This is the first in an intended series of thoughts on a workflow intended for an amateur photographer (like me). There’s lots of advice on the web and in print from a more professional perspective, where the goals might include getting a set of contact prints to a client on the day of the shoot, or having the right color space management all the way through the print process. I think the goals of an amateur photographer often differ quite substantially from those of a pro, and that workflow consequently should too. I’ve collected my thoughts on this as follows:
Shooting & Workflow
If I think about the material I’ve read online, there’s a handful of decisions that affect your overall workflow that are decided at the time of actually taking a shot:
- Memory card organization
- White balance
- RAW vs. JPEG
I’m sure I’ve missed many others, but as you’ll see I only really care about the last item on this list anyways. Nonetheless, I’ll comment on the first three briefly – and then spend a little more time on the last issue.
Memory Card Organization
For most people, there’s simply nothing to do here; pop in a nice juicy 16GB SDHC memory card, shoot for a week and the card will still be half full, download your pictures, and then either delete or format the memory card before you start shooting again. And indeed, that is usually good enough. Still, there’s a few things to be aware of:
- Most cameras will name your files something like DSC_XXXX.JPG, where XXXX is a four digit number that increases by one with each shot. If you reach 10,000 shots, that number will wrap around and you’ll start getting files with the same name. This usually isn’t an issue assuming you don’t just copy everything into one single folder, but it’s worth being aware of especially if friends send you similarly named files which you might indeed just dump in one folder (if say it was for the same trip).
- Some cameras, like the Nikon D90, have absolutely ridiculous settings where XXXX gets reset to zero when you delete/format your memory card. This pretty much guarantees that you’re going to get a ton of pictures named DSC_0001.JPG. Fortunately, there’s a setting which you can and should change immediately if your camera manufacturer saw it fit to default things this way.
- Some cameras will let you customize the prefix (e.g. DSC_), in which case you can differentiate shots on different days or events by changing the prefix before you start shooting. I know I’d never remember to do this, so I leave this alone and sort through things later. But you may be more attentive than I am!
Things can get slightly more complex if you use up more than one memory card before you’re able to download your pictures for permanent storage. This is much more likely to happen if you chose RAW over JPEG. In this case, your main worry is not accidentally re-using or deleting a card that’s full of photos. The easiest way to do this is to flip the write-protect tab on a full memory card when removing it from the camera.
Because I’m paranoid about data loss (which will happen eventually to everyone, and does happen on camera memory cards), I have to comment on a couple of things here. First, I never delete the memory card until the backup & sharing process (step 4 in this series) ensures that I’ve got lots of copies stored all over the place. Second, I absolutely love the dual memory card slots on the D7000 – it was one of the killer features for me that the camera had over the D90. You can use the two slots in a variety of ways (e.g. RAW to one, JPG to the other), but I just use them in straight backup mode, so that I get two nearly identical (on-camera deletions aren’t replicated across cards) copies. This in turn lets me feel comfortable in buying much less expensive memory cards (since I don’t need sustained high-speed shooting bursts).
White balance is a surprisingly complex topic, and I don’t have a good succinct explanation (let alone a solid understanding, perhaps) of all the details of how white balance works. In a nutshell, white balance is responsible for making white look white – even though in reality, a sheet of white paper under fluorescent lighting actually looks really different from that same sheet of paper in direct sunlight, or under a tungsten bulb. The white balance setting on your camera compensates for this.
If you do know a little about white balance, you’re probably very confused as to why I even mention it as a part of the shooting workflow. The reason I do mention it is two-fold:
- Serious shooters who want accurate color may actually carry around a reference grey card, which they use to determine the “right” white balance setting for a given set of lighting conditions (where “right” usually means “accurate”). This is especially important if you’re shooting JPG and have less latitude to adjust white balance later. If it’s important to you that colors in your photo look accurate, this can actually be a fairly important step, because the automatic white balance settings on almost all cameras will get things wrong – sometimes extremely so – in trying to figure this out automatically.
