Photo Ninja – Contender or Pretender?

I came across Photo Ninja when I was looking for an image noise removal program. I had used Noise Ninja many years ago, with good results, but had stopped using it because DXO is so good at removing image noise from RAW files. However, sometimes DXO doesn’t support the camera I’m using and I wondered if there was a better noise reduction tool than Lightroom, Luminar and the other programs I use. After Googling Noise Ninja I found Photo Ninja, a RAW conversion tool that incorporates Noise Ninja and is written by the same team.

I downloaded the trial version and gave it a go, using the same test image as before.

The test image

Original Image, no processing

 

This image is a good test for any RAW processing tool – it is contrasty, sharp, has shadow areas that need adjustment and has a little bit of noise in it as well.

Initial Results

Photo Ninja took 8 seconds to open the image. This is quite a long time but it is already doing some initial processing so I wasn’t alarmed by this.

Ninja’s interface is clear and uncluttered with, unusually, the settings area on the left of the screen and the image taking up a large part of the middle and left of the screen. Nice.

Photo Ninja
The main interface

 

Making amendments

A little bit like Luminar, Ninja doesn’t present an overwhelming array of options. It just shows the basics on the left hand side and, when selected, further settings present themselves:

Photo Ninja - Options
A nice, uncluttered set of options

It’s worth noting the innocent little buttons – Presets and Defaults. Ninja works with you – you can create your own presets and select them  from here, or use its own built in ones. I’m not a fan of presets. Usually! So many presets lead to horribly unnatural images that I really don’t like.

Ninja, however, comes with just a handful of presets that seem to have been created by someone who actually knows what a photo should look like rather than a set of ‘look how dreadful we can make your image appear’ options. For this image, I chose ‘Scenic Enhanced’ as the starting point for my efforts.

I then selected ‘Color Correction’.

Ninja - Colour correction

This is where white balance is amended. The Mode option has four settings:

  • From Camera
  • Automatic
  • From profile
  • Manual

The Automatic setting gives a very nicely balanced image, but for this one I left it on the From Camera setting as that looked a little warmer and more pleasing to me.

You can set the White Balance manually using the sliders or by clicking a grey area of the image.

The Color Recovery option is interesting. Ninja’s pre-processing has already recovered some Highlight details. You can use this option to lessen this if you don’t like its appearance.

Notice the Help button… Clicking this pops up a Help screen explaining the options you are currently using. The Help text is clear and concise and you can keep editing the image with it displayed. This is a really nice feature.

Exposure and Detail

Ninja - Exposure and Detail

I found this to be a really rich set of options, and the ones shown here are set by the ‘Scenic Enhanced’ preset.

The Smart Lighting option analyses the image and automatically sets the options below for you. I found the result to be excellent and left these settings alone. Of particular interest is the ‘Detail’ slider. I think this option is one of the key strengths of Ninja. RAW images are usually a little ‘flat’ prior to processing and most tools have some way of clarifying the image. DXO has Clear View, for example. NIK Viveza has a Structure tool that does much the same thing.

I found Ninja’s Detail setting to be excellent – not just on this image but on everything I threw at it. It gave the image some ‘pop’ without introducing any nasty artefacts or haloing.

For this image I added some shadow recovery and, again, found Ninja to do a really decent job, without introducing any nastiness into the image.

Colour Enhancement

Ninja - Color Enhancement

I’ll let Ninja’s popup help text explain this one. It gives you a taste of how clear and concise their help is:

“The color enhancement filter can be used to alter the hue, intensity, and lightness of colors in an image. The filter allows targeted adjustment of specific hue ranges. For instance, you can darken the sky, increase saturation of foliage, and alter skin tones.

Photo Ninja applies color enhancements in a perceptual color space instead of in a mathematically arbitrary HSV-type color space. This generally yields more intuitive and natural looking results. Photo Ninja also includes some builtin color “styles” that can serve as the basis for adjustment.

The color enhancement filter and the color correction filter complement one another. Color correction is primarily aimed at making color more accurate, but accurate color can often look a bit “flat” or bland. However, accurate color is canonical, so it provides a foundation for consistent and predictable color enhancement.”

The Scenic preset had set a number of different colour’s values and the ‘out of the box’ look was really good. I didn’t change anything.

 

 

Black and white

My image isn’t going to be a black and white one, so I’m skipping that section. Suffice to say, it offers a full and really good set of B&W options.

Noise Ninja

Noise removal was how I found this tool and it provides so many Noise Reduction settings!

Noise Ninja

The default settings didn’t have Luminance noise reduction switched on and I could still see some noise in the image. With assistance from the excellent Help system, I soon found a set of options that removed the noise completely without reducing image quality.

There’s an intriguing ‘Train…’ option. You can help Ninja remove noise by providing a set of images that it can analyse and determine the best settings for your camera at each ISO value. I haven’t tried it yet but it sounds like a worthwhile exercise.

