The conversion of a raw capture into image data is critical for any photographic image, but I think it becomes even more important when dealing with infrared images, i.e., images captured with a camera sensitive to infrared wavelengths. I believe there are at least a couple of reasons that infrared raw conversion so critical. First, whether the final image is intended to be monochrome or false color, infrared images typically have to be pushed a lot harder in post-processing through extreme color shifts and high contrast adjustments. The image at the top of this page is a preliminary edit (sadly, I saved over this edit in Photoshop and lost it) that shows an example of how far I want to push this image in Photoshop, especially when compared to the camera preview shown below.
The second reason is more speculative on my part, but I believe that an IR raw capture itself is not as good as a standard color capture from an unconverted camera because the RGB color filters of the Bayer array were designed to pass light in the Red, Green, and Blue wavelengths of the spectrum, not the infrared wavelengths. But these filters do pass light in the infrared wavelengths, as shown in the diagram below, which is why we are able to convert standard cameras by replacing the internal IR-blocking filter; however, the Bayer color filters are only secondarily transmissive to infrared light and each filter has a different transmissivity with the red filter passing the most light and the blue filter passing the least amount. Therefore, the captured raw image may be disproportionately skewed to the red channel (which explains why it is so important to watch for clipping of the red channel in the histogram at the time of capture). In addition, the wavelengths captured by the RGB filters overlap more in the IR spectrum, so it is more difficult to separate these color channels later on in post-processing, leading to a greater chance of image degradation.
Back in 2015 Vincent Versace (Nikon Ambassador and Monochrome Master) gave a talk at B&H on infrared photography. He devoted a good portion of that talk to the importance of using the camera manufacturer's software to set the correct white balance for infrared raw captures and gave a demo showing how much better the Nikon software was at setting a good white balance for an IR image than other raw processors. I heard essentially the same thing from Dan Wampler, Creative Director at Life Pixel, during my complimentary training session. Dan recommended that I use the free version of Capture One for Sony since I converted a Sony a6000.
Based on the recommendations of these two photographers/instructors, I decided to try processing the same raw capture using Lightroom, Capture One, and Sony Imaging Edge (formerly Image Data Converter) to see for myself the differences on the final image. My goal was to produce a processed raw ready for further editing in Photoshop with the eventual goal being to produce a high quality monochrome image. So in this test, each of the raw processors is being used is just that, a raw processor and not an image editor. Raw adjustments were aimed at preparing a base image file with maximum image quality for further manipulation. I'll make some preliminary judgments based on the exported processed image, but I'll withhold a final conclusion until all three exported images have been fully developed in Photoshop.
At the time I wrote this post, I didn't see a discernible difference in the quality of the images produced by Lightroom or Capture One. With a couple of years of processing infrared images under my belt, I now feel qualified to offer a stronger opinion. While the advice from Vincent Versace and Dan Wampler is well meant and probably was quite true even as recent and three or four years ago, I don't think it is relevant today. When Adobe released the updated Profiles with Lightroom Classic version 7.3 in 2018, the ability to process infrared raw images in Lightroom was greatly enhanced, and I have not found any need to use any other raw processor for my infrared images. After raw conversion, I am using Lightroom for most black and white images and generally for quick false color edits to conceptualize an idea. For my best quality images, I am using Photoshop in combination with the B&W Artisan Pro X panel for black and white images or the CLiR panel for false color images. If you are wanting to produce high quality infrared images, I think both of these panels are sound investments.
Before an infrared raw file can be properly processed in Lightroom, a custom DNG profile must be created to properly while balance the image. There are any number of tutorials on the internet detailing the process, but I have not seen one that mentions you can select a profile other than Adobe Standard. For my a6000 and a6500, I almost always use the Deep profile for landscape images, so I created an infrared profile based on the Deep profile along with some of the other available camera-matching profiles that I use. I was using Lightroom Classic CC 8.2.
Starting with the Deep Infrared profile, I white balanced the raw image in Lightroom using the dropper tool to select a suitable sample from the image. I first tried the bright cloud above and left of the windmill, then zoomed in and clicked on the bright grass at the lower left corner of the doorway to the house. Additional adjustments included the following:
I also made some slight Saturation and Luminance adjustments in the HSL panel to enhance the blue clump of grass in the foreground.
