Sunday, June 28, 2009

Various digital photo tips, RAW or JPEG

I was just surprised to find myself in a debate with a fellow photographer over something I figured I never would debate. RAW versus JPEG. I shoot Jpeg because I almost always get the results I want in camera, or pretty darn close, I shoot a lot of frames and I don't want to have to break the bank buying new hard drives and the biggest possible flash memory cards for the camera all the time. As I keep getting cameras with more megapixels whenever I can, the files are even larger. Also, on the off chance that I have to shoot many many frames in a row, I don't want the camera itself to bog down storing those huge raw files and stop me from getting all the shots I want-- sometimes the last shot in a long series is actually the best one, especially in a wildlife or sports situation.

So a while back a friend of mine sort of berated me for not shooting RAW. I didn't like that-- as my results are every bit as good as hers, or dare I say, better. Six months later and this same photographer is whining because she had to buy herself a new camera, having worn out the old one. She also whines about having to do a 9 hour wedding shoot, some 3,000 photos which she'll whittle down to 500 keepers. I've been listening to her whine about her own success for years now. She got paid just under $3,000 near as I can tell, for a days work. And she gets approximately $300 an hour every time she does a wedding, which is a lot of the time. She also has managed to rent herself a Studio. I'm crying great crocodile tears, right now. Not for her, for me. I didn't want to be a wedding photographer, and in a sense I'm paying the price for that, the price of not getting paid as well as she frequently does. Little secret here, she often hates her job, can't stand the brides or their families. . . so whatever. You get what you pay for, I guess.

Back to the story: First she's complaining because she may have to read the new owners manual on her brand new camera, hours later she says she's crying with joy because the new camera has something the old camera didn't have, a relatively easy way to set things like color saturation, contrast and sharpening in the camera. Yeah, I do that, been doing it for years. I've also been aware for years that RAW means none of those settings, plus a few more like white balance aren't actually being committed to the file. If you do shoot in RAW, the whole point is to have the option to make all those settings be essentially infinitely variable in post-processing. That means you use a separate computer and some software like Lightroom or Photoshop and you get to absolutely go nuts with white balance or saturation or whatever.

While you're shooting in RAW all you have to worry about is all the other things which go into making a fine photograph, which is plenty: f-stops, shutter speeds, framing and focusing is enough. You're freed up from the rest of it until the photos are downloaded. It's not a perfect system however: as RAW files are proprietary to every camera manufacturer, and every time new cameras hit the market software incompatibilities ensue. And for archiving there could be some real trouble unless all those now outdated translator applications are saved too. JPEGs however, are pretty universal and the format isn't changing. It's pretty stable.

So, what does a RAW file look like? It looks like raw data direct from the digital sensor! That means it looks like nothing. How it should look is a matter of opinion. Any software used to import RAW data has to interpret it and show it to you. In some cases Adobe Camera RAW might do a great job of "suggesting" a certain default white balance, saturation etc. In other cases the software which came provided with your Nikon might be better at interpreting your RAW Nikon proprietary data. Same goes for Canon-- I use Canon cameras, but I don't use the software that came with it. If I wanted to I could shoot in RAW and after downloading tell my software to "suggest" the various pre-loaded picture styles like "landscape" or "portrait" or I could pre-load my own custom settings. I don't care to do that-- stunts the imagination. I'd rather approach each frame as it's own unique canvas, and that teaches me to be forever fine tuning my abilities to play Photoshop as though it were a musical instrument in it's own rite.

Now if I did shoot in RAW, I would know that I don't have to worry about white balance at all while I am shooting, or color, or sharpening, or contrast. All that is for later. I would still have to get a decent exposure, mind the lighting, the composition, get it in focus etc. RAW allows me to set the rest later, assuming I didn't crazily over or under expose the shot, or even worse mix two or three wildly different color temperatures (white balance) together in the same shot. Very hard to fix that.

If you've ever photographed somebody under an incandescent light with direct sunlight hitting the side of their face, there is no "correct" white balance for 2300 kelvin versus 6500 kelvin on the same subject. Furthermore, the sunlit areas might be "blown" (over-exposed and lacking detail) and the lamplit sections may be too dark. The sunlight will be too bright and bluish, and the lamplight will be sickly yellow. RAW or not, doesn't matter much, you've got serious photoshopping to do. RAW reportedly has about 1/2 stop better ability to recover blown highlights. That ain't much-- and besides sometimes blown highlights look great, so I just don't care for RAW right now. Often "recovered" highlights look worse than they did before. Not knocking it if you like it though, it's a free country (sort of).

Again, back to the story: so my friend gets her new camera (boo-hoo, poor thing had the audacity to complain) and then decides it's fantastic (tears of joy) and states that "the camera is going to save me 90% of my time" post-processing. So I figure she's using camera presets, loves the results, and naturally is now shooting JPEGs. The difference with a JPEG is that the camera firmware processes the RAW file, decides what the final photo should look like based upon the settings you tell it, compresses that data, throws away the rest (such as millions of possible color combinations which aren't actually present in the photo) and saves it as a JPEG. JPEG shooting is a major a time saver and a storage space saver, but if you're extremely meticulous about post processing or you really like bizarre white balance settings etc, you might still shoot in RAW. Oh, and I almost forgot, nowadays you can shoot in both at the same time. I still post process my JPEGs of course, and so far haven't had any real problems with JPEG artifacts or other degradations, but there could be theoretical drawbacks some time. If a client wants RAW, no problem, no big deal, RAW they will get.

About my friend: I was wrong-- my friend is still shooting RAW. And she's crying with joy because of a few camera settings which show her what the final image might look like when it's properly processed later. She even told clients that their photos will be "so much better" with the new camera. I got confused and was sure she was committing her custom camera settings to JPEGs, because I know for a fact that RAW is RAW-- it does not take alterations to it's data files. People call them digital negatives which is a fair enough comparison in some ways. Anyway, if a couple of clicks on the camera will save hours(?) of post processing then why shoot in RAW? I didn't get it. I still don't get it. I was unable to explain to my friend that her new camera isn't better than the old one just because she can juice up the images in camera-- if she gets it wrong she'll still have to fix it in post. Her new camera might be better than the old one just because they keep improving them by leaps and bounds every year... so you might be happy for your clients that you're responsible enough to buy a new camera in order to deliver the best possible final product. You might be equally happy because you shoot in large format film! But that's a whole other story.

People are getting quite confused about RAW and image quality, especially now that we've got cameras saving special settings and attaching them to the RAW file: now your software reads that file and goes "Oh, you mean it should look like this?" If it looks great, and couldn't be better, then sure! But here's the thing: if you were to look at a RAW file with a very neutral set of settings: they look kind of blurry, low contrast, washed out and fairly colorless/lifeless. It takes increased brightness, contrast, color and often sharpening to make it "pop". So really, it's all a bit "artificial". My friend still thinks she has to shoot in RAW for her profession, but clearly she'd rather the images came out of the camera "fully cooked" and with nothing further for her to do. Like many things in life, you can't always have it both ways. Some of my best shots have been pretty thoroughly tweaked in photoshop-- one might indeed argue that I should shoot in RAW instead, but the fact is that I find my somewhat "pre-tweaked" in camera JPEGS to be a better guide for me to know how the frame will really look in the end, and based upon that I change alot of other things which can't be fixed later: I change my position, change lenses, lighting, change filters, shutter speeds and apertures, if I see something good I shoot 20 or 200 more frames to make sure I nail it-- anyway, to be continued I guess.

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