Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Versatility of Camera RAW

When you save photographs in the jpeg format, you are using one of the most common file types which will probably be around for decades to come. That's the good news. Your heirs will probably be able to view them. The down side of jpeg, though, is that the picture, much like a cake, is pretty much cooked by the time it is saved in the camera. It is true, some changes can be made in a photo editing program and they can look pretty good if you know how to use the software. But, it is kind of like the icing on the cake. You have some control over how it will taste, but you cannot fundamentally alter the cake.

I wasn't pleased with this image of cherry blossoms I took the other day and was about to throw it out. I decided to try something different, after further thought, to see if I could rescue it.

RAW files are so named because the information is minimally processed in camera. The processing consists of a few things like slight sharpening and filtering our infrared light for example. A RAW file is more like a photo negative or in our analogy, a cake batter, where you can significantly effect the outcome of the cake before it is baked by the ingredients that are added.

There are little add-on programs available for programs such as Lightroom called plug-ins. They are made by other companies and give you the ability to perform a task that the program may not perform as well on it's own. I decided to try selecting a couple of these plug-ins to see what I would get with this image. In the case of these plug-ins it was simply a matter of clicking on a name for the look it would give the image. This look is from onOne software company and is called Movie Look: Blue Dawn. I liked it, so I decided to keep the image file. What I didn't like about the image to begin with was the lack of sharpness. With this look, it didn't matter, since the main effect is to slightly blur the subject and give it a delicate glow.

For the sake of demonstrating how different the same file can look (because it is a RAW file), I decided to make a couple of other versions. Nothing changes about the original file. All these changes are recorded in the file as metadata (data about the data) and the instructions are carried out at the time the file is exported from the program.

This one is called Movie Look: Omaha Beach. It is more of a bleached look with an emphasis on a grainy appearance. There is no true grain in a digital file as there once was with film, but it can be added in later as an effect if you like that sort of thing.

Digital image files are made up of three channels - blue, green and red. It is relatively easy to extract one of the channels which, by themselves, appear as grayscale images of varying tonality. The sliders within Lightroom under hue/saturation/lightness allow almost unlimited possibilities as to how the image will be rendered - and all without being destructive to the original file.

This particular one-click selection (plug-in) was called Blue Filter. If you like to have better control of the outcome, home made cake is better than store bought. One other aspect of a RAW file that makes it a superior format is the fact that as the algorithms for making changes to an image improve over the years, you can return to a file shot from years ago and reprocess the information with the latest improvements. This one fact makes RAW invaluable in my mind.

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