“A lot of photographers think that if they buy a better camera they’ll be able to take better photographs. A better camera won’t do a thing for you if you don’t have anything in your head or in your heart.” Arnold Newman
I’ve been taking photographs for a very long time now, but I still have a perpetual and on-going battle with some aspects of image production. The word battle is perhaps rather negative and might give the wrong impression – perhaps tussle would be better.
My current (and I’m prepared to bet that I’ve blogged about it before too) opponent is image file formats and software and how to get the best possible image from the files you download from the camera. I suspect this is a matter that will never be put to rest, due to the persistent and alarmingly fast march of technology.
Dropping some pounds:
I decided a while ago that I’d enjoy my photography more if I ditched some weight. Whilst my own personal battle with the pounds is truly perpetual, thankfully the camera poundage was rather more easily fixed. Upon delivery of my latest acquisition at the weekend, I reached a stage where I felt very happy with my current gear. That doesn’t preclude the rather obvious caveat that if I had the pennies I could make myself even happier, but for now, I’m very content. I think it’s perhaps the greater simplicity I’ve brought to bear on my gear selection that removes the dilemma of which lenses to take on any one given day.
I sold a couple of heavier lenses that overlapped considerably in their focal range and replaced them with one much lighter and smaller lens that covered a good percentage of their range – a net difference of around 600g lost from my bag. So my lightweight Canon 100D body is paired with the ‘kit’ lens at 18-55mm, supplemented by its companion 55-250mm. Both have Image Stabilisation and a ‘stepping’ motor which makes focus fast and almost silent – and the IS helps with my habit of preferring to hand hold, even though I’m already pretty steady.
The kit lens I have is an especially sweet copy and I’m very fond of it and the longer one, albeit only used a little yet, looks pretty good too. I can do landscapes, stitching multiple shots, as required, for the panoramas I like to create (in place of the ultra wide lens I already sold to fund the camera body) and decently long shots at 250mm for wildlife etc. I also have various combinations of extension tubes and close up filters to allow me to get close to little things, something else I enjoy doing. The bluebell shot above was taken with the 250mm at full zoom, as it allows me decent magnification, but from far enough away to prevent me casting a shadow over the subject in bright sunshine.
The weight and volume of gear I’d choose to take on holiday or on a day out has been more than halved, yet the flexibility remains. The additional pixel density and image quality I have with the 100D means that I can easily crop tighter on a 250mm shot to make up the loss of focal length at 300mm I had on an earlier 8MP camera, so I don’t feel that I’ve actually lost anything.
Getting to grips with my Nikon:
I also supplement my DSLR kit with a supposedly ‘pocket’ camera for the times I don’t want to carry much – although the Nikon P7000 I’m currently using is a tad larger than is truly pocket-able. But having reviewed lots of models that I might be able to afford second hand (after its predecessor just rolled over and died one weekend), I was swayed by the image quality and features and size seemed less important. Having been a long term Canon and Fuji user (I still have several Fujis in regular use too), the Nikon ‘thinks’ differently, so it has taken longer to get to know and I’m only just getting to grips with it. But I’m happy that it has a considerable amount of the image capability that I enjoy from my DSLR in a much smaller package (I miss a proper viewfinder though) – and I paid less than 15% of its original new RRP on eBay and it had only taken about 500 frames. I also managed to sell the broken one for spares and accessories for about a quarter of that, so I feel I have a bargain.
I’m finding the Nikon image quality very good from RAW files especially. It doesn’t seem very competent at retrieving highlights if you over-expose, but makes up for it by being very good in shadow areas. I’ve got some outstanding results from areas that were totally black in the original JPEG. This can often come at the expense of additional noise or other artifacts, but I’m not finding that to be the case – but highlights recovered can give rise to some very funky effects. So I have at least learned one lesson this week – don’t over-expose the Nikon.
The montage left features some detail crops from test images I took to test exactly this. I deliberately exposed the shots to preserve the highlights in a very high contrast scenes. In the kitchen shot top, I was concentrating on preserving some detail in the view out of the window, which included some sky and in the garden shot below, I wanted to keep the white fluffy clouds in the sky with nice detail.
