I am a bit behind on my photography, in general. My pictures on strangeday are months out of date, though I keep my flickr account much fresher. And I spent much of the afternoon and evening going through about 8 months of photographs, (at a complete guess – 5,000 photos?), to find some for developing/printing. When I first got into digital photography, I pretty strictly kept only digital copies; the idea being of course that you could print off a new copy at any time. But maybe a year or so back, I sorted through my collection of film photographs. I can’t remember how many their were, offhand. Maybe 3 or 4 thousand? But I do remember the feeling looking at those glossy physical prints, that you just can’t replicate on screen. It’s so much more saturated, so clean, so real. So between that feeling, and the always possible coming of the end of civilization (half joking), I figured it was in my best interest to start having a selection of my digital photos printed once enough had accumulated. Today, I sent off 102 pictures to Kodak.
This batch of photos I went through today also spanned my shift from shooting in JPEG format to shooting in RAW format. In simple terms, it’s just a matter of what format the camera saves your files in. In JPEG mode, the camera interprets the image it captures based on some standard settings, and saves a reasonably sized image to the memory card. In RAW mode, the camera doesn’t interpret anything; but instead dumps the raw data onto the memory card to be interpreted later, presumably by your computer.

RAW vs. JPEG: The most direct benefit for me in shooting RAW was the amount of control I gained over my images. While you should always come up with the best shot possible before pressing the button, when you shoot RAW, you can always go back later and make technical corrections to the image. All those indoor pictures that always come out a bit orange? No problem. Underexposed your picture? No problem. Contrast? Channel Noise? Vignetting? No problem. You are just manipulating the same pixels, one way or another. But the two great benefits to doing the changes to a RAW file are 1) It’s so much simpler. If I want to adjust the white balance to get ride of a color cast, it only involves choosing from a pull-down menu of presets or using a slider. Exposure? Another single slider. And so on. Whereas much of the work on any other format image is done through the magic of curves and levels, which are practically black magik by comparison. And 2) When you’re working from the data in a RAW file, you have an unadulterated image to start with. You usually apply all your desired changes, and only then render a completed image. A JPEG on the other hand has already been interpreted and rendered once by your camera, without much feedback from you. Should you need to correct it, you’ll be saving again and introducing additional compression and artifacts each time. (Every time you save a JPEG, you lower its quality by varying amounts.) So RAW files are easier and higher quality. And while it may be all in my mind, I feel like I can correct a greater range of issues in RAW, that I might have been forced to give up on if they were a JPEG.

Looking through the photos today, I realized that there was a distinct and sudden improvement in the quality of my images at the exact moment I switched to shooting in RAW. To start with, you can never underestimate the importance of realistic color in photographs. While I’ve seen so many poorly colored images that they don’t really stand out any more, when I watch such an image being color corrected, there’s an instant when the image suddenly pops, and you just know this is the color it was meant to be. Color correction got to be much more important after I bought my 50mm f1.8 lens last year. The selling point for me with this lens was that I could take so many more pictures without a flash. But taking non-flashed images in those kinds of situations where you’d normally use a flash, you almost always end up with a color cast, (simply: it looks like you’re viewing the photo through a thin sheet of colored acetate). I kind of wonder if the sudden freedom from having to worry so strongly about color in my images let me spend more time thinking about a good composition, too?
Of course, this was at the same time I had the sensor on my camera cleaned. All the dust on my sensor was very disheartening. Going through photos after a shoot always involved trying not to cringe at all the black spots. And more time was spent removing the blemishes from the photos than anything else. Again, it’s very freeing to no longer have to worry about that.
I will say though, that for all the benefits of digital photography, I keep remembering something I saw in a Gary Winograd documentary. They mentioned that he tended to sit on his film for a while before doing anything with it. He’d leave it for up to a year after shooting it, to get some emotional distance from the pictures. He supposedly didn’t want his mood from the shoot — good or bad — to affect his decisions on what was a quality image. In my recent work, where this has come back to me the most is from the fashion photo shoot. I spent two days going through about 900 photos, just to get something out there for people. I never claimed they were all the best images. They were actually just the “ones that didn’t suck”. But every time I go back through them for something new, I find myself winnowing them down, and casually reassesing what I think are the best. Not to mention, my color correction is substantially better when I’m working on limited sets or individual photos, rather than the obscenely large original batch. I occassionally wince and pray that the models and others don’t think I was really so sloppy. Every time, I fight off the urge to go back and edit the set down to just the best; because in this particular case, I think it’s more important to offer a large batch of raw materials to the people involved, than to massage my ego.
I love my photographs. I definitely consider photography to be an art form. But for me it’s all about capturing that perfect moment and freezing a memory in place. I love situational photography so much more than still or posed work, because you’re really grabbing something out of the air and making it permanant. I have plenty of art on my walls that I find beautiful and inspirational. But only the photographs make me smile. (Especially Heavy Metal Heather.)