Thursday, June 01, 2006

Getting the most out of your RAW files

A huge advantage to working in RAW is that you can process the same image in several different ways and then combine the results using layers in your image processing software package. I’ve been using this technique for several years but recently came across an article in a leading photographic magazine describing it as if it was something totally new, just discovered. I suddenly realised that perhaps many photographers are not aware of this strategy. So let me tell you how to get the most out of the information your camera’s sensor has captured in the RAW file.

The thing is the camera’s sensor captures far more information than we think when looking at a file just opened on screen. Of course when you move the sliders you see the changes and most people try to optimise the result in one RAW file which then gets saved as a Tiff or JPEG. Invariably this means some compromises need to be made.

But there is a way to get even more out of RAW files without having to compromise. A typical example is using the flexibility of RAW to get more detail in the sky. Looking just at the sky I optimise it within the image and then save the RAW file. I then go back and optimise the image for the foreground.

Using Photoshop and layer masks I combine the two RAW versions. You can do as many RAW versions as you want, each time optimising a selected area, perhaps in terms of colour, reducing noise, adding contrast, sharpness, saturation etc. This is when you see the true potential of RAW really kicking in. You will be amazed at what you can get out of the information your camera sensor has captured. Beware though: using extreme settings will degenerate the quality of your image and there is absolutely no substitute for getting it right in camera. The method I’m describing is about enhancing a well exposed, sharp image not trying to rescue a poor quality image.

Another thing to be aware of is that not all RAW conversion software is equal. Some software packages do a much better job than others with the basic RAW file information, but that’s a subject for a future blog.

Cheers for now,
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