RAW Photo Workflow In Lightroom, Part One: Creative Expression

Creative expression in the age of Photoshop
raw workflow in lightroom

When working with RAW files, developing images with software like Lightroom is a required step of the workflow. Choices in color, contrast and feel are made, even if you decide not to take part in this creative step.

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”
– Pablo Picasso

I think it’s safe to assume that most of you reading this article already shoot RAW and have for some time. We have all been told what the technical benefits are and we have drunk the RAW Kool-Aid, metaphorically speaking. But, if you are in the minority, here it is in a nutshell: RAW file equals big data (picture me holding my hands far apart), and JPEG equals smaller data (now picture me holding my hands closer together). RAW files contain more information, which translates into more color info, more detail, more dynamic range and more latitude when developing files.

It’s been said time and time again that one of the greatest perks to the advent of digital photography is the quick access to our photos on the back of our cameras. However, I have long believed there is a grander benefit. RAW files and RAW converters have opened the doors to an unprecedented set of creative possibilities, and such possibilities are precisely the focus of this series of four articles on working with RAW files in Lightroom. RAW files are more than just “big data.”

Of course, getting digitally creative comes with a bit of baggage these days. Photoshop is no longer just software beloved by photographers. Photoshop is a term that invokes a genre of photography that’s inauthentic, that’s been manipulated, and refers to images that have been fundamentally altered. A lot of us get asked when showing our work: “Did you Photoshop that?” One commonly criticized practice is when models in magazines are altered to look more pleasing, leaving a false impression of what people look like or should look like — their waists are slimmed, wrinkles and blemishes removed, and skin color changed as a common practice. This is just one of endless examples, and without judgment of the aforementioned, photography today is viewed with more distrustful eyes. With all its advantages, the digital age has ushered in an era of heightened skepticism, and the term Photoshop is synonymous with the word fake.

Unfortunately, my experience is that many photographers are affected by this cultural stigma when it comes developing their personal work in Lightroom. I see it all the time. Photographers wonder, “How much can I, or should I, develop my file? How much is too much before I’m cheating or being inauthentic?”

If you, too, are a photographer who wonders this, I suggest taking some solace in a couple of things. If you get how RAW files are processed, then you also get that running them through the Lightroom Develop Module before processing is a required step in RAW file workflow. Furthermore, developing RAW files is a very different thing than “Photoshopping” an image, and there is a difference between creative expression and deception.

The Relative Nature of RAW Workflow

Let’s first talk about the nature of what a RAW file actually is. One of the ironies of working with RAW is that you never actually see a RAW file, nor do you ever directly work on or with your file while in the Lightroom Develop Module. And for you skeptics out there already thinking I’m wrong because you’re shooting RAW and seeing your image on the back of your camera, well, you aren’t seeing a RAW file. You’re seeing a low-res processed JPEG of your RAW data courtesy of your camera’s little computer.

Lightroom works similarly, as the file you see and are working with is not your file, but a processed version of your RAW data. Lightroom refers to them as preview files, which are generated as you import images into Lightroom. Whatever your device or application, RAW data must be processed to be seen; the data has to be interpolated and have a profile attached to quantify how the color, contrast and some detail should be rendered.

Furthermore, processing is relative. All camera and software manufacturers process RAW data differently. What you see on the back of your camera is subject to how Canon, Nikon, Olympus, Fuji or any manufacturer processes the data, and Adobe processes differently from all of them. Figure 2 shows the Camera Calibration Panel, which is a very important but seldom opened panel in the Lightroom Develop Module. The top two drop-down menus available in the panel show Lightroom’s Process and what Profile it’s applying to your RAW data.

raw workflow in lightroom

Figure 2. The Camera Calibration Panel is the window to how your images are being processed and what profiles are being applied to your images.

Process refers quite literally to how your RAW data is processed or what processing engine is being used. The default is 2012, but legacy versions are also left for your choosing. Not surprisingly, 2012, being the newest, is the most sophisticated of the technology, so I don’t suggest going back. But files created before 2012 can, and mostly should, be updated.

The default for Profile is Adobe Standard, and applying it changes the look of your file. Figure 3 shows a sequence of images of a whale shark. The bottom row shows previews generated by my Nikon D800, but the top row shows a shift in the color. The blue becomes less saturated, and the overall contrast is lessened, which represents Adobe generating its own preview and applying the Adobe Standard profile to it.

raw workflow in lightroom

Figure 3. This change in color represents a shift from the preview generated by your camera to the preview Adobe generates as you import your images into Lightroom. Your files have to “speak Adobe” in order to be developed by Adobe software.