- There’s an even more extreme crowd out there who effectively disable in-camera white balance by always using a preset white balance regardless of actual lighting conditions. What they see on the displays of their cameras will often look not even remotely correct; they’ll always fix things later in their workflow. You’ll see this referred to as UniWB, and the motivation for doing this is to get every last bit of image quality out of the sensor. Advocates of this approach indicate they get about 1/3rd of a stop better performance.
My advice to fellow amateurs in this regard is pretty straightforward:
- Use the right white balance setting in camera if you can. It does save time over trying to fiddle with it later.
- Try and remember the situations in which your camera doesn’t do a good job automatically, because these tend to be consistent. Reviews from awesome sources like dpreview.com will often mention the conditions in which a particular camera does badly.
- If you do care, then shoot RAW so you can fix things more easily later. Because if you’re anything like me, you’ll make lots of mistakes or not even bother to check until it’s too late – or you just won’t have time to go fiddling with white balance.
Exposure is about making sure that the sensitivity of your camera, in combination with other factors like aperture and shutter speed, is right for capturing the picture you’re shooting. If a shot is underexposed, it will be too dark and won’t look good; if it is overexposed, highlights will blow out and just appear white (or at least inaccurately in color if just one or two channels saturate).
Once again, you’re probably wondering why this has anything to do with workflow, and it really doesn’t. But like UniWB (and really, it’s the same people), if you really, really want to maximize image quality in a given situation, you can get a slight improvement by pushing towards the overexposure side of things. This is because of the complexities of how camera sensors work; they can store a lot more different values in areas that look bright to your eyes than in areas that look dark to your eyes, so by carefully overexposing and then compensating later, you can use more of the capability of your cameras sensor. If you do this intentionally when shooting, then you must have a step later in your workflow to adjust exposure back to where it looks good. You also have to be very careful not to overexpose by so much that you’re actually hitting the limits of the sensor for any of its three color channels.
If you are serious enough about image quality to go through the above, then you shouldn’t be taking advice from me, so like me you probably aren’t going to try and optimally overexpose things. However, I mentioned this anyways not just because it is a workflow decision you make at shooting time, but because unless you’re very careful to check each shot, you will probably accidentally overexpose quite a few shots anyways – so I recommend you shoot RAW so that you can fix this and pretend that you did it on purpose like those serious shooters!
RAW vs. JPEG
This is the topic that I feel most strongly about, and one in which I followed advice that turned out to be wrong for me when the arrival of my first kid caused me to buy a DSLR and start taking pictures more seriously.
You don’t have to read for too long to realize that whether to shoot RAW or JPEG is an ongoing debate (which will never end), with good arguments and both sides, and pro shooters advocating for each. The JPEG folks typically argue that in-camera performance is quite good these days (which it is) and that you’d be better served using your time getting out there and taking more & better images than fiddling on a computer. The RAW folks typically highlight that with good processing, you can get more detail and better image quality out of a RAW image. However, neither of these arguments are the critical ones for us amateurs!
I originally followed the advice of the JPEG crowd, perhaps as a result of Ken Rockwell’s article titled “JPG vs. Raw: Get it Right the First Time”, but am now adamantly back in the RAW camp for reasons I’ll explain below.
There are a few background points that it’s worth explaining on this topic:
- All images start out in RAW format; that’s essentially the uncorrected data that comes directly off the sensor.
- If you “shoot RAW”, you just save all that sensor data to a memory card, and convert it into an image format like JPEG later, using specialized software on a computer. When you shoot RAW, you are committing yourself to more steps later in the workflow; you can’t just use the files that come directly off the camera.
- If you shoot JPEG, you let the camera convert that sensor data directly on the camera, using the settings (white balance, picture controls, etc) that were active on the camera when you took the shot.
