Why Do You Think Your RAW File Should Look Bad?

Kestrel Photograph by Scott Bourne

Why Do You Think Your RAW File Should Look Bad?

I recently had a question on Facebook that totally surprised me. A gentleman told me that in his experience, RAW files from a camera should look flat, and unattractive and that only through post-processing, will they become beautiful images.

Perhaps he has had experience with shooting flat video LOG files that will be color graded and thinks that stills should be captured in the same way. I don’t really know because I cannot think of any other reason for his position. But either way, this notion of uninspiring RAW files doesn’t have to apply (and in my opinion should not apply) to RAW still photos from a digital camera.

My experience making images comes from decades of shooting with film. When I used slide film, I often had between three and four total stops of latitude. There was no Photoshop or post-processing as we know it. You shot it on slide film, you sent it to the editor, they scanned it and printed it in their publication – you got paid. That was it. If it didn’t look good in camera – it wasn’t gonna look good on slide film. If it didn’t look good on slide film, you didn’t get paid.

So I bring this ethos of trying to get everything right in camera into the digital age. I still shoot as if I were using slide film. This is not a religion for me. This is simply me being practical. The better it looks in camera, the less I’ll have to do in post.

While I have written books about post-processing, taught post-processing, and even spend time helping advise a software company that makes post-processing software, I have never considered myself to be a post-processing guru. Frankly, it’s not nearly enjoyable for me to spend time behind a computer compared to time spent in the field with birds. I have always said I’d rather have my finger on a camera’s shutter button than on a computer mouse button.

If you find a great subject, a great background, and there is great light, the next steps involve making a perfect, in-focus, exposure. If you know how to do that and you’re working with the aforementioned great subject, background and light, your RAW files should look spectacular – right out of the camera.

I share this opinion today because I think the digital age has caused many photographers, especially newer photographers, to focus too much on the digital process, and not enough on the storytelling process.

If you are passionate about your subject (as I am mine,) you will seek out great subjects, backgrounds a light. You will want to find glorious looking light to bathe your beloved subjects. You will do this because you want to capture the moment in time when they are at their best and your image can convey their full story. Please consider this as your first duty and worry about making your histogram comport to a certain curve later.

That’s my two cents anyway. I am rooting for you.

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8 Responses

  1. There’s a big difference between the Olympus RAW and JPEG of the same shot.
    It’s actually pretty hard to make the RAW look like the JPEG.
    Don’t you find this too?

    1. Hi Wes I am not talking about making anything look like anything. I am saying your RAW file should look good if you are working in the conditions that I describe. Bit – over the last two days I have posted shots on FB and such that are SOOC except for the conversion to jpeg and they look perfect. All it takes is getting it right in camera. Thanks.

  2. Thanks for the encouragement to not be lazy and to work at getting the shot right the first time, in the camera. But I’m thankful for the software tools when things are not perfect and no matter how hard I try, often times I just make mistakes or can’t get the good light and then software comes in handy. Thanks for the encouragement and “rooting” for us!

  3. Agreed, I shoot RAW & JPEG… the latter is there so that I can use the image immediately to share with interested parties, the RAW is to have full control of a final image that be used. Less time processing images the better! CJ

  4. I am about the same, I shoot raw/jpg and use lightroom and Luminar 3 but one thing true I shoot so I don’t have to use Photoshop to correct major flaws.
    Like you most of the time, “I shoot as if I were using slide film. This is not a religion for me. This is simply me being practical. The better it looks in camera, the less I’ll have to do in post.”
    I can’t wait to get my new full frame camera at the end of the year, It will have some crazy raw file size with amazing detail.
    Thanks for everything.

  5. This is what I have always been told also. But after reading this you make good sense and you are right. If you have the good light and you make sure your exposure is also good then you should be able have photos that don’t need post processing. Get it right in the camera and your photos should be awesome. I read this multiple times and I get it! Thanks Scott for the great insight!!

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