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Can I have your RAW files?

Dramatic Sky and Grape Vines

“Can you download the images straight to my computer?” “Can I have your RAW files?” These are questions I’ve heard frequently over the years.

Imagine the following: You go to a bakery that is purported to have the best croissants. One of the reasons they are so good is because the pastry chef makes each batch as orders are placed. You order half a dozen. You stand in the doorway, breathlessly waiting. You watch as the chef carefully measures all the ingredients for six puffs of flaky goodness. Just at that point you say, “That’s great. Would you mind just putting the measured ingredients in my bag? My life partner is good with an oven and has YouTube. Thanks!”

No, of course you can’t imagine that. Could someone’s significant other be sufficiently skilled to turn those ingredients into successful croissants? And if so, would they turn out like the famously flakey pasties from the renowned chef? Probably not.

At some point in my schooling, a professor told the class that historically there have been three types of photographers (I’m, paraphrasing here…it was more then a few years ago): 1) The shooter. This person likes to shoot. They would rather leave the image development to a darkroom technician. 2) The Darkroom Technician. This person takes photos, but immensely enjoys the process of taking a raw negative and massaging it into the final beautiful tones that the world wouldn’t have known existed if they only looked at the negative. 3) The soup to nuts perfectionist. This photographer believes that the final representation of the image is as important as the moment it is captured. It is not just about composition, or tonal values in a print, but also about bringing to life, in final form, the photographers initial visualization. This type does everything from exposure to print (or final file delivery).

In the days of film we had two options: Chromes (slide film) and negative film. Chromogenic film had a notoriously short tonal curve, which is basically the number of steps between your shadows and your highlights. With negative film, this range was considerably longer. And a good darkroom technician could coax a lot of detail from a well exposed negative in both the shadows and the highlights.

Today we have an equivalent analogy. What we call “Out of Camera JPGs” are similar in their final form as chromes were then. We actually say that a JPG is “Baked” in the camera. And RAW files are more akin to negatives.

When shooting chromes, a photographer would expose to attain the best highlight retention, and allow the rest of the tones to fall as they may. Shooting JPGs is similar, the image is locked into a narrow tonal scale and color rendition. Because of this, the photographer will attempt to get the best possible (read compromised) exposure when they shoot.

A RAW image has so much tonal and color potential these days that with proper exposure, and post processing (similar to darkroom work), an image can be rendered in it’s final form much closer to the scene our mind remembers. This translates to a much more malleable file. One that, exposed “correctly”, will need post processing to bring out it’s best.

The RAW file is similar to that bag of flour salt and butter you take home hoping to make a flaky pastry. It doesn’t look like much in the bag. And when you’re done in the kitchen you may very well have something edible. But most likely it won’t be that delectable croissant.

Before and after versions of a photo depicting my exposure and processing.
Before and after versions of a photo depicting my exposure and processing.

Most times my RAW files look somewhat flat, or even overly contrasty. Perhaps you would use phrases like: Too dark, too light or muddy. To the average viewer, they may look down right ugly. You may even ask yourself, “How is he going to get anything usable from that?” Same as you may ask how did the chef make his croissant so flaky and your’s was dense. I know my cameras. I know my software. Trust me when I tell you that you won’t come away from “my” RAW file with a final image that looks anything like mine. I have practiced my “pastry” skills for years. And I am of the perfectionist sort who believes that the final image processing is just as important as the initial exposure.

So when I’m told, “Our art director is good with Photoshop. He/she can process the images” My answer is still the same. I’ll hand you a bag of half a dozen croissants when they are done baking.