In the first of three parts, International Garden Photographer of the Year organiser Philip Smith mourns the passing of film but looks at how shooting RAW files on your digital SLR helps develop creativity and technique.
I loved film. As a boy my beloved Brownie 127 was in constant use, photographing irises in the garden or our old black dog in the snow. I used to take the film to Knotts the chemists to be developed, nervously returning a week later when Mrs Knott would hand over the big packet.
I was 10, she was 51. We were so much in love.
Blue irises by P.Smith aged 10. Brownie 127. Kodak Verichrome Pan Film. Hand scratched by brother.
‘Did they all come out?’ I would ask – ‘Oh yes they’re lovely’ she’d say. Yes I know this sounds like a scene from Lark Rise to Candleford but that is how it was – or I think so anyway. Maybe I’ve left out the bit where film costs three weeks pocket money – for 8 frames – the one where I left the camera strap in front of the lens for all 8 frames – and the one where my brother opened the back of the loaded camera ‘to see how it works’ – yeah anyway – whatever.
But I loved the smell of film – in later years as a professional, I loved unwrapping new film cassettes and that celluloid smell – so full of potential and longing – a photographer’s blank canvas. I loved using wonderful transparency film that could transform foliage and colour shot in the dullest light into miniature frames of light and beauty on the lightbox. I loved large format dark slides and the whole paraphernalia of loading film, processing it myself, knowing that each sheet was so precious.
Digital doesn’t smell
Let me be the first to say this. When digital first came along I thought it was like photographing with boxing gloves on – I couldn’t ‘contact’ the image in some way. I learnt about jpegs and tiffs and the dreaded monitor calibration and printer profiling. I could see the advantage of being able to see the shot as soon as you had taken it – there’s only so long you can wait a week for your prints to come back from the chemist- but I couldn’t see what it was about.
Then along came RAW. Now I could control elements of my photographs I had previously been completely unable to. I could add light into dark areas of the shot; I could recover ‘blown’ highlights, I could tweak colour and tone to really make my images ‘sing’. I was back in the darkroom, tweaking and pushing and pulling and dodging and burning. I was learning to love digital.
The control panel for a RAW processor in Photoshop CS3. So many slider bars - so little clue. Come back next month to learn more detail on this.
But for many photographers, RAW is still an unknown quantity.
So what is RAW?
Well an image shot in RAW format is often described as a ‘digital negative’ – a master file which you can manipulate to create all kinds of improvements to the final ‘print’. It is like that – but it is much more powerful than a film negative.
Cameras create RAW files when you take a photograph. A RAW file is very simple and contains one red, green or blue value in each pixel. So if your camera is set to ‘jpeg’ or tiff’ then the camera has to ‘develop’ this RAW file to create the file you want- and it does that at the same time as taking the shot. This is a very complex process and it is also automatic – you have no control over it. So it’s quite likely that your camera could throw away valuable visual information. Your camera makes decisions about colour, contrast and sharpening that you may not want. And what’s worse its an irreversible process.
Much better to keep all the visual data in your file and then use software on your computer to apply the processing that your camera can do for you; but this time you have complete control and what’s more – all the changes are reversible. Re-enter my feeling of ‘contact’ with the image developing process. Hello tweaking my old friend.
There are many bits of software that process raw files that can be bought or downloaded from the internet. The best known and probably the best is that which is included in Adobe Photoshop.
Learning how to use these RAW processors is a whole blogosphere in itself and we will return to this topic next month in the second of these blogs on RAW files.
If you don’t shoot RAW already give it a go – it offers wonderful opportunities for creativity, artistry and the imagination of the photographer. And if it's all a mystery - come back in the new year to find out more.
But digital still doesn’t smell.
- Philip -
About Philip Smith
Philip Smith is a professional photographer specialising in gardens and plants with 15 years’ experience. His photography has featured in many magazines and books including The English Garden, The Garden (RHS) , and Gardeners’ World. His work has also featured in exhibitions at Kew Gardens and the Royal Horticultural Society at Wisley and London.
As co-founder and Managing Director of the International Garden Photographer of the Year Philip is responsible for the world’s premier competition in the field, which culminates in an annual exhibition at Kew Gardens and other venues. Philip is the author of Better Plant and Garden Photography.
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