The Power of Raw Image Capture

Most digital cameras allow you to shoot in raw or jpeg.  Shooting in jpeg results in a processed image right out of the camera – similar to dropping off film and letting the lab develop your prints.  Raw capture generally requires you to develop your images yourself, in post processing.  Raw is an extremely powerful image format.  You can execute stronger post processing adjustments to your images before seeing visible degradation of the image quality.  This means you can recover more blown out highlights and bring out more shadow detail than with the jpeg format.  I use Adobe Lightroom for my raw conversions but generally any raw conversion software will work.  After converting the image to a TIFF file through Lightroom, I finish my image in Adobe Photoshop – but Photoshop Elements will work just fine too.  Within Photoshop I apply Google’s Nik filters to nearly all my images.  This filter package previously cost several hundred dollars – and it was worth every penny.  Google now gives it away for free (and they work within Elements)!

There is nothing wrong with shooting in jpeg.  I actually believe it takes a tremendous amount of skill to shoot jpeg, because it is less forgiving.  I choose to shoot in raw because I prefer to develop my images to bring out my artistic vision.  The manner in which I generally post process is to provide a subtle painterly quality.  I call my style photographic art – because I do take some liberties with images.

I thought you might find it interesting to see this firsthand.  This gorilla was photographed at the San Diego Safari Park in early 2017.  It’s a difficult exhibit to photograph for a couple of reasons.  First, gorillas have protruding foreheads which result in dark shadows underneath the eyes.  Second, the Safari Park’s enclosure has a lot of trees that create distracting dappled light and sharp transitions of shadow and sun, and a number of climbing apparatuses that make it difficult to create a natural looking photograph.  So, whenever I photograph here I know I’m going to spend more time in the exhibit trying to be patient for the right shot, and more time in post processing to balance the light and accentuate the subject.

This first image is the raw capture.  Your first instinct my be to toss this one in the trash.  It’s flat (that’s an inherent quality of an unprocessed raw image) and lifeless.  Note the dark shadows around the eyes and the distracting background?

Unprocessed raw image

After an initial set of adjustments (below) in Adobe’s Lightroom a better photograph begins to emerge.  Here are the adjustments I made a shadow adjustment for the eyes, contrast and saturation for a very slight overall “pop”, and basic sharpening.

The raw image after a set of basic adjustments


I then brought the image into Photoshop where I performed my main adjustments, primarily through the Nik Color Efex Pro filter (it’s free from Google!).  Here I used several Nik Color Efex Pro filters (Brilliance/Contrast, Dark Contrast and Pro Contrast).  Brilliance/Contrast was used to pull out the color and contrast in the background trees and sky, Dark Contrast was used to add detail and definition to the gorilla, and Pro Contrast was used to provide an overall “pop” to the image.  I then used the Photoshop Gaussian Blur filter to smooth out the blotchy background foliage, which I found really distracting.

After the Photoshop adjustments (using Nik Color Efex Pro and native Photoshop filters)

At this point it’s looking much better but it’s not done yet.  I now save the image as a TIFF file and bring it back into Lightroom for the final set of adjustments.  I do the final adjustments in Lightroom because they are easy to “erase” and redo.  I frequently monkey around (heh) with my images over a number of days and prefer to do this in Lightroom rather than Photoshop.  So, back in Lightroom I finish it up with the following set of adjustments:

  • Selective exposure adjustment to brighten the eyes further and lighten the area around the eyes a bit
  • Temperature adjustment to cool the color of the background (not the gorilla) and bring out the blue and green of the sky and foliage
  • Reduced the background exposure to make the gorilla standout more
  • Increased the contrast for the background to make it “pop” even more
  • Increase the overall exposure to brighten
  • Cropped the image a bit to improve the composition
The final image

That’s it.  It took about 10 minutes to develop this image and it’s significantly better than if I had photographed the image in JPEG.  As you can see, with some post processing skill and raw image capture you can do wonders with your photographs.  If you haven’t tried raw capture yet I encourage you to do so.  You may just find that many images you used to toss in the trash are not just salvageable, but really good photographs.

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