Friday, January 4, 2008

Shooting Raw

Is shooting raw format making photographers stupid? Ok, an obviously dumb question. Every photograher understands, or should, and if they don't they should learn, why shooting raw has a lot of advantages over jpeg, which I discussed a little about in an earlier post. I haven't moved from that position very much since then and still shoot jpeg most (80-90%) of the time for convenience.

Ok, to begin with, digital cameras always capture images in a raw format, istoring the original intensity data of each pixel in the sensor. The camera uses your settings, such as ISO, picture style, white/color balance, exposure settings, exposure control, filter effects, etc. to display the image in the camera and initial post-processing and to convert the raw to jpeg.

With raw format, the only controls the photographer has are the exposure, ISO and EV (exposure value) control. You can overcome the ISO in any post-processing, but you can't overcome a wrong exposure setting or EV control resulting in the image extremely over or under exposed. This is due to the sensors and the dynamic range of cameras.

While some photographers argue digital cameras have a 7-9 zone range, the practical range is on par with film about 5-6 zones excepting some black and white film which has a 7-9 zone range. It's how that range is captured that makes this important. In digital cameras, the zones aren't equal linear zones, but non-linear, meaning each zone is progressively less and less of the image to where they begin to indistinguishable on the end of the range, near black and near white zones.

This is where the practical range of about 5-6 zones become evident in scenes, but the advantage for shooting raw is that you can sometimes extract more from the outer zones with post-processing, recovering some of the dynamic range. But then you have the limitation of the exposure being the controlling parts of the capture where the zones simply aren't distingushable. Sometimes the range of film can be recovered in development - the traditional expose for the shadow and develop for the highlights, but in digital it's usually lost.

And my point to this rambling? Well, while I agree shooting raw has a lot of potential for photographers, and he recommended method for signficant post-processing image production and it's a powerful mechanism for overcoming a lot of mistakes in the exposure, such as white/color balance, picture style, filters, light sources, etc., especially under different light conditions. But it can also become a fallback for a photographer, and this is my point.

Shooting raw can make photographers photographically dumb - not knowing, or stupd - not thinking, and image processing smart. It can overcome a lot of mistakes film photographers wouldn't make or know how to correct in the field. Shooting raw can make photographers iilliterate, if not incompetent, photographers and only technical image processers. All a photographer has to do is shoot raw, set the camera to optimum ISO, automatic white/color balance and automatic exposure, and know you can fix anything in Photoshop.

Ok, this has been a point of arugment for decades, long before automatic exposure settings on cameras, to the introduction of cameras with light meters before than and external light meters before that. It's all relative to as they say, and here it's relative to what's important to capturing and producing an image, and where you put your expertise. Before digital processing, some people learned to become darkroom specialist and some photographers focused on capturing photos.

So it's not new, but now the level of expertise has fallen into the hands of everyone, even those who have little if any knowledge of photography and exposure, but simply set everything to automatic, then point and shoot and fix everything Photoshop. Is that photography?

Not to me, but I do shoot raw when I want to play with some images, and even then I shoot raw+jpeg. I've always been a photographer who likes to test my knowledge, undestanding and experience, how limited it is, to see how well or bad I did. It's like shooting film, even when you bracket, because you make decisions and trust yourself. Shooting raw doesn't do that, it's not cheating but certainly not teaching you anything about photography.

Ok, I'm being a curmudgeon about it. But not really, as I make the point shooting raw has a lot of advantages for the photographer. My point is that while that, it's also a way of being a bad photographer but a good image producer. It's not what I was taught or why I do photogaphy. It's why I'm a photographer, to capture what I see as realistically as I can, and not trust some post-processing to overcome my own stupidity.

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