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View and process RAW images with the free Scarab Darkroom

07 February 2013, Mike Williams

Take a photo with most digital cameras and by default you’ll get a JPG file, which is great for compatibility purposes, but does involve some compromises in image quality. And that’s because your picture will go through various processes before the final JPG is produced – sharpening, adjusting colours and contrast, compressing the results – and each step results in the loss of some information.

Take pictures using a camera’s RAW format, though (if it has one), will give you access to the full and unprocessed image data. And you can then apply any tweaks you like on a case by case basis, for the best possible results. You’ll probably need a specialist tool to access the RAW images, but that may not be a problem: Scarab Darkroom, for instance, is a very capable RAW converter with support for cameras by Canon, Nikon, Olympus, Panasonic, Pentax, Samsung, and Sony, and you can download it and it entirely for free.

After a quick and easy installation, the program presents a straightforward interface. A right-hand tabbed sidebar displays the drives and folders on your PC; you’ll navigate through these to a folder containing your RAW images; and their thumbnails will then appear at the bottom of the program window, making it easy to spot and view whatever picture you need.

There are a few small buttons above the thumbnails with various viewing-related options: rotate, crop, zoom and so on. And you can also drag the image with the mouse, and zoom in and out with the mouse wheel, so even if you’re viewing a very high resolution photo, it’s quick and easy to find and examine a particular detail.

Using RAW images means there's no loss of data or image quality

Life gets more interesting when you click the Adjustments tab, though, where Scarab Darkroom provides tweaks for Exposure (Brightness, Contrast, Recovery, Blacks, Fill Light), Colours (Temperature, Tint, Hue, Saturation, Vibrance), Tone Curve (Highlights, Midtones, Shadows) and Sharpness. Drag a particular slider and the picture will update accordingly, giving you immediate feedback. And it’s easy to copy your settings to the clipboard, and restore them later, so once you’ve found a configuration which delivers good results then you can quickly apply it to all your other shots.

There’s also a Metadata tab, although this is relatively basic by comparison. It displays a few of the key image details – exposure, aperture, focal length, ISO speed, flash used, date taken, camera, owner – and allows you to set the image rating, but that’s about it.

And when you’re happy, and it’s finally time to abandon RAW for an image format you can actually use elsewhere, then the program can save your pictures as JPG or TIF files.

There are a few small gaps in functionality here, mostly because this is the free version of the program. The developer is currently working on a commercial build, and so extras like noise filtering are going to be reserved for that edition.

It seems unreasonable to complain, though, because otherwise Scarab Darkroom is an excellent tool. There’s no adware, no marketing annoyances; it’s fast, easy to use, supports a lot of RAW formats and is still being regularly updated to add more. Go grab a copy immediately.

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