The Raw Truth

When I start my workshops I always like to find out how the guys attending the course are used to working with photography. I've found that asking 'do you shoot in raw?'  to be a good way to find out quickly where that person is on their photography journey – better than 'how many lenses do you have?' or even 'what kind of camera do you use?'

First – let me get this out of the way – I love film. I grew up with film and it was my friend and helpmate through many professional years.  In those days we shot on colour transparency film so you did your shoot and then sent it off to a lab on an industrial estate somewhere, with a wait to see the results of your work that could run into days – or even weeks. So when digital came along I realised– that– great! I could do all the processing myself on the computer and, at the same time – damn! I had to do all the processing myself on the computer.

I had to learn a new workflow, a new process, a whole new technology. It was a bit of a struggle and it was only when Adobe came up with a way of processing the raw data contained in an image file that I really got excited.

Cameras capture a lot of data on their sensors, and when you create a jpeg file the formatting throws a lot of that raw data that away. If the camera doesn’t do that you end up with big file sizes that are not practical for storing on small cameras, sending by email, displaying on websites and all of that.

Jpeg formatting leaves us with images that are perfectly acceptable to look at – our brains and eyes have limits on the visual information  that we can process - so we don't miss what the jpeg throws away.

But all of that stuff that's thrown away is good stuff – it's cooking ingredients, wool before it's woven, tubes of colour before Van Gogh gets hold of it. And raw processing enables us to get our hands on all of that  Every tiny bit of tone and colour in our image can be accessed and used to enhance and improve our photography. Yes, the file sizes are bigger than jpeg. No, you can't use raw files without processing them. But if you can get to explore the power of raw processing your photography will never be the same.

Now, once you get your hands on the cooking ingredients you can either play around with them on the kitchen table and make a gloopy mess, or you can have a clear idea of what you are aiming for, and how much of each ingredient you need to make a nice dish. In the case of photography, the aim – most of the time – is to pull out as much detail from the image as possible and to create images with real visual impact.

  Lightoom CC control panel - the unprocessed file on the left - the image on the right is beginning to be worked on.

 

Lightoom CC control panel - the unprocessed file on the left - the image on the right is beginning to be worked on.

The software that enables you to process raw file is Adobe Camera Raw - part of Photoshop, Lightroom and Elements.

It is generally thought these days that the raw processor in Lightroom is the most intuitive and powerful processor around and it is certainly my software of choice- currently Lightroom CC.In future posts I will look at Lightroom in detail – but for now it’s enough to point a couple of the major tools.

 

Exposure correction

Note how the exposure correction has recovered the highlight detail - shown in red in Lightroom - on the verbena bonariensis. There are limits to the extent to which you can alter exposure as you can easily introduce nasty camera noise to the dark areas.

 

Tone-mapping

A tricky exposure can be handled post–capture in Lightroom. It is possible to select specific areas of the image and transform them by re-arranging the colour values of each pixel. It means you can make the most of dramatic lighting that cameras will struggle with without post-capture processing.

The downside of shooting in raw is that processing them before using them is mandatory so it will add a lot of time to your workflow. It will strain your computer’s processing power and you will no doubt need more storage. But it does open up all kinds of creative opportunities to improve your photography.