Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Should I ONLY Shoot RAW? Should I Use AWB? Answers to These Common Questions

Wow, sorry for the delay in getting this new post up, I have been slammed the last couple of weeks with business, then there was the July 4th holiday, and...well, you know how it is.

Over the past couple of weeks, I have been asked a couple of questions about digital photography, and it occurred to me that these questions may be on the minds of others as well. So let's take a look at them:

Question #1: "My camera gives me a choice of several different file sizes when saving my images. RAW, Full, Medium, and Small, and then Full Compressed, Medium Compressed, and Small Compressed. One friend told me you should never photograph in anything other than RAW. Another said you should always use Full Compressed! I am just not sure--but I AM confused! Can you help?"

ANSWER: I sure can. First of all, this is confusing for many photographers--even seasoned pros! I wrote an article for ABOUT.COM several years ago, and you can refer to that article here. It is still posted on ABOUT.COM, and will give you more details than I will post here--hey, why retype what I have already done? Understand that depending on your camera, the menu may look like one of the following:
  • RAW
  • RAW
  • FINE
  • RAW
I do not recommend using the compressed option unless the photograph is for posting on the web, for viewing strictly on a monitor, or a small print (4x6 or smaller) is being made.

First of all, you MAY want to shoot all RAW if you are a new photographer or just entering the Photography for Income market. It lets you correct minor exposure flaws. Understand that RAW is not a substitute for proper exposure! If your highlights read more than 245 or less than 7, there is no usable data there!! Garbage in is always garbage out. If you are photographing with studio strobe and have metered the scene at EI 100, but you have set your camera at EI 800, you are not going to save this because you shot RAW, okay? RAW is not some great potion sent to Earth from God that saves crap files...end of story.

If you are using RAW files because you think they are sharper, you are wasting time and storage space. RAW files are NOT sharper than JPG files--they were both created on the same sensor. One guy sent me an email after I wrote the ABOUT.COM piece saying that the proprietary software that shipped with a particular Nikon camera at the time output JPG files that were softer than the RAW files. So what? That is a shortcoming of a piece of software, not RAW vs JPG. The simple solution was, don't use that software to convert them! The files that came off the sensor were the same sharpness, because it was the same sensor.

Other photographers say, "I shoot RAW because I want ALL of the pixels...why would you save as JPG and throw data away?" Well, this is not a totally accurate analogy. Understand when you edit a file, you are throwing data away...it is IMPOSSIBLE to add data to a file. If it ain't there at capture, you can't add it in later. These photographers are confused about how JPG works. JPG does not actually throw the data away...it looks at large areas of similar color pixels and says, "Hey, here is an area of 2000 pixels that are all exactly the same color. I don't need to save every single one of these...I can save every Nth pixel and make a note to myself to fill in the other pixels when the file is opened."

Yes, it is true: there is some loss. Some minor, imperceptible loss (unless you are compressing a 48 Mb file into a 326 Kb file, of course). I have taken files and worked on them, compressed them from a "HIGH" JPG file to a "MEDIUM" JPG file, and shown them to photographers who swore they could tell the difference. I had it full screen on a 30" Apple Cinema Display. The result. NOT ONE of these people who said, "Oh, I can tell the difference!" could pick out the original file and the compressed file. Read it again...not one professional photographer could discern any difference.

Now for my own workflow, I never use RAW for my portrait or wedding photography. Why? Simple...TIME! First of all, RAW files take longer to write to your storage card. Next is moving the files from your card to your computer--it takes longer to download 200 RAW files than it does to download 200 JPG files. Next is using Photoshop...unless you have one powerhouse of a computer, you are going to experience load times of 25 to 75 seconds PER IMAGE to load into Photoshop. I read posts on the Internet where people say it takes longer with their 3-4 year old computer. Many people are presorting in a stripped down viewer to pick the final images. I'm not really interested in that. Next is file conversion: labs don't print from RAW files. They normally print from JPG (a few will print from TIF files), so now you have to convert all of those RAW files to JPG...more time.

Yes, RAW gives you more options, but just understand there is no free lunch: RAW files take longer to process than JPG files. If you are shooting just a few images and you don't need them ready to view in a couple of hours, RAW is just fine. I normally use a hand held meter and make all of my images in JPG mode, using a "Zebra Card" to make an exposure that I can color balance from. I'll talk more about the Zebra Card later.

