(Frankly, much of the academic literature has to be taken with a big grain of salt. The algorithms are usually tested on a limited set of synthetic images that are created from images that have already been post-processed. That is, they don't actually test on RAW files. Moreover, most fixate on achieving a low signal-to-noise ratio, which I've found to be a poor indicator of image quality. A few researchers seem to be realizing this (mostly the ones who work more closely with industry practitioners). But there are a number of algorithms out there that employ sophisticated math and look effective on paper, but don't seem to hold up very well in a more realistic setting.)
One reason you see differences across products is that there is significant mathematical latitude in formulating the solution. Image processing problems like demosaicing are mathematically severely underdetermined. That is, in a trivial formulation, there are an infinite number of possible solutions, and most of them look bad. So, to avoid bad solutions, you have to decide what makes an image look "good" or "correct", and use that to constrain the solution process. There are many possibilities for achieving this mathematically, so it leads to different results depending on what approach you adopt.
Regarding "conservative" vs. "aggressive" renderings: I've intentionally tried to make the default renderings a bit vivid and distinctive. The intent is to achieve pleasing color, not necessarily accurate color. Also, the "Smart Lighting" exposure mode attempts to compress dynamic range when necessary to preserve highlights without crushing shadows, which also contributes to the "look" of Photo Ninja particularly for high-contrast scenes. However, these are all just default behaviors, and you can easily choose different defaults. If you click on the "Defaults..." button at the top of the filter list, you can change the default exposure policy, tone/color preset, etc. And if you click on the "Preset..." button (also at the top of the filter list) you can save your own global presets (and then select them in the Defaults panel).'
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