Raw Workflow

Raw Workflow – I have often heard new photographers say things like – “I like to get it right in camera all the time” or “I don’t believe in post processing” and the best ones “a real photographer doesn’t post process”. If you are offended by these terms (and a follower of … ) then this post might not be for you. For the rest, please read on.

Why shoot RAW (always) – Enough has been said about it and I am not going to go down the beaten path but give you my 2 cents of what I have achieved to help you give a perspective that you don’t usually hear from wildlife photographers who shoot in the blessed savannahs of Africa or the mecca of wildlife photography in India only because they are blessed by the gods of light. I shoot in the rainforests of South America. That probably is already an indication of where I am going with this. While one can find the most colorful and elegant forms of life down in the tropics shooting them is a challenge less heard of and main culprit here is the light. The most favorable time of the year to shoot birds are the month when it rains which also means the cloud cover and damp habitat almost always makes it a nightmare for photographers. This is where I think shooting raw is your best friend. Recovery of details, control over white balance, color correction itself are enough reasons to not look beyond this piece of technological brilliance that some of the modern camera manufacturers like Canon and Nikon give.

While I have some other articles on how to set your camera for success in the rainforest this one specifically aims at the editing of the raw files. I will use one of my frog images shot in costa rica during one of my workshops to demo how I edit the raw file from start to end. If you are interested in knowing the workflow after raw conversion please watch this video here. So without further ado lets jump into the nitty gritty of things –

Step 1 – Transfer the file to photoshop. I use Adobe Bridge to sort my files (which I feel is the most powerful tool to do so). I am using the example of a brightly colored poison frog which has very saturated tones which are accentuated by water and the rich green habitat it lives in. With the amount of natural light available I made this image using a Canon 1dx mark II body and a Canon 100mm F2.8 L lens with the following settings – 1/100, F10, ISO 1600, no flash used

As you can see without the use of flash it is absolutely impossible to make a decent image of this frog if you are shooting in JPEG and trying to get everything right on your camera.

Step 2 Basic - This to me is one of the crucial phases of my entire digital workflow. These tools here give me flexibility to correct some mistakes I might have made on the field with small adjustments. The one bit I usually get questions on from my clients while on the field is what white balance to use. The truth is that it doesn’t matter, since you can always change it during post processing. So be your own critic and choose between the options available in the drop down. I usually don’t plat too much with temperature and tint if I am happy with the set white balance.

I then move to my exposure settings. Since your RAW file is stacked with data from the scene it has the ability to either pull or push the limits when it comes to exposure. See the 2 images here and the difference in detail. While a large part of the image above is dark it was all recovered with one slider in RAW mode. This is the power of RAW files (I will repeat this several times during this blog). With exposure you are just scratching the surface. Move the contrast, highlight and shadows sliders to recover dark underexposed parts or reduce highlights and whites to recover from burnt white part of the image. See how the histogram has shifted to the right indicating that there is no clipping either on white or black. The whites and blacks work similar to the above sliders so it’s a matter of taste of how much you think is ‘enough’ for your image.

Please note that this blog is to show the power of raw files and not necessarily how I would edit my file for final presentation.

I usually avoid clarity since it usually adds some sharpness to the image which is a process I usually do at the end of the process after all my editing and resizing is completed.

A touch of vibrance to push the colors a bit and I move on to the next tool set.

Step 3 Tone curve – A relatively less important section since a lot of the steps here have been dealt with on the previous tab. I may reduce the highlight a bit and push the details a tad bit but not really do much here.

Step 4 – Detail

I usually leave this one untouched for the most parts. The default is set at 25,1,25,0 for sharpening and I do not feel the need to change it here since I use a 3rd party tool to sharpen my images at the end of the editing process. The reason I choose to do that is 2-fold. Sharpening introduces noise just like every other step in the digital workflow process. If done at the end you are leaving out multiple rounds of sharpening to make the image look pin sharp. The second one is to make sure that the NR process happens on a smaller file size thereby reducing editing artefacts.

Step 5 and 6 (HSL/Grayscale) –

This is the 2nd most important part of the raw workflow for me. Just like Step 2 above the photographer can control the equally important part of this workflow that involves color management. I am breaking this down into 2 parts for clear understanding. The 1st part is saturation which is a no brainer. You can individually chose to pump up or down the colors you feel are important and resemble the natural setting in which the image was shot. As mentioned above remember that the camera does not see and record what the human eye and brain can record. So it is very important that these settings are recovered and replicated through the editing process.

In the image below I push the reds, yellows and greens to accentuate the settings in the image. So for example when you push the red sliders to the right it only increases the color red in the image. This process is called color correction and probably one f the most important parts of video editing as well. The tricky part of this process is that photographers overdo it a bit.

Pro tip - I always come back and see my images after a few hours between edits to see if I have overdone some colors or editing in general.

Now lets jump to the Luminance slider. First of all what does it do? And the easy answer for this blog is that this reduces the brightness of the colors individually selected by the photographer. Why is this important? Often times I have come across a situation where I have had to overexposed (or under) a scene based on the light on the subject. So for example if you have a bright yellow bg you can simple come to this slider and drag the yellow slider to the left. Voila! That would reduce the bright background a little making it a much more ‘acceptable’ an image. Similarly you can see here how I have reduced green and red to offset some of the extra light falling on the frog and make it stand out in a slightly darker green bg.

Step 7 – split toning

I have come across very few images where I have ever had to use this. To me this is more useful a tool for landscape photographers who try to give artistic looks to their image. Doesn’t work on wildlife.

Step 8 – Lens correction

As the name suggests this part of the editing helps in correcting issues induced by your lens such as vignette and chromatic aberration. For me the lens profile is automatically selected (as it would for most cameras and lenses). If it doesn’t you can select your gear from the drop down.

I prefer to check both boxes here to remove any CA or Vignette. I leave the correction amount untouched

Step 9 Effects – I would usually conclude my raw workflow at step 8 and start with the file editing. I will also ignore camera calibration, presets, and snapshots.

Conclusion – If you are still not convinced if raw is useful or not see the 2 images below. Now imagine you had shot this in jpeg only and this was the only image you could make of this frog. Please understand that this is an important (maybe the most important) part of the editing workflow. Editing the raw file is the digital equivalent of darkroom conversion process in the good old days of photography. Understand the power or raw will make you a better photographer overall as you start to push the technology for which you have paid good bucks! Remember a good digital image is ‘made’ not ‘shot’.

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