The most important piece of free imaging software that exists

I helped a friend out recently with an imaging software issue she was having. At the end of our phone call I noted that I had introduced her to THE most important piece of free imaging software that exists. I ended our chat by saying “I think every photographer working digitally should have this software on his or her computer’s desktop.” This blog entry is a small step towards making that happen.

After our conversation, my friend wrote me:

“THANKS so much for helping us download the DNG thing. It’s great. I really appreciate you walking me through the process. It gets so confusing.”

“The DNG thing” is the Adobe DNG converter, which is, as I said, THE most important piece of free imaging software that exists. So what is the “Adobe DNG converter?”

Well, if you do any digital imaging you already know the company, “Adobe.”

The DNG part refers to “Digital Negative.” Adobe’s idea was that there are so many different RAW file formats that some company (like Adobe) should make a universal RAW format. They started working on it in 2003 and soon made it freely available for all the camera manufacturer to use in their cameras. On one level, it is a great idea, having a universal RAW format, but few manufacturers actually signed on.

(As a reminder, RAW files refer to the raw information that comes right from the camera’s digital chip. It has not yet been processed into a standardized format like TFF or JPG. RAW files have a great deal more information and flexibility than processed files like TFFs or JPGs. The downside of RAWs is that they need an additional step (or two) in order to make them into processed files like TFFs or JPGs. That added step needs to be done by the photographer and can be a hassle but it also gets you much higher image quality.

Some camera makers who use the DNG format in their cameras (partly or totally) include: Casio, Hasselblad, Pentax, Ricoh and Samsung. You will notice that the big players in the digital SLR business (Canon, Nikon and Olympus) are notably absent. They would rather force you to use their proprietary imaging software to convert RAW files to TFFs or JPGs. (Or you could of course use different versions of Photoshop to do much the same thing.) Still, the idea of a universal format does have its appeal! (Some people oppose the idea of such a big company as Adobe developing and controlling such an important thing as a universal RAW format, but that is another issue. )

You can read more about the format and Adobe’s efforts to make it universal starting at: http://www.adobe.com/products/dng/ or http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_Negative_(file_format)

Finally, the “converter” refers to the software that converts most any proprietary RAW file to a universal RAW format. It is incredibly useful because if you encounter a very new, very old or very rare RAW format, you can convert it from something that is almost unusable to something that is easy to work with AND still has all the benefits of a RAW file. In my workshop teaching, I regularly encounter a vast range of different RAW formats and the DNG converter helps me in just about every case.

To see all the various proprietary formats that the Adobe DNG converter will convert to DNG, go to: http://www.adobe.com/products/photoshop/cameraraw.html

One great thing about the Adobe DNG converter is that it is FREE.

You can get the latest version (for free.) It works to make various RAW files into something that can be opened with Photoshop CS- 3 or CS-4. See that starting at: http://www.adobe.com/support/downloads/detail.jsp?ftpID=4368

If you are using an older version of Photoshop, do not despair. Go to: http://www.adobe.com/support/downloads/product.jsp?product=106&platform=Macintosh and you will see a directory of all the various versions of the DNG converter that you might download. This page is for users of Macs. The same thing for Windows can be found at: http://www.adobe.com/support/downloads/product.jsp?product=106&platform=Windows

You will see many versions of the Adobe DNG converter software and you need to keep a few things in mind as you figure out which one is for you:

1) You can either download the Adobe DNG converter and the Camera Raw plug-in (used to modify your Photoshop to open the various later RAW files,) or you can download only the plug-in (to modify your Photoshop.) Even if you are not going to use that plug-in, download the set with both, in order to get the Adobe DNG converter.

2) You may need to click on and read through the information about the various different versions of the Adobe DNG converter to determine exactly which one works for you. The friend I was helping had two constraints that determined what version she downloaded. She was using Photoshop CS-2, so that limited her choices. On the other hand, she had RAW files from a fairly new Olympus E-Volt 510, so she needed a later version of the Adobe DNG converter, which was capable of handling those image files. She ended up downloading the Adobe DNG converter version 4.3.1. That may not be the one for you, so read the information pages carefully.

3) You should always get the latest version available of the Adobe DNG converter, as it contains the software for converting every file format that was developed in the many older versions. The converter is regularly updated, whenever Adobe sees enough new RAW file formats on the market to merit the effort to develop the program to convert those new file formats.

The way the Adobe DNG converter works is remarkably simple. Download it first. Install it and in the case of a Mac, put it in your Dock. Then open a folder full of RAW files. Select them all, drag them over the icon for the Adobe DNG converter and drop them on it. The dialogue box that follows asks where to put the new files and a few other questions. I usually click right through, putting the new DNG files next to the old RAW files. Then I go back to Photoshop and open the new DNG files and work on them as I choose.

Imagine, a program that converts nearly any hard to open, proprietary RAW file into any easy to use file that most versions of Photoshop can easily open. Imagine that the program is free, easy to use and regularly updated. As they say on TV, “It doesn’t get any better than that.”

5 responses to “The most important piece of free imaging software that exists”

  1. couple of points:

    1) we never learn. The computer world has its own similar problem. Data media types and computer OS and vendors all change or disappear over time. NASA has its own similar problem of 100s of thousands of old, unconverted data tapes with data from manned and unmanned that. Tapes for which the equipment to read them is long gone and dead. This article is the tip of an iceberg: http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2008/11/10/2415393.htm

    2) re: Canon, Nikon and Olympus are notably absent. They would rather force you to use their proprietary imaging software to convert RAW files to TFFs or JPGs.

    This bunch, the worst offender being Nikon, don’t share all the details of what’s in their proprietary RAW format, reserving functionality and hoped for perceived advantages for their own image rendering and editing software. Its a foolhardy effort and position and an indication of “just don’t get it.” Attempts to be proprietary and hold on to their own non-standard (and evolving-the raw format of a 40D is far different than the raw format of a 10D or a 20D) only guarantee image format obsolescence and headaches for the customers in the future.

    I think they should focus on building the best cameras they can build and leave the job of image s/w to those who focus on making those tools, notably Adobe.

    David, do you bite the bullet up front and convert images to DNG or keep DNG conversion in your back pocket for if and when a format becomes obsolete and you need to convert it into an standard “intermediary?”

  2. Thanks. I convert my Olympus RAW files to DNG then archive both the DNGs and the RAW files, knowing that at least one of the two formats will likely work down the road.

  3. I keep copies of ALL the Olympus RAW files and the matching DNGs on two mirrored DVDs. I use the Matsui Gold DVDs which have a much longer archival life than conventional DVDs.

    I also have selected images (ones that I want handy for personal projects or are of interest to my stock agencies or my editorial clients) on two mirrored HDs.

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