Why Do You Think Your RAW File Should Look Bad?

Kestrel Photograph by Scott Bourne

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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