Photography 101: Using Raw Effectively

M and I have been talking about leveraging our series on the Art and History of Street Photography into a sort of online course on street photography and art and photography in general. All of that has been on hold with all of the activity in our lives, namely her moving to the U.S. from southern England and our having gotten married. But as the dust settles on two years of frenetic activity, we’re moving into a place where (perhaps) we can begin in earnest.

I’ve blogged before about Raw, and the consensus among those who commented was that it’s a valuable tool to gain more control over your work. However, I want to illustrate a first ideas that photographers should keep in mind when using raw:

  • Raw is NOT exactly what you saw when you took the photo. Much in the same way that the optic center of your brain interprets signals from light hitting your retinas, cameras’ firmware interprets light hitting their sensors. Raw is essentially the unfettered input. It tends to be flatter in lighting, contrast and in coloring than you may remember. With a good raw editor, however, you can easily tweak the settings to make it look like you want. In that process, you replace much of the camera’s firmware with your own–your brain.
  • Good camera makers’ jpeg outputs can be “better” than what you’d do with the raw in re-capturing the actual setting. Now, before you jump down my throat for heresy, I’m not telling you to ditch raw. What I’m saying is that you might have to work pretty hard, in some cases, to produce a better jpeg than the camera. For instance, with my Fujifilm X100T and X20, the cameras’ jpeg output very closely mirrors what would have been produced with Fuji’s advanced color film. Not surprising, given they’ve been engineered by the same company. I end up using raw mostly for when I’ve screwed up and under or overexposed the shot.
  • Raw is akin to receiving a properly balance color negative (or slide). Jpeg is like receiving a color (or black and white) print. As such, don’t expect to produce good (electronic, jpeg) prints from your raw (negative) without learning good darkroom techniques and having the right equipment.

Let’s jump right to an example.

1-DSCF0343-001Here, the shot (jpeg) I produced looks pretty looks pretty close to what I saw and how I wanted the print to look. No raw needed; no tweaking necessary. But what do you do when that isn’t the case?

In these two shots, taken at the same place — New York’s Grand Central Terminal — and at the same time, under similar conditions, my jpegs (below) came out somewhat underexposed. In part, that was on purpose. I wanted the rich color tones underexposing produced, and I knew I could fix the darkness in post-production. But some of it was accidental. As I shot up and down the street, the light changed, and people passed by too quickly for me to make all the needed adjustments. That’s a fact of life in street photography. You get a second, maybe three. Period.

In both cases, I liked the colors, but wanted more detail from their faces. I could jump straight to raw, as I did, and correct the exposure without injecting unwanted noise into the shot. (You can add light to jpegs, but often you will sacrifice sharpness, detail, or add noise. Raw doesn’t produce those issues because you’re working with the negative, not a print as with jpeg.) So here are the corrected versions, via raw processing.

Both are better, but neither is perfect. In the “Smoking Man” shot, I like the exposure of his face, but I’ve not lost the shadows that added interest to the shot and isolated him.

In the “Pointing Man in Green” shot, I’ve lightened it as much as I dared without losing the anonymity I liked. In fact, I love the original, but thought a hint of his face would add interest. You can just make out his eyes and mouth here, but if I push the exposure higher, the colors will begin to wash out. What to do?

In both cases, I used Photoshop to produce a hybrid. For Smoking man, I went back to the jpeg (top shot) and overlaid it over the raw shot. Then I erased the layer of the jpeg where his head is, to reveal the lighter, raw version. The result is a shot that combines the dark and light elements I liked.

1-DSCF0348_1 dodged

For “Pointing Man,” I stuck with the lighter raw shot, mainly because displays via browsers are lower resolution and you’d lose too much detail (For a print, I may go back to the jpeg.) However, in order to make him more visible without losing detail, I again used Photoshop, this time to dodge his eyes and mouth, thus making his features barely visible.

1-DSCF0352_1 dodged

Obviously, you may have made different editing choices, but that’s not the point here. The objective was to show you 1) how raw can help, and 2) that it often isn’t the last step you may want to take. Once you produce a jpeg from raw, take a look to see if it’s exactly what you want. If not, tweak it, but don’t break it. Have fun!

9 thoughts on “Photography 101: Using Raw Effectively

  1. Good post, honey. More often than not these days I will work directly with the RAW file, as you know mainly because I like my reds to be red and not orange as they are often rendered in the JPEG version. The darkroom work is the part I enjoy just as much as the shooting, so for me I don’t mind spending the time it takes to produce a good JPEG. Like you say, it’s not for everybody, but that depends on what your goal is as a photographer. I agree though that it helps hugely to have good software that will cope well with editing RAW files.


  2. The ‘green man’ shot … I get your points, I like what you’ve done and how you’ve enhanced it. I like being able to sort of make out hi9s features.


    I also very much like the anonymity of the original. So you have two powerful statements here. (Oops, being paged, gotta go) 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I was intrigued that you actually had a discussion about RAW.
    If I may I will add this to the mix…Modern cameras do not make “pictures” in the way that film cameras did and that makes it hard to compare the two very different image making processes.
    Modern digital cameras capture data. Film cameras were about chemical changes.
    JPGs are lossy files that are limited to about 256 colour spaces. (that has nothing to do with sharpness, just tonal quality)
    RAW files are not lossy files and have gosh, lots of colour, and therefore tonal value to offer.
    A good JPG is nice. Sort of what it was like years ago when one would take a roll of film to the drugstore for cheap little prints….Nice.
    Those of us that were interested in quality usually printed our own.
    That is how you and your wife should think of JPG vs RAW. RAW gives you control as you are aware. JPG is just nice.


    • There are a couple of other things to consider as well, one of which is that how cameras do jpeg conversion isn’t universal. For instance, my Fujis handle it much better than my Nikons did, which isn’t surprising since Nikon was never in the printing or film business. It’s like the different between how Fotomat made prints in the early 70s and doing your own printing.

      The other bit is that all of this is influenced by the skill of the photographer. A skilled shooter can take a better jpg with a good camera than a less-skilled one using a crappy camera. So, even though raw will give you a better start, it still comes down to having decent equipment and learning how to use it. 🙂


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