I get asked the following question (or similar) often enough that it warrants a good blog post.

Why do my images looks flat and boring when I shoot in Raw Capture Mode? I feel like my exposures are good, but I am just not seeing the results I want. I want my images to pop and look great when the client views them.

The good news is, you are the only one thinking this! The bad news is when you shoot in Raw Capture Mode, you have work to do after capture. The Great News is that with today’s technology it can be done in a snap using Lightroom, Camera Raw, Aperture, etc…

So we have three phases when using Raw Capture Mode:

1. The Raw File – Straight up Raw Data capture from the camera. The only value that the file records is your exposure data. It doesn’t care about any other setting such as, tone curve, contrast, brightness, saturation, white balance, grayscale, etc.. Raw is the purest file format you can get. The advantage is that it has greater flexibility when post production occurs, because any adjustment made to the file is non destructive. The downside is that it is a large file (eats up lots of hard drive space) and yes it takes extra work to get it where you want it.

2. The Proof File – This is when you bring the image into the application of your choice and adjust for White Balance, Exposure (but you nailed it right!), Contrast, Color and Brightness. Sometimes this is referred to as “Color Corrected Files” or “Digital Negatives”. At this point in the process, these are actually Developed Files, much like when a roll of film was developed and you received the negatives.

3. The Print File – At this phase the image has been carefully retouched and toned to its optimal state for printing. If you are like me, there is nothing better than a finished print. Whether it comes from my Lab or out of my Epson Stylus 2400 on Epson Fine Art Exhibition Paper, it truly changes everything. There is no comparison of a Print to a Digital File. To get the File to this stage, take time and precision. I admit that you must start with good exposures. That is where the photographer’s skill comes into play. These days a lot of people actually outsource phases 2 and 3 (which isn’t a bad idea if you are pushing high volume), which costs money. You can save ‘out of pocket’ post production costs by doing these phases yourself, BUT you will sacrifice time. It is up to you to decide which is better.

Here are two examples of Raw to Proof to Print File *note web compression leaves a lot to be desired, but I think it gets the point across*:
Obviously this image was converted to a Black and White image in the end because I just loved it this way.trifecta.jpg

This progression from Phase 2 to Phase 3 is more subtle. If you look closely you can see the difference.

trifecta2.jpg

*I also prefer to make subtle adjustments. To me, a lot of my images are good to go at the Proof stage. When I know an image is meant for print and will be printed 8×10 or larger I will take the time and make subtle tweaks to improve the overall look.*

If you shoot Jpeg and nail your exposures you basically start with the Digital Proof Stage. I sometimes prefer to shoot in Jpeg, because I am confident with my exposures. If I am shooting very high volume with time constraints, I would rather start with a Jpeg file. (I can share my D3 jpeg settings with you in a future post if you like.)