New Camera? No Raw Support Yet In Photoshop? No Problem: Use Adobe’s Digital Negative DNG Converter

by Alan Haynes / PhotoCitizen on January 31, 2010

Here’s a common scenario. You buy the latest camera only to find out that neither Adobe Lightroom nor Photoshop’s Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) recognize it’s raw files. So, you can’t process your images. What do you do?

New Camera, Old Software

When a new camera model is released, it takes a while – usually, a short while – for Photoshop to update it’s software to accept these new raw formats.

If you’re not using the current version of Photoshop, keep in mind that older versions won’t work with the latest version of ACR. Adobe doesn’t support the older versions with new ACR updates. So, you’ll never be able to process raw files from the latest cameras using an older version of Photoshop.

You might consider upgrading. You can download the latest version on Adobe’s website.

Photoshop Doesn’t Support My Camera. What Do I Do Now?

Assuming you have the most current software, you have a few choices:

  1. Don’t use your new camera until Adobe updates their software to recognize the new raw format. Yeah, right!
  2. Use the raw conversion software that came with the camera. Usually, this is rather clunky compared to Lightroom or Photoshop. Even if it is elegantly designed, who wants to learn to use another piece of software?
  3. Switch to shooting Raw + JPEG. Use the JPEG files now and, process the raw files later after Adobe has released the latest update.
  4. Convert your files to a raw format that the current Adobe software can understand: Adobe’s own digital negative (DNG) format.

What Is A Digital Negative?

A digital negative is Adobe’s version of a raw file. You can recognize a digital negative by the file extension (or suffix) at the end of your file name. It will end with .dng. Your original raw files have a file extension designated by the manufacturer. For example, Canon’s proprietary raw files have  .cr2 at the end of the file name. Nikon uses .nef.

DNG is an open format.  Its  computer code is not kept secret like proprietary raw formats of most manufacturers. It can be used by any manufacturer. For this reason,  it is touted as a format that will be readable by software many years from now.  The argument is made that, eventually, the proprietary raw formats will be abandoned – and therefore become unsupported – when their manufacturers move on to some new, improved format.

Adobe says the digital negative “can be a safer file format to use for long-term archival purposes. Archiving your file as a digital negative eliminates worries that the raw file will no longer be readable once the camera that created it becomes obsolete.” I’m not so sure about this. It seems to me there would be no reason to stop supporting a format that has already been written into a piece of software. It would be a shame to find that years from now, I am unable to open my Nikon NEF files. But I’m not worried about it; I don’t think it will happen.

For our purposes, DNG is a stop-gap format we can use until our original raw files are supported by our favorite software.

Click any image to view it larger and read its caption.

Digital Negatives to the Rescue

To get started, the first thing you need to do is download the latest version of Adobe DNG Converter. It’s free and it’s available for Windows or Mac.

Next, install it. This is simple software, so it’s easy to install.

Once installed, it doesn’t place an icon on the desktop. You’ll find it in your Windows Start Menu. Go to “All Programs,” then open the Adobe folder. There, you’ll see it listed as “Adobe DNG Converter.”

Photoshop has supported DNG since the first CS version. If you have version 7 or earlier, it’s time to upgrade. DNG has also been supported by Photoshop Elements since version 3.

Using the DNG Converter

Here’s how to convert your images to Adobe digital negatives:

    1. Transfer your raw files from your camera to your computer. Use whatever method you normally use. You could leave them on your CF or SD card. But, if you want to keep your original raw files, you may as well transfer them to the computer first since it will slightly reduce DNG conversion time.

