Serendipity and Raw

RAW vs. JPEG — At Serendipity Photography we shoot in RAW format: what’s in it for you?

At Serendipity Photography we have always shot in the premier digital format RAW! Shooting in RAW, compared shooting in JPEG, has so many advantages its hard to know where to begin. Shooting in RAW gives us a guarantee that we can give you soft lush skin tones while maintaining crispness in other parts of the image; shoot in difficult lighting, either contrasty or with strong colour casts and still get a pleasing result; and mostly and importantly, RAW format is the foundation of Serendipity’s impressive colour work!

Of course there is so much more work, even perhaps up to 3-4x as much overall as when you shoot in JPEG, but the ability to create pictures softness and sharpness where we want it (and you want it), with beautiful colours and good information and detail throughout the image has always been important enough to justify and considerably more elaborate production system than that required when shooting JPEG. The JPEG file is smaller and so much easier to manage, but has considerably less latitude, and massively less colour information resulting in that “digital” look too many times for comfort. Files resulting from shooting in JPEG have literally millions less colour possibilities and would tend to have a much greater tendency to break up and start to display faults such as grain, banding and so on sooner into the photoshop colour post production process. Shooting in RAW gives Serendipity Photography’s original files “more legs”. All photographers have an aim point for each image, and at Serendipity Photography this horizon still continues to be stretched further, as we pile technique on technique to bring more and more quality and precise vision to your wedding images.

So you don’t what to know so much about the nitty gritties of working in RAW?

Perhaps listing the benefits, the why’s, of what a full scale RAW production process will be more interesting than a full on discourse on photography technique (RAW, subsection weddings, subsubsection colour efffect options). And for those of you who are a bit into your phototec there will be some snippets of “how” as well as “why”.

For starters there is -

More fun on the day!!!

Yes, more fun on the day. Serendipity customers are always on the go and rarely have to stop or repeat ideas. Great images may take a great amount of work, but at Serendipity Photography, some of the work has been parcelled into post production, leaving more energy for you, the client, and your emotions on the day.

Have you heard of “chimping”?  With JPEG, the camera profiles you set mean that the camera converts the sensor data into a “best guess” immediately printable file, throwing away most of the colour and tonal possibilities. If you get it wrong, its gone: that is, the otherwise recoverable highlight or shadow or colour information that is there in the original sensor dump is gone. The RAW file IS is original sensor dump!! Its still all in there to be extracted later — copied over and saved and backed up and archived when you are enjoying romantic lighting, strawberries and champagne much later that evening; and carefully converted while you are lying in on palm fringed beaches or knocking back daiquiris and rubbing on sunscreen the next week.

Back to chimping –perhaps you have had the experience of being in a bridal party when the photographer seems to be making small talk while they seem to be adjusting the settings on the camera a few times at the beginning of many of the shots, particularly in the locations. This is because they are running through different JPEG profiles to see what turns out the best! At Serendipity, there is no chimping — we can fix the exposures and contrasts later in the RAW conversion. We can pretty much just shoot away, especially after 2100 weddings and 600,000 pictures in wedding albums, leaving plenty of energy to concentrate on you and on finding the most interesting moments throughout the events of your day!

Softer, richer skin tones

Wedding photography is all about people, that is you! That means image after image of you — hence a lot of skin needing to be reproduced in a variety of situations each with their own specific lighting and contrast challenges.

One of the main aims of good studio portrait lighting is controlling contrast, and also lighting direction for the most flattering placement of light and shade across the tones of the face. This what is primarily responsible for the professional qualities of professional portraits. On the wedding day, we move with you across many changing levels of colour and contrast, with only partial control of light direction. Shooting RAW allows to grab back some of the professional control of contrast available in the studio, by careful balancing of overall exposure and brightness controls for instance. Setting the RAW file conversion allows exquisitely precise control of saturation, hue and brightness in all of the 6 main colours that are mixed into image of your skin in each photograph. Colours in the highlights and shadows can be controlled independently from the mid tones.

This is only the beginning! Because the file has more bit depth, at Serendipity Photography we able to use the algorithms associated with 3 or 4 of the 6 colour channels in many images in your album to further flatten or sculpt the skin tones, or hold the skin tones while adding heavy contrast and sparkle, say, in the tiara or dress, and the file still holds. We can also combine several different conversions into one image, giving very precise controls over the image, creating qualities like silky soft skies, or control of non-flash or purely ambient locations like Labassa with more drama and excitement for the viewer.

More latitude –RAW has much better ability to cope with extremely dark locations, highly coloured light or very strong contrasts.

Yes, again, when the going is rough we can pretty much fix it later.

Think of inside the old Cathedral next to the Flagstaff gardens — romantic, historic but superdark; or inside some Orthodox churches with plain all bright yellow windows, (yes if you are a Melbourne wedding photographer you will know which one we mean — hint it’s quite North), or under street lights — Sodium lights — at night. Not the most easy situations to pull out a flattering portrait look.

At Serendipity photography we deal with these sorts of challenges in several ways. The first is the sensitive use of flash, often off camera flash. This provides a rounder set of colours from fuller spectrum lighting, rather than the blocky skin tones that come from these sorts of narrow spectrum lighting, and also allows some light to lift the exposure without completely destroying the atmosphere, which often occurs with the regular wedding usage of on camera flash. Secondly, the resulting files are converted out carefully. With RAW, at Serendipity we can go into each colour channel to adjust it 3 ways, for instances sending the yellows slightly more orange, lifting them and desaturating them, to improve on the look that would result from most files shot in a regular way with JPEG. Even with a typical grey scale white balance there is still no allowance for the individual variation between shots tht happens when you are balancing off camera flash and ambient light with a strong monochromatic cast. Finally, with these kinds of images, further postproduction adjustments are required to bring the shots up to their true potential, often 15–30 stages of lightening, darkening and sculpting processes followed by fine colour grading and various colour washes. Images shot in JPEG are limited in what they can tolerate in terms of post production — its like the fabric of the shot is too thin, prone to tearing. With shots from JPEG originals, the tones and colours will break up much sooner, limiting our artistry and constricting the design process.

