Sunday, May 6, 2012

RAW vs. jpg

Before you start to scratch your head, wondering what in the hell is going on with this image, I want to share a brief rundown of awesome things to come.

I had mentioned a few posts ago, that this summer was going to be a busy one. That shooting schedule has only grown since then.

I had mentioned that my close friend and adrenaline junkie, Mikey Douthwaite, had booked me for his summer lineup of BASE and chopper jumps. Well, my friends, that clock sure is ticking fast. Although there isn't a date set in stone, we anticipate that the group of us will be in the sky within a month from now. Sick! The helicopter will be at our disposal from dawn till dusk. If that doesn't give me enough time for a couple awesome frames, I'd better toss the gear out the window, at ten thousand feet.

I had also mentioned that producer and filmmaker, Karol Escobar and myself, were going to begin collaborating on a personal project. To my surprise, I was made another offer from the young creator. She is working on a mockumentary, the story which I cannot disclose at the moment. She had requested that I work on the stills for the project. I happily agreed to the twenty week long project.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

More after the jump...

The other day, I received a call, an interesting one at that. Without getting into much detail of the phone call, we discussed an artistic nude shoot. Yep, I am super excited for this one. No, not for the immediate reasons that you may think. Artistic nude shoots can be quite difficult. Little margin for error. This one has really got my creative juices flowing. I have multiple ideas. I'm not going to offer up those ideas just yet but let's just say that along with the nude model you should imagine dirt and reptiles. Nuff said for now.

The Awfully Underexposed Photograph

You may resume scratching your head. Yes, that is a totally shadow clipped image. Before you start knocking my skills, let me plead my case.

A couple weeks ago, on facebook, I was exchanging messages with my friend and high school sweetheart, Joei Maier Hochberg. Back in those days, one of our hot dates included watching Forrest Gump, in her parents' basement. Ah, the stress free days of youth. I digress.

Joei is an aspiring photographer. She wants to get into shooting sports. I have shared with her, to this date, some information that I thought would be very useful for her newest endeavor. Besides the basics like, shooting manually and getting some long glass for the athletic closeups, I had also mentioned that it is super duper important to be shooting in RAW, rather than jpg format. Not surprising, Joei was a bit bewildered. This wasn't the first time I've tried to explain, in conversation, the importance of shooting in RAW. Unfortunately, although I can understand what it is I'm trying to explain, it seems to be difficult for others to really grasp my education of RAW. Joei was also a bit perplexed by my explanation. I decided that I would be able to make things a bit easier to understand by writing a post about the importance of shooting RAW. Wish me luck.

What Is RAW?

Without making the discussion too difficult, therefor making the purpose of the post mute, I want to explain RAW format with minimal nerdy tech talk. I am all about getting nerdy but sometimes the info blows right over people's heads. Especially those new to the creative discipline.

RAW files are, in essence, digital negatives. They are stored on the camera's memory card without any internal processing. Like a film negative, RAW files require developing. Rather than developing in a darkroom, RAW files are developed via dedicated software on a given machine (i.e. your computer). This is sometimes referred as "the digital darkroom." Adobe is the industry standard when in comes to RAW processing software. Today, many photographers have been leaning towards the more user friendly Lightroom, for their RAW processing. I have grown to be more comfortable using the RAW editor that comes bundled with Adobe's Bridge. There are plenty of other programs capable of this type of file handling but I'm no expert in that department. I've been a dedicated Adobe user for many years. Using their software has become second nature to me.

The benefit of a RAW file is not only the fact that you can "develop" it any way you see fit but the fact that it holds a greater amount of information that a jpg file would. The tradeoff here is that the RAW files are much larger than the jpg and will eat up lots of space on your hard drive. Be prepared to buy extra storage. Trust me, It is well worth the investment.

Shooting jpg

Ok, so my RAW explanation may have not been the clearest ever but I think that given the jpg story, you will get a better grasp on the RAW file.

Being new to the game, many, as did myself, will, by default, mentally, put their new DSLR into jpg format. People are not aware of what RAW files are, out of the gate. Many that have at least an elementary education of computing, are aware that jpg files relate to images. On top of that, the second they accidentally switch that camera body over to RAW, they notice that their card capacity has dropped exponentially. In jpg they were able to shoot over 1000 files and in RAW, just over 100. That can't be good. Right? Wrong! Remember, those RAW files are large, uncompressed, undeveloped and lossless, jam packed with information.

So what is the difference? I always explain to newbies that they should be shooting their cameras in full manual modes. The reason being that if you shoot in manual, you are doing all of the creative decisions for the camera. The opposite if true once someone decides to shoot in ANY automatic mode. In auto modes, the camera is making all of the creative decisions about the frame that is ultimately going to be shot. You have put yourself at your camera's mercy. Not good. In full manual mode, you are the king of the castle. It is your brush, your palette, have control of that.

Shooting in RAW or jpg is quite similar to manual and auto exposure settings. RAW gives you the digital negative, waiting to get your artistic treatment. Now, on the flip side, shooting the same image in jpg, strips you of this power. Once you trip that shutter release in jpg mode, the camera quickly decides how it thinks the scene should look, how sharp it should be, the tone of which should be portrayed, etc. Once it makes those decisions, the file is then compressed and all of that wonderful RAW information lost to the world of cyber trash. Tragic isn't it?

