The RAW truth - Part 1

Will your camera save files in RAW format?

Is RAW worth using?

Not if you listen to some people. Consider the photo expert whom Ralf quoted in his comment to my last post. "Use JPG format,” that so-called ‘expert’ wrote, “because RAW needs more memory and is rarely useful”.

Of course RAW needs more memory. That’s because the files contain more information.

JPG is a ‘lossy’ compression format – which means it discards information in order to make the files smaller. And, once information is discarded, you can’t get it back.

This doesn’t always affect the look of your photos, I agree. And if you’re just photographing for your album or to e-mail photos to family and friends you probably won’t notice any difference.

But sometimes that extra information makes all the difference.

Let me give you an extreme example.

Last Saturday I was photographing the launch of a literary review – Offshoots 10 – at the Geneva Press Club. And my flash batteries died …

Looks a hopeless case, doesn’t it? And it would have been, if I’d been following the advice of the ‘expert’. But I had my camera set to record both RAW and JPG versions of an image (I’ll explain why I do this in another post.)

This is the best I could do trying to recover something from the JPG version of the image …

Whilst this is the best I could do at recovery from the RAW file …

A side-by-side comparison of both images shows significant differences (click on it to see an enlarged version) ...

Neither image is brilliant. I’d be the first to admit that. But anyone would agree that the RAW file has given a better result, with more subtle gradations of colour and tone.

The limited information in the JPG version has caused the pixels to go ‘blocky’ (Look at the cover of the book she's holding, near the top, or her fingers). The pixels have had to go to either one state or the other with nothing in between.

All right. So I had spare flash batteries, the event went on for some time, and I was able to get lots of other photos. (You can see them here.) No big deal that I screwed up on one.

But what if this had been a one-off incident, so brief there’d been no time to take any more photos? Then I would have thanked my lucky stars that I was using RAW.

Is RAW for you?

That's impossible to say. Only you can decide that. But in my next post I'll discuss what it is, and its advantages and disadvantages.

Don't write off RAW because you think it's too complicated or the files are too big.

Wow! Am I chuffed.

I've just come across a wonderful review of The Greatest Photography Tips in the World - from Jacqui Marie Photography, a professional in the UK.

Jacqui-Marie says such nice things that I'm going to reproduce her review in its entirety ...

"This little book punches so much above its weight. It is a little A5-sized hardback and is less than 200 pages, but Alistair Scott is so economic with his words every page is packed with vital tips.

When I first saw the book I thought it was just another how-to-do-everything book for the person who has just gone out and bought themselves an expensive camera, but this is so much more.

At first I thought the title might have over-sold it, but these tips really are top-notch. The page that sold it for me was the one that told you to include a "heartbeat" in every shot when possible. By that Alistair means a human or an animal - whatever the size. To illustrate the point he has two identical shots of a great landscape, one with a tiny silhouetted man and one without. The one with was so much more powerful.

Understand why more mega-pixels isn't the whole story. Get great tips on composition, landscapes, portraits, sports, looking after your kit and making money from your photography.

Enjoy! This is a great little book for all levels. There's top stuff in here."

And these are words from a professional photographer too. I'm chuffed to bits.


It’s been a great summer for the fruit growers. The apple trees round here are groaning with fruit. Time to get a few photographs them before they’re picked.

But … hang on … photographs of apples ain’t all that interesting.

No they’re not.

So if you’re going to photograph the mundane, try to get a different angle on it.

I photograph apples on trees because there’s a market for such images. Not a huge one, admittedly, but magazines, brochures, books and guides sometimes want them. And the buyers are always on the lookout for fresh angles.

So I’ve been trying to oblige. I found a photogenically curved and laden branch, fitted a wide angle lens and got down for a low viewpoint. I also angled my camera slightly to get the branch swooping into the image, and include a little bit of the rest of the orchard in the background to give context …

Another approach is to make a story out of the image. Here it’s my hand in the picture. I had the camera on a tripod, reached up to pick the apple and fired the shutter with a remote release. And, no, the sky hasn’t been ‘Photoshopped’. I used a polarizing filter to make a deeper blue ...

Further technical note – Both photographs were made in bright sunlight. But that’s a very harsh light source. So I used on-camera flash in both images to fill in the shadows.

Photographic morality.

Sometimes it's a tough call being a photographer.

Frank Hurley was the official photographer on Ernest Shackleton's ill-fated expedition to the South Pole. When Shackleton's ship sank, crushed by the Antarctic icepack, the crew set off towards the open sea, hauling lifeboats over the ice. It was their only way out, but immensely difficult and dangerous.

As they laboured towards safety, some of them cursed Hurley as he took photographs. Why wasn't he lending his weight with the hauling?

Why? Because he was doing his job. He had been hired as the expedition photographer and, if he'd turned to hauling with the rest we would never have known what trials these men went through. We would never have had images like these. We may not have fully appreciated how remarkable Shackleton's achievement was - getting everyone home alive.

Now fast-forward to 14 August 2009 and an even more thorny problem. In Afghanistan an Associated Press photographer, Julie Jacobsen, is crouched behind a mud wall and under fire. She takes a photograph of a US Marine, dying in agony.

That's her job.

But ... then ... when she's done her job, and filed the photo, should it be published?

Apparently the young Marine's family did not want this, though they were not specifically asked.

The US Government did not want the image published either, but their reasons for this may well have been different from those of the family.

Of course, the family's wishes carry huge weight. But war is a violent, bloody, terrifying, messy, brutal affair. It has been all too easy for it to be sanitised from a distance (Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori).

The publication of this photograph presents a harsh and uncompromising truth about war. It will make some people realise exactly what it means - there's no glory. It is not sweet and fitting to die for one's country, and never has been.

Should that - bringing home the truth - override the wishes of the family?

And is this Marine's tragic death given more meaning by the fact that, through the photograph, it will touch tens of thousands of people rather than just his comrades, family and friends?

Should the photograph have been published?

It's a tough call.

Sign of the times

Today I spotted this scene in a Lausanne industrial area ...

Okay - just an old factory being knocked down.

But I still found it a bit sad.

Rolls and rolls and rolls of my film have been processed in that building, back in the days when Kodachrome was the name of the game.

Darkrooms ain't dead

Time was when photographers spent a significant amount of their time in darkrooms, working in the gloom, bent over trays of foul-smelling chemicals, developing and printing their photographs.

Now, with digital cameras, those days are gone ... or are they?

Look at the image above.

The pink and the orange stripes on both sides are the same two colours. Yes?

Of course.

But what about the other stripes? Left and right, are they the same colour?

Scroll down for the answer ...













Yes. They're the same colour.

If you don't believe me, here's the same image with the pinks and oranges removed:

So, what's that astonishing illusion got to do with darkrooms?

It shows how your eye can be completely fooled. If you're at home of an evening, editing your day's photographs with the room light on, and you make some colour tweaks - a bit of enhancement, boosting the saturation a little, whatever - you're in danger of getting things wrong.

It doesn't matter if it's broad daylight outside, when you edit your photographs, do it in subdued light, or even darkness. To the puzzlement of family and neighbours, I work on my images with the blinds drawn.

It's ironic, isn't it? Photographers work with light. But a good half of the time they need to work in the dark - even in these digital days.