SHOOTING IN THE RAW

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Legal even in Pennsylvania
Photography and Text © 2009 Michael Lustbader
Even the most inexperienced novice in photography (either film or digital) knows that certain decisions have to be made before pushing that shutter button. When photographing digitally in particular, we can adjust certain settings in-camera that dramatically influence the quality and characteristics of our final image. Digital cameras allow us to photograph in certain “formats”. In this context, the word format doesn’t refer to image size or shape as it does in traditional film photography, but rather to one of the languages in which the camera records what the sensor “sees”. There are several options offered by most digicams, each with its own set of advantages and disadvantages. Some choices are blatantly and grossly inappropriate. (Opinionated, eh?) Other alternatives are not quite so straightforward, and may indeed be reasonable for some uses, but less so for others. In this discussion, we will try to cut our way through this morass, and clarify these issues.

Upper right: A leafhopper surveys the world. Above: A small katydid judges the trajectory to its next location.

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Choice of format determines: 1. The amount of information captured. This, in turn, effects tonality, contrast range, and color accuracy. RAW captures more data than TIFF, which captures more than JPEG. 2. The size of the file and therefore, 3. The number of images that can be stored on any given memory card, and the speed with which those images can be transferred from the camera’s buffer to the flash card. Let’s take a look at these formats, one-by-one.

TIFF (Tagged Image File Format)
Advantage: TIFF is a universal format, meaning that almost any computer can open these images right out of the camera, without special software. There is no information loss due to compression, so the final image quality is excellent. Disadvantage: TIFF files are large. This means fewer images per card, and a subsequently longer transfer times between exposures. It is not an ideal format for image capture in the field. It can be, however, an excellent storage format after download. TIFF can be an appropriate working format for studio photography, where file size is not that important, especially now that TIFF files can be saved with their layers intact.

Above: Immature Milkweed bugs (Oncopeltus fasciatus). Instars of different sizes often cluster together, giving the appearance of family groups. Left: Red Milkweed Beetle (Tetraopes tetrophthalmus) on hydrangea. A frenetic beetle in constant motion. This photograph required the use of the most important accessory in my bag-PATIENCE!

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JPEG (Joint Photographers Expert Group) Advantages: JPEG, like TIFF, is a universal format. The image is compressed, however, resulting in smaller files, even with HIGH setting. You can therefore store more images on each card, and enjoy more rapid transfer rates. With JPGs, there is no need for conversion software— images are useable right out of the camera, just like film. Less post-capture processing is needed, (assuming all your settings, exposure, etc., were correct). There is minimal loss of data if you resave as a TIFF or a PSD file and do not re-save as a JPEG.
You are usually given choices of compression size: JPG BASIC: Think of it as “B” for bad, broken, bent, bludgeon, barf, bleak, blurry, bleary, etc. You can use it to take pictures of people or subjects you don’t particularly like which you can then email to other people you don’t particularly like. If you insist on using this format, there is a very real risk that the Photo Police will drag you away for some gruesome punishment, like having to trade in your camera for an Instamatic and one roll of 110 film. Yes, you can fit millions of images per card, but the quality is so poor that you will wonder why you bothered. Or, you can enlarge them immensely, call the result, “Pointillism”, buy yourself a beret, and be an artist.
Above: Crab Spider (Misumena sp.) on coneflower. When photographing spiders, I like to position them at an edge, looking into the frame. This seems to emphasize their predatory nature. These spiders lie in wait to ambush their prey, as opposed to spiders which actively hunt or weave webs. Left: Solitary bee on cascading cone flowers. A pyramidal composition--very stable and restful.

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JPG NORMAL: Higher quality than the preceding. This format is useful for images that will only be shown on the Web or in email. Despite compression, it still provides many images per card, and a rapid transfer rate. JPG FINE: Provides very good quality and can be a reasonable format if proper care is taken. (More later). It allows more images per card and a faster transfer rate than either TIFF or RAW. Disadvantages: All JPEG formats involve “lossy” compression, which means that some information is irretrievably lost during processing in-camera. The question is whether that loss is acceptable to you or not. In many cases, you will not even be able to see the loss of data under normal degrees of enlargement. All settings (white balance, exposure, etc.) must be correctly set beforehand. You can make some corrections after the fact in Photoshop or whatever editing software you use, but this involves significant time and effort, and in some extreme cases will still not give you an optimal result.

