Get your settings right with all file types

File-formats and settings

The power of the file format you use…

Most photographers don’t think about settings and file formats when starting. First off, most people just want to take pictures. Down the road you need to think about what you are doing more carefully. You will need to get into RAW processing to overcome the shortcomings (but also, see my comment after this article)

File formats

When you think about settings and file formats it appears very technical. It’s not easy to work out what you need to know. Here are the basics. There are two in-camera file types for photographers…

  • RAW = a file type for capturing all the data from your camera, but which needs developing (post processing) after the file is downloaded. There are many manufacturer-specific versions of the RAW format.
  • *.jpg = a specific file type created in-camera from a RAW file. It is processed by the camera. The *.jpg format was originally designed only for transmitting and displaying files. It is extremely limited for post processing and easily degraded.

Both file types are useful for certain things. The RAW format is ultimately the most useful for photographers because it is so flexible. It allows you to develop the image you want from the picture you have taken. The *.jpg file on the other hand is processed for you, in a limited auto-processing system over which you have little control. It is confusing for beginners because *.jpg files create reasonably good images. But it is difficult to make them do what you intend. Beginners eventually find they cannot create the excellent images that RAW users produce. Nevertheless, starters use *.jpg because they don’t understand RAW and processing – they are stuck without help.

The processing is already done for *.jpg files by the time they are downloaded. Most beginners think they have something special when they get a great image straight out of the camera. Actually they are getting something processed according to someone else’s ideas. So it is not entirely their creation.

How do you break out of this situation?

The easiest way is to do a course or join a club or both. Then you can gain the experience and techniques you need to learn while having fun with others who share your interests. There are lots of courses and clubs around. More specifically you will have three goals. You need to learn how to…

  • Control your camera to get the picture you want.
  • Do post processing to produce great images.
  • See great scenes and compose them to create great images.
Along the way…

At some point every aspiring photographer is told, “why not try moving to RAW, that format gives you greater control over your processing”. This is true and a worthwhile pursuit.

What most beginners also hear along the way is something like this… “It is easier to shoot in RAW because you don’t need to worry about your settings so much”. “You can sort it out in post processing”.

This whole “sort it out later” attitude is a recipe for disaster. Here is my reasoning…
Most beginners:

  • Have an underdeveloped sense of colour.
  • Are not sensitive to light intensity or brightness variations.
  • Have an underdeveloped sense of the quality of light.

And crucially…

  • Cannot properly remember the colours shades, tones and brightness levels at a scene until they can start the post processing hours or days later.

The result is that during processing colours, brightnesses, tones and shades get over/under processed owing to no reference point. The resultant image is often a long way from reality. Incidentally, as your eye/mind system develops the “photographers eye” you begin to remember these details much more.

I urge you to cultivate the habit of fine control of your camera. Every shot, or at least every set of similar shots, should be set up individually. Be obsessive about it. Then, when you get your work into the computer, your post processing has a realistic starting point. It is easier, and more realistic, to process a picture that starts out very close to your intended image.

There is another reason to be obsessive and accurate about controlling settings from the start. Bad habits are really, really difficult to break. If you get into the habit of sloppy settings from the start you will almost certainly be a lazy photographer. I can assure you that will condemn you to many hours in front of the computer doing menial development tasks. It is much easier to get it right in-camera from the start. Then you can slightly tweak it later. Breaking a sloppy habit to get fine control of your camera later is a long, hard road.

Professional photographers are obsessive about getting the settings right. They know that the difference between an amateur and a professional is getting EXACTLY the image they want. And, they know they will not get that exact image by being sloppy. Precise, accurate and pre-set control is the name of the game if you want to create sharp, and realistic images.

So, forget about ‘rescuing images later’. Do your photography correctly from the start and do it using RAW files.

Addendum:
It is important to consider the tools you work with. If your camera does not offer the opportunity to save RAW files you have to work with what you have got. Nothing wrong with that. It is worth reading my comment after this article.

By Damon Guy (author and Photokonnexion editor)

Damon Guy - Netkonnexion

Damon Guy (Netkonnexion)

Damon is a writer-photog and editor of this site. He has run some major websites, a computing department and a digital image library. He started out as a trained teacher and now runs training for digital photographers.
See also: Editors ‘Bio’.
See also: Profile on Google+.

5 responses to “Get your settings right with all file types

  1. Damon (Editor)

    Yes, it is true. Some cameras don’t produce RAW files to output! However, if you are using a point and shoot camera there is no harm in that. We all use different tools for different things. What you have to accept with a point and shoot is that the tool is not under your control as much as a DSLR.

    Think of it this way. There are thousands of different hammer designs. But of all of those, the end result is the same – your nail gets banged into the wood!

    Same with cameras – you get a photograph. The only difference between camera designs and technologies is the degree of control over your photograph and the output quality. With point and shoot technology you sacrifice a lot of quality/control for convenience and small size. So using a tool like that you have to accept the limitations with the advantages.

    The ridiculous thing is that point and shoot cameras MUST take RAW shots to be able to process and produce *.jpg output. The manufacturers don’t give you access to the RAW data. I think it is because they feel it is a risk giving people access to a more complex technology when they have bought a technology with simple controls. Shows you what contempt manufacturers have for their customers!

    Compact cameras do a lot better. The Canon PowerShot G series cameras are excellent. They do produce RAW and have full manual control too. They are bigger than the average point and shoot but will fit in a pocket. I have a Canon PowerShot G12 – a superb camera with impressive specifications. I have pictures from that camera on 365Project… here is an example:
    http://365project.org/netkonnexion/365/2012-02-02

    I think that the only reason stopping manufacturers from giving you access to RAW in a point and shoot is the memory needed to hold the RAW data. That will be less of an argument as memory card size grows.

    As camera users get more sophisticated we will see the camera manufacturers provide more access to RAW on these lower end cameras. They will have to or they will risk losing out as the bigger technologies get smaller.

    Thanks for raising this point. It is a vital addition to the article.
    Best wishes,
    Damon

  2. This was interesting Damon. I’m assuming that you are not talking about point and shoot cameras here. Am I correct in understanding that you cannot shoot in RAW with them because the file format is already programmed in to them? Thanks for your feedback! Ann