- Because there are many different camera sensors, and no accepted standard for storing raw sensor data (besides Adobe DNG which no camera directly produces), every RAW file is different. Nikon produces .NEF files, my Canon Powershot S90 produces .CR2 files, and so forth. The software you use to process the RAW files has to support not just the format, but also the specific camera that was used to take the image. There’s thus lots of concern about whether a RAW file you take will be usable in the future (but as you’ll see, as amateurs, we don’t really care).
This is a really basic summary; if you’d really like to understand the topic better, Thom Hogan – a Nikon pro that I greatly respect and whose freely available work has definitely helped me and many others – has a guide to RAW shooting which is well worth reading.
From JPEG, to RAW, back to either
While I find RAW to be definitively better for me, it is definitely not the right universal answer for everyone. In particular, if you just want a simple point & shoot experience, and are more concerned with capturing even a fuzzy image to remember something, and the main way you expect to view or share photos is by posting a downsized version on Facebook, then shooting JPEGs is almost certainly the preferable option.
Indeed, most current packages for processing RAW images effectively cost money – generally around $200 – and for that amount you can afford a decent compact camera. Further, the added value of processing in RAW is more pronounced with DSLRs that capture more information that’s lost in the JPEG conversion process (as described below). So you really need to cross a threshold – having a DSLR, caring about the quality of your pictures to a reasonable extent, and being willing to invest a little to get better results – before shooting RAW makes any sense. Though once you’ve crossed this hurdle, you’ll probably stick with the process even if you find yourself using a compact more and more as they improve.
So why would an amateur shooter, who cares about a nice image but doesn’t depend on getting one to feed their family, go through the added effort and cost of shooting RAW? Exactly and ironically because of what Ken Rockwell said – JPEG *is* about getting it right the first time. Does that sound hard to you? It sure was hard for me, and I’m definitely not even close to the point, even after some 20,000 shots, where I can get everything right exactly at the moment that I’m taking the shot.
The reason you’ve got to have everything set perfectly when shooting JPEG is that all the settings you define plus several that the camera infers are used to convert that raw sensor data into a much more constrained representation in the JPEG file. Once this process is done, all the original data – much of which is not captured in the JPEG – is thrown away. Anything that was blacker-than-black, or whiter-than-white, is gone – permanently. White balance, contrast, saturation, sharpness – every setting is locked in, and is a permanent part of the final image. While some things can be adjusted later on a JPEG, there’s a penalty for doing so – and some things (like sharpness) just can’t be undone.
Personally, I almost always get something wrong that I’d like to fix later. Maybe the colors don’t look right, maybe the shot could use a bit more contrast or a bit more vibrance/saturation, or perhaps I got exposure wrong and some critical details are washed out. It’s actually really amazing with a modern DSLR how much extra information there is in RAW files, beyond what you can even see on your screen. You have to be superbly confident in getting things right if you’re willing to throw that away!
Of course, perhaps one day you’ll gain enough experience that you graduate from the ranks of being a mistake-riddled amateur to a “right the first time” pro. Then, you’ll have the choice again of RAW vs. JPEG, and you can make that decision based on the factors you see debated all the time. Until then, RAW might just be the ticket to help save you from your own mistakes.
RAW + JPEG?
Most cameras that support shooting in RAW mode allow you to shoot both simultaneously. In this mode, the RAW data from the sensor is stored on the memory card, but so is the JPEG that the camera would have produced if you were shooting in JPEG-only mode. If for you, like me, a major benefit of shooting RAW is to eliminate errors, this can be handy for a few reasons:
- You can stick with your camera’s JPEG output, with no/minor adjustments, until you come across a shot that you are unhappy with and would like to fix. This can make a lot of sense, because often you won’t care enough about a particular shot to want to spend time adjusting things after the fact to get it to look better. But it gives you the protection you need such that if you do get a great shot of something memorable – even just an expression you weren’t expecting, or perhaps some pictures with friends you may not see again for a long time – but it’s marred by one of the errors below, you can correct it.
