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Never Do Today What You Can Put Off Until Tomorrow

Well, not everything of course. But there are a lot of distinct advantages to deferring some of the choices you could make in camera and instead dealing with them on your computer later on.

First off, I need to make clear that this isn't strictly an either/or decision. Yes, if you shoot in raw mode you retain greater flexibility for later edits than if you commit yourself to in camera jpeg conversion. But either way you go you can further optimize your images later on with Lightroom, Photoshop and other programs. A jpeg file though only has 8 bits per channel while a raw file has 12 to 14. Jpeg files are already rendered in a color space that severely limits your ability to restore shadow detail. As long as you like the way a camera jpeg looks, everything is fine, but if you think you can improve on it your hands are somewhat tied simply because of the inherent characteristics of jpeg images.

Raw image files have inherent characteristics too. Along with the actual data seen by your cameras sensor, each image contains a list of instructions defining what settings were in effect when you pressed the shutter release for that image. Those settings aren't baked into the image pixels the way they would be with a jpeg image but exist merely as a "cheat sheet" of sorts to be used by your raw file converter program later on. These instructions form the starting point for what an image will look like when you start to work on it on your computer, but you can then tweak things as needed from there. Since not even those initial instructions have actually been baked in yet, any changes to them you do decide to make cause no degradation. When you do decide to commit your changes, any settings you did modify get applied as you modified them rather than whatever initial value they may have had.

This is a huge advantage for shooting raw, but it's by no means the only advantage. For instance, I'd much rather decide if I like the way an image looks by examining it on a full-sized computer monitor than solely based on the camera back LCD. Bigger is surely better, and I'm certain my color managed computer monitor can render color more accurately than even the best Nikon camera LCD. Digital darkroom tools such as Lightroom and Photoshop also excel at performing targeted adjustments, something not really practical in camera. In part due to the limited dynamic range of image capture, many images can benefit from changes to only specific areas.

No matter when you pick settings to optimize your images it can requires time that takes your attention from other things. Some people who work on their images at home invest significant amounts of time, but even if you limit yourself to in camera adjustments it will take some time. Stopping to make such adjustments in the field will take time away from shooting, and when the light is changing rapidly, time is a precious resource. Yes, if you spend time at home working on your images you may need to forego a portion of your Netflix binging but that can be a small price to pay for better image results.

When shooting these days, I generally leave the camera on auto white balance and leave most of the other specialized settings related to image appearance at their default values. Composition, shutter speed, and aperture are the key things to focus on when shooting, but of course there are others depending on the circumstances. I'm not concerned if need to do more once I get my haul of images home. Indeed I expect and plan for this. Of course, sometimes I look at the camera results on my home monitor and find nothing further is needed. That's always nice. But especially when shooting under tricky lighting conditions it's normal for at least some further optimization to be needed. And that's OK too. I rather like working on images later as it give me a chance to remember and relive the fun I had shooting them.

Another point worth mentioning is that you only shoot an image once but you can revisit it time and again later on on your computer. A raw image can be saved and re-opened whenever you want if you change your mind want to tone down your first attempt later or take a new approach entirely. Your camera capture provides the source material you need in much the same way that film photographers used their camera negatives.

Darkroom work has always been part of the photographic process. Understanding and embracing that can help you focus on what really matters when you're shooting.

Date posted: February 15, 2015


Copyright © 2015 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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