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Straight Out of the Camera

There are a lot of eye-popping images on the Web. When looking at an image, people will sometimes ask whether it is as shot or was edited after the fact to improve it. When you get down to it though, I doubt they'd actually like an image straight out of the camera.

Digital capture is made possible because of a complex mix of technology. Clearly, digitizing an image at all breaks it down into an array of tiny, individual pixels that merely simulate actual reality. It's as if you looked at life through a window screen and ignored the lines that create the grid. If each visible spot is small enough, you no longer notice them as individual points, and we no longer see the lines between them. But if we extend this analogy, it would be as if each of those spots of reality visible through the window screen could only be a single color with no detail of its own. With a real window screen, no matter how small those holes may be, each one still reveals a section of whatever may be on the other side. Each section still retains the detail of what it's a part of, even if you it is only a small part of that overall detail. Pixels in a digital image jettison all internal detail, leaving it with nothing more than a color and tone. A digital image only looks like an image because it's made up of so many pixels, creating the appearance of reality. We don't notice how the illusion is created, just as we generally don't notice the window screen when looking at what lies on the other side.

But a digital image made up of a grid of RGB pixels only comes about after the fact, the result of conversion from the original camera raw format. Digital cameras don't really capture images that way. They see only black and white, not color. They sense only brightness. In order to have enough data to later generate an RGB image, digital cameras are constructed in a clever way known as a Bayer Mosaic. Each photosite (pixel) comes equipped with a filter that only passes light of a given color, red, green or blue. One row of photosites will have alternate pixels of green, blue, green, blue, and so on. The next row will be red, green, red, green, and so on. From there, the sequence or rows repeats with another green and blue row, then another red and green row, and so on. With this setup, each raw pixel will record just a single color, based on the color of its filter. To convert that weird format into something that passes for RGB, a raw image converter will use adjacent values to approximate the two missing colors for each pixel. Raw converters differentiate themselves based on the sophistication of their algorithms, but they all do basically the same thing. They try to make an educated guess about what would have been recorded for a color had the camera been able to record it. Suffice it to say, if you could see an image "straight out of the camera," it wouldn't look very good.

But the complexities of the problem go beyond just that. Digital cameras can only record a signal at all within a fairly narrow range, much narrower than the range of human vision. Photographers have been struggling with overcoming this limitation since the beginnings of photography itself, long before the digital era began. The tool of choice for film photographers was the graduated neutral density filter, or GND. Such filters were clear on one end, and transitioning to some shade of gray at the opposite end. Placed over the lens, they blocked off some of the light from a portion of the frame, bringing it into the range that the camera could record it without burning out the details. Such filters are still in use these days, but less commonly so. The modern digital version falls under the umbrella term of HDR, or High Dynamic Range imaging that involves shooting a series of frames at varying exposures and then merging them into a single shot after the fact. This makes the very idea of "straight out of the camera" into something much harder to conceptualize. That doesn't mean that such shots can't look "real" (although admittedly people seem instead to aim for "surreal" versions), but they hardly qualify for "straight out of the camera" in any literal sense.

The real question though is why people even want image that look straight out of the camera. Where did that standard even come from? Shouldn't the goal be to create images that look like what you would have seen if you were standing there yourself? The way the photographer saw it? Or perhaps to create images that convey the feeling the photographer felt being there? Cameras may work differently than does our own sense of vision, but the biggest key distinction is that they are purely objective whereas we human being can't help but see things subjectively. We "interpret" what we see based on how we feel about it. On top of the simple sensory input, we add layer on top of layer of memories and preferences to create the world as we see it. Two people standing side by side, looking at the same thing, could easily come away from the experience with different impressions. Everyone is an individual.

So, newspapers and encyclopedias may value strictly objective renderings, much of the rest of the image buying and viewing world probably prefers a more subjective version. Put simply, it likely just looks better to them.

But in your quest to juice up an image make it look as spectacular as you remember it when you shot it, where do you draw the line? Unlike the underlying world of digital imaging, subjective image enhancement isn't as clear cut as zero and one. There really is no line beyond which you've gone too far in adding vibrance or sharpening. It's up to you to judge when your efforts at improving an image begin to have the opposite effect. This isn't always easy to do, it we often don't realize it until it's too late. It can be all too easy to get carried away with yourself when working on an image you really like. Just as with other aspects of improving your skill as a photographer, this is often something one has to learn over time.

Everyone has their own sense of when things look "just right," and someone looking at your image may feel differently than you do. You may even feel differently yourself with the passage of time. Tastes vary and tastes change. While a good image may start with what came straight out of your camera, the quest to make it look its best goes far beyond that.

Date posted: October 15, 2017


Copyright © 2017 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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Wherever You Go, There You Are
Reality in the Eye and Camera of the Beholder
Photography is Inherently Subjective
What Attracts the Eye?

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