Free Markets, Free People

It’s not the picture, it’s what you do with it

In the post below, Billy Hollis complained that he’s never really done well shooting in black and white. Of course, I haven’t either, mainly because I don’t shoot in black and white. Instead I shoot in raw, and depend on post-processing to make things look the way I want them to look. For instance, here is a plain old photograph, exported to JPG as shot.


It’s a pretty meh picture. The colors are bland, and frankly, it’s over-exposed by about 1/3 stop. Here is where using a camera that shoots in RAW becomes important. In my case, I’m shooting with a Panasonic Lumix FZ-200 superzoom. Not a pro-grade DSLR, just a regular consumer superzoom with a tiny 1/2.3" sensor (about 6mm x 8mm in size). That’s pretty close to a cell phone camera sensor. But, because it shoots in RAW, I can fiddle with stuff. RAW is a non-compressed photo format that allows you to do non-destructive editing, which means if you fiddle with something and it goes totally wrong, you can always go back to the original shot and try again. You get really fine control over just about everything you can imagine, without affecting the digital negative. In my case, I do the image processing in Adobe Lightroom. You can’t do that sort of image processing when you shoot straight to JPG. Shooting is RAW, therefore, is massively useful, and allows you to do stuff like this to make the colors pop more:


Of course, that means that you get the full range of black and white darkroom options as well. In the picture below, I’ve popped the contrast and clarity, to try and capture the look of 1950s black and white film.


Here, I’ve kept the high contrast, and added graininess, as well as vignetting the edges. 1930’s and 1940’s black and white.


Now, I’ve reversed the contrast to reduce it a lot, removed the grain, and softened the clarity all the way down. This gives it a flat texture and a soft dreamy feel, eliminating fine details.


So, the key takeaway is that pretty lousy shots can be massively improved simply by shooting in RAW format, and spending a little time in post-processing in Lightroom to get the effect you want. Of course, you can take that a bit too far…


There is, after all, such a thing as too much processing.

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9 Responses to It’s not the picture, it’s what you do with it

  • I assumed that the B&W was done in post-processing. But I think optimal composition for B&W is somewhat different from that for color.

  • There’s nothing preventing manipulating a JPG, depending on the quality.  Nor reverting back to the original with a decent photo editing software this is not a property unique to the RAW format.   The problem with JPEG is any modification requires you to decompress and re-compress if you keep the photo in JPEG.  Each time results in a degradation because JPEG is lossy.  To minimize this, you would convert the JPEG to a lossless format (probably the native format of the photo manipulation software), do all  your edits and convert back to JPEG.  That way you only have one additional re-compression.  If it wasn’t squeezed to death in its original compression, it will probably still be adequate for most uses, especially any computer / phablet use.  There are other lossless formats like PNG that would have the properties of a RAW in terms of modifications not additionally distorting the image. RAW just means the camera hasn’t done much to the original image itself, including compression.  They do apply algorithms to “de-noise” it, especially when the pixel count/sensor size ratio is large.  They could standardize to PNG or other more suitable lossless format and it wouldn’t hurt anything.

    • Um, well, we already have a lossless format to manipulate photos. It’s called RAW. And it has all the metadata from the camera to make change and manipulation easy. JPEG doesn’t. And the compression makes JPEG a non-starter for any serious photo manipulation, and certainly for fine-grained processes. I assume if you’re happy with taking JPEG photos, and maybe lightening or darkening them a bit before emailing or twittering them, you don’t care much about photography qua photography. You just want to share some pics with your buddies.
      And since we already have a working lossless, non-destructive editing format that pretty much everyone agrees on, who cares if you could, theoretically take PNG and turn it into something similar?
      I dunno, your comment just seems excessively pedantic.

      • PNG is “portable network graphics”… it is optimized in some sense for use/display over the interwebs. So it naturally does not target what RAW does, which aims to be a virtual negative. In the same sense that you wouldn’t bother using PNG or RAW for vector graphics, they all have different methods to optimize for their target audience.
        Interestingly enough (but probably not), RAW does have compression in some formats, both lossy and lossless depending on the camera and user options. So the comparison to PNG fails there anyhow.

  • RAW is not “a format”*.
    It’s just raw sensor data, and is absolutely camera/vendor specific; that’s why e.g. OSX has regular “RAW compatibility updates” for specific cameras.

    (I care enough about photography-as-such to own a collection of medium format cameras, and <I>I always shoot in high-quality JPEG</i>.
    Ken Rockwell will tell you “<a href=””>Shoot real raw (film) or JPG like a man”. But he’s kind of a jerk sometimes.
    For normal “fixes” and outside of the pre-press world or catalog photography, RAW is <I>completely unnecessary overkill</i> – and in practice none of the “non-destructive modification” stuff matters, because anyone even a quarter serious keeps copies of the originals, if only for archival purposes.
    If you’re opening a JPG compressed file, editing it, saving it over the old original, and going back to THAT output file to edit more, you’re <I>doing it wrong in the first place</i>. The fault there is not “that it’s not RAW”, but that you’re mangling your own workflow and deleting your originals! But that also doesn’t matter for any normal image-correction workflow, since normal white balance and exposure issues can be fixed in one set of operations, once.

    And even more importantly, any but the most subtle processing is <I>almost always a terrible mistake</i>: see Instagram.)
    (* There’s an ISO 12234-2 TIFF/EP “raw image format”, but nobody actually uses it pure and unmodified, even if many of the binary formats are loosely based on it. RAW is a shorthand for a vast arrany of sometimes-similar formats that do the same basic task. But it’s not “a format”; knowing something is a RAW image doesn’t tell you how to parse the file – or even just the header.)

  • You may think that last one is over-processed, but I’ll bet you would find a rack of postcards bearing this image at the front desk back in the days you evoke here in black and white.  I like ’em all.