As a photographer involved in not only selling my images, but also educating other photographers, I’ve often heard other photographers state unequivocally that their images are “straight out of the camera.” They generally follow this up with a statement that what the camera records is “the true image”, or it’s a “more realistic image”. This is said for one of a few reasons. It could be that these photographers don’t understand exactly what it is the camera is doing, or they don’t understand how to process their images. Or it could just be that they don’t want to put the work in on the post processing side of things. Now, I don’t have a problem with that last reason. As the artist, it is your choice as to when you consider your work complete. I do, however, take issue with the insinuation that processing a RAW file is somehow untruthful, especially if there is no understanding of what the camera does to a file recorded as a JPEG- i.e. “straight out of the camera.”
Without getting overly technical, when you set your camera to record JPEG files, you are telling the camera to make decisions about brightness, contrast, and color saturation, that are then baked into the final image. JPEGs are 8-bit files. What this means in practical purposes is that your camera will record 256 shades of grey for each color in the image, from bright white, to deep black. All tones in the image get squeezed into this range. By comparison, a 14-bit RAW file can support over 16,000 shades of grey for each color, making the tonality smoother and richer. For web display, you’ll end up at an 8-bit file anyway, because for display on the web you’ll be using JPEGs. But if you intend to print at all, you want to be able to start working with as much information as possible, which means working with the RAW file.
When you’re shooting JPEG files, you generally will select a picture style for your camera to use on the photos. These can include Standard, Landscape, Portrait, Neutral, Faithful, Flat, or some variation of those, depending on the brand of camera you’re using. When you select a certain picture style, you are telling the camera how to process the image. For instance, Landscape picture style will use more vibrant color and add more contrast to an image, while neutral will have more muted colors and less contrast. Standard is somewhere in between, with good vibrant color and contrast without being overblown. But the camera is making the decisions as to which colors to saturate and what tones are recorded. Generally speaking, the camera won’t record the scene as you saw it, because it simply cannot record enough tones (remember, only 256 shades) to adequately capture a sunset.
Now all of that brings me to the RAW file. A RAW file, in the simplest explanation, is actually a pair of files. One file is a recording of each pixel’s brightness (one of over 16,000 shades). The other part of the file is a data file that tells the RAW processing program, such as Lightroom or Adobe Camera RAW, what color each pixel was, what the contrast should be (based on the camera’s picture style setting) and more. The beautiful thing about the RAW file is that all of the settings can be adjusted. You can adjust the white balance, either to correct your mistake, or for creative reasons. You can adjust contrast, individually adjust highlights, shadows, and individual colors to be more how you would like them to appear. The brightness of the file can be adjusted. For instance, if for some reason you underexpose the file, you have the ability to increase the exposure by 4 to 5 stops in Lightroom. By the same token, if you slightly overexpose, you can pull back the exposure by the same 4 to 5 stops. And the beauty of all of these adjustments is that they can all be undone if you decide you want to start over. All editing on a RAW file is non-destructive. You can’t save over a RAW file unless you actively find the file and delete it from your computer. Think of it as a digital negative, if you recall what it’s like to shoot film. This kind of control allows me to get the image to look EXACTLY as I want it, whether I am trying to achieve an exact match of what I saw, or convey the feeling of what I saw, rather than a literal interpretation.
So, the point I am making, at the end of all of that, is that I shoot RAW because it gives me greater control over my final image. I don’t allow the camera to make the final decision on anything in the image. It can all be adjusted later when I process the file. Just my opinion, but if you really want to make the most of your images, you should be shooting RAW files and learning what’s possible in processing a RAW file.
If you’d like to learn how I work with RAW files, I will be teaching a class on Saturday, March 26th at 10am at the Long Island Photo Gallery in Islip, NY. For more information, visit the Long Island Photo Gallery.