Q&A : Why don't my images look the way they did on the camera screen?

There's no podcast this week, mostly because there was no news of interest this week.  There was however, the second question in the Q&A offering so here we go. Marco writes:

"I look at the back of the camera when I take a picture and it looks good.  But when I get it into my computer, the colors are flat and the picture looks a bit out of focus.  When I got the camera this didn't happen."

A bit of correspondence with Marco revealed the following:

"When I got my camera, I used it in fully automatic or Program mode most of the time.  I took a class through xxx (store name removed) and the teacher told us that for the best quality to shoot in raw.  I still don't really know why but I did it and I am not happy with the pictures.  Why does raw not make better pictures like we were told?"

This is a common problem suffered by photographers who switch to capturing in RAW without having the full story told to them.  I am constantly encouraging my own students to shoot in RAW, but I also try to make sure I explain the why.  So let's start there.

The out of the box setting for most all digital cameras, and certainly all point and shoot variants is to capture in JPEG.  JPEG exists for a reason, although the initial reason is less valid today.  JPEG is a compressed file format and back when digital storage media was exorbitantly expensive, the smaller files could help people save money on cards.  JPEG compression is destructive.  This means that it throws data away that is non-recoverable by a factor of at least 33%.   If all you will ever do is look at images on the screen of your smartphone, you won't care and JPEG is probably all you will ever need.

But if you want to make photographs and not just take pictures, you might not want to throw all that detail and information away.  Cameras are built and designed for immediate gratification.  Thus, the rear display screen shows only JPEGs.  Actually all the information on the screen, including the histogram if you look at it, is based on a JPEG.  These JPEGs have colour corrections, exposure adjustments, tints and sharpening applied before you see the image at all.  When you look at the camera display, you are seeing a processed image.

RAW on the other hand is completely unprocessed.  Technically it's not even a picture until the data is passed through the RAW codec on your computer.  There are no adjustments, no corrections, no sharpening, no nothing applied.  It's the uncooked image.  JPEG processing, better known as "camera styles" cooks the data to a predefined state.  As a photography educator I sometimes forget that frustration happens when a student captures in RAW but has the camera style set to Vivid.  The image on the rear display is sharp and punchy, but the RAW file has none of that processing done to it.

For those who are shooting in RAW, set your camera picture style to neutral.  This will still display a JPEG on the rear display but it will be as lightly "cooked" as the vendor allows.  There is still processing happening that you cannot see documentation for, but remember that manufacturer goal of immediate gratification.  Now when you import your RAW image into your editor, because now your image MUST be edited (you have a blob of uncooked dough) you can start by setting the manufacturer's picture style for the scene.  I teach Lightroom and Adobe Camera RAW and do not know, or care to know every editor out there, but I can assure you that both Lightroom and Adobe Camera RAW have options to use the manufacturer's picture style.  Or more correctly, a non-JPEG iteration of the style that has some default processing steps.  You may be perfectly happy with one of these settings or you can use it as a place to start for your own customization.  Either way, you are farther edit than simply shooting JPEG because you have not thrown away irretrievable data by going JPEG in camera.

Here are a couple of examples of what I mean.  The first is an unprocessed RAW file converted directly to JPEG for display on the web.  The only thing done to it is to embed a Digimarc copyright protection.  It is what came out of the camera.  It does not look like what I saw on the back of the camera.  It seems softer and the colours are flat.



It's not pleasing in any way.  The next image is the SAME file that has been processed.  Starting point was to select the Camera Landscape picture style in Lightroom and then work from there.  I added Highlight and Shadow recover, added Contrast and Clarity, applied Sharpening, Lens Corrections and a tiny little bit of vignette.




It's a better image.  While not everyone would like the image and some might consider it a discard, you can clearly see the difference that processing makes.  That's the difference between taking and making.  If you just want nice pics for Facebook and Email, shooting in JPEG and using Camera Styles could be the right answer for you.  However if you want to truly "make" photographs, you agree to undertake work in the digital darkroom.  Thanks to Marco for his question.