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Shooting Raw Doesn't Necessarily Mean You Should Be Lazy

Some photographers have adopted the position that they don't really need to worry about camera settings when shooting raw format. The argument goes that they can always fix it later in Photoshop. While it is true that many camera settings become at most defaults for later raw conversion, the fundaments still count as much as always.

A raw file consists of two basic parts. The majority of the file is taken up by the actual sensor data recorded by the CCD in the camera, but along with that is a vast array of metadata including information about how the various camera controls were set at the time the picture was made. This includes settings such as what shutter speed and f/stop were used, as well as settings such as contrast, saturation and white balance.

Some of these directly affect the raw sensor data, and some don't.

Changing shutter speed affects how motion is recorded. A waterfall shot at 1/250 second doesn't look at all like the same waterfall shot at 1/2 second. Not only will the image metadata include what shutter speed you used, the resulting image will change based on the choice you make. The same is true for f/stop since it plays a huge part in controlling depth of field. ISO also has a bearing on the recorded raw sensor data since together with shutter speed and aperture it determines exposure.

To a certain degree you can adjust exposure on your computer during raw conversion or even in Photoshop afterwards, but there are limits. If the sensor recorded nothing but burned out white there's little you can do. On the shadow end you have greater margin for error, but you also have the reality that boosting exposure to see into the shadows also boots background noise inherent in digital capture. You may be able to turn a moderately underexposed image into one that shows your subject more clearly, but it may well end up being so grainy as to be basically useless.

If you have enough skill to do so, Photoshop lets you selectively blur the background of an image too. Making it look convincing isn't easy though and even if you can do it you will certainly spend more time than you would changing the aperture at the time you shot that image. If you shot with too wide of an aperture you may be able to sharpen a soft image to a degree, but this is mainly a lost cause. In spite of what they portray on television shows like C.S.I, if the camera never captured the detail in the first place, there's nowhere to restore it from later now matter how creatively you sharpen.

Other image metadata though doesn't affect the actual sensor data. Recorded alongside the shutter speed and f/stop are settings such as white balance and saturation. To control white balance in the old days, photographers used to put tinted blue or orange filters in front of their lenses, directly changing how images got recorded on film. With digital, white balance adjustments are made, well ... digitally. No matter how you set the white balance, the camera sensor records the image using the unmodified light that actually enters your lens. Your white balance choice gets baked into images shot in jpeg mode since the conversion from raw to jpeg happens in camera not on your computer. For raw images, some converter software treats the in-camera white balance setting as a default starting point to be used while other converters ignore it entirely. In any case, you can freely modify the white balance to actually use based on the appearance of the preview image in the raw converter. The same is true for saturation, contrast, sharpening, B&W mode and many others. They may give you a good starting point later on, but you aren't bound by the choices you made when you pressed the shutter release. Until the raw data actually gets converted you can change such settings without loss. The final image will end up the same whether you boosted saturation in camera or on your computer.

But you might not want to ignore those settings entirely. Even when shooting raw, the image you see on the camera LCD back is a jpeg that typically gets processed based on all those settings that people think don't matter. And if the images you see on your camera back look good you are more likely to take more of that subject. The camera LCD provides feedback, and you are likely to act on what you see if you review your images in the field.

Should you take time to adjust all these settings when you are on location? It depends. I don't often, but it can be worthwhile as a way to explore the potential of a subject before you get back to your computer. One of the advantages of shooting digital is the freedom it gives you to experiment. Taking the time to try various camera settings in the field can help you get more in touch with your subject and how best to convey it. Sometimes it doesn't even matter what settings you tweak. Sometimes merely the act of slowing the process down can allow you to come up with new ideas on how to shoot a subject. And that can be very rewarding indeed, even if some of your eventual choices don't actually end up affecting the actual raw image.

Date posted: September 6, 2009


Copyright © 2009 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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Related articles:
Composition: What Do You Want To Say?
Just What is a RAW File Anyway?
Iterative Composition
Digital Editing: Where Do You Draw The Line?
Making Better Images With The Photographic Triangle
I Can Just Fix That in Photoshop

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