I’ll Have my Photos Well Done

When asked in a restaurant how I’d like my steak prepared, I usually reply: “Just warm it back up to body temperature, please.”

I gained this taste for raw beef as a teenager in Switzerland. I was visiting my aunt and we’d stopped at a roadside Mövenpick just outside of Zürich. She ordered steak tartare. I asked to taste it and was instantly hooked on that bloody, fleshy flavour.

But if there’s one thing I don’t fancy uncooked, it’s my digital photos. I prefer them well done, and depend on my favourite camera manufacturer to prepare them to my discerning taste.

I mention this because my dad recently got all excited when he learned
he could get a consumer-grade camera capable of capturing pictures RAW.

“Yo, Dad,” I said. “Bad idea. Let Chef Digicam sauté them pics up nice in some butter and garlic. You’ll be much happier.”

Truth is, for the novice photographer, RAW is about as appetizing as a
handful of freshly-caught salmon eggs. It’s a heck of a lot of work,
requires extensive knowledge of digital imaging, and usually ends up
tasting like rubber.

Perhaps I ought to describe what RAW is, before my analogy grosses you away from this page.

There are generally two separate processes that occur in a digital camera when a picture is taken.

The first is committed by the CCD (charge-coupled device), which actually captures the photograph — slaughters it, if you will.

A RAW file is saved at this point (hence the name) like a gleaming slab of tuna sashimi — another of my favourites, yum!

Because there’s been no correction applied to a RAW image, it can
appear “flawed” to the untrained eye. This means that the colouring of
the photo may be a bit unusual, or it may be slightly soft, or a tad
dark.

In truth, there’s more there to play with, which is what camera pros are after.
Originally, the RAW photo was aimed at these folks, who want to
maintain absolute control over the quality of their images. And that
makes sense. After all, they get paid for their time spent tweaking and
perfecting the pictures they take.

But for hacks like you or I, this just means a heck of a lot of work to make that snapshot of Fido look halfway decent.

If you captured all your pictures RAW, you’d have to haul each one into
Photoshop and spice it up with some white balance correction, add a
dash of sharpening, then fry up its luminance to perfection.

To save us time, most consumer grade cameras cook the image to suit our
visual palate. This is the second thing a camera does when it takes a
picture — adjusts the white balance so the image isn’t too blue or
yellow, applies an unsharp mask to remove any fuzziness.

More importantly, it trims the fat by compressing the image into JPEG
format. This reduces its file size and make it more manageable. (A RAW
file tends to carry a fair amount of excess flesh.)

Camera manufacturers are pushing RAW digital photography pretty hard
these days in a very wide variety of cameras. This is just dumb.

Obviously it’s a result of some marketing response to demented consumer
demand for what is perceived as an important feature. But camera
manufacturers should know by now that for most folks, RAW is more
headache than its worth. They should make a better effort to save us
from ourselves.

The awful truth about the RAW format is that it isn’t a format at all. It’s just a data dump from a CCD.

Take JPEG, on the other hand. It’s a standard file format that is
governed by an organization. Anyone can create and open a JPEG file.

The RAW “format,” though, is proprietary to a particular camera’s CCD. Each type of RAW image is different.

There are dozens, if not hundreds, of different types of CCDs, so there
are at least as many types of RAW. Which means you have to use a
certain piece of software on your computer to open a RAW file.

Consider my poor dad. He went out and bought the camera for its RAW
capabilities only to find that the software he used for editing photos
didn’t understand that particular type of RAW.

Well, that camera is back in its box now, headed for the “returns”
shelf of some retailer who didn’t communicate the facts of digital life
to my dad well enough (sigh, he never listens to his son).

All this talk of RAW has made me hungry, so I’m off to find myself a
nice piece of beef. But I’ll continue to skip that setting on my
camera, despite its appetizing nomenclature.

Copyright 2005 Andrew Robulack
First published in the Yukon News Friday, September 9, 2005