Sharpening Fujifilm RAW Files Without Worms
UPDATE: I have since abandoned Lightroom for a large part, and now process all images in Capture One Pro, which recently began supporting X-Trans files. The results are incredible and much better than what I was achieving with Iridient or ON1.
In my review of the Fujifilm X-T2 I remarked that the files were extremely sharp, while commenters pointed out that if you zoom in closely, there were worm looking artifacts and blotchy areas, especially in foliage. I failed to adequately examine the files at more than 100% zoom, which at this zoom level the files looked fantastic, at 300% it was a different story.
The 'worm' problem is a common one with Fuji raw files processed in Lightroom or Camera Raw; Adobe has failed to fine tune their raw processor to work with X-Trans files properly due to the different sensor array than most cameras, which have the Bayer array.
Once I identified this problem, I went on the hunt for the optimal Lightroom settings to get a clean raw file. Previously with the X-Trans II sensor (X-T1, X-E2, etc.), it was common to use a small radius of 0.5 and a high detail of 100 which produced relatively good results. With the X-Trans III sensor (X-T2 and X-Pro2) a Detail setting of 100 produces massive amounts of worms and artifacts when zoomed in farther than 100%. After hours of testing I finally settled on the following settings: Amount: 60, Radius: 1.0, Detail: 5
I was surprised to see that I had to change the detail from 100 to 5, but this adjustment was where the worms were coming from, any amount over this instantly creates a nasty mess. The results with these settings are not great, but it is the best I could muster out of Lightroom with the limits on the Detail slider. To put it bluntly, Adobe sucks at sharpening X-Trans files. After deciding that Adobe was to blame, I went on the hunt for a raw processor that could handle X-Trans files properly.
The most common raw processor recommended for X-Trans files was the Iridient Developer, the only problem with this is that it was limited to Mac, and I am on Windows. I finally decided to borrow my girlfriends Mac and play around with Iridient, I was immediately impressed with the incredible detail in the files with no worms, it seemed glorious, and I thought about buying a Macbook. Then I quickly realized that I could not get the same colors and contrast that I was used to in Lightroom, I conceded defeat and went back to Lightroom, and did additional sharpening in Photoshop in the meantime.
A New Solution: Iridient X-Transformer
Recently, I was very excited to learn the developers of Iridient have released a new program called Iridient X-Transformer which is currently in beta and for Windows only, but there will be a Mac version in very soon according to the developer. This program allows you to process the raw file using the Iridient engine for sharpening, noise reduction, and lens corrections only. You end up with a 'raw' file that is properly sharpened with Iridient, but without the color adjustments, you can then bring the new file into Lightroom for all your other raw adjustments.
Iridient achieves this by interpolating the .raf file into a full-color RGB image, it is not quite as 'raw' as the original .raf, but it still has the same latitude as a raw, it is somewhere between a .tif file and a raw. The resulting file is a standard .dng file, so most raw converters like Lightroom treat this as a raw file, you can still change your white balance, and recover highlights and shadows in the same manner you would a .raf file. I have done extensive testing to ensure there is still plenty of data to work with, and I can see no difference in the .dng file and the original .raf when recovering highlights or pulling shadows.
Below is an example zoomed in at 250%, on the left is Lightroom complete with worms, and X-Transformer on the right, lots of detail with no worms. Keep in mind that this is RAW sharpening and zoomed in very tight, you should not see incredible amounts of detail at this stage of sharpening in either case, but the sharpening should be clean.
Iridient X-Transformer is a dead simple program, you only have a few settings to choose from, the primary setting to pay attention to is RAW Process, there are two settings to choose from (More Detailed and Smoother), either works very well. For landscapes, I lean towards More Detailed most of the time and have found the default settings for everything else to work very well after extensive testing. The Sharpening amount of Default seems to lie somewhere between Medium and High, which I have found to be the perfect amount of RAW sharpening for landscapes. Using an amount of High is too much for most images and leaves no latitude for later specific sharpening for creative sharpening, print sharpening, or web sharpening.
The lens corrections seem to work well most of the time, but Lightroom does seem to handle chromatic abberation better on some images. Occasionally I found some Axial CA which shows as red fringing on certain images, a simple adjustment in the Lens Corrections panel of Lightroom fixes this easily, under Manual > Defringe set The Amount for Purple to 2, and the Purple Hue to 60/100. I would not apply this to every image, only when the fringing appears.
Below is the final web sharpened version at 2500px, click to see large.
There are different ways to use X-Developer in your workflow; you can choose to keep your current workflow of importing .raf files into Lightroom and process each file individually in X-Developer. (If you use Lightroom there are instructions in the help file of X-Developer to add a new external editor which will automatically process your files in X-Developer and re-import them back into Lightroom with two clicks.) The other option is to download your .raf files onto your computer, batch process all of them in X-Developer, and then import the resulting .dng files into Lightroom. If you are working with a lot of images, the second option is your best bet, but keep in mind that the processing is baked into the new .dng file, there is no going back unless you keep the original .raf file. I have chosen the first option since I tend only to process one image at a time and spend a lot of time on each image.
Another example of foliage from a different image zoomed in to 300%:
I highly recommend Iridient X-Transformer to all Fuji shooters, it will dramatically improve the sharpness of your photos, with minimal disruption in your workflow. The software is well worth $30 to me, it is free to try but the file will be watermarked.
Another Option: ON1 Photo RAW
Another option that has just appeared is the latest version of ON1 Photo RAW. Finally, in the most recent update they have added support for compressed .raf files and it will properly sharpen X-Trans files. The sharpening is exceptional using the Progressive setting, but I personally do not like all the other aspects of processing in this RAW converter. I was unable to achieve the colors, contrast, etc. that I am used to in Lightroom, plus it feels clunky to me. Between the disruption of workflow this would cause, and the overall feel/usability of this software, I will not be using it. Try the demo yourself and come to your own conclusions.
ON1 on the left, X-Transformer on the right:
If you would like to take a closer look at all the sharpening methods used, you can download a full resolution .tif file that has all the files layered into one document, open this is Photoshop and turn the layers on and off to see the differences.
In a future post I will cover sharpening for web, print, and creative sharpening so be sure to subscribe below.