The Raw Deal – Why You Should Never Shoot Compressed Images

Hi Friends!

Today, I’m writing beginner-level tutorial on shooting in raw format. If you’re new to digital photography and, specifically, D-SLR cameras, you’ve probably wondered about the various image processing settings in your camera. Most of us are familiar with images on the web in .jpg format, which is handy for delivering decent image quality in a small file size.

But the portability of .jpgs and other compressed images comes with a significant loss in image data and quality. If you want to have extraordinary control over your images, your best bet is to shoot in camera raw.

Camera raw is often called “digital negative” because it affords the same processing options as now obsolete film negatives once did. Indeed, while a .jpg can be thought of as a “picture” and the final product of your camera work, the raw file is not a processed image ready for print. Rather, it’s your template for creating a final image.

Because raw captures nearly all of the data from your camera’s image sensor, with little processing, the format gives you both a lot of space for correcting errors and making artistic decisions about how you want your final image to appear. Two things you should note:

1. The file extension for raw images varies widely – there are dozens of proprietary formats out there. .CRW is a one of Canon’s common raw codecs, .NEF is one Nikon uses. Your camera’s instruction manual will help you determine which extension it uses.

2. To take advantage of the raw data your camera captures, you will need a program that can read and process raw files. There are a number of open source and free programs for just this task, and Photoshop, Lightroom, Picasa, and paint Shop Pro all support raw formats.

Using Raw Data to Create an Image

Take a look at the following image:

RAW-demo-before

This is a screen grab of the raw data displayed by Camera Raw 7.1, the program I use to read and modify raw files. As you can see, the manual settings for the shot were way off. I was shooting a horseshoe tournament in a shady area at a fair for a local paper. I had the camera set to 1/320, f8, ISO 400. All of the sudden, I heard a crowd cheering behind me and turned to see someone about to win the fair’s rock wall challenge. I had no time to change the camera’s settings if I wanted to capture the moment the climber pushed the green button and won the $100 prize. I pivoted, zoomed in to frame the subject, focused, and shot.

So I got the moment I wanted to capture on camera. Great, but the image is overexposed. What to do? If this were captured as a lossy, compressed .jpg image, not a whole lot. With raw data, however, I have a battery of powerful tools to use.

Here’s a screen capture of the Camera Raw interface:

RAW-demo-1

As you can see, even the basic options give you quite a few ways to modify the data your sensor captured. Generally, I start by applying a lens correction (in the Lens Corrections panel), but in this case decided it wasn’t what I wanted for the final image. In the basic panel, I made the following changes:

RAW-demo-2Exposure: – .90

Highlights: -65

Whites: -67

Vibrance: +50

As you can see, those settings recovered detail in the previously blown out highlights and restored color that was lost in the overexposure.

In the Detail panel, I made some adjustments to sharpen the image:

RAW-demo-3

Sharpening

Amount: 85%

Radius: 2.0 pixels

Masking: 45

Noise Reduction

Luminance: 45

Sharpening is, of course, a matter of personal taste. But in this case I wanted to bring out some detail in the climber’s face, but added masking to reduce grain.

Finally, I used the HSL/Grayscale tab to make adjustments to individual colors. The HSL (Hue, Saturation and Luminance) editing space is an alternative to RGB editing, and allows you to alter the luminance, hue, and saturation of individual color palettes in the raw data.

RAW-demo-4

Hue

In Oranges: -20 toward a redder end of the spectrum

In Yellows: -48 toward the orange end of the spectrum

Saturation

In Oranges: – 10

In Blues: +57

Luminance

In Yellows: -25

In Blues: -35

The overall effect of these changes is clear: deeper, richer sky, more natural and even skin tones on the subject, and a slightly less “hot” feeling to the overall scene. Some of the hotspots, caused by sun hitting the climber’s wet (sweaty?) skin, are beyond fixing, but the tone of the image is more balanced than it was before.

Here is the image, then, as submitted to the editor:

RAW-demo-AFTER

As always in this profession, much is left to personal taste. You may prefer different toning or more contrast. In making this image, my priority was to meet the needs of the newspaper. Therefore, I wanted to re-create the scene as it happened as closely as possible and to reduce contrast, which doesn’t reproduce well on the off-white low quality paper used for daily news. Were the image for my portfolio or a high quality print, I might have gone with more contrast overall.

You can see the compelling reasons to start shooting raw. What do you think of the final image? What are your experiences with raw? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

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