George, Why are you always going on about processing? It’s not the 90’s

April 10, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

I spend almost as much time processing photos as I do with a camera in hand. And that doesn’t just mean “Photoshopping”. The photos I take need to be processed because of the way in which they’re recorded by the camera. I like to take my time with it, and make sure I’m happy with the results before I share them. The photos I share on Flickr are usually at least a week behind when I actually took them, due to the processing time required.

The sea hitting the rocks at sunset, in St Ives Bay, Cornwall, UK.Cornish CoastThis was a "sunset" from the coast around St Ives. We didn't see much of the sun that week, but I think the dramatic cloud here makes up for the lack of sun, and creates a moody scene.

Landscape Photography, Cornwall, UK.


Let's Start At The Beginning

So back in the day, when everyone shot with film cameras, you’d take your photos and send the film off to a lab, who would process the negatives, and print the photos for you. Hopefully to the sounds of Vanilla Ice, Shaggy, Take That or some other great music of the age. Some photographers would take control of the processing, and develop the negatives themselves, before producing prints from them. This way, they could ensure the images looked as intended, rather than entrusting that to an automated lab process.

So the old development process was:

  Camera > Film > Processing > Prints
General Public: In-camera   Lab
Photographer: In-Camera   Photographer



The new millennium brought us Coldplay, Steve Brookstein, Take That, and “digital photography”. The great thing about digital photography is that you can take a photo and print it straight away at home, without having it processed …right?

Well the processing is still going on. It’s just going on in-camera. And printing at home never gives a satisfactory result unless you have a serious professional printer – in which case, you already know this stuff.

Ultimately, digital photography created a development process as below:

  Camera > Raw Data > Processing > JPEG > Prints
General Public: In-camera   Lab
Photographer: In-Camera   Photographer   Lab

The problem with the “General Public” system above is that the processing is all done by automated software in the camera. The result is a series of jpeg images on your memory card, which look as the software guesses they should. This is ok for smartphone snapshots, or holiday snaps on a compact camera, but if you’re going to take photography seriously, you really need to take control of that processing stage, and make those processing decisions which the camera would otherwise be making itself. The camera software doesn’t know what you’re taking a photo of, and it doesn’t know if the jpeg it creates is a true representation of what it was pointing at. Neither can it emphasis particular elements of your choosing. It simply processes photos with guess-work based on average settings.

It’s fair to point out that some professional photographers do print their own photos, in order to control that stage too. So I could have added a third row to illustrate that. But that’s not really relevant for this post, which is about the processing stage.



So to clarify the digital system further; when you take a photo with any digital camera, the camera records the raw data captured by the sensor, and then a processor uses various algorithms to convert that raw data into a jpeg image file. The sensor is far less sensitive than the human eye, so this raw data is not necessarily an accurate representation of the view through the lens that we would see. It’s therefore the job of the processor to decide what to do with that information, how to interpret the colours, what adjustments to make, etc. Generally, it will increase contrast, boost colour saturation, and sharpen.

You can affect the in-camera processing decisions to some degree. As an example, most compact cameras come with a “Portrait” setting. This will set an appropriate shutter speed and aperture for a portrait photo, but it also affects the way in which the image is processed. The camera will sharpen less (no one wants every pimple to be crisp and clear in a photo), and the skin should not be highly saturated. Alternatively, if you set your camera to “Landscape” setting, it will apply increased colour saturation, particularly to greens and blues (ie, typical colours for land and sky), and will apply increased sharpening across the image. But what if you’re looking at a landscape without any green in it? A beach maybe? Or if the weather is overcast rather than blue skies? Or what if you would rather go for a desaturated look? What if the results you’re getting are bland and colourless, or too saturated? The camera can’t read your mind, and will process the raw data the same way every time.

Everyone has taken a photo of a sunset that looks amazing in person, but the photo just doesn’t live up to it. You end up saying “the sky was much more red than that in real life”. These are classic occasions when the camera’s automatic processing hasn’t delivered what you wanted from it.



I shoot in RAW format. This means that the files saved to my memory card are large, unprocessed raw data. The raw file is the digital equivalent of the negative, from film days. They’re often low-contrast, dull, flat, drab images. But they contain all the data required to produce an eye-catching colourful photo. I don’t want the camera to adjust exposure, contrast, white balance, lighten-shadows, darken-highlights, sharpen, etc. I want to do all that myself, to ensure it looks as I intended. This creates a lot of time-consuming work. But it’s preferable to surrendering those decisions to an automated process, and I enjoy the creativity.

Once I’ve done the basics, I can then go on to specific enhancements for that photo. This might be lightening or darkening areas, adding/removing vignetting, adjusting sharpening or contrast over a particular area. Most of these editing processes were also available to film photographers of the past too. Ground-breaking landscape photographer Ansel Adams was famous for pioneering techniques such as dodging and burning in the darkroom, in order to enhance the highlight & shadow areas of an image. And these terms are still in use today, even after the process has been digitised. Now, instead of processing photos in a darkroom, I use software – appropriately named “Lightroom“.



