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Sunday, May 1, 2005

The Craft of RAW

Use RAW to make good photos better, not bad photos okay

digital horizonsWe looked at the mythology associated with RAW last month, that it somehow possesses magical properties that allow it to capture image quality from any brightness range, that you can get wonderful images from any exposure. That myth has set a lot of photographers down the wrong path.

RAW is an excellent format for maximizing what you can get from a digital camera. It isn't for everyone, as we've said before, as it increases workflow and time spent at the computer. For the careful worker who wants to spend the time on the image, RAW offers some terrific capabilities to gain improved color and tonality from your camera.

To get the most out of a RAW file, you must shoot the format the best you can right from the start—RAW files require proper exposure, good light and color from a scene to perform at its maximum. That means attention to the craft of photography, which we've been doing for years independent of anything digital.

It's interesting that as digital entered the photographic world, some photographers became frightened of it and said the craft would be lost. Craft, the control of the medium through skill, practice and knowledge, long has been a core element of photography. The fear was that the computer would do everything, making decisions for the photographer and creating stunning imagery without any work by the photographer. There even was an idea that the right computer software would allow anyone to take photographs that would equal anything the pros did! This is no exaggeration. Such a statement actually was published in U.S. News & World Report about six years ago.

In reality, there's more craft for photographers when shooting digital, and especially RAW, than in shooting slide film and using highly automated pro cameras. Before I incur the wrath of slide shooters, it's important to recognize there's much craft involved in slide photography, but since little can be done to affect the image after the photo is shot, there's more that can be done in the digital darkroom.

When shooting RAW (or any digital capture, for that matter), you have to do everything you used to do with film. But unlike slides or JPEG files, the RAW file is "unfinished." You can't print directly from it and many viewers of digital files won't recognize it. You have to open it in a RAW converter, whether from the manufacturer, Adobe or an independent product like Capture One. There, you make new decisions on color and exposure until the photo can be "finished."

Exposure is the key to getting the best from a RAW file. There's a lot of discussion about 8-bit, 12-bit and 16-bit files, plus the choice between Adobe RGB and sRGB, but none of these has even a fraction of the effect that exposure has on proper tonalities, good color and noise. This is one case where the evidence is clear—the craft that comes from good exposure trumps any digital technology.

I know, you've heard that RAW lets you "fix" problem exposures. While you often can get an acceptable photograph from underexposed or overexposed images, that can cause you a variety of problems—from limitations in tonalities and weaker colors to increased noise and less efficient workflow. Just because a RAW file can be processed to deal with problem exposures is no reason to take it for granted, always "fixing" images in the digital darkroom.

With exposure above or below the optimum for the sensor, the sensor is now expected to perform its best with less than the best light on it. The middle range of tones seen by the sensor as being in the middle range of brightness allows the sensor to optimally deal with a subject's tonal range and to capture the richest colors. Underexposed or overexposed colors give the sensor less to work with.


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