- It provides a backup of sorts, even when shooting with a single memory card. Many memory card errors don’t destroy the entire card, they just corrupt a particular picture. Having both the JPEG and the RAW increases the chances that at least one of them will be intact.
- If you’re at a party (or similar) and someone wants to get a copy of your pictures at the event itself, odds are they’ll be pretty lost if you give them some camera-specific RAW files they probably can’t view.
I went this route for quite a while after heading down the RAW path, though increasingly as I got more familiar with the process, it wasn’t adding a lot of time to just process the RAW files, and with the dual memory cards on the D7000, I stopped needing protection against memory card failures too. So while I now shoot RAW only, I do think RAW + JPEG makes a lot of sense for many.
What mistakes can I fix?
Shooting RAW makes it easier to fix a number of things in comparison to JPEG:
- Exposure. This is far and away the biggest difference, for an amateur, shooting with RAW. Consumer DSLRs now capture up to 14-bits of data in RAW format; JPEGs compress that down into 8-bits of information, and in doing so, chop a little off on both the highlight and shadow end of things. On the D7000 I’m using now, you can overexpose by about 1 – 1.5 stops (i.e. double or triple what the exposure should have been) before really bad things start happening. This is huge, because if you’re just relying on automatic metering, even when it goes wrong, it usually doesn’t go wrong by that much. There’s lots of headroom on the shadow end of things too. This alone is worth the price of admission, in my opinion.
- White Balance. Even the simplest RAW tools let you pick things in your photo that should appear white, letting you fix any errors by you or the cameras auto-white balance at will. It’s not like these adjustments can’t be applied to a JPEG, but you’re doing such adjustments on lower fidelity data, and you’re having to re-encode the JPEG (a lossy process) when you make these adjustments.
- Alignment. Didn’t get the horizon perfectly straight? Yeah, me neither. While you can crop JPEGs in 8-pixel increments without re-compression (though not all software is necessarily this smart), rotating or any number of other corrections incurs that re-encoding penalty.
- Noise Reduction. In-camera JPEGs will automatically choose some level of noise reduction, usually based on ISO, which cannot be undone. If that noise reduction is too high, you lose detail – permanently. RAW processing can still default to a similar level of noise reduction, but you can adjust to trade detail for noise.
- Contrast, White, and Black Levels. Some things in a picture should look black. Although print photographers avoid this, when you view photos exclusively on a monitor (which is the case for many of us amateurs), having things that are completely white in a picture is fine too. And the amount of contrast as you move from black to white is important. You realistically can’t control this on a shot-by-shot basis when you’re capturing the image.
As an example, here’s a comparison of a JPEG produced using the settings on the camera at the time I took the picture, compared to RAW output after correcting for a rather significant amount of under-exposure, and a white balance that made the building look very green. Also note that the original photo from the camera had even worse cropping than what you see here, but to make it easier to compare, I’m using the same cropping on both pictures. Here’s the “camera” version of the image:
Here’s the same image, with the major differences being the white balance (to make the building appear grey, which it is in reality), and adjusting the exposure so that it’s not so dark:
Note that even if you decide you like the look of the camera image better, it was possible to go back and create that image using the RAW file, and Nikon’s View NX 2 software (which can transform RAW images into JPEGs the same way the camera would have). However, the reverse isn’t true – I couldn’t have adjusted things to produce the second image without real quality losses (since much of the shadow detail would simply have been gone in the JPEG).
Now’s perhaps also a good time to note that as you can see from the above, my pictures are not going to win any awards any time soon (okay, ever), with the most glaring thing above being the post at the bottom left, which shooting RAW sadly doesn’t help with. Since I’m not in the habit of bringing a tripod when travelling on business (or any other circumstance, really, since I rarely shoot static things), I didn’t have a lot of choice – I was using another small concrete pillar and my wallet just to balance the camera for the 25 second exposure time!
There’s lots of other things that go beyond “mistakes” on in-camera settings that can be done with RAW and less well with JPEG – but those are more topics for processing, which I’ll try and get to next!