Digital Outback Photo
- Photography using Digital SLRs

The Art of Raw Conversion #027

 

Silkypix Developer Studio 2.00

Mac & PC

review by Stewart Hemley

 
 

There are plenty of good converters out there so why bother checking a new one? Okay, this guy walks into the bar, leans close and offers you a 1500 lens for 150, and swears it’s legit. Interested? Well, a converter can make that much difference, for that sort of price difference. So it makes sense to check them out once in a while.

Silkypix is a Japanese program and was released in September 2005. So it’s quite new. Raw in fact…It’s had regular bug fixes and improvements, speaks Mac and PC, Japanese and English and supports an impressive range of cameras. For example, it supported the Mamiya ZD and Canon 30D the day they were released in Japan. You can download a trial version from: http://www.isl.co.jp/SILKYPIX/english/

As with another leading converter, you have the options of a totally free but limited function version, or a fully featured trial lasting two weeks.

My advice is to get the feel of the program with the freebie for a time then click on the two-week trial to play with the full range of controls. And they are full! When you open SP for the first time it’s, well, daunting. But once you learn your way around, the layout feels quite logical and because you usually don’t have to change so many settings to get the desired result, the workflow is surprisingly fast.

But its real strength lies in its ability to get great color out of your raw files. I have tested it on a wide range of cameras, including Canon 1Dsmk2, 1Ds, 5D and 20D and a similar range of Nikons as far back as the D1x. In each case, I obtained the best, most accurate color from any converter yet. And with very little fiddling. By “accurate” I mean the color that most closely resembles the subject when it was taken, whatever lighting prevailed. And it also has the most pleasing levels (unadjusted) of saturation and contrast. Some photographers claim that any converter can replicate the effects of any other. I’m not so convinced. People who argue that, often have to spend inordinate amounts of time to make a close copy. I’m too busy for that: if a converter will do most if it for me, I’m interested.

SP has some useful features, like tilt/shift controls, distortion correction, dual screen support and ways of speeding up the workflow. Incredibly, there are over 150 customized key possibilities! That ought to be more than enough even for the most obsessive amongst us.

To access files, as well as the usual “open folder” and “last used folder” options, you can search for individual files, with a usefully large thumbnail that appears instantly as you click on each file:

Once opened, the thumbnails for that folder appear quickly. The size of the thumbs is adjusted via Option, Display setting, Thumbnail mode. A slider on the top menu bar would be easier and faster. The various dialogue boxes can be positioned, or floated to wherever. If you have two screens, all menus can be placed on the right hand screen and then the image can fill the other. Annoyingly, if you use two screens, when you close the program, and then reopen, it does not remember where you positioned everything. Fortunately, it will remember if you use a single screen.

Although there is no official slideshow mode, you can get a similar effect by selecting View, Outline Preview. This also allows you to check each shot and grade it. You can drag the preview screen to any size, plus you can move the thumbs to the right, and even have exif info, simple or (incredibly) detailed, showing while you preview, as below. As you grade each shot, the mark appears above the thumbnail.

The layout of the main control panel is quite logical and follows the order recommended for processing. Each of the boxes on the left opens further boxes below for detailed control. For example, clicking on “tone” reveals sliders for contrast, contrast center, gamma and black level.

Contrast, gamma and black level work in the normal way but the unusual one is contrast center. This slider dims or brightens the image and determines the range of brightness that the contrast slider affects. The effect is quite subtle and the best way to see how it works is to play with it and see what happens to the histogram and image. This is one of those controls that usually doesn’t have to be touched but can be useful for a tricky exposure. Incidentally, the histogram, like the tone control, can be set at any size or screen position.

A neat touch is that every slider in Silkypix also has a “click to move it one unit” option. You can use the slider for speed and large adjustments, and/or the click facility for fine changes.

