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Google gives respite from a raw camera deal

Picasa bailed CNET News.com's Stephen Shankland out of a minor crisis recently, but lesson spotlights the industry nightmare that is supporting cameras' raw images.

I was in a pinch a few weeks ago, and Google's Picasa software saved my skin. But now my warm glow of gratitude has begun wearing off, replaced by a simmering annoyance with camera makers for their profusion of proprietary raw formats.

Let me explain. I was covering the Photo Marketing Association trade show in Las Vegas, toting my Canon EOS Rebel XT camera to photograph products and people. For my personal photography I usually shoot in raw format to maximize the detail and flexibility, but for work purposes I use JPEG because it's faster to process and CNET News.com graphics are too small to require top resolution.

This screenshot shows a raw image from an Olympus E-3 SLR in Google's Picasa software. At right is the low-resolution JPEG preview, at left the garbled view after an incorrect decoding Google's support for the E-3 is on the way. Stephen Shankland/CNET Networks

But I had a brief moment of panic when I discovered, on a tight deadline, that I'd photographed a Sony full-frame SLR press conference and accompanying photo gallery in raw only. I wasn't happy, because I hadn't installed any software for processing raw images on my laptop. I briefly considered downloading a trial version of Adobe Systems' Photoshop Lightroom, which I use at home, but dreaded the time it would take to get myself to a network connection and install the software.

Then I remembered that Picasa supports some raw formats. Sure enough, it did the trick--after I made my usual end run around Canon, which annoyingly doesn't include a mass storage driver on its cameras, requiring me to retrieve raw files using a separate flash card reader.

Picasa lacked some editing tools I like in Lightroom (and now Apple's Aperture 2.0, too), but I wasn't about to complain.

Until Wednesday.

That's when I received an Olympus E-3 that I'll be testing on an upcoming vacation. The camera has been out since November, but Picasa still doesn't support its raw images.

Raw-support challenges
Picasa showed the low-resolution JPEG preview fine, but as soon as I clicked on the thumbnail, the photo became a speckly mess of pixel gibberish.

For its part, Google said Thursday that E-3 raw support is coming. "We're in the process of testing it and plan to support it soon," the company said in a statement. Picasa uses Dave Coffin's freely available dcraw software, which supports the E-3, but Google said it makes its own modifications "to make it run faster."

It's no surprise Google employs outside software for the complicated task. Olympus told me it leaves programmers on their own to reverse-engineer raw formats: "When asked, we will provide sample raw files to companies, but it is up to them to figure out what to do with them. Our raw format is not difficult, and anyone with any experience with graphic file formats will figure it out in a matter of seconds."

For photographers, there are unpleasant consequences of camera makers' opacity and non-standardization. Programmers from Adobe Systems, Apple, and other companies must toil constantly to support new cameras, and camera makers must develop and support their own software. And the obstreperous nature of raw can curtail the innovation of other programmers, too.

For example, software that can embed location data known as geotags in raw files is much rarer than software that supports JPEGs. Adding metadata such as titles, captions, ratings, and tags is another risky operation; Microsoft Vista can do this, but relies on camera makers to supply software to support their various raw formats.

A programmer's plight
Sachin Garg, a programmer in India, is another example. He's been working on software that can compress raw files more efficiently--about 20 percent to 60 percent more than those already compressed by the camera.

Programmer Sachin Garg Sachin Garg

That's work that conceivably could be useful for those of us with vast archives of raw images, but Garg said the difficulties of working with raw files makes it tough.

"I have started with Nikon's NEF (raw format), and it's a mess. What makes it worse is that even for this single format, there are variations based on each camera, and camera's firmware version," Garg said. "I have managed to read and compress the file, but re-creating the original file again is giving me nightmares."

And that's just one popular format. There are also cameras from Canon, Olympus, Fujifilm, Pentax, Sony, Panasonic, Samsung, Hasselblad, and others to contend with.

"It's a much different ball game to write an algorithm (than just) trying to put it in a practically usable application," Garg said. He understands the camera makers' situation, though. "Looking at each format, one can see the technical reasons why different camera makers are doing things differently and that adopting a common standard can possibly limit the innovations they introduce in newer cameras."

One possible alternative to the raw plight could be HD Photo, which Microsoft is trying to standardize as JPEG XR, a higher-end alternative to conventional JPEG. My guess is that this file format stands a reasonable chance of catching on--especially given the warm response from Adobe and more recently Canon--but even then it's more likely only to intercept photographers just moving beyond JPEG rather than replacing raw.

That's because HD Photo/JPEG XR requires the camera to process the image for de-mosaicking, noise reduction, sharpening, and white balance, all of which are "baked" into the image. For the folks who want total flexibility, they'll stick with raw.

DNG to the rescue?
A more likely alternative is Adobe Digital Negative (DNG) format, a raw format whose specifications are openly shared if not a neutral industry standard. Adobe explicitly created DNG to deal with the raw format "tower of Babel."

But larger camera makers have been reluctant to embrace DNG. It's hard to get firm answers on exactly why not; I'd imagine a variety of factors are involved, ranging from not wanting to be reliant on Adobe or a fixed format to inadequacies of DNG to fully represent raw images. And Pentax, whose SLRs support both DNG and its own PEF raw format, told me that most customers shooting raw use PEF, so users apparently need more convincing, too.

Maybe Adobe just needs to do a little more marketing, standardize DNG, or come up with an improved version 2.0. But for now, the raw format mess shows no signs of being tidied up.