Above: Monarch butterfly caterpillar (Daneus plexippus) on butterfly weed. A bit too much flash for my taste, photographed before the days of the Nikon R1C1, with direct flash creating too many hot spots on the buds. We live and learn. Right: Dogbane Leaf Beetles (Chrysochus auratus) enjoying springtime. Rated “R”.

A new kink in the equation is the appearance of JPEG 2000, which is an improved format, with little, if any, loss of data due to compression. It is available, but not yet universally accepted.

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In an article in Digital PhotoPro, Jay Meisel (arguably one of the world’s best commercial color photographers) gave his reasons for shooting JPEG, FINE. Of course, he shoots in a studio where he avoids most of the variables that we deal with in the field, and has a staff to deal with post-capture aberrations, but even so, he achieves superb quality.

RAW (stands for RAW) It is not really a format, but rather just a collection of ALL the unmanipulated data that has fallen on the sensor for that particular exposure.

Left: The Conopidae are flies that protect themselves by resembling wasps. This type of mimicry is relatively common in the insect world. The most famous example is the Viceroy butterfly, whose coloring mimics that of the Monarch, another butterfly which advertises its toxicity and bad taste with bright colors and wing patterns. Paralleling the camera plane with the subject plane was vital in maintaining sharpness in this image. The fly is only about 1/4” in size and the background very busy and distracting. A large aperture was needed to limit depth-of-field. Below: Io Moth (Automeris Io) snaps its wings open when alarmed. The eye spots startle predators and give the moth time to escape. Another defense mechanism, relatively common in the miniature world of insects.

Advantage: There is NO loss of data, so shooting RAW provides the greatest amount of information. You can capture the full range of tonality, detail, and color available. The files are smaller than TIFF, so you can fit more images per card, with a faster transfer rate, although not as rapid as JPEG. Using the RAW format allows us the greatest degree of post-capture control since all the data is preserved. We can, for instance, now adjust white balance in-computer, making it one less thing to worry about in the field. In addition, we can photograph in 16-bit color. Without going into gobs of technical detail, this allows maximum color information (like having one hundred shades of blue on your palette instead of five...), with “smoother” color transitions and less risk of banding and posterization. Disadvantage: RAW files require post-capture processing and cannot be “read” right out of the camera. In the “old days” of shooting transparencies, I would return from a week’s adventure perhaps having shot 30-50 rolls, average. It would take two or three evenings to edit and page the

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A baby mantis, on the lookout for potential enemies, which at this size, includes their own kind. Thousands hatch from the same egg case-perhaps a hundred may survive being cannibalized by their brothers and sisters. Do you see the other one peeking out just below? Mantids are quite territorial, and may spend their entire lives in the same patch of garden if food is plentiful.

slides, perhaps another evening or two to identify and caption. Generally, a submission to my stock agency would go out within two weeks of my return home. On my last trip to the Galapagos Islands, during which I photographed 100% digitally, I returned with about the same number of images and 5 weeks later was still editing… Translate that into time at the keyboard instead of in the field taking pictures. RAW is not a universal format, and the images are useless until converted into a language that your computer can read. In fact, each camera manufacturer has a different formula for RAW capture as well as proprietary software. Camera Raw is Adobe’s conversion software, and there are third party software packages available as well. In addition, there is now a “Digital Negative” (DNG) format which may, in time, supplant all the proprietary formats and simplify these issues.
My favorite time to photograph in the garden is just after sunrise. The light is soft, there is often still dew from a cool night, and many diurnal insects are still quiet and calm from their night’s slumber.

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My recommendation: SHOOT RAW! Although it is clearly a compromise between quality and convenience, I am paranoid about capturing every bit of data available. A RAW file supplies maximum information and therefore the the highest quality available from any particular image. And after all, quality is the name of the game, isn’t it?
LEFT: A photograph of the Blue Fly of Happiness, demonstrating never-beforecaptured-on-film-or-pixel courtship behavior. Individuals of this rarely-seen species mate for life, and like Tinkerbell, exist only in environments where people believe in them. Much rarer than the Ivory Bill. BELOW: Rana and Ranita Frogge welcome spring amidst the daffodils.

(P.S. I’m sorry if you misunderstood the title, and if you want to run around naked with your digital camera, that’s fine with me.)