Watch your files come into Lightroom during your next import. You’ll likely see them change to some degree. It’s not always noticeable, but the change is happening even if you can’t detect it. Like I said before, processing is relative, and colors and tone can render differently depending on what processing engine or profile you are applying to your RAW files. As another example, Figure 4 shows a file where I applied the profiles Adobe Standard, Camera Portrait and Camera Vivid, and each looks slightly different.

Bearing this all in mind, if tonality is relative, then it’s fair to ask, what’s true; what’s authentic? Is one shade of blue right and the other wrong? What if I take it a step further and use sliders in Lightroom to brighten or darken the blue? What if I make the blue more yellow or remove it altogether creating shade of gray? Do any of these changes constitute photo manipulation, or are they creative choices?

raw workflow in lightroom

Figure 4. The contrast and tone of an image change based on which profile you choose to apply to your RAW data preview. (Left) Adobe Standard; (center) Camera Portrait; (right) Camera Vivid.

I should mention that if a change like the one shown in Figure 3 is noticeable, and you prefer the first version you see, there is no going back — sort of. One of the consequences of using Lightroom is that in order to develop an image, your file has to speak the Adobe language. Don’t blame Adobe for this; Nikon, Canon and other manufacturers won’t let them in to their file structuring, so Adobe has to do this conversion. But here’s the good news: the options illustrated in Figure 4 are not random Adobe presets. They are variations on profiles taken directly from the manufacturers that Adobe has reverse engineered. So if you want to “go back,” selecting one of the different profile options should take you there.

RAW Workflow: Conversion

The Lightroom Develop Module is not an editor, it’s a RAW converter. Whether you use Lightroom, Capture One, or some other engine, RAW converters are environments wherein precise adjustments can be made before RAW data is processed or converted to a “positive” format such as JPEG or TIFF. Accordingly, RAW files are often called “digital negatives” because, like a film negative, a positive or print needs to be created. So, technically speaking, your image is not actually processed until you export it out of Lightroom as something other than a RAW file. And this is why I say that developing your RAW images is a required step.

raw workflow in lightroom

Figure 5. Developing files in Lightroom is not editing or manipulating; it’s the phase of your workflow where you get to express yourself.

Figure 5 shows a series of images with before and after views of some of my RAW files. Creatively interpreting your images is exactly what the RAW conversion phase is for. And by the way, this is nothing new. Try typing, “images of darkroom printing notes” into Google. You’ll see a wide array of prints that are covered in scribbles.

These scribbles are notes that darkroom photographers would create as road maps for how to mask, dodge and burn, and tone an image. The end results were always something that looked different, oftentimes dramatically different from a straight, unaltered print from the negative. Was Ansel Adams “Photoshopping” and deceiving us?

There are no governing bodies that say what you can and can’t do. And unless you are bound by the strict ethics of photojournalism (which has its own loopholes) or forensics, you are taking part in the art of photography, and art viewers hunger for meaningful creative expression. So if your goal is to create meaningful, impactful images, you have to insert yourself into the creative process.

Know this — you are welcome to take no part in developing your file with Lightroom, but choosing not to doesn’t validate your process or make true your RAW data. It just means that you are letting Adobe’s profiles decide the palette and the look and feel of your photography. And as one who teaches photography, I strongly encourage you to not do that.

The fact that blue can be different based on which profile is used speaks precisely to what I think is so cool about RAW file workflow. Blue is an interpretation, not an absolute. RAW conversion is thus the phase of your workflow where you get a say in what that blue should be. And my friend, this is in fact the fun part and play as an artist. RAW conversion is the time when you get to think about such things as how the mood of your image is being affected by choices in white balance, how a color may grab someone’s attention, how dodging and burning can direct a viewer’s attention to the parts of the frame you want them to see or move them away from parts that are less meaningful. You can harden or soften textures by adding depth through the use of contrast tools, and consider styles for groups of images to create consistency in look with photos that have a shared narrative. What you can do has no limits other than your concerns over what you should or should not do. Let it all go and play freely, play a lot—but you have to play. This isn’t “Photoshopping;” it’s creative expression.

In Part Two of this series, I discuss further what tools can be used when thinking creatively about developing your work.

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Read All Articles In This Series

RAW Workflow In Lightroom, Part One: Creative Expression

RAW Workflow In Lightroom, Part Two: Creating Consistent Styles

RAW Workflow In Lightroom, Part Three: Developing Your Workflow

RAW Workflow In Lightroom, Part Four: Finely Tuned Details

Jason Bradley has a unique set of skills. He specializes in nature and wildlife photography both underwater and above; he’s the owner and operator of Bradley Photographic Print Services, a fine art print lab; he leads photographic expeditions around the world, and is the author of the book Creative Workflow in Lightroom, published by Focal Press. Visit BradleyPhotographic.com to see more of his work and find info on his upcoming workshops and expeditions, and BradleyPrintServices.com to learn about his fine art printing services.