I am much less familiar with Capture One than Lightroom, but I focused on making basic adjustments and read the documentation when in doubt. I was using Capture One Pro Sony version 12.0.2.
I started with the white balance and used the dropper tool to select the same area of grass at the lower left corner of the doorway.
Capture One adjustments included:
The image was exported as a 16-bit TIFF using the ProPhoto RGB color profile.
Sony Imaging Edge Edit, formerly known as Image Data Converter, is the clunky, slow, and basically undocumented software that Sony provides to process raw images. I expected this software to offer the ability to generate a high quality TIFF image using the camera settings, but I also expected it to offer the ability to start from scratch and disregard the camera settings. But as far as I can tell, aside from a few options such as white balance and creative style, it offers no ability to "reset" the image (there are no defaults independent of the camera settings). I did explore the various settings and made some adjustments, but in the end it seemed that Imaging Edge Edit offers very little in the way of raw processing. (I do want to mention that the Remote application that is part of the Imaging Edge suite is actually very useful, so I'm not throwing the whole suite under the bus here, just the Edit application.) I was using Edit version 1.4.00.
Imaging Edge Edit adjustments included:
The image was exported as a 16-bit TIFF using the "Wide Gamut RGB" color space. After importing the TIFF into Lightroom, the image was very flat and lacked detail, so I applied some basic Lightroom adjustments to the TIFF to bring it on par with the other processed images. Both versions are shown below.
The following images present several side-by-side comparisons of the final processed raw files. The first shows the differences in color in the 3 images that were white balanced on the same small spot. There really is not right or wrong here except that the bright clouds should be white and there should be good color separation. I think Lightroom and Capture One are about equal with Imaging Edge seeming to have a lot of yellow in the clouds and foreground that is not present in the other two images. I should also mention that the white balance can change substantially depending on the exact spot being sampled with the dropper tool, so it would be nearly impossible to obtain identical white balances.
The next set of images compares the details in the images for three different areas of the photo-the farmhouse and windmill, the clump of blue grass (shadow detail), and the brightest area in the clouds (highlight detail).
Looking at the farmhouse, it is difficult to pick a winner between Lightroom and Capture One, but I think Lightroom is showing finer details more clearly. I found that I could get much more detail using the Structure slider in Capture One, but that introduced very visible artifacting in the sky. In this comparison, the sky is smooth in Capture One, but there is some visible texture in the Lightroom image. After seeing this, I made some further adjustments in Lightroom (not shown here) to eliminate the texture while maintaining the detail (reduced Clarity to +10, increased sharpening masking to +70, and increased noise reduction to Luminance +25 and Detail +75).
The Imaging Edge image was very mushy as exported, and with the sharpening applied in Lightroom as shown here there is significant pixellation and haloing along the edges. The windmill looks about the same from Lightroom and Capture One; I might give Capture One a slight edge for the appearance of the sails. But the Lightroom image seems to show an incredible amount of more detail in the white grasses in front of the house where individual grasses can be seen whereas there is a continuous gray blob in the Capture One image.
In the deep shadows and foreground detail, I have to pick Lightroom as the winner here. The Capture One image appears fuzzy, although there is some blotchiness in the blue grasses in the Lightroom image. I do recognize that the apparent lack of detail in the Capture One image could be related to my inexperience with the program and could possibly be improved with better sharpening settings. The Imaging Edge colors are very flat and the dormant grasses have no definition.
In the highlights, all three images have good definition. I don't think there is a clear winner here except the Lightroom image does have better color separation between the sky and clouds.
So what is the verdict? As I said at the beginning, I want to fully process all three versions through Photoshop to see which one produces the best final image. I can say that I see no benefit whatsoever to using Sony Imaging Edge Edit-it is slow and does not appear to offer any benefits to image quality. Plus I'm not real sure what most of the sliders are designed to accomplish. Both Lightroom and Capture One have produced what appears to be a high quality image ready to be pushed around and abused by Photoshop. We shall see if one of them can withstand the abuse better!