Photo of a Coral Tree in full bloom.

Raw is not for fixing bad photos

Recently I had a chance to teach raw file processing in Adobe Lightroom to graphic designers interested in photography. It was a nice experience, …but I learned that a lot of people think photographers use computers for fixing everything they could not get right and making great pictures out of bad ones.

Photo of two boys in front of a colorful house in Lambayeque, Peru.
Most of my pictures can be used without any contrast or tonal values adjustment. However I like to control the sharpening and the white balance and thus I shoot raw.

I chose simple landscape pictures to discuss basic contrast, color balance and sharpening adjustments. I explained why it is important to do global adjustments before local ones and ended talking about shadow detail recovery. Later, I chose a high-ISO image to discuss noise reduction and sharpening issues. I ended this introduction covering the printing module, how to edit images in other applications, and how Lightroom is also an image filing system.

So far so good… For these examples, like for most photos really, processing is none or minimal thanks to the great engineering of modern camera exposure systems. Yes, I make decisions in the field about f/stops, shutter speed, depth of field and so on but I normally just shoot a test and then apply corrections to the exposure when I cannot guess it in advance.

Why shoot raw? Flexibility of course. Sharpening, dynamic range and noise reduction are parameters too important to leave fixed in a jpg file, and are hard to check in the field. I would rather be shooting than scrutinizing the LCD while great things happen in front of me. Storage space is not an issue (well, maybe for 24+ MP files but this only makes me more selective in what I keep).

After my introduction I decided it was time to show my audience how some scenes with a large range of tonal values need to be shot in raw to process later in the computer: I picked up a recent photo of kids from a fishing village throwing fish scraps to the seabirds at sunset. When I took the photo the sun was setting over the ocean behind some clouds and I quickly realized there was no way I could get detail both in the sky and in the backlit kids. Fill-flash was not an option because the sand might get uneven illumination. Also I was using a high shutter speed to freeze the movement of the flying birds, which were too far anyway for FP high-speed sync. Split-field neutral density filter… with three kids jumping around me? No way! The solution was, as you can guess: shoot raw, expose to the right and raise the shadow values in post. The LCD preview of course looked really ugly with a very washed-out sky and silhouettes barely discernible from the dark sand.

Unedited image of kids feeding fish scraps to seabirds in Tarcoles, Costa Rica.
This is a well exposed raw capture, in spite of its appearance: It has full information from the shadows to the highlights that can be processed afterwards and turned into a well exposed image.

When I showed the photo to my audience some got the “See?-this-is-how-they-will-fix-a-bad-picture-in-Photoshop” look in their faces. My lowering of the highlight values and raising of the shadows in Lightroom to get a good final image did not help at all my explanation that the original ugly-looking capture was my intention.

Corrected image of kids feeding fish scraps to seabirds in Tarcoles, Costa Rica.
After bringing the highlight values down about 5 stops and raising the shadow values about 5 stops (moving the corresponding sliders all the way in Lightroom) the extreme contrast is tamed and the photo corresponds to my visualization.

After my talk I was kindly invited to a nearby Café and I felt a longer explanation was in order: When faced with difficult lighting situations sometimes we will end up with captures and not with presentable images. They are what raw actually is: the digital equivalent of a well-exposed negative. Software corresponds to proper development and later, together with a printer, the computer becomes a digital enlarger with advanced dodge and burning tools. The final product of our efforts really is the print …or the screen display we upload!

Photo of a Coral Tree in full bloom.
Sometimes opening up the shadows until they show a lot of detail makes the photo lose character. Better leave them dark as they are meant to be.

Do you always shoot raw too? occasionally, when I have to make a long series of photos with a similar subject, like headshots, I make sure everything is right in camera and just do jpegs. The rest of the time… you already know!

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8 thoughts on “Raw is not for fixing bad photos”

  1. Thanks Indah! Also shooting raw saves us from bracketing exposures, which is hard to do when shooting moving subjects. I mentioned this in my lecture too and I hope was not mistaken by sloppy technique.

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      1. Interesting point! A raw image is ready to use and contains whatever settings were selected in the camera. You just have to choose exporting it as jpg or tif. If you use third party raw converters (Adobe for example) they might override some settings but they make good choices of contrast and sharpening anyway.
        You might want to try it and make your own decision. Trust your judgement and see if it is any good for your own images.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Eduardo, this is an excellent and informative post on the reasons for shooting RAW! These days, I swear by it simply for what I can do later in fine detail adjustment when necessary. I still thankfully own pictures (NEF files) I took before learning about RAW shooting I use to consider ‘misses’ only to now find many of them are not only recoverable, but don’t need massive amounts of correction either.

    Very glad to have found your blog. I’ll be back!

    Liked by 1 person

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