In fact, I rarely even use the LARGE setting. The MEDIUM setting is my choice--at least on my Canon cameras. The reason is that the camera software over-samples the image, so you will see ZERO difference between an image photographed on LARGE (AKA FINE or FULL on some cameras) and the MEDIUM setting. Don't think so? Give it a try yourself. Photograph an image on the Large/Fine/Full setting, then set the file size to Medium/Normal. Make an enlargement--say 16x20--and see if you can tell them apart. I can save you some time...you won't be able to.

Now here is an interesting point: scroll down and read the comments on the ABOUT.COM site--some of them are hilarious! One guy said I didn't know what I was talking about if I thought JPG was better than RAW. Another person states RAW "...has more detail than JPG." One guy said he wished he shot RAW when he photographed a family and screwed up the exposure. Finally, one fella says that you should ONLY shoot RAW while another says he shoots RAW and JPG.

Let's look at these comments one by one. First off, if you read the article, I NEVER say ANYWHERE that JPG is superior to RAW. Never said it. What I did say was that if you are careful about your exposures, then JPG is fine, and preferable if you have to process a large number of images. And working pros do!
The guy who said his RAW files are sharper than his JPG files--no way. This is simply untrue--it is same image off the same sensor regardless if it is RAW or JPG.

Now to the photographer who screwed up the family shot: he shouldn't be doing Photography for Income! Remember I said it is for people who can get good exposures!
Finally, the last two comments are not incorrect...for those users. If you have all the time in the world, shoot RAW to your heart's content. But when you are photographing 5 seniors a day and two weddings a month, that adds up to 1200 images, or nearly 100 images that have to be processed nearly every day. This doesn't even count my school, baby, and family images. If I had photographed them all in RAW, I would have worked 20 hours a day photographing and processing the images. I still had to eat, sleep, and market the business! Where would I have found that time?

Look, if you have nothing but time, or you have some slave locked up in your basement doing all of your image processing, or you just enjoy working on your images, then shoot RAW all day long. But if you do not have a top notch computer, those RAW files can take 10, 15, 30, even 90 seconds to load. Let's see if you can deliver that wedding you shot--all 600 images--on Memorial Day weekend by the 4th of July! HA--probably more like Christmas!

To summarize: if the images are made by a COMPETENT photographer who knows his/her equipment and how to read a meter in an controlled environment, such as studio portrait photography, saving them in the RAW format is simply, utterly unnecessary. If the photographer uses a Zebra Card, then JPG will be just fine for the same COMPETENT photographer outdoors nearly 100% of the time. If you miss, it will still be salvageable. And if you are not a COMPETENT photographer, you shouldn't be doing Photography for Income, right? End of discussion.

Question #2: "Someone told me using Automatic White Balance (AWB) is only for snapshooters! Is he right?"

ANSWER: Before 2007, he most likely was correct. However, the AWB on most of today's "prosumer" and professional model cameras do a pretty darn good job! But if we are doing Photography for Income, and we want the best we can get! If you only shoot in a studio, you can make a custom white balance for your camera--your manual tells you how to do this. I know, you haven't read the manual--well you'll have to now. It isn't that tough.

If you are an outdoor photographer, you will likely want to make a custom white balance each time you switch camera position, since the lighting will normally not be exactly the same in each area. You can use a white balancing device such as the ExpoDisc or the ColorRight. I have used the ExpoDisc, but I found a Zebra Card lets me work faster. A Zebra Card is normally an 8x10 photograph that has strips: 1/3rd black, 1/3rd Grey, and 1/3rd white mounted to a piece of mount board. By including it in the first scene, you can correct exposure AND color balance for 99% of your photographs.

In Photoshop, you use the CURVES tool. There are three eyedroppers on the menu box, and probably 90% of photographers do not know what they are used for. I'll teach you now. First set the values as follows in the CURVES tool:
  • Black - 7
  • Gray - 128
  • White - 245
(You may need to tweak these depending on your color lab, but this normally is spot on)

With the image open and the CURVES tool open, select the BLACK (left) eyedropper and click on the black strip. Next, select the white (right) eyedropper and click on the white strip. Finally, click on the Gray/Neutral (middle) eyedropper and click on the middle strip. Amazingly, your image will be color corrected and proper exposure. All this done while the RAW users are waiting for their file to open ;)

I made my own Zebra Card--I have not seen them available commercially. If you can't make your own, contact me and we'll work something out. Give this a try and see if it doesn't work for you. As always, I welcome your comments and your emails. Next time we'll talk about selecting a working Color Space, Out of Gamut problems and other topics.

Geesh, look at the time--I gotta run! Hope all your exposures read 7/128/245.