Photo Finishing

Digital photos require a three-step process just as film cameras did two decades ago. It’s popular to think of photography requiring two steps (shooting the picture and producing a physical print), but the process involves three steps with digital images too, even if you print an image directly from your camera. Surprised?

In film days, images were 1) captured on physical film, 2) the film was developed in a photo lab and hung to dry, and then 3) prints were produced from the negatives… three steps. It would seem that digital pictures only require two steps; capturing the image and printing the picture, but you should know that there is a third process that will (and must) take place before the image is printed. All digital images that are printed must include capture, processing, and printing.

Virtually all digital images are captured by the camera’s image sensor as RAW data. You may choose to save the images in JPEG format, but your camera originally captures RAW data. That’s the way digital camera work! It is the single function of the image sensor to collect all the light data from the scene. What happens to that data after the capture process is totally up to you. You can opt for the camera to process the image as a JPEG (literally let the manufacturer decide what your picture should look like) or you can choose to save the RAW data and then YOU shape the image on your computer.

JPEG Files. The image sensor sense reads each point of light and passes the information on to the camera’s image processor to convert the light measurement into digital data. If  your camera is set to save JPEG images, the processor parses the data (analyses the light hitting the sensor) and forms it into an average contrast picture. Most JPEG images deliver reasonable results from average lighting conditions. If you set your camera to save only JPEG images, the original RAW data is converted to JPEG before it is discarded, and you’ll be the proud owner of a “reasonable” picture. Hm-mm.  Photo finished!

OR, you can choose to save the image as a RAW file and process it yourself. Even if you choose this option, your camera’s version of the JPEG image will display immediately when you open the file in Camera Raw or Lightroom. Nothing lost! If you like the camera interpretation, you can keep it (sounds like a political phrase, but it’s not).

However, if you want to make some adjustments to the image, that RAW file is packed full of adjustment options (color and tonal elbowroom) that allow you to be your own photo finisher. Now that’s true photo finishing. Absolutely nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Any questions?

That’s the way I sees it. If you have an argument with this position, take it to a higher court! In the mean time, sign up (above right) to get personal notices of future posts.

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If you’d like to understand even more of what makes color work, how light behaves, and how easy it is to shape the light in your photographic images, go to and get Bright About Light!


About Herb Paynter

Herb is a published author, photographer, retoucher, color reproduction specialist and a regular writer for Digital Photography School. Download his iBook Digital Color Photography from the iTunes store and view his Light and Color video series at Gotta Know
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2 Responses to Photo Finishing

  1. Jim F says:

    Right on! I’m an old school film days darkroom rat. Back when film was king, if you wanted the best in quality, you learned how to expose and develop your film so that it could make the best quality prints. Ansel had the ‘System’, which controlled as many variables as possible to produce the best negatives for printing in black and white. That was a key part of the “photo finishing” process. If you mastered that, you could make fine prints. He died before the concept of RAW image files was born. He would surely have embraced digital imaging as we know it today. RAW files still need a great exposure to really sing, but I’ve been able to salvage grossly underexposed RAW files because a flash didn’t go off, so that I could make good prints of an otherwise great moment captured. Knowing the whole “photo finishing” process is a huge asset.

    • Herb Paynter says:

      Too true Jim. Thanks for the input. I was a lab rat for 15 years before digital hit the scene. I built three darkrooms and worked in countless others. It helped to be in the photo and litho trades where your living depended on your darkroom skills. And you are absolutely right… that darkroom experience gives you tremendous insights into the digital processing world. Those strange Photoshop terms and techniques are second nature to us. Nice to hear from another veteran.

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