Thursday, June 30, 2011
Identifying "Good Enough"
Over the past 8 months my post-process has taken on a very defined style that matches the subject matter I was mostly shooting perfectly. My images were always of decay and detritus, so the colors were muted, textures kept tack sharp, areas burned and dodged appropriately, etc. It's a style that has become a process so ingrained in my brain that I do it on autopilot, not unlike a daily work commute done so many times there's no memory of the time between when you left home and arrived and work. So long as the content of the image matches the style everything works out great, but when the image is of different subject matter I become lost and can't produce an attractive image to save my life. This was the dilemma I faced editing photos I took in Pittsburgh this past weekend, and it spawned yet another question, "What is good enough".
Fast forward to 3 months ago, an accident claims my greatest tool and I am forced to replace it with an even more sub-par sensor, a 1/1.6" XZ-1, a compact. And as time has gone on, especially after the photos shot in Pittsburgh last week, the divide between the convenience of JPG and quality of RAW has widened into painful obviousness.
The XZ-1 produces great looking RAW files. Even with the small sensor, the lens is so sharp that RAW produces images that can be sharpened into the clarity my GF1 provided. The great shortcoming, however, is its lack of latitude with color. If I were still shooting abandoned buildings all the time that would be fine, but as I'm recovering my subjects are less and less served by the desaturation and more by responsibly pumped color. Unfortunately, color management is a skill I've yet to learn in RAW developing. So then the idea entered my head, "I'll just go back to shooting JPG, Olympus is known for their great JPG images". Then comes the brick wall.
Desperate to retain texture while achieving the gorgeous look of the JPG images, I attempted to combine them in Photoshop with different layers and blending techniques. Not only was it a painfully long experimental process (as each image had to be handled very differently), the fatigue experienced creating those blends caused me to falter in very simple post work such as lens correction and color channel balancing. Whereas I had a method down with the GF1 and could crank through images one after the other, the shots from the XZ-1 enslaved me to my computer, requiring far more post work than the resultant images warranted. Although the process of shooting them was exhilarating, the post has brought me to a point of rethinking my approach to imaging in general.
Shooting in RAW and RAW alone is one thing. It sees its potential realized when the images are well thought out and meticulously captured with a specific look already in mind. JPG is clearly more functional as a spontaneous shooting format, which I would do well to remember as it saves the photographer from hours laboring in post. The gray area is the mentality behind shooting in which the art filters come into play - spontaneous artistic shooting. In Pittsburgh I shot in RAW+JPG because I not only wanted the effects of the art filters but I wanted the clarity of a RAW for optimum sharpness. Who knew if one of those randomly snapped images wound up being so good as to warrant dedicated time in post to bring forth its full potential. After this miserable experience, however, I've learned that keeping all the options open is paralyzing-by-choice. Get the tones of the JPG or get the clarity of RAW, but never both. Have the latitude to develop the image differently over time or settle with excellent processing out-of-the-box you can never duplicate. Insisting on having a RAW file comes down to one final question, "Is it worth the post work".