RAW In The Real World

Once again, I am showing you this horribly underexposed image. This was taken the day of shoot I did out in Fairmount Park, Strawberry Mansion, to be exact, in Philadelphia. I was to meet a family of four. Doing some outdoor portrait work. I had arrived early. This would help me get rid of some pre-shoot nerves and do some location scouting. After I nailed down the location, it was time to unload the gear from the SUV and start setting up. As with all shoots, I pre-visualize how I want the photos to look, from a lighting standpoint. What type of mood do I want to portray? Things like that. Once I have that in mind, I begin to find exposures. Typically, I like to bang down the ambient a few stops and then add strobes accordingly.

Take a close look at the image above. With a keen eye you can deduce that I dialed the ambient way down and along with that had one strobe firing, well below the proper power level. That gave me a good starting point. From there I can dial in my exact exposures. Following that I would drop the shutter speed a stop or so (shutter controls ambient) and open up the aperture a bit (aperture controls flash). If that wouldn't be enough, I would bump up the power on the strobe a stop or so. All very distinct variables that need careful attention.

Ok, I may be getting off track a bit. Point is, the dark image was my starting point for the days shoot. The properly lit photos will not be part of this discussion. Backtracking a bit, when helping Joei out with understanding RAW files, I decided to go into my archives to find an image that would assist me in educating the benefits of RAW vs. jpg. Never deleting images, I was able to find this super crappy photo. Perfect.

Believe it or not, this properly lit photograph is from the same exact file as the crappy dark one. That's the power of RAW baby! Thank you and good night.

Ok, I should be able to wrap it up there. The photo can do all of the talking, right? Ok, I won't escape that easily. Some of you must be thinking that this conversion is impossible. Especially if you've been shooting jpg all of your digital life.

In actuality, processing this image was easier than meets the eye. I confidently took the dark image and opened it up with Adobe's RAW editor. Without hesitation, I got down to business. First things first, I work that uberly important exposure sliders. First I took the exposure up a stop or so. Next I went to the blacks. I like to get those blacks nice and high for personal preference. Heavy blacks, but not too heavy, give a nice thick final product.  Following the black adjustments, I then go and work on the fill light slider. This will balance things out a bit with the mid tones. Once things are looking sweet, I do some final tweaking with the brightness and contrast sliders.

Magically, an awesome photo is beginning to develop, as if working in a real darkroom. After I work the exposure, I then go up to the white balance adjustment to dial that into place. I used to work the white balance first but found that when tweaking the exposure, the white balance always gets knocked out of whack. I usually dial in the white balance pretty close in camera so that in post I don't have to get too crazy. Any given image that I shoot usually requires only a few degrees of adjustment, in either direction, on the Kelvin scale.

Sitting back, I see a properly exposed image, needing only some minor, creative additives to the digital developing. Adding some vignette to this file was, in my opinion, a great decision, drawing the viewer's eye to the subject at the center of frame (yep, center of frame, breaking the rule of thirds purposely and creatively).

The file also required some sharpening, as RAW files always do. RAW files tend to be a bit on the soft side for some reason or another. I'm quite careful not to go crazy with sharpening these days. Once I bump it up in RAW, I don't add anymore, as I used to, in Photoshop.

Once all of the RAW edits were complete, I opened the file in Photoshop to do the final tweaking. For this particular file, I did a bit of curves and levels adjustments for personal taste and style. Nearly complete, I decided to add some selective focusing via a Gaussian blur layer. By the way, any and all adjustments I do in Photoshop are done using layers and masks. If you don't know how to use them, learn them. Life changing once you nail down that skill.

After all of this processing, it is then AND ONLY then that it can finally be saved in jpg format. If I ever have a doubt in mind that an image is complete, keep the image saved in RAW or psd format. Once you convert to jpg, the file will be vulnerable to pixel destruction. Another reason to shoot in RAW. Working the RAW files, is non-destructive, allowing you to reverse any screw ups you may make in post production.

Is Shooting jpg Really That Bad?

Need I say more? Again, thank you and good night. Damn, should've wrapped it up when I had the chance. Rather than just show you how powerful the RAW file really is, I decided to show you how weak the jpg is.

Think you can shoot that same underexposed, dark, useless photo in jpg and produce the same amazing results in post, think again my friends, think again. Obviously, being a RAW shooter, I had to convert the dark RAW file to jpg before going on with the experiment. I left the file as clipped as it was straight out of camera. I then opened in Photoshop, saved it in jpg format and began processing from there.

I tried a few different adjustment layers, looking for the right formula to save the file best I could. It was hopeless. In the end, I added an exposure adjustment layer and bumped it up a couple of stops. As quickly as I began to brighten up the image, it began to fall apart. The bottom line, the jpg straight up crapped the bed. Period.

The images speak for themselves. Not sure what else I can say to promote the ability and power of the RAW file. Now, get your camera out and go into its settings, find image quality and switch it over to RAW. You will  not regret it.

Is this to say that there is no use for shooting in jpg format? Some argue there is. I haven't found a reason to but I'm sure it's there. I suppose that if you are shooting basic snapshots that you don't anticipate editing, that a jpg format could be acceptable. But you see, even then I find it offensive to do. Who knows, even shooting some random snapshots, I've found beautiful images that I've had a wonderful time processing via the RAW editor. A shot that otherwise could not be handled in such a way. A shot that turned out, luckily, into a masterpiece. I'm sorry, I just don't see any purpose of shooting jpg format. Some even argue that they may need to fire off thousands of frames and need the storage space on their cards. My rebuttal is to buy bigger cards.

No excuses or arguments can be made. The RAW file is the king of the ring on any given day.


One small nugget of information that I forgot to mention. Shooting RAW does NOT give you license to go out and shoot crappy under or overexposed images all day long. Get it right, or as close as possible, in camera. It will save you a lot of pain and suffering when working in post. Today's underexposed photograph was simply an educational tool for the discussion.

Until next time...