Secrets of taking good pictures: Raw emotions

Photography expert Tom Langford gives tips on how take digital pictures with balanced exposure.

Camera 370 (photo credit: Reuters)
Camera 370
(photo credit: Reuters)
Mel Raab, a reader from Los Angeles, has started experimenting with Raw files and would like to know more about them. There are some benefits to using them and some disadvantages - it’s always good to try out new ways of working to see if you can benefit from them.
Raw files and Jpegs
Inside a digital camera the optical image is focused onto a sensor that converts it into millions of bits of “raw” data. A powerful microprocessor then formats the data so that it can be saved to the memory card and viewed on a screen. By default it’s saved as a Jpeg file - the standard, universal picture format that all personal computers can open. Whatever camera settings you are using at the time, such as the color balance, contrast, saturation, exposure, are embedded into the Jpeg file.
Many cameras also allow you to save Raw files in which the camera settings are recorded but not directly applied to the raw data. Raw files can be opened afterwards and the settings adjusted to you liking. You can then save the result as a Jpeg, or another format that you prefer.
Benefits and drawbacks
Raw files are a good way of protecting yourself against mishaps. For instance, in difficult lighting situations your pictures could have a strong color cast. The cast would be embedded into a Jpeg file and the picture could be unusable. If you had saved the picture as a Raw file you could open it in your computer and adjust the color balance to produce a useable and improved picture.
Many photographers now save both Raw and Jpeg files of each picture, the Raw file often acting as a backup of the Jpeg. This can take up a lot of space on a memory card, however. At weddings I may shoot over 2000 images and if I save each one in both formats they can be tedious to handle. Fortunately it is possible to download only the Jpegs and leave the Raw files to be used only if needed.
Camera makers use their own proprietary brands of Raw files so you may need additional software or plugins to be able to open them. Different versions of Raw processors can give different results and you may need to experiment to find software that suits you. Years from now it is conceivable that you might get stuck with outdated Raw images that can’t be opened, but I expect that the ubiquity of Jpegs will have made them future proof.
A useful trick
“Extending the dynamic range” is photo-speak for bringing more detail into the highlights and shadows of your pictures. Tweaking Raw files can add a little extra detail to the shadows and highlights so it can be useful in critical shots that require your best attention.
There is, however, a trick that you can use to “extend the dynamic range” of humble Jpegs: In the shot below, you can see that the camera cannot capture detail in both the highlights and shadows, so the auto-exposure has favored the mid-tones.
Detail that is not recorded cannot be recovered afterwards, whatever format the picture was saved in. I needed to record more highlight detail so I adjusted the exposure compensation (the “+/-“ feature on your camera) to reduce the exposure by about one and a half stops, ie “-1.5”, and took the shot again. Afterwards I opened it in Photoshop and used some Curves Adjustment Layers to selectively adjust the brightness and contrast of the darker tones to produce the finished picture below:
I might get extra detail through tweaking a Raw file, but it’s amazing just how much shadow detail can be revealed using this method with Jpegs. We used the same trick in the days of film capture: “Expose for the highlights, develop for the shadows” was our motto.
When you choose a camera, whether a compact or a dSLR, always look to see if there is a dedicated “+/-“ button. This is too useful a feature to be awkwardly buried in menus. On my dSLR it only takes a second to adjust the exposure compensation and I don’t even need to take the camera from my eye.
Many cameras can now do this trick automatically for you. Some Nikon cameras have ADR settings to boost the shadows and protect the highlights. As with anything to do with technology, you need to practice with your specific equipment and judge what is useful for you.
A personal view
I save my pictures as the largest, finest quality Jpegs and judge the quality, sharpness, color, contrast and exposure from the instant preview on the back of the camera. I also refer to the color histogram display for more precise data, and adjust the camera and flash settings, or use whatever else is needed to ensure a good result. I worked for many years shooting only transparency film and had to produce the finished, final picture on the spot in every sort of location and situation: I use the same approach with digital capture. I use Raw files if I need to, particularly in difficult lighting situations.
How we capture and process pictures has changed enormously in the last 180 years and for me is the least interesting part of the job. Photography is all about creating good pictures and it’s important to develop a good, practical understanding how the quality of your pictures is affected by backgrounds, visual awareness, story-telling content, the use of position and distance, and the ability to critique as you shoot.
The hi-tech nature of digital image capture can be quite addictive and it’s easy to spend time analyzing pixels on computer screens rather than practicing how to take good pictures. Use whatever is best for you, but please don’t get sidetracked by technology: There are countless superb pictures that have highlights or shadows that lack detail. Many of my absolute favorite photographs were taken with technically inferior and gritty black and white film in very basic cameras. For me it’s the ability to take a good picture that counts first, foremost, and last.
Picture Clinic 
If you would like to develop your photography skills, you are welcome to send to me one of your pictures that I may publish with some constructive feedback. Upload your picture here:
Tom Langford is an Event and Commercial photographer: &
Details of his next photography and retouching courses in Israel: