RAW, JPEG and why Lightroom isn’t Cheating

(Left to Right) Camera RAW, Camera JPEG, Lightroom Post Edit
(Left to Right) Camera RAW, Camera JPEG, Lightroom Post Edit
Many non-photographers (and indeed some photographers) don’t understand photo editing and assume it’s cheating. The most widely used photo editing tool is Adobe’s Lightroom, not to be confused with Photoshop which is far more powerful and more of a manipulation tool. Do I use both? Yes I do, although Photoshop is not used that often.

{Click on any image to view a higher resolution}

So let’s start at the beginning and look at what a digital camera actually sees. It see’s light, nothing more than that, just light and different levels of light. Our eyes are the same, they see just light that we use our brain to convert into images. Our brains are far more intelligent than any camera can ever be in that we can process a very high dynamic range and effectively edit the image we see in real-time.

No matter how advanced our cameras are, they very rarely capture what we actually remember seeing with our own eyes and this is why we have the option to post edit using a tool such as Lightroom.

Almost all (if not every) camera available can capture the image and write it to the memory card as a JPEG (often .jpg file). Before this image is written to the memory card the camera will perform some post editing of it’s own to try and mimic the actual scene and whilst for most people (holiday snaps for instance) this is very acceptable, for photographers it’s not. This is why more advanced cameras have the ability to record in RAW format (of which all manufacturers have their own formats). A RAW file is as close to the actual data (remember all data is actually 1’s and 0’s) that the sensor recorded. These RAW files are considerably larger in file size than a JPEG.

The reason for this difference in size is a JPEG is a compressed file in that image data that isn’t required is simply deleted. For instance image data held in very dark areas is removed as it will not be required again. A RAW file on the other hand has all this information still contained in the file. It’s this RAW file that can then be used in a post editing tool to be adjusted. For instance bringing out detail in these dark areas (known as shadows).

So shouldn’t photographers simply just be getting it right at the time of the shot so that post editing isn’t required? Trust me, I’d have a lot more spare time on my hands if this ideal world was available, but it just isn’t. As already mentioned, our brains are very clever in filtering out parts of an image that we don’t want to see. For instance a very bright background, a camera can’t simply just ignore this and will capture this detail.

I’ve never had the privilege of developing film in a dark room, however, adjustments can be made to images in a similar way, so editing photos in the digital era is no different to how it used to be done on film. Although we obviously have a lot more power to adjust. We can not only adjust the lighting, but also sharpness, noise control etc.

RAW also gives extra control over White Balance as these settings are added before the JPEG files are written, remember a RAW file is actual light data that the camera sensor picked up, therefore any changes to White Balance can be adjusted afterwards.

Of course, all of these editing adjustments can be carried out on a JPEG file too, however, as all of the non-visible data has been thrown away to compress the size of the file, it doesn’t have the required data to work on and therefore adjustments are either very limited and/or the image quality will suffer when you make adjustments.

For anyone thinking that post editing an image is cheating is to think of it this way; When a camera takes an image and writes it as a JPEG, it’s actually post editing the photo before writing it to the memory card. Therefore, it’s just the same as using a RAW file and post editing yourself. Of course, shooting in the digital world does open up possibilities for making an image look very different to what has been shot and yes that could be classed as cheating but can also be classed as being creative. This is all open to individual perception.

As a comparison, I went outside and shot an image of this Goldfinch on the Niger Feeder, the available light wasn’t great either so was perfect for this experiment. I used my D810 with the camera set to capture both a RAW file and JPEG file of the same shot.

This first photo is the RAW file converted in Lightroom without any adjustments made;

Camera RAW file
Camera RAW file

Compare that to this image which is the camera’s JPEG;

In Camera JPEG
In Camera JPEG

It’s hard to see what the difference is but the Goldfinch looks a bit clearer, sharper and a little more coloured, however, the head and eye (which is the most important part of most wildlife portraits) doesn’t really stand out and is hidden in shadow. The whole photo has a little more contrast to the RAW file too, you can see that the Niger seed in the feeder looks far more defined. However, for me, the photo still isn’t great.

Finally, this 3rd image is after I made some simple adjustments in Lightroom, a very different photo I think you will agree, but is it cheating? Of course not;

Lightroom Edit of RAW file
Lightroom Edit of RAW file

As you can see, there’s only subtle adjustments done but has changed image without actually changing the image if you know what I mean. The best way to compare these photos is click one of them to open in higher definition and scroll through them as a slide show.

So, whilst digital manipulation can be cheating, not all post editing is cheating but more of just another step of digital photography workflow in the same way film developing was (or even still is for some).

Although, this final image is most definitely cheating!

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