rather than scare users with thousands of sliders and corrections, Google decided to implement simple RAW conversion and the standard editing options that come with the program. Picasa isn’t bad for editing lossy JPEGs, but it’s not going to do your RAW files justice, so steer clear. For more information, check out.
Unfortunately, there’s not an awful lot else to choose from when it comes to free RAW processors for OS X, though these three third-party efforts should suffice in case the tools that came with your camera simply don’t cut the mustard.
And if you’re on the lookout for image viewer apps for your Mac, we have a few excellent apps to recommend:
Image credit: PlaceIt.Breezi.com