Thursday, June 30, 2011

Identifying "Good Enough"

I've gone through a lot of phases with my shooting, the tools I've used and how I've used them. We've all had transitional dilemmas in how we develop our images, from being dejected by images that receive any treatment in post to afraid of developing an image with so much post as to give away that it has been treated to being afraid the image doesn't stand out enough because it hasn't gone through enough post. It's weird, really, how the process is processed mentally, and for simplicity's sake I'm going to assume everyone goes through the post-processing dilemma in the same manner as I do. Point being I am now at the stage where the mentality on post work has come full circle and the question nags at my brain, "Do I need to back off".

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".

A majority of this dilemma comes down to one choice I made last year, a transition that spoiled me as much as now maddens me - switching from JPG to RAW. Back when I was still a Nikon faithful I refused to shoot RAW because the file sizes were ridiculous, the format wasn't universally recognized and the files were easily corrupted. It didn't matter at the time because Nikon's processing produced JPG images that looked just as good as a processed RAW, and since a majority of my shooting was of random street subjects and people my post work was very light. The catalyst for my transition came when I adopted Micro Four-Thirds with the GF1. Panasonic had (and still has) a long way to go as far as JPG processing was concerned, so the only way to get maximum image clarity from the camera was to exclusively shoot in RAW. Given what I was shooting this was not an issue, the images would require patience and labored attention anyway. But more so, the clarity of the RAW images led to an addiction. It became clear to me that the potential of a smaller sensor isn't necessarily realized unless the image is captured and processed in RAW. Everything I did was therefore heavily focused on the RAW editing process.

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.

Olympus cameras are known for their JPG files because they feature art filters, special in-camera processing techniques that generate VERY stunning image results. So stunning, in fact, that I couldn't resist using them. Perhaps my greatest folly was shooting in JPG+RAW because it was once I got home to begin processing that the difference stood out to me. As amazing as the tones and contrast of the JPG images were, they paled in comparison to the texture retention and fine details recorded by the RAW files. Thus the internal war began - which was more important, the look of the image while zoomed out or the textures retained when zoomed in. It's a battle I'm still grappling with.

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".

Having shot RAW for several months its very hard to step back from an image and see it simply for the way the camera manufacturer intends. The post-process I developed made the images feel more personal, but with varying subject matter it has planted me in front of a monitor far longer than I care to sit. When processed in-camera, each manufacturer has its own process and parameters, however customizable, by which the image data is developed. It may not be the way I would have processed it, the noise reduction may be too strong (I'm a fan of fine film-grain-ish noise) and the sharpness may not be at the peak I prefer, but it sure saves a hell of a lot of time. As much as I may want the clarity of the RAW data, I may very well regress to a strict JPG diet for all unplanned, spontaneous images I may capture. Frankly, anything is better than slaving over an image for hours just to try and get some semblance of what it looked like as a JPG but a fraction sharper.