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12 August 2013
30 April 2020
Rafał Krasa

Digital photography without editing

Zdjęcie bez obróbki komputerowej

NEF file: _DR19200.NEF

Szanowni, Moi Drodzy, Kochani!

Each time I mention that we do not Photoshop photographs we take, it ends up with some sort of a misunderstanding or even an argument. I always try to explain the workflow, but it’s out of control, THEY know better. People say they see some signs of editing, masking and even the out of focus backgrounds look strange and overly blurred. They are not used to great, out of a camera results and they deny what they see. I think that happens because these days people do not contemplate photography anymore. They no longer train their skills, they just set the ISO, exposure and press the shutter button. It makes digital photography became boring and somewhat pointless. In this first episode I will try to explain how we stimulate ourselves and why in most cases we deny editing at all.

By no editing I don’t mean that nothing happens to the images. There’s in camera processing, in camera corrections, different color spaces, there used to be different kinds of films, processing techniques and each step does change the image. But at the end of the day it’s all about the final look and feel of images. By no editing I mean a workflow of taking perfect photographs, where I don’t have to even lift a finger in post. Where every time I expose an image, I predict the outcome and know what to expect. It’s not always possible, but it’s always worth going for.

Where does this trend come from? I think, mainly from film, where the joy is to work with camera and with people you photograph. In digital, on the other hand, sooner than later I found myself spending long hours in front of a computer, separated from the outer world, what I hated. Editing layers in Photoshop is not photography anymore. It is a difference of, say, going out with friends or chatting with them on Facebook. Why would you ever choose not to go out? That’s why we minimise post processing time and do as much as we can on sets. Yes, we use digital cameras but along with all those analog bits and pieces from film days. Decent, hand picked lenses, filters, graduated, polarisers, flashes, gels, modifiers, triggers, scrims, some strings, duck tape, torches, and so on, and so on. All those tricks and techniques that may be as old as photography, but it is great fun and still do the job beautifully.

At first, we have learned the gear. These are tools that let us express the vision we aim for and we better know how to operate it. And I mean it! The cameras are not that complex not to learn everything about it, by heart. The menus, settings and functions. I memorised the layout and now I can operate the buttons without looking at them. This way I focus on what happens in front of a camera and I can stick to viewfinder. It made the operation smooth and so much quicker.

Do mind that camera is the most basic piece of gear we use on sets. During a standard shoot we always try to stay relaxed, fresh and creative. It is a part of our workflow and marketing as well. We look confident in front of our clients and this way we make them trust us completely. It is not exactly the best moment to get overwhelmed by menus and switches if something goes wrong. And if it does, no Photoshop will help, that’s the moment to fix it. From my standing point, there is no better hint to start with than “learn your gear”. This saved us many times.

What is also important is that we always use RAW files format. Those files are able to record enormous amount of data. Basic JPEG files are 8 bit and are capable of storing 2 to the power of 8 times 3, it’s over 16 millions of different colors. And that is not enough. RAW files are 14 bit lossless format, 2 to the power 14 times 3. That’s gazillion of tones! And it doesn’t mean that RAW files store more saturated colors. It’s not about color range, it’s about the amount of shades of colors that constitute gradients. It other words, there is more resolution, more different tones in colors of, let’s say, rainbow. What’s more, RAW files are far less prone to banding and give more latitude in post if you need to pump up contrast or saturation.

But there is something more behind RAW than just pure quality. Every such file incorporate two types of data. It stores digital values of stream of light recorded by pixels on camera’s sensor, along with metadata, values that let interpret that digitally recorded stream of light. Thanks to metadata it is possible to visualise the stream, it translates the digits into shapes and colors, a visible image.

Here is an example to make it even more clear. Imagine a black and white photograph, shot in RAW format. A stream of light that comes into a lens and than on a sensor, is full of colors and RAW format stores it this way, in color. In case of black and white, the image appears monochromatic thanks to almost a single value stored in metadata and this may be changed in post. The metadata describes the way images look without making any changes to digital light stream itself. It is called color profiles.