Both images consequently ended with areas of deep shadow, completely black in some instances, even with low in-camera contrast, but which I was able to get really good detail back into when developing the RAW file. With the kitchen image, it is actually a blend of two exposures, one for the outside scene and one for the deep shadow areas – from memory there were over 3 stops of difference between them. If you really needed a shot like that to work, you’d use fill flash or some other technique to get a better original, but these were deliberately shot badly to find the limits of the camera. In the garden shot, you can see that the grey lamp post at the top is tonally almost the same between the two shots, I’ve only lifted shadow, not just lightened the image.
To JPEG or to RAW?
So the hardware is sorted, the software is the element I’m still at odds with. I’m pretty sure that I’ll never come to a truly satisfactory conclusion and will never find a one size fits all solution. I have my preferred way of working – I like to take pictures with the images manipulated in camera as little as possible, preferring to do my own post processing to taste later. Consequently, I like to take RAW images and develop these in software, supplemented by the best possible quality of JPEG I can get out of the camera. To achieve this, I lower all the processing parameters and the images I get off the camera tend to be rather flat and dull. But this tends to preserve as much detail as possible and gives me a good basis to work with.
There’s a good argument that if I’m taking a RAW image anyway, I don’t need the additional JPEG, as one is always embedded with the RAW file. But having fallen foul of software no longer supporting early RAW files and preferring to use old image retouching software that doesn’t support RAW files, for me, taking both formats covers my options a little better and I feel happier knowing that I have both versions for the future. I have tried extracting the JPEG from the RAW file, as taken, but this sometimes gives variable results.
It is my practice that if the JPEG is good out of camera, I’ll work with that, but if it needs something more, I’ll be happy to develop the RAW version. Of all the images I publish here, I think they’re probably about half and half from each format. Generally speaking, landscapes need to be worked from RAW, macros and close ups are often fine from the JPEG. There have been a couple of images recently where no matter what I tried, I couldn’t get a better image from the RAW than the camera had managed with the JPEG, so why fix it if it ain’t broke. The bumble bee in the yellow tulip above is one such example.
RAW development software:
It’s the developing RAW files that is the core of my issue – I have several programs to do this and not one satisfies my needs. Cameras that can take RAW files do provide you with software, which is, as you’d image, perfectly set up to get the best from their own equipment. But they can also be limiting in terms of features and are often very specific to one model of camera. As this development software can be heavy on computer resources, having several open together might not be practical either.
What frustrates me is that if I were to develop the same image in three pieces of software, in addition to my usual JPEG workflow, I could end up with 4 different versions – each of which has good and bad bits. One application is very good with sky colour, another has better colour tweaking options, one leaves skies noisy but is good with grass texture, another is good with shadow detail etc. etc. Couple this with the fact that the resulting image sizes will differ slightly and corrected lens issues and perspective manipulation will result in slightly different shapes, I can’t just layer the resulting image files and blend the best from each, more’s the pity.
I do love working with RAW images and the option to get the resulting image better than the camera could manage at the time – it’s very satisfying to get a workable image from a file that initially looked totally lost, as the river scene above, which had a blown sky, flat green foliage (it was the end of August and the subtlety of trees just starting to turn was lost) and deep detail-less shadows. As I like to take landscapes and scenics, these often need more help than the camera can manage, due to the wide dynamic range you’re likely to encounter, from white fluffy clouds to deep shadow under trees.
So the only way forward is to start with my preferred program and if I don’t get the results I want, try it in another and see if I like that better. You only need to look at my work bench and see that I regularly use about 20 different pliers – clearly one pair isn’t suitable for everything, so software is just the same – as always, the best practice must be ‘the best tool for the job’.
With some of the lovely weather we’ve had recently, I’ve been out in the garden and a little further afield and these are some of the photographs I’ve taken. They’re a mix of Canon DSLR photos (file name will show a ‘d’ suffix) and also from my more compact Nikon P7000 (‘n’ suffix). Some were processed from the JPEGs and some from the RAW file. As an experiment, I’ve taken some of the closer shots using close up filters in front of the lens (on both cameras) – I usually use extension tubes between the camera body and lens.
If you’re interested in how shots were taken, I usually leave the EXIF image in gallery images, so you should be able to access it with a browser plug-in.