Here’s an example of an unprocessed RAW image, alongside the finished jpeg.

Cornish Coast - Auto White BalanceCornish Coast - Auto White BalanceCornish Coast - Auto White Balance The sea hitting the rocks at sunset, in St Ives Bay, Cornwall, UK.Cornish CoastThis was a "sunset" from the coast around St Ives. We didn't see much of the sun that week, but I think the dramatic cloud here makes up for the lack of sun, and creates a moody scene.

Landscape Photography, Cornwall, UK.


The (RAW) image on the left is not expected to be an accurate representation of what the lens was pointing at. But crucially, it is an accurate representation of what the sensor captured – The two are not the same, as sensor technology is not perfect. The idea is now to take that raw data file, and process it myself, into the result I want.

The unprocessed RAW image lacks saturation, and the sky is too bright, washing out much of the colour. After reducing the highlights, you can see much more of the cloud. The wings were too dark in the original too. By raising the shadows, we can recover that shadow detail. These are things which would have looked fine to the eye at the time, but the camera’s sensor struggles with due to it’s relatively poor dynamic range. But crucially, by processing the image myself, I’m able to pick and choose how these elements are represented in the final image. I’ve also added a subtle vignette to the image, which helps lead the eye to the centre of the image, when presented larger.



The most common issue with automatic processing is incorrect colouration, caused by the camera misjudging the white balance. Here’s an example, showing the automatic colour-balance for this Cornish Seascape, next to the colour-balance I chose myself in processing.

Black Kite Raw File With No ProcessingBlack Kite Raw File With No ProcessingBlack Kite Raw File With No Processing A black kite, flying straight at the viewer, on a blue sky.Black KiteA black kite, flying straight at the viewer, on a blue sky.

Wildlife Photography, Northern Spain.

The automatic colour balance renders the rocks orangey, and the sky a very dull grey. The automation fails to account for the blue light which prevails at this time of day, shortly after sunset. The reality of the scene at the time probably sits somewhere between these two. But I chose to emphasise the blues further, and create an almost eerie feel to the shot. This is an example of both the shortcomings of an automated system, and the flexible room for creativity when processing manually.



This third example shows the differences between the RAW file, an in-camera auto-processed Jpeg, and my final processed version. Since my camera is able to save to two memory cards at the same time, I can save images in RAW format on one card, and as a processed Jpeg on the other.

unprocessed raw pony photounprocessed raw pony photounprocessed raw pony photo Raw Image (unprocessed)

The RAW file just about manages to capture the highlights, while retaining subtle detail in the shadows. But really, the sun looks too bright, and the ground looks too dark. This is a classic example of how camera sensors differ in the way they ‘see’ the world compared to us. Again, as with most RAW files, the colours are drab and washed out, compared to real life.

pony photo auto processed in-camerapony photo auto processed in-camerapony photo auto processed in-camera In-Camera Auto-Processed

The camera’s processing addressed the RAW file’s low contrast, but in adding contrast in this automated way, it’s left the ground even darker. It has recovered some detail in the bright sun, but personally, I want to see more than this.

pony photo auto processed in Lightroompony photo auto processed in Lightroompony photo auto processed in Lightroom Manually Processed

After 5 minutes work, processing this image myself, I now have something which better represents the scene as I saw it, and is closer to the image I wanted to produce. It’s clear here, how the photographer is able to take control of the situation, and ensure that the result is as intended, rather than leave it to automation.



So hopefully this post has in some way illustrated the need for processing in the modern age. It’s not a practical approach for the casual photographer, and I don’t suggest you start this time consuming way of working for your holiday pictures. But it should go some way to explain what goes on behind the scenes here with my photography, and for most photographers these days. I should add that not every photographer shoots RAW like this. Lots of people dislike the raw process, and benefit from the freedom of shooting directly to Jpeg. But shooting in RAW is the best method of achieving optimum quality, and it works best for me. I also enjoy working through my photos in this way. I like to see the pictures come to life in front of me, and I value the second opportunity for creative decisions.

How much processing is done to a photo depends on the photo itself, and the photographer. Personally, I probably spend more time processing than most, but it depends on the context of the photo. Natural history wildlife photography needs to stay faithful to the integrity of the scene at the time. It’s journalistic nature requires honesty and realism in the resulting photo. By contrast, I see fine art portraits and landscapes as an opportunity to create images as I see fit. To that end, I will use all the tools at my disposal in order to create the image I have in mind; From planning a shot, lens choice, composition, and exposure settings, through to how I choose to process it.

If you have any questions or comments, do use the Comments section below.

I’ll be posting a follow-up in the next couple of weeks, with more of an explanation of my personal workflow for digital photography post-processing, and the various stages each photo goes through from RAW file to website. But for now, writing this has taken up quite enough of my time. I’ve got photos to process…

Post by George Wheelhouse, 2014.


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