The key point is that the software produced a noise free, high quality image. And it was at least as good as DXO’s. To be honest, I can’t believe I just wrote that. Nothing is as good as DXO is what I wrote in my previous blog post. And yet this is. More on that later.

Sharpening

Ninja - Sharpening

Image sharpening is an absolutely key requirement in a RAW development workflow. Currently, the best way to sharpen an image is to do it three times:

  1. During RAW development
  2. After extra image enhancements
  3. For final output, after any needed resizing.

DXO Photo Lab knows this, and produces (arguably) the best RAW sharpening possible, provided it supports your camera and lens. Otherwise it just offers the usual unsharp mask sharpening. Most other tools do the same. To be honest, I’ve found DXO to be fantastic but the others to be less than optimal and I prefer to use FocalBlade’s excellent three stage sharpening if DXO can’t do it. So I was curious to see if Ninja could do the business.

Last night, when I first tested Ninja, I sat at my computer comparing the results of DXO and Ninja. I kept checking and double checking. In the end, I put it down to fatigue and decided to wait until today. But today the result is the same. Photo Ninja is at least as good as DXO, possibly better. Did I just write that? Yes, I did. And I still can’t believe it.

I think it is a combination of Ninja’s sharpening plus its image Detail tool that does the trick. It simply produces wonderfully sharp, detailed images. You’ll see the comparisons at the end of this post and can judge for yourself.

Chromatic Aberration (CA)

This image has a little bit of CA that is visible on the mountain peaks.

Ninja - Chromatic Aberration

Ninja removed it all for me. I didn’t need to alter the settings it suggested. I’m glad about that – it would be horrible to have to keep guessing at settings until something worked out. When I developed PFS Image Darkroom in the early 2000’s, correcting CA was really tricky. I managed it using someone else’s toolkit but it’s not an easy thing to define, let alone code for.

Anyway, Photo Ninja did the job and that’s fine with me!

Vignetting and Distortion

I didn’t test Vignetting as this image had none. Ninja provides a decent set of options for removing it, and has the option of ‘training’ it to handle a particular lens’ vignetting. More on that later.

I also didn’t need, for this image, to use distortion correction. Most RAW programs do this automatically, depending on the lens used. Ninja needs to be trained about an individual len’s distortion characteristics. This is very much the same as building a lens profile in Lightroom. Distortion correction in this image is not needed, but images featuring buildings or the sea, where a dead level horizon is a must, will need this correction.

The final option is cropping, which is not needed for this image.

The result

So much for theory, but what about the result, for that is all that matters. Here it is:

Ninja - the result

 

This is the image, reduced in size by 50% and it’s really, really good.

Let’s compare it with DXO, which had previously ‘won’ the RAW image shootout:

Ninja vs DXO

 

 

Immediately, we can see that the Ninja image is richer and more complete. But the DXO image could be further processed in another tool to add such richness. What about the detail? Just look at these 100% crops: (Ninja on the left, DXO on the right).

Photo Ninja Vs DXO

Ninja vs DXO

Ninja vs DXO

Ninja vs DXO

Ninja vs DXO

Ninja vs DXO

Ninja vs DXO

Ninja vs DXO

Ninja vs DXO

Ninja vs DXO

Ninja vs DXO

Ninja vs DXO

Ninja vs DXO

Ninja vs DXO

Ninja vs DXO

Ninja vs DXO

Amazingly, in every one of these images, Ninja has more detail and less noise…

A second test…

Usually, I would stop here but I wanted to see how Ninja performed on an image with truly horrible noise. I was in my local park yesterday and the late evening sun was catching the trees beautifully. I had a camera with me but the lens didn’t have stabilisation and, being a 50MM lens, I found it hard to handhold at a low ISO. So I took an image at ISO 3200 and it is horribly noisy. Here is my best effort with DXO and Ninja for this image:

DXO on the left, Ninja on the right

 

Hmmm… Results like this speak for themselves, I think. Maybe Ninja is over saturated and could be toned down a little. But look at the detail! DXO was the undisputed king of noise reduction and image detail. Not any more. Photo Ninja has found detail in the image that DXO didn’t and this is a huge plus for Ninja!

Speed

Performance is important and here’s another surprise. DXO, due to it’s CPU intensive noise reduction algorithm, takes well over a minute to save this image as a 16 bit TIF file. Photo Ninja took a couple of seconds… How did it do this? It takes time to edit an image and, I think, Ninja is applying the results of your edits to the real image, and not just the displayed one, during ‘idle’ moments when you are assessing the results. So, when the time comes to save it to disk, all that is left to do is write the already processed image to disk. Of all the RAW tools I have tested, Ninja is the only one to do this. Of course, during batch processing this advantage wont be present, but who sits and stares at the screen during a large batch job? OK, we all do! But that just shows we need to get out more!

