Software RAW converters
Basically all camera manufacturers ship their own raw converters with their cameras. While usually they are quite good there are some third party raw converters that stand out from the crowd. These manufacturers undertake a very careful research to guaranty maximum compatibility and quality of the raw conversion for various camera types. The outcome is most exceptional and often surpasses the quality and speed offered by the camera maker's own software.
The top players are:
Capture One (light and pro version) by the Danish manufacturer Phase One
Lightroom by Adobe
Photoshop Raw Converter (Lightroom uses basically the same raw converter as Photoshop does)
Digital Asset Management DAM
Capture 1 and Capture 1 Pro. Essentially this raw converter has limitied capabilities when it comes to file management. Probably in the near future thanks to the aquisition of Expression Media by Phase One, this will improve fundamantally as those two programs will interact much better .
Adobe Lightroom An all perfectly happy package. Raw Converter, Digital Asset Management and Presentation/Output tools. You get everything you need in just one program.
Adobe Bridge (Ships for free with Adobe Creative Suite or Photoshop) Very functional program. In use with Photoshop and Photoshop Raw Converter you get a comparable list of features as with Adobe Lightroom. Of course Photoshop offers much more in the field of image editing than Lightroom. But in fact not erverybody needs all those rather sophisticated and elaborated instruments offered by Photoshop.
Expression Media former iView, (bought by Microsoft and now owned by Phase One). Very sophisticated program. Alas following the acquisition by Microsoft for years there was no real progression. The new ownership promises improvements in the near future.
Apple Aperture Apple's professional line of Digital Asset Managemet programs.
iPhoto (free apple photo organizer, basic but free)
Sharpening is a very peculiar topic. There are probably as many opinions on what is the best strategy as there are photographers out there. So I can only express my very personal view in this respect. Nevertheless I want to share my experiences. Below you will find some articles and links so you can venture on your own in the shallow waters of image sharpening.
Why is sharpening necessary? Basically there are three reasons for it.
1. When we take a picture with our camera we are actually turning light into pixels (i.e. continous tones into small pieces of information). This induces a certain amount of unsharpness. Furthermore this effect varies depending on the type of input device or format: scanners (35 mm, medium or large format film), digital cameras, AAA-filters or not, lenses, ISO-settings, etc.). Files taken with digital backs often require much less accentuated sharpening than files from srl or point-and-shoot cameras. You should also consider that not all subjects require the same amount and type of sharpening. For example large homogeneous surfaces like sky and skin only need small amounts or no sharpening at all. The contrary is true for narrow edge subjects like grass or branches. This requires an optimized sharpening setting according to every source and sujet.
2. Than there are creative or technical issues to be dealt with. Probably not all parts of the image should receive the same amount of sharpening. So one should consider to adopt this effect only partially.
3. And last of all you should apply sharpening with regard to the output device you are going to use for the publication of your picture.
Bearing this in mind it makes sense to take a three-step or multi-level approach: Personally I utilize a quite small amount at the very beginning when converting my raw files into tiffs or jepgs, at the end of the editing process with Photoshop taking into consideration all the particularities of that file, and at the end I apply output sharpening.
Presharpening. There are basically two strategies. In case you will use the sharpener of your prefered raw converter or scanner program a quite delicate image sharpening is applied to the raw file or to the scanned image. Often programs like Capture One offer special sharpening recipes customized to the needs of capture sharpening. Alternatively you can apply sharpening after opening the Tiff files in Photoshop. In the latter case you may use a program plugin like Photo Kit Sharpener (2.0) which is software that is created with a three-step sharpening process already in mind and offers the convenience of build in recipes. Be shure though to switch off any sharpening in your acquisition program or raw converter whatsoever! This ensures that you start correction work with a reasonable presharpened picture. After the first step you can safe your image.
Creative Sharpening: You must keep in mind to apply the second and third sharpening steps after you have finished all editing and modifications on your image. The reason behind this: In case you apply creative or output sharpening first, you will inevitably alter and deteriorate the sharpened edges of your picture with every adjustment step that follows.
