The Power of Lightroom 4

I don’t have many hardcore beliefs when it comes to photography. I do follow one abiding principle, though.

A RAW file is a digital negative, not a final image….

For anyone that is not familiar, if you own a DSLR nowadays you have options of how to save the image you capture to your memory card. Very commonly and found on most point and shoots will be a .jpeg file. DSLRs will normally, if not always, have the option to save your capture as a RAW file as well. Professionals use RAW files because these store all of the information captured by the sensor, undiluted. A .jpeg file will take the information captured by the sensor, perform certain algorithms to compensate for white balance, exposure, color tones, etc. and save them to your card in a compressed (read- smaller file size) format.

As a bonus, most DSLRs can simply capture 2 images for every shot, a RAW and a .jpeg. The only drawback to that is storage. How many photos do you plan on taking and how big is your memory card. The .jpeg will always be a bit smaller than RAW, but you are still storing two files for every capture.

Most professionals will use RAW exclusively. Having more information to work with in post processing is vital to any professional.

Post processing? Yes, Lightroom, Photoshop, Picasa, iPhoto, even the apps found on your mobile devices will take whatever sort of file you create and add effects and enhancements. The most powerful tools are Photoshop and Lightroom and I would venture to say that most professionals are utilizing these to a certain extent.

I believe that if you wish to take your photos to the next level, you must gain this control in post processing. You see, a .jpeg file is great, really. But just on the surface. When you take a shot you can immediately see on your view screen a post-processed image. The camera is making a lot of decisions for you, though. Such as what colors should be more saturated, if the overall photo should be brightened or darkened, how much sharpness should be applied, etc. This probably yields an acceptable result about 60-70% of the time. If you don’t really want to mess with post processing, and don’t mind if 30-40% of your photos come out poorly due to the camera’s software decisions, then by all means shoot in .jpeg. You will have most of your pictures up on Facebook right away and with a few gigabytes of card storage, you should be able to shoot to your heart’s content.

For professionals, however, a 60-70% return rate is just not acceptable at all. Imagine a wedding photographer telling the bride that his shot of “the kiss” just didn’t turn out as he had hoped. Getting the shot is crucial. Weddings are filled with moments that pass by quickly, lighting on landscapes can change in an instant. Utilizing professional software to have complete control over the final print or image is of utmost importance to the professional.

Which brings me to my point. Many enthusiasts I see seem to understand that RAW will give them a “better” file to work with. This is true. There are some misconceptions, though:

  • RAW files are bigger and therefore I can make a much larger print from it than I could from the .jpeg
  • I can bring a RAW file into my software and just use the “Auto Correct” function and yield decent result

First of all, RAW does not equal bigger in terms of pixels. The .jpeg and RAW file taken from the same camera will give you the same amount of pixels. .jpeg only averages out some of those pixels in compression. It does not subtract them. This averaging out is one of the other drawbacks of .jpeg. It is “lossy”. In other words, every time you save the .jpeg file, it will compress again. Multiple saves can make some of this averaging look rather funky and images can lose quality over time. RAW files can be worked with, within Lightroom or a RAW converter without ever really touching the original pixels.

Secondly, why shoot in RAW of you are just going to apply very much the same algorithms that your camera would have if you had just shot in .jpeg? The reasons for shooting RAW is to gain control over those pixels, to be able to wrangle them to your desire. Certainly some software algorithms are better than others, but in my opinion, not so much that it makes too much of a difference.

The most powerful software on the market for manipulating any sort of image is Photoshop. Used by professionals around the world from photographers to graphic designers, it by far has the widest range of tools available to manipulate an image. For photographers specifically, Lightroom and Apple’s Aperture are incredibly powerful software. Many professional photographers utilize Lightroom for all their post processing needs. Aperture and Lightroom are also organizational tools that allow cataloguing, key wording, rating and many other functions to help the professional organize huge libraries of photos.

To take a RAW image and transform it into a final processed image, you need software that will be able to read the RAW file (of which there are several types depending on the camera they are shot with) and apply changes to that file non-destructively until you are ready to save that image in another format. Lightroom (and Aperture, but I have never used that software so I will no longer refer to it) is basically a dressed up version of the basic RAW converter that comes embedded in Photoshop. Many of the controls mirror those found in CameraRaw. CameraRaw is a tool in Photoshop in which, if opening a RAW file directly with Photoshop, will open and allow you to make any necessary changes to anything from Brightness, Contrast, Clarity and White Balance, and more before doing any further editing in Photoshop itself. This same software is embedded into Lightroom and serves as the primary functionality of the program.

Lightroom also has added modules that help the photographer organize, export to the web, print, and even in version 4 layout photo books.

So we have a process in making a print or a final image. This has been the case since early, early photography. We do have the technology to skip some of these steps nowadays, but as pointed out earlier, we sacrifice control. To me, a RAW file is nothing but a digital negative. It is a basis and a starting point that contains all the information necessary to develop a final image. Presenting a RAW file “as is” as a final image is never a good idea. This is because, though the information is in the file, there is nothing applied to it at all. Images brought up in Lightroom will look flat, somewhat unsaturated and soft. The color and sharpness are all there but they need software to bring these out. I would no more scan a film negative and present that as an image than I would present my RAW files in the same way. They need a little love.

I, for one, love the post-processing as much as I do taking the photos. In the example below, I present a simple shot of a stream through the woods as a before and after Lightroom only processing.

Before and After Lightroom Processing on a single RAW file Notice how flat the picture looks in the “before” example- the white balance is cool, there is very little texture in the rocks and the trees are dull and the leaves on the ground almost look gray. I made adjustments in Lightroom to warm the white balance, add contrast and clarity for the rocks, bring back some of the overexposed areas at the top of the image as well as in the highlights in the water in the foreground. Notice, in particular, the rock in the lower right. In the RAW, it is overexposed and looks like the detail is lost. As you can see in the right, I have brought back the color and detail of the surface of the rock. The information was there, waiting to be brought out. I have had to add nothing artificial to this photo at all. This is what a RAW file is for. There is enough information to be able to bring back highlights and shadows- to a point. If they are to blown out or too dark, then even a RAW file will record them as pure whites or blacks, and these cannot be recovered. This is where using the histogram while in the field helps with giving the best RAW file to work with. That is a discussion for another day however.

I hope to add more examples and information on my blog from time to time. I hope that it is helpful for anyone that browses by here. Certainly if there are any questions, please post a comment or e-mail me using the contact form. I would be happy to respond.