“Why you want to shoot RAW.” Talking about exposure mistakes.
While my kids played at the park this unbelievably pleasant-temperatured Wednesday afternoon, the ice cream truck arrived. (As usual. Sigh.) I realized a few minutes later, I had a child sitting almost completely still, sitting on a bench in nice, even light! Since I’d had the idea for this series for a few weeks, I grabbed my chance. So apologies for the somewhat uninspiring sequence below, but the chance to capture this many pictures of my child, with the only variable being the shutter speed, well, that is a rare gift, indeed!
The following images illustrate pretty well why I consider shooting RAW to be, among other things, a great insurance policy against exposure mistakes. Assuming the center images, shot at f/4, ISO 800, SS 1/400 sec, are the “correct” exposure, look what you can do in Lightroom, doing nothing more than adjusting the exposure slider to add 3 stops of exposure (for the top images) and take away 2 stops of exposure (for the bottom images).
In fairness, there were still a few spots of unrecoverable highlights on my son’s shoulder even in the overexposed RAW images; but otherwise, both the adjusted RAW images are completely usable (except, perhaps, for fine portraiture). In contrast, both the underexposed and overexposed JPEG images on the right are “worthless” (a technical term, not related to sentimental value).
For additional perspective on these above images, here is the complete set I shot, including the straight out of camera images I used above. From start to finish, these were all shot in under two minutes, and the light appeared consistent throughout. Notice that, while the colors are more saturated in the JPEG images, there’s a richness of detail in the RAW images that’s lacking in their JPEG equivalents. Not for nothing are the RAW files called the “digital negatives.” Again, all images are ISO 800, f/4, straight out of camera.
(On a side note, neither the RAW file nor the JPEG file were even remotely recoverable when overexposed by 3 stops. In digital imagery, you lose detail in the highlights much faster than in the shadows, leading many photographers to believe it’s better to slightly underexpose than to risk blowing highlights.)
But, you say, the whole point is to get the exposure right in the camera, not in post-processing.
Ah, too true, my friend. It will not do to assume shooting RAW means it’s okay not to properly meter before your shot. Still, mistakes happen.
For example, in the same trip to the park this afternoon, I looked up to saw a ball land at my children’s feet. a tiny poodle followed the ball, which surprised my daughter, who knocked over my son, and then plopped herself down in his lap. I just wanted this shot, and unfortunately, the cloud cover had lessened considerably since I’d been taking pictures of them just five minutes earlier, resulting in a picture that was quite a bit overexposed.
In Lightroom, I brought the exposure down about a stop, recovered some highlights (because the light was pretty harsh there, parts of the picture were blown beyond recovery, like the poodle’s back). I finished my edit with this:
Is this an award-winning picture? Naw. But it’s now a decent lifestyle image of my kids being so typically my kids, you know? My daughter’s trust in my son, my son’s suspicion of that dog….
To conclude, I will concede that there is a downside to shooting RAW. Namely, it’s more expensive than shooting JPEG. It’s like the book, If you give a mouse a cookie….
If you want to shoot RAW, you’ll need a camera that can shoot RAW files (I believe all dSLRs can, and a few point-and-shoots).
If you buy the new camera, you may as well buy larger memory cards (RAW files are big!).
To get those pictures off the memory cards, you’ll need a program that can read RAW files, like Adobe Lightroom (which is awesome, so you probably want it anyway).
As you start filling up LR with your images, you’ll realize you need a bigger harddrive.
There’s also a convenience factor. RAW files are not processed, so you can’t stop off a CVS with your memory card to print a bunch of 4x6s for a scrapbook for grandma. And the iPhone doesn’t shoot RAW files (yet), so it takes quite a few steps to post to Facebook using Instagram.
So shooting RAW isn’t going to be the right decision for everyone. But if you’re reading this, I assume you probably want to take the absolute best images of your family that you possibly can, and shooting RAW is, I believe, an important part of that!
Not convinced? Wait until next week for Part II of this series.