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RAW Power
Diamonds in the rough.

A diamond cutter studies a lump of stone. He decides where to make each cut to capture the beauty of the crystal rock. His level of craft, along with the quality and clarity of the stone, determines how striking the diamond appears. Like diamonds in the rough, RAW image files allow digital photographers to prove their expertise in the digital darkroom. How the photographer interprets the data decides the allure of the image.

Hanang Chameleon, Nou Forest, Tanzania. Nikon D1X with Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8D AF lens
Trekking around the Nou Forest in Tanzania is breathtaking Ų finding a rare chameleon is even better. The RAW image is exactly how it appeared on my camera‚s LCD screen, seemingly underexposed with very little detail. If I had been judging my exposure based on the image in the LCD screen, I definitely would have re-shot this image. However, I was looking at the camera‚s histogram, which showed detail in every part of the image including highlights and shadows. This is why I kept the shot. Weeks later when the image was downloaded onto my computer it still looked much too dark. My camera‚s histogram didn‚t lie; the image was a diamond in the rough. A few steps in Photoshop‚s RAW dialog box and the image appeared just as I remembered.

You‚ll hear a lot of people say, „You don‚t need to shoot RAW filesš and they are correct. You don‚t need to but, if you have the option of working with all your camera can give, then why not? I believe this is the best method to render your digital images. A RAW file is a „losslessš compressed file containing minimal camera processing. It seems counterintuitive to spend thousands of dollars on a digital camera that‚s equipped with sophisticated settings, only to use file format that doesn‚t take full advantage of these advanced settings. However, this is exactly what happens when you shoot using the RAW file format.

For years nature photographers have primarily shot color slides. When developing a slide into a print, there is little leeway to make changes to exposure in the darkroom. Black and white film allows countless adjustments in the wet darkroom, enabling photographers to pull out details that are difficult to see on the negative. You can compare a JPEG file to a color slide in a way that you have less leeway in the darkroom to make changes. A RAW file can be compared to a film negative. My mindset has changed. Since I started shooting RAW files, I feel more like I did when shooting black and white film. My primary goal is to collect data as I shoot RAW files, and then import it into the digital darkroom for final editing. In the field I shoot, while checking the histogram to make sure my exposure contains details in the whites and blacks. I don‚t worry about color temperature or how the image actually appears in the LCD screen, because I trust my histogram.

To use the RAW file, you must start by making sure your camera has the ability to shoot with the RAW file format. Different format options are located in your camera‚s shooting menu. Your camera‚s manufacturer may have given their RAW file format a different name from RAW; however, RAW should be indicated. Once you have taken a few RAW images, you can download them onto your computer. Adobe Photoshop CS, CS2 and Photoshop Elements 3 all have the built-in ability to open RAW files that have been taken from many digital cameras, but not all. Check www.adobe.com to see if your camera model is supported. Using RAW files takes longer to process than JPG or TIFF files, but has become much easier with the Adobe Photoshop Plug-in. The RAW plug-in is like a special photographer‚s software package that‚s bundled within a larger imaging program. You might have to adjust your workflow a bit when dealing with RAW files. Use the „File Browserš found under the „Windowš option in Photoshop to see a quality preview of each image before opening them individually. As you scroll through the preview, select an image you want to view in more detail and click. It‚s in this window where the power of the RAW file is held.

Within the RAW file dialog box you can adjust for exposure, color temperature, shadows, contrast and saturation, just to name just a few. What‚s different about this RAW file dialog box as compared to other options in Photoshop? It‚s made especially for photographers and uses our lingo. For example, if I want to adjust for exposure I use the „Exposureš slider. If Mac users hold the Option key or if Windows users hold down the Alt key, you can see at what value the whites in your image will lose detail. The image will be „clippedš and appear overexposed. White on the screen shows that detail is preserved, while color on the screen indicates that detail is being lost in one of the channels. The best way to adjust the exposure value is to move the slider until the whites begin to lose detail and then move the slider back a bit so your whites retain detail. When you move the slider, a value will appear in the window, which relates to the amount of f/stops that you have changed in your image. For example Ų1 shows that your image is one f/stop darker than how you shot it and +1 shows that your image is one f/stop brighter than how you shot it.

The „Shadowsš slider works much in the same way as the „Exposureš slider. If you want to increase the blacks in your image, then move the slider to the right. Mac users hold the Option and Windows users hold down the Alt to view the point at which the blacks begin losing detail. White on the screen shows that detail is preserved, while color indicates that detail is being lost in one of the channels.

If you haven‚t used the RAW file yet, you‚re in for a treat! You may become hooked like I am.

-Jon Cox

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