Adobe DNG Converter inital screen

  1. Open Adobe DNG Converter.
  2. In section 1 of the DNG converter, select the source folder: the folder containing the original raw files. If you’ve left the raw files on your camera’s card, select that.
  3. If you have photos in several subfolders, you can convert them all at once by choosing the top-level, main folder and then putting a check-mark in the box that says include images contained within subfolders.
  4. In section 2, choose the destination folder. This is where you want the DNG files to be stored. The original raw files will remain untouched in their original location.
  5. If you want to keep the DNG images sorted in subfolders the way the originals were, place a check-mark in the box next to preserve subfolders. Since I like to create my own subfolders later in Lightroom, I leave this unchecked. All the DNG files will then go into the same destination folder.
  6. Section 3 allows you to rename your files as you convert them. You can name them using serial numbers, dates and a few other options. I’ll rename my files later in Lightroom, so I leave this at its default which is Document Name.
  7. The file extension can be set to all lower-case letters or all caps. Unless you have a good reason to use all caps, leave it at its default of lower-case.
  8. Section 4: Preferences is pretty important. Click the Change Preferences button to make changes. There are three preference items that you can change:
    • Compatibility. If you know which version of Adobe’s raw converter you’re using, select the appropriate option here. If you’re not sure, or if you need compatibility with other non-Adobe software, select Camera Raw 2.4 and later.
    • JPEG Preview. If you set this to none, your DNG files will be a bit smaller, but you may have trouble seeing their thumbnails in some programs. I leave it set at Medium. If you want to view DNG thumbnails in Windows, check out the free Raw Thumbnail View from Arcsoft.
    • Original Raw File. Here, you can choose to embed the original raw file (your CR2 or NEF file, for example) in the DNG file.  More on this later. If you’ve decided to keep the original raw files separately,  leave this unchecked. Embedding them in the DNG file would be redundant in this case.

  9. Start the conversion by clicking the Convert button. The conversion will start immediately and,  in the upper left corner of the conversion window, you can keep track of progress. There is a countdown next to the words Images remaining to convert.
  10. The Adobe DNG Converter is pretty subtle about notifying you when the conversion is finished. There are no sounds or pop-up windows. You’ll notice the words Conversion was successful replace the progress counter and the OK button is now selectable and not grayed out. That’s about it.

Should I Embed the Original Raw File Or Not?

If you plan to keep your original raw files (the CR2 or NEF files or whatever your camera manufacturer calls them), you have a couple of options. You can transfer them from your camera to your computer yourself or you can embed them in the DNG file.

By embedding them, you’ll make the file size of each DNG file much larger. Its size is approximately equivalent to the size of the original file plus the size of the converted DNG without the embedded image.

As an example, CR2 files from my Canon Powershot G11 average 10.1MB each. Once converted – without embedding – the DNG file averages 8.8MB. With the original embedded, the DNG files average 18.2MB. This is slightly less than if you had produced a DNG file without embedding and had also saved the original CR2 separately.

The main advantage to embedding the original raw file is that you can later extract the original from the DNG. You’ll then end up with the same raw file (CR2, in this case) that you started with.

In some cases, the converted DNG file may not save all of the manufacturer’s EXIF data about your image. Having the original file may be helpful. I’ve found that the DNG works just as well for me as the original file – all the EXIF data I need is preserved – so I usually discard the original raw file after it’s converted and do not embed it in the DNG.

If you do embed the original, you can extract it later by using the Extract button in the Adobe DNG Converter.

Final Thoughts

I’ve noticed that there are some differences in the EXIF data that is stored in the DNG file versus the CR2 file from my Canon Powershot G11. I can see these differences when I open the EXIF raw data in Photoshop CS4′s File Information tab. These differences are unimportant to me as all the data I care about such as exposure, lens focal length and other photographic data is preserved. In Lightroom – my image processor of choice – I see no difference at all in the data.

I don’t buy the argument that DNG is a safer format for long term storage. Converting to DNG adds an extra step to the photographic workflow and I heartily recommend minimizing your workflow whenever possible. So, for me, the only reason to use DNG is when no other raw conversion method is available.

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{ 4 comments }

1 Margy February 1, 2011 at 7:18 am

I have just started shooting in raw and didn’t know how to convert. I will try this method. Thank you for all the information.

2 Alan Haynes / PhotoCitizen February 2, 2011 at 11:37 am

Hi Margy,

Glad to help.

Alan

3 Trevsy June 6, 2011 at 1:32 am

Having just switched to an Olympus EPL-2 (great little camera) and with Photoshop CS3, I thought I was going to have to spend some serious bucks upgrading Photoshop. Thanks to this excellent brief from Alan, I’ve just converted all my new images at no extra cost. Thanks Alan – much obliged. Best, T

4 Alan Haynes / PhotoCitizen June 6, 2011 at 9:21 am

Hi Trevsy,

A Photoshop upgrade is always nice, but I think it’s even more fun to buy new equipment. I love the wide angle view of my new Olympus 9-18mm lens.

So, why not put your saving toward a new lens for your E-PL2? It makes a world of difference. It is a bit more expensive than a software upgrade, but worth every penny. Check it out: Olympus M Zuiko 9-18mm Lens.

- Alan

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