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Your RAW Files Won't Spoil

If you've been shooting RAW long enough, you probably have a fair bit of space filled with old files. I've noticed that most of us work only on our freshest captures, having already dealt with previous batches. But RAW files don't go bad over time, and revisiting them can often be time well spent.

So here's the way things usually play out. You come home from a trip and unpack your camera gear. If you've been camping, you take a shower. After you've taken care of necessary tasks, eventually, you settle in to download the images you've captured onto your computer. If you're like me, you've probably already done some culling of good shots from bad, but it's hard to do too much work on them until you get in front of a proper monitor. Even a good laptop can't do justice to the job at hand. The bigger the monitor screen, the better, and it needs to be color managed, too.

Depending on the number of new images you have, it may take you one or perhaps several sessions to optimize them all properly. There's no sense in rushing because you want to do the best job you can. But at some point, you clear out your inbox, having satisfied yourself you've done what you can. Hopefully, a few images are genuinely stunning, but there are also probably some that didn't work out for whatever reason. At least a some no doubt fall in between these two ends of the spectrum, defying your best efforts to save but close enough to make you mutter "if only" under your breath. "Missed it by that much," as the saying goes.

But once you've done what you can to all your new images, most of us will start longing to get back out there to try again. "If at first, you don't succeed," and all that. Rarely do we revisit the images we've shot in the past. Maybe we go back to some recent ones that seemed to hold promise, but as they fall further and further into the past, they get forgotten about, occupying hard drive space but not our attention. Please, tell me I'm not the only one.

I've noticed I have a similar problem with the food in my refrigerator. When I get home from the grocery store, I want to eat the stuff I just bought. Don't get in my way if I brought a pint of Ben and Jerry's ice cream. What remains of the existing refrigerator contents gets increasingly unlikely to be eaten because my meals tend mostly come from the new stuff. At some point, I realize that the last portion of cheddar has mysteriously turned into blue cheese, or probably something that resembles it. Please, tell me I'm not the only one. But if I don't eat what I put in the refrigerator, it will eventually become questionable enough that I part with it by means other than my digestive tract. Raw food eventually spoils.

Thankfully, not so with RAW files. These things may show their technical limitations compared with output from newer camera models, but their creative potential stays fresh as ever in the back corners of our hard drives. All we have to do to sample their hidden goodness is make room in our schedule to open them and have a taste.

I've noticed that my skill with optimizing images has improved over the years. It makes sense that the more experience you have with doing something, the better you will become, and working with image editing software is no different. Practice probably never gets us to perfection, but it certainly helps. Eventually, you actually understand what an unsharp mask is and how it gets used in sharpening. One day, you wake up and find that color management makes sense and stop arm wrestling with color when printing. Your familiarity with other tools grows similarly. Extending our food analogy, you become a better cook at optimizing your RAW files.

The tools themselves keep getting better, too. It seems this is even more true in the past few years with the coming of smarter software. Our artificial intelligence overlords have been adding AI to just about everything of late. Tasks that used to be impossibly time consuming, if possible at all, can now be done with a few clicks. And the pace of technology is speeding up. Photoshop is so much better than it once was, and there was a time when Lightroom didn't even exist. And a slew of excellent third-party applications from Skylum, DxO, and others have joined them, resulting in a competitive environment we all benefit from, regardless of your program of choice. Even if measured simply in raw computer processing power, a lot has changed since I bought my first digital camera. Were we talking about the kitchen rather than the darkroom, we could relate this to microwaves and sous vide cookers. A friend recently bought a computer-controlled oven with convection heat and steam that lets anyone cook like a master chef. Technology is finding its way into everything. Even if you aren't the next Iron Chef, you can improve your cooking with better tools.

So allow me to recommend you do some digging in the back of your metaphorical digital darkroom refrigerator and see what hidden delights may await you. Your skills, honed through years of practice, coupled with the improved software and hardware brought to us through technological innovation and competition, can make all the difference in the world. Go back and find those images you wish you could have done better on and give them another try. You may find your dream for them no longer just out of reach. With the right digital seasoning and just the proper application of tools and techniques, you may find a mouth-watering delight waiting for you in that subdirectory of images from your trip to the Rockies years ago.

Hopefully, I've at least whet your appetite here. You'll never know until you try, and your odds go up the more old RAW files you have. It's a good thing they never spoil the way raw food in the kitchen does.

Date posted: August 1, 2021


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