In my last blog entry, I talked about enhancing digital photos, about RAW versus JPEG digital images.The blog was about people asking, “Is this photo enhanced?” Other similar questions I hear include “Does this photo show what was really there?” or “Has this photo been ‘photoshopped’?” or simply “Is this photo real?”
This subject warrants more discussion than just one blog, especially since the last one was largely a rant. When any camera takes a photograph, the lens opens up and allows light into the camera. For digital cameras, the light falls upon a photosensitive digital sensor (for film cameras, it falls on a photosensitive chemical coating on film). The digital sensor is made up of thousands of tiny small sensors, each sensor making up a “pixel” in the image. The light falling on each sensor is recorded as a different value. At this point, the camera can save the recording as a RAW file, or can process the raw electrical data and save it as some other file format, the most common being JPEG.
A RAW file is not really an image. It is simply a data file in which actual values from the digital sensor are recorded. While some special computer programs can view the information stored in these files and show them as images, most cannot. For example, Photoshop cannot directly show a RAW file as an image. It must first be processed and converted to an image file (such as a PSD, TIFF, or JPEG file) for Photoshop to show it. These special programs are RAW converters, and they have to process the information to show a RAW file as an image. Adobe Lightroom, which I use, is RAW convertor program (with many other features as well). A JPEG file is an image file, it presents information that can be viewed by many computer programs without future processing. It has already been processed. When a digital camera takes an image as a JPEG, it processes the sensor data into an image file. This means that the camera is doing some interpretation of what the image data is supposed to look like. Essentially, a RAW converter program, like Lightroom, does the job of the camera – it processes the sensor data to make an image file. However, it allows the photographer to control the process (rather than letting the camera control it).
Of course, further processing is possible. Either the converted RAW image or the JPEG from the camera can be further processed in Photoshop (or other photo editing programs, such as Picassa). Who is to say what looks the most like reality, the RAW file, a JPEG processed by the camera, the RAW file processed by a RAW converter, or that same image further processed in Photoshop? I can’t answer that question; I don’t think anyone can.
But how about this question, which one makes the best looking image? Or which one best represents the art of the photographer? The answer to those questions can be answered, but the answers depend on the individual and the particular photographer. For me, a RAW image processed by the photographer and then optimized in Photoshop best represents the art of the photographer. And that is my typical workflow. I shoot RAW images. I import those into Lightroom. I do not accept the default RAW processing, but customize it for each image myself. Then, if I’m serious about an image, I further process it in Photoshop. It’s a lengthy process, but it gives the best representation of what I am trying to achieve with my photography – my art.
I’ve illustrated this blog with a series of five images. All were recorded at the same time, from a single click of my shutter. This image of two ships along the Tacoma waterfront was taken with a shutter speed of 25 seconds and an aperture of f/18. One image (first below the featured image) is the closest representation of the RAW image visible – it is the RAW image processed by Lightroom with all the controls set to zero. The next image in the series is the RAW image processed with the Lightroom default settings. The next image is the same scene processed by the camera as a JPEG (my camera allows images to be recorded in both RAW and JPEG formats – a feature common to many DSLRs and some higher end point-and-shoots). The fourth image represents how I processed the RAW file. And the final image (the featured image at the beginning of the blog) is my RAW processed file than further optimized in Photoshop.
Which one do you thinks looks the most “real”? Which one looks the best?