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.
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.
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.
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!