Picasa for RAW images or why Lightroom is better for RAW

After yet another trip to the Alps I decided to take a look at Picasa for quick processing of RAW photos from our Pentax DSLR. A major reason for trying Picasa instead of Lightroom was its speed, face recognition feature and out of the box G+ integration.

To my surprise freshly imported RAW photos looked visibly different (and subjectively quite worse) in Picasa. It took some time to find the answer, which was not on the surface and immediately caused me to go back to Lightroom for RAW processing:

Picasa and raw sensor data (RAW)

Picasa supports hundreds of distinct raw formats. Picasa’s raw data support is based on the free and open source dcraw. Camera makers generally create a new, distinct (and incompatible) raw format for just about every new camera body they make. That means that, for example, a .CR2 raw from a Canon 20d is not at all the same as a .CR2 raw from a Canon 5D, or the latest Rebel. They all have the .CR2 extension. But they’re incompatible and different. Same with Nikon .NEF raws and the raws of other camera makers.

At any point in time, the current version of Picasa will be unable to work with the raw photos taken by the most recently released cameras. Historically, several times per year, Picasa puts out a new release that includes support of new raw formats. We generally don’t really know when a new release will come out, or if any particular new raw format will be supported.

It’s important to understand how Picasa supports raw sensor data, though.

Picasa’s goal in supporting raws was to make it easy to shoot raws and to organize and share them.

At that, Picasa has succeeded wonderfully.

You shoot raw photos… and, in Picasa, you don’t even see a difference in how you work with them.

You see the photo. You edit the photo just like you would a JPEG.

You burn it to a Gift CD,… you upload it to a web album… you e-mail it to someone… you print it…

It’s easy… it’s exactly the same as if you were shooting JPEGs. No tricky stuff to worry about.

But, if you’re serious about shooting raws, you will need a “real” raw processor. A real raw processor includes the “tricky stuff.” The “tricky stuff” is how you tease out the details in the raw data.

Picasa supports raw data by immediately doing a fully automatic conversion to 8 bit data from the raw data with no input from you. You have no way to influence the raw conversion to JPEG. This pretty much eliminates the main reason you would shoot raw. A “real” raw processor requires that you get involved with the conversion process, helping to decide how to map those 12/14-bit color raw data into 8-bit color JPEG. What color balance should be used, etc. etc.

On easy, well-lit, well-exposed raw data, Picasa’s default translation to JPEG will likely be fine. On the tough shots, the tricky exposures (for example: night shots)… that’s where you’re going to want a “real” raw processor. Picasa’s automatic conversion process will most likely be sub-optimal on these kinds of shots.

You might want to consider using a raw processing program to work with the raws, and then let Picasa organize the resulting JPEGs.