Now to look at how RAW performs in very contrasty light. Imagine you are outside a church in an industrial suburb. The only useful background is facing towards the church frontage; all other 3 sides are chock full of huge advertisements for fast food, tyre repairs etc etc. And its late in the day, the narrow church front yard is split in two by the deep shadow of the roof line and it’s a very large European wedding finishing at 4.45pm and the nearest reasonable park is 12 minutes away with poor parking options.….. How do you make that big group shot of 300 people look good when half of the people would be in sun, and the other in shadow?

With RAW, the answer is surprisingly simple and obvious. You analyse the colours and tones in the shadow and sunlight sides separately, and get them up separately, laying one over another combine them, usually with a variety of channel masks, to help converge the colours and contrast. The result should look much more pleasing, as if it were shot in softer European full sunlight rather than in the significantly harsher Australian contrasty light.

More comprehensive and interesting wedding photography coverage

With all this correctable potential and lower technical effort (no swapping profiles and a large repertoire of exposure controls and protocols in camera creating very correctable files with minimal fuss) then the photographer is free to concentrate on the main event — that is you!

Our efforts should be able to be directed to anticipating great moments, selecting the right angles and light, and working with you to optimise your program, support your mood and design choices, and interpret your day with the greatest empathy and clearest vision possible. Not having to control exposure to the very narrow half stop latitude that is required for full performance from JPEG’s relieves the photographer (and the client) allowing many more choices! Viva RAW!! At Serendipity we salute the creative possibilities and greater expressive freedom found in a fully fledged RAW production system!

More crispness where it matters — allowing more detail so that pictures can be printed larger

One of the more entrancing features of the RAW file conversion process is the ability to control local sharpness. In other words you can reduce the sharpness of areas with lower rates of change of contrast (such as skin) while increasing it in areas with high rates of texture change like hair, eyebrows, eyelashes etc. The sharpness control is not a unitary function, there are four controls that we normally use including radius of detail, masking amount and radius, and so on. With JPEG sharpness is set en masse by the camera in normal wedding practice. (It would be a bit tedious to get up a file at 100% on a wedding day and stare at it and then adjust sharpness per each situation!) As well as that, the RAW conversion process allows correction for chromatic aberration that is common in most lenses to a greater or lesser extent, certainly increasing the maximum size of print that can be reasonably printed from large wide angle images, allowing more drama in your album from clearer sharper photographs.

An example from Labassa

The photograph below is from the hallway at Labassa, a much beloved National Trust property with precious original surfaces with 24 carat gilding. No flash is allowed — the photograph is entirely shot in ambient light. Various parts of the photograph have been converted out with different colours and contrasts to handle the strong backlight and flare and the huge exposure variation. The clients preferred a very beautiful traditional feel and a strong focus on the rich textures and detailing of the interior, hence the long hand held exposure and medium depth of field despite the low light. The area around the door has been converted out with low contrast and exposure, and given as much anti flare treatment as possible later (red channel shaping). The area of the front of the dress has been lifted in the RAW conversion, and details picked out with a variety of steep curves in the blue channel algorithm used for sculpting. Similar treatments were used to bring out the woodwork and ceiling.. the original file was a mix of 3 conversions, and I found it easier to go back and reconvert some specific areas again than twist them excessively in our channel splitter sculpting stack.

Total ability to vary colours and contrast

Let us go back to our putative big group shot we discussed earlier severely cut in half by deep shadow. To make this picture look good it is not good enough to just adjust the overall exposure and converge the contrast ranges, with RAW it is possible to also adjust for colour casts in shadows and highlights as well. Firstly contrast, in many parts of Europe the contrast range between full sunlight and and shadow is only 2–3.5 doublings, wheras in Australia the photographer often has to cope with contrast ranges of 4–5 doublings (stops) for the smae shade where the file can’t contain the full range of tones that the eye/brain can see (around 15 doublings). Shooting in RAW allows correction, for overall exposure and contrast with adjustments of exposure, brightness, blacks, fill light and recovery controls with fine adjustment in curves.

As well as that it is good to correct the colour casts and saturation differences between the two sides. The shadow area would have bluer shadows and bluer skin overall, wheras in the sunlight side the shadows will be much deeper and the highlights quite orange if it is late in the day. In the RAW conversion engine the colour temperature of the highlights and shadows of two sides can also be adjusted separately from the mid tones at the point of conversion, in the full bit depth range. The result of a final image for a situation such as our example here, properly converted and adjusted from RAW can be surprisingly reasonable, and at Serendipity Photography we have been even been able to produce poster sized 20″ x 30″ images from these mixed conversions in such situations. If we were to have to shoot in JPEG the result would have either too dark shadows on the shadow side or too pale highlights without detail (blown out is the term) on the sunlight side, let alone all the funny colour twitches, and an image that would not look good past about A4. Not so good if one set of parents were in shadow and the other in sun!

Richer, lusher colours –customisable colour solutions for individual client preferences

In my mind this is greatest benefit of working from RAW. Not only is it possible to combine different areas from one image converted differently, but the files resulting from the RAW conversion process have more depth and can be stretched and pulled further, allowing subtlety or brilliance of colour as you wont. Deriving inspiration variously from the whole gamut of the history of painting, sculpture, splashes of natures pleasure, advertising and the history of graphics and not the least film (LOVE Tim Burton) then RAW is THE most essential foundation production tool available at Serendipity Photography.

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