Digital Image Processing

There's a split decision about how to handle digital images out of the camera these days. One camp says the only way to shoot is raw format, and that you have to process the image yourself after exposure for ultimate quality. The other says that you can set up all the parameters you need in the camera and even if you shoot raw you don't need to do extensive image processing, other than conversion to TIFF or PSD later. And there's a splinter faction who claims that Large JPEG files at the least compression is just fine, and why bother with raw after all?

I think there's little doubt that shooting raw is the best way to go, in terms of bit depth, thus color and tonal information, and the extent to which you can manipulate the image without "pixel damage" later. It undoubtedly offers the widest dynamic range, exposure latitude, and flexibility when it comes to controlling contrast, hue, and saturation. Even white balance settings are up for grabs, all after exposure. And today's raw converters and processors, including Lightroom, ACR (Adobe Camera Raw), Aperture, Phase One, etc. all offer much simpler controls that yield an almost complete, ready-to-print image right out of the conversion stage.

Of course, there are those who do not want to bother with any of this, for some reason, and are quite content with Large JPEG quality. Raw purists cringe when they hear this, but I know some portrait photographers who still shoot Large JPEGs and deliver quite good 16x20 prints to their clients. Can they do better with raw? Probably, but they argue that what they get is just fine and more than good enough for the end purposes of their images.

In this issue, our annual Digital Darkroom offering, these and other matters come to the fore. More and more, digital photography is making custom processors and printers of us all; photographers have even taken on the mantle of pre-press separators and technicians. And while in the "old days" we might be able to expose a roll of film at +1 and pull development for a contrast control, we can now do this on every frame we take. It's almost intimidating, and certainly demanding of our skills and time.

Once we accept that we have become processors of our images again we also must begin to develop what is called a "workflow." This means a logical step-by-step approach that deals with bringing an image into our "system" after the exposure is made. Workflow means that we develop a procedure to download, organize, and maximize the images we choose to keep. It means being able to get those images anytime, anywhere, and that we have secure backup of our image files. Did we ever think that was all part of the bargain when we were enticed by that fancy and fantastic digital camera? Probably not, but without that housekeeping digital images can become lost or damaged. And that's not what any of us want.

But the payoff is both ultimate image quality--to the limits of what your camera and lens can deliver--and ultimate image control, which is what photographers seem to have been seeking for all these years. Yes, you can use special effects and go all experimental with your images, but when it comes to the basics of photography--contrast, color, and tonal control--I have to say that I have never before experienced such a degree of control over every aspect of my images. And that's being able to compare 20 solid years of darkroom work to how I work my images today. While what happens in the digital darkroom is part of what today's photography is all about, it's an essential aspect of getting the most from your digital photography today. Simply put, it's amazing just how much you can exploit digital imaging's potential to get the most out of every frame.