Layers can turn out to be very helpful. In Photoshop you create a copy layer on top of all your adjustment layers. All sharpening effects will be applied exclusively to that copy layer so to prevent any change of the original unsharpened file beneath it. If you decide later on, that the amount or type of sharpening was incorrect you can always turn back and alter the intensity of the layer (using the intensity slider) or even delete it entirely. If you are using plug ins like PhotoKit Sharpener or Fractal Sharpen the program will do this automaticly for you.
A word on non destrutive sharpening which applies when you do not delete your sharpening layer when saving the file. The advantage of complete reversability implies a cost however: larger file size. With the fact of ever decreasing prices of disk space in mind this may be to a lesser problem for you but file sizes can turn out to be quite painful - specially if you are using high resolution srl cameras or digital backs. Your files easily can surpass several 100 MB in this case. So at least you should consider after all edtiting work has been done to convert your files from 16 to 8 bits and hence at least half their size. Sharpening in your raw converter can also in a certain way called non destructive since it does not alter the underlying raw file. Raw file sharpening is only applied to the developed Tiff or JPG file. By the way this applies for all editing work done with a raw converter. You can always turn back to the original state of the raw file.
You can fine tune the sharpening effects with the help of layer masks. Painting with brushes of different size, edge and intensity you can apply the sharpening effect only partially to the layer. The creative and technical opportunities are endlessly in this respect. This is because the second round of sharpening is often referred to as Creative Sharpening.
At this point I consider the editing and correction phase to be completed. I usually archive the file on my harddisk. You have to decide for yourself if you want to flatten the layer with the creative sharpening or not.
Output sharpening. When it comes to publication or presentation of your picture there is need for a final round of sharpening. This is to compensate for the dot grain of the printing process to be applied to the image. The increased dot size is a result of the fluid ink spreading over the original size of the dot and therefore making the whole picture less sharp. Matte papers for instance tend to create unsharper results than coated or glossy surfaces. Desktop monitors certainly are kind of unsuited to preview these effects. Therefore or you need to experiment by yourself or trust in some ready made products such as PhotoKit Sharpener or NIK Sharpener that come with a complete range of predefined recipes. These recipes are tested and allow reasonable exact output sharpening covering most publication purposes.
Generally all (LCD) monitors tent to show very ugly effects when viewed at zoom levels of actual pixes (100%). In order to evaluate the final print result it is often better to view the photo at 50% or even at 25% (avoiding the odd zoom levels since Photoshop applies heavy anti-aliasing on those levels). But the actually safest way to estimate the correct amount of sharpening is a test on the printing machine with exactly the same settings that will be used for the final print. Often monitors tend to exaggerate the effect of output sharpening instead on the final print the effect usually looks fine.
Different types of publications (printing on a inkjet plotter, offset or contone printing, web publishing), the printing size and resolution all influence the necessery amount of sharpening. It is therefore convenient to classify output processes in to four distinct groups: halftone ouput, cotone output, inkjet printing and multimedia and web related output and use fitted sharpening that matches the particularities of each of these groups.
If the output process involves substantial downscaling of your image you should consider to downscale your picture before applying output sharpening. Ignoring this may deteriorate the effect of sharpening and lead to non optimal results. This is true also in case of upscaling. For instance enlarging an already sharpened file with Genuine Fractals will inevitably lead to an unwanted magnification of the black and white halos. There are several commericial programs that offer generalized output sharpening recipes. You can use them as a start. But be shure to carefully review and check the outcome of the whole sharpening process. Judge if the effect is not to strong or to weak in the end.
I usually keep output sharpening as a seperate layer only. I consider creative sharpening as part of the overall editing of the digtial file and consequently merge everyting into one layer including this second step of sharpening. But since the publication of a file can be of a manifold kind in the future I leave the output sharpening on a seperated layer instead. Thus I can always fine tune it according to the desired output later.
Work in progress.