Overlooking the Un-obvious

Squirrel6-RAW Interpreter

RAW file adjusted in RAW interpreter software (Lightroom, Camera RAW, etc) 

Virtually all digital photos contain more detail than can be seen in the image that comes out of the camera. This statement is neither exaggeration nor overstatement, it is a provable fact. When these original images first appear on the monitor (JPEG or RAW) they are the digital equivalent of one-size-fits-all garments. They cover the essentials but rarely reveal significant detail.

Squirrel6-Original JPEG        Squirrel6-JPEG-Levels

Initial JPEG view of RAW file                            JPEG Adjusted in Photoshop Levels

JPG files are simply ballpark or “stock” interpretations of the RAW files. Initial JPEG algorithms are blind to the tone and color contents of the image; they simply apply the very same interpretation to the RAW data. Even if the file is slightly over or underexposed, the same tired JPEG formulation is applied indiscriminately, causing many “good” images to be assumed “bad.”

Even when you view a RAW camera file, you are only viewing a single run-of-the-mill JPEG interpretation of the detail captured by a digital camera. Even within the RAW interpreter, this initial image seen is only a rough starting point. There is always more detail just below the surface of every camera file; more detail than even professional photographers realize.

There are five basic tonal areas to be adjusted and modulated in both a RAW and a JPEG file, though the 16-bit arena of tones lets you push these ranges around amidst many more tones. JPEG files are 8-bit files, which means that they display only 256 tones of each RGB color. RAW files, on the other hand, contain either 12 or 14 bits of information (depending on your camera’s image sensor). 12 bit files contain over 4,000 tones, and 14 bit files provide over 16,000 tones of each RGB color.

Don’t let the word “bit” scare you. A bit is just the smallest metric of tonal value. Think of bits as the number of stair steps between the floors of a building. The more bits (levels of tone) in an image means more freedom to adjust the tones. It’s all about digital elbow room. In the case of image editing… more IS better.

So here’s some common-sense advice. Your camera captures all images as RAW data by default, so save your files in RAW format and enjoy a nearly limitless latitude of tonal adjustments. Raw files NEVER get overwritten because the data is never actually changed. When you save your adjusted image, you typically save the edit as a high-value JPEG file. Any adjustments made to RAW files are merely recipes of possible interpretations; you can spin off an unlimited variety of JPEGs with impunity. No risk, only reward. Working with RAW images will set you free to experiment and explore everything your camera’s image sensor has captured, and… you can save the (.xmp) recipe files individually for future reference and recall. Can’t lose with that!

Visit the http://imageprep.net website to get a fuller picture of how to improve your image(s).Imageprep banner

If you really want to understand what makes color work, you must understand how light behaves. And I’ve developed a very entertaining and easy-to-understand video series that will teach you these fundamentals and get you on track to capture and produce amazing color.  http://gottaknowvideos.com

About Herb Paynter

I'm an author, photographer, speaker, print consultant, and digital imaging specialist living in Ormond Beach, FL. I've been in the color game for more years than I care to admit. In that time I have picked up some insights and experience that I like to share.
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One Response to Overlooking the Un-obvious

  1. Carl Kersey says:

    So true. You just have to dig around in the RAW to find the info! Great article Herb. Thx.

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