Color profiles let us go even further. With custom profiles we are able to interpret the light stream in any way we want and to modify different colors in final images. That is especially important when we work with different camera bodies simultaneously. It is no secret that out of camera colors of different brands like Nikon, Canon, Olympus, Sony or Fuji are like apples and oranges. Like zebras and giraffes. Color profiles are the only method to precisely match the looks of different digital cameras.

Profiles are even more complicated because color interpretation algorithm varies from software to software and the very same image may look completely different under different apps. The trouble is that software manufacturers, like Adobe or Phase One, never had access to original profiles made by Nikon, Canon, Olympus, Sony, Fuji and 3rd party software like Lightroom or CaptureOne are simply unable to display RAW images in the exact way cameras do. To display the RAW data as images, Adobe and PhaseOne provide built in universal profiles, as well as set of profiles to mimic the native in-camera equivalents, but none of them seems actually usable to me. The colors are not exactly faithful and there is still no way to solve the issue of color reproduction of different camera bodies. They still don’t match.

To fight this problem we made custom profiles for every single camera we own. We used a color checker like this one to teach Lightroom how to properly understand and interpret RAW files. Lightroom is familiar with this pattern and knows exactly what color in which place to expect and is able to correct all the variations. This way we create profiles that make all the RAW files look exactly the same and perfectly correct. In addition we do some minor tweaks to give the profiles a little life, contrast and vibrance. In the end we set Lightroom to automatically apply proper profiles while importing images into Lightroom’s library.

Using Capture One or Lightroom for RAW processing has actually even more drawbacks. The software is unable to read other metadata values as white balance, levels of contrast, saturation, sharpening and noise reduction. Even if it was already set in camera menu, it has to be reentered. It may seem time consuming, but it’s not the case, as the values are often common for whole series of files. If light stays constant, so does ISO and WB values, so we set identical values to tens of files. We also fine tune exposure to match light transmissions of different lenses, differences in light meters, to make exposure consistent across all the photographs.

To make the changes permanent we convert all those different RAW formats, NEF, NRW, CR2, ORF, SR2, ARW, RAF to single uniform DNG format. DNG stores stream of light in an unchanged digital form, but the original metadata is truncated and replaced with reentered values. DNG is fully compatible with Lightroom and Capture One and it is possible to save and read the altered values. Unfortunatelly DNG is not cross-compatible, which mean that none of the changes made in Lightroom, are visible in Capture One and the other way round. Nevertheless, from this point, it doesn’t matter if it is a zebra or giraffe, RAW is stored as DNG and it’s packed into a single, profiled and corrected file. Even if you display DNG in a different image browser or as a thumbnail, it will display correctly.

And again, it may sound time consuming, but it’s not. I put a flash card into a card reader, an import dialog pops up and I just click IMPORT. The files are copied, converted to DNG and the profiles are applied. Sure, it takes time, but it doesn’t involve me into the process.

That’s it, it’s a speedy and agile workflow. We may pass the images to a client within the same day if we need to. It is especially handy in wedding photography, when sometimes we have to pick and process even 800 images out of 8000, a week. We are always ready to publish 100 picked images the next day, right after the wedding. I don’t say we are perfect and sometimes somethings go wrong – exposure my be off, we may overlook some light leaks or misfocus. That’s when we have to fix with Photoshop and as a photographer I feel shame than, it is embarrassing. What is even more significant about this photography oriented, cherishing workflow is that this way we train our skills. We experience photography and over time we become more and more nimble, precise, our eyes register more quality of light, find better compositions. Exposure, focus, all the settings are not time consuming anymore and we can focus on something more. We always try to take photographs that are as close to final image as possible, to have it here and now. Contrasty, saturated, masked and edited on a display of my camera. For me it’s an essence of photography – to strive for great photos.

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