Thursday, 14 October 2010

Get it right in camera - but don't dump and run

In carrying out my party photography (or any photography for that matter) I make a big deal of the amount of time that I will take to process the images. In looking on the web I've noticed that there is a myth propagated by some that if you have to post process photos then it means you have not got it right in camera.

The people who have the most to gain from perpetuating this myth are the 'dump and run' photographers, some of whom even shoot weddings.

The sales pitch is something like:
  • I've got a really expensive pro camera
  • It and my skills mean that I get every shot exposed and focused right
  • So after you've cut the cake I can burn your images to disk and project your wedding images during the disco
  • And you can take home that disk at the end of the evening
  • And look - I'm cheaper than the guys who make you wait!
I don't do weddings so I'm not interested in discussing them any further but the reason I have mentioned them is that entrusting a wedding to 'dump and run' photographer is the tip of an iceberg in professional photography. I've seen enough truly awful PR photos to know that the practice is endemic there but then with the amount PR agencies are willing to pay for photography they deserve what they get. But a wedding?????

To avoid work in processing images, dump and run photographers get the camera to do the processing for them. At the more skilled end of 'dump and run' a 'picture style' (that's the Canon term) is chosen to try and get as much out of the RAW data collected by the sensor as possible and the camera then produces a .jpg file with which we all are familiar which usually looks better than the RAW - but not always.

(An aside, this auto processing using a 'picture style' in camera is different to auto exposure. In fluid situations almost all professional photographers will use some form of auto exposure - selecting the right form is another story. If you shoot and process the RAW files, you don't have to think about 'picture style' - and most people reading this who shoot .jpg will not anyway realise that a default picture style is being applied and that this on many cameras can be modified. This is part of what happens when you play with scene modes on a decent point and shoot camera; the processing for landscape will be different to portraits.)

The fundamental problem with all this is that if the camera processing is set to produce a punchy image then in many situations the result is over-saturated or too contrasty and looks awful. If the processing is set to a different setting then images can come out dull and lifeless.

Those that preach 'getting it right in camera' and use .jpg are simply relying on a trick performed by the camera processing and most of the time it will do it well enough to get a reasonable result but rarely will it get the best result, a result that truly makes the image 'pop'.

Many cameras can produce .jpgs while at the same time preserving the RAW image data. So two files are produced for every shot. The former will normally look better than the latter initially - but once a skilled photographer has sat down in front of a computer screen and worked on the RAW image file, an image can be produced to knock spots off the camera .jpg.

Why am I writing this? Because I've been asked about my party photos why my "photos look great, not flat like with most flash cameras". There are three reasons:

1. See the above, and
2. Different environments need fundamentally different techniques; experience of many parties allows me to select the right technique to get the best out of different light conditions - for example, the last party I was at was shot almost entirely with the camera set to manual exposure and manual focus.
3. I get it right in camera, but I'm not anal about it!

The reason I'm making the third point is that it's the technique (point 2.) that allows me to get shots which are natural and often missed by the photographer who is still fiddling with the dials to get things right or waiting for the camera to focus when the subject is moving.

I'll get around to technique another time but to give you a teaser, here's some more party images that could not have been obtained using auto exposure or auto focus on the camera and would not look so great if I'd not sat down and processed the RAW files....

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