Other features

Ninja has a basic browser mode, with the usual folder structure on the left and image thumbnails on the right. The browser allows images to be rated from 1 to 5 but there doesn’t seem to be a way to filter the displayed images by rating. In its favour, the browser is really fast – about as fast as Breezebrowser and that is no mean feat.

The Image Editor does allow more than one image to edited at a time and placed side by side, but I’ve not really used this, so can’t comment on it.

Aside from the standalone program Ninja can be installed into Photoshop as a plugin.

Ninja can edit ordinary images as well as RAW images.

Limitations

Photo Ninja’s website says that:

“Photo Ninja is a professional-grade RAW converter that delivers exceptional detail, outstanding image quality, and a distinctive, natural look.”

Absolutely true. But notice that it describes itself as a RAW converter rather than a complete image editing application. Tools are getting more and more ‘complete’, even if their functionality isn’t class leading. So, Exposure X4, the forthcoming Luminar, Lightroom and DXO all do more than pure RAW development. In a perfect world, one tool would do everything, but this is not a perfect world and my experience of ‘do it all’ tools is that they are ‘Jacks of all trades but masters of some’, or even none.

Ninja, unashamedly, is a Master RAW converter. It has undoubted mastery of everything a RAW converter should be. But it stops there. It doesn’t support:

  • Local edits (although many of its tools clearly target certain areas of an image)
  • Layers
  • Healing tools, such as dust removal

None of this compromises Ninja’s RAW development capabilities, but you will usually need another tool to complete the job. Actually, this is true of just about all the programs I’ve tested. I rarely (never, actually) publish an image that has only been worked on in one tool. Ninja unashamedly positions itself as a class leading RAW converter with excellent highlight recovery, colour correction, noise reduction and initial sharpening. It removes Chromatic Aberrations very effectively and can correct image distortion really well, although it would be nice if it could do it automatically ‘out of the box’.

Conclusion

When I first saw Photo Ninja I read reviews suggesting it was the ‘best’ RAW converter and I was really sceptical. I’ve seen claims like that before – virtually every software manufacturer says they do it better than the others and their users, who have invested their hard earned cash, are under cognitive pressure to justify their purchase when they make their review.

I was under no pressure. I was testing a free trial and have invested my hard earned cash in DXO and other tools. So, last night as I assessed the results I was absolutely amazed. Ninja just outperformed the competition on every photo that I threw at it. Around midnight I stopped and decided to re-assess things the next day. Maybe I was too tired and hallucinating. But today the results remain the same. Photo Ninja outperforms every other RAW converter I have tested in these areas:

  • Colour rendition
  • Image detail
  • Noise removal
  • Sharpness
  • Speed

Where it lags behind a little is in supplying lens profiles for dealing with distortion, which are so useful for automatic corrections. Ninja does provide tools that, with practice, do a good job and the results can be saved for use on images taken at the same focal length and focus distance, but this is more time consuming than using a ‘factory supplied’ preset. Especially so with zoom lenses, where the distortions tend to be more severe and the number of variables is much higher.

Nevertheless, the results produced by Ninja are such that I think this inconvenience is worth it. Images with complex distortions could be edited in another tool, that has a profile for the lens, afterwards.

Ninja can also be ‘trained’ to recognise a camera’s colour renditions and noise characteristics. The only drawback is that you have to do the work by supplying sample images and photographing a colour calibration chart. But even without these, the results are really, really good.

Price

$129 for a perpetual licence including 1 year’s free upgrades. $59 to upgrade, which is a decent discount.

RAW processing software ratings.

Here is my current ‘league table’

  1. Photo Ninja – best image quality, colours, noise reduction and details. And the fastest as well.
  2. DXO Photo Lab – excellent image quality and best distortion correction.
  3. Luminar – best user interface, excellent results.
  4. Photo Lemur – best automatic RAW processor.
  5. Exposure X3 – best Digital Asset Management tool and best browser. RAW processing needs improving. But, maybe, X4 will help there. Review coming soon!

Disclaimer

If you purchase some of these programs using the above links I will receive a small commission. However, I do not get any commission from Photo Ninja or DXO purchases. Therefore, I think it’s fair to say my review is objective…

Postscript

Since writing this review I have read through Photo Ninja’s online tutorials and its documentation and I would recommend you do too, before attempting to do serious image editing. This tool has a lot of hidden power that, when used right, will yield results that are as good as they get.

I have the impression that this software was written by skilled photographers for skilled photographers. Rather than swamp a user with useless presets or a swathe of unneeded options, it presents the bare essentials and does them so well. As I already own DXO, I am currently tempted to keep using it to batch process my RAW files into DNG files with just DXO’s camera/lens adjustments, removing distortions, chromatic aberrations and lens softness. Thereafter, the DNG files can be processed in Ninja – maybe that will give the best of both worlds.

Then again, I’m tempted to go out and shoot a set of images designed to teach Ninja about my gears’ noise and distortion characteristics and then use Ninja exclusively for RAW development.

I’ll keep you posted…

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