As with most other converters, it’s easy to set the parameters, ie how you want to develop the image, for as many shots as you want. Select one shot, set the parameters you want, Ctrl-C (PC), select the shots you want to apply the parameters to, then Ctrl-V. You can change individual parameters, or all of them, at any time on one or all shots in a similar way using “paste partial parameter”.

You can permanently save any number of parameters as your basic setting and apply them with only a couple of clicks at the start of a session. You can also do this to quickly create versions of the same image. A weakness is that these versions are not saved automatically, but once you get used to doing it, saving as many versions as you want is as quick as saving the parameters.

There are many controls for affecting color, although I have already said this is the area where SP really shines and usually there is not much alteration needed.

        

But if you really want to spend hours on each shot, this is the place to do it. The screenshots above are not how you would normally arrange the various boxes but they show the full range available. There are no less than five separate controls for color – the saturation slider duplicates and gives finer control than the “light, little light, average, little vivid” etc controls. I suppose these presets are useful if you always dial in, say “a little vivid” because it’s marginally quicker than remembering what you always set the slider at but it would be no great loss for most people if they went missing in a later version. But the other controls are useful because they give incredibly fine control if you need it. Apart from standard color, there are 10 more presets that approximate to such film stock (ah, the good old days) as Velvia, Agfa and Kodachrome. (My view is that we should forget what film used to look like and move forward to the look[s] we want from digital, but that’s off topic here and YMMV.) These presets will only change the color characteristics; they won’t add any other effects such as grain. Interestingly there are two mono versions to choose from.

One area that needs improvement is highlight control. There is a separate box for this, and it’s easy enough to set all the sliders to the left to control highlights, but I would like to see their effect increased. They work well enough on weak to medium areas but are not quite as effective on areas with real attitude. The SP people are aware of this shortcoming and working to improve it.

A good feature is the range of noise control available. “False color” translates as color noise in English. The default setting is 80 but with most of the cameras I tested, 30 is strong enough and doesn’t obviously attack fine detail. The next slider down is “noise reduction” but I preferred to leave this at zero and use the next couple of sliders: “Noise level” and “Noise cancel”. Both are subtle, which allows for easy control, and the effects can be seen clearly when zoomed in 100% on a subject. I have yet to find a use for “Geometric control”, can’t see what it does and the manual recommends that you consult them before using it! Maybe it’s only to be used on the morning of April 1st


One other control over noise, not immediately obvious, is the “Dev. Precision” slider in the “Dev” box. The default is 80, a compromise between speed and development of fine detail, including noise, but I prefer the maximum setting of 99 (don’t know why it won’t go to 100!). Although this fully develops any noise in the image, I prefer to control that with the noise sliders rather than have the program decide it for me. Conversion is a little slower at 99 but not a lot.

The final controls worth discussing are for simulating lens tilt shift and correcting distortion, including chromatic aberration. I compared the effect of these in SP and then in Photoshop for speed of use and quality of image.

I couldn’t see any difference in image quality but found them quicker and easier to use in SP. I also found it was quicker to make any changes, especially if you have changed many other aspects such as tone, exposure, etc, in SP. You can simply click on the enable box to see a before and after comparison. And there are also the four “cloakrooms” available for an instant comparison, plus the option to save as many versions as you want.

There are many areas of this fully featured converter that I did not have time or room to discuss. It might strike you as being overburdened with controls, but the reality is, you don’t often have to change many of them. It’s easy to set parameters, or change them, and in real-life use I find it even faster than my previous favorite converter, which is known for its great workflow.

But it doesn’t really matter what I, or anyone else thinks about image quality because you’re the one who has to work the controls. My advice is to convert some images with your current converter(s), and then compare them side by side with the Silkypix version.

Summary

Pros

  • Great color and image quality
  • Easy, fast workflow
  • Great feature set
  • Ability to customize
  • Free if you don’t want the bells and whistles.

Cons

  • Manual sometimes unclear
  • Irritating minor fixes needed
  • Output color spaces limited to sRGB and aRGB
  • Daunting at first sight
 
 
 
 
 
   

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