Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Photography for Elearning Developers - Why shooting in RAW makes sense

I've always thought of this blog as just a place to air my thoughts. Turns out it's a bit more than just that. I'm sure some of you've noticed my absolute laziness in posting to the blog in the last couple of months. While there are reasons for it, I also feel really grateful about the number of people that emailed or DM'd me on Twitter admonishing me for my laziness. I guess, this blog does mean a little more than a place for me to ramble. So let's see if I can turn over a new leaf and do a bit of a reboot on this site. For starters, let me get back on my weekly posting schedule - and if nothing I'll do my best to post a short update. Today is unlikely to be short though.

This past month I was on a 1000km door-to-door drive from Bangalore to Pune. On the way, I was able to photograph two beautiful raptors - a black shouldered kite and a white-eyed buzzard. Note this - I wasn't on a photography trip and most people won't be looking for photography opportunities on Indian highways. All said and done though, the opportunities did present themselves and I have some decent photos to show for. Photography is quite like that - readiness is a big strength. They say that luck is when preparation meets opportunity and this couldn't be truer for photography. If you want great photographs you need to have a camera with you. If your camera is always at home, you'll miss a lot of photo worthy moments. And mind you, it doesn't always need to be your entire camera kit. Even a phone camera is often a great tool to have for photo-journalism. Just remember to carry it with you; so when the momen presents itself, you're always ready. As an elearning developer or an instructional designer, you'll perhaps notice a lot of photo-worthy moments in the office that are worth preserving. I can't tell you how many candid photographs that I've randomly taken in the office came out to be useful in presentations, courses and in-person training sessions.

In today's otherwise short blogpost I want to discuss shooting in RAW vs shooting in JPEG. This is quite a subject of debate amongst photographers and I'd like to present my perspective on the issue. Of course, you can choose to disagree and that's the joy of talking about photography. So let's begin.

If you own a decent camera, you need to shoot in RAW

(Click for a larger image)
Take a look at the before and after on this picture. Remember that not every photo opportunity will give you brilliant light in the right direction, with a very cooperative subject. This barn owl is my neighbour. I see the family every evening when I'm out for a run with my dog. The big problem though, is they're owls - they're nocturnal. In particular, I've never seen this family during the day or even in the twilight hours. I only see them at times when the light is poor. Now what should I do if I see this owl come and sit in the light of the street lamp, on a fairly good perch? Not take the shot? So well, I took the shot but as you can see, it wasn't much to write home about. Thankfully I was shooting in RAW. Before I tell you what I did, let me tell you what a RAW file is.

RAW formats are your digital negatives

Did any people you knew from the film generation have a deep interest in photography? You might remember the days of the 30mm, 36 shot film. If you remember, you'd get a film negative at the start of the development process. After that it was a lot of magic in the darkroom. People would then play with different chemicals and techniques to enhance the default negative image to produce masterpieces like the ones the great Henri Cartier Bresson created. Now granted, that Bresson himself wasn't great at cropping and processing film - he generally outsourced the activity to give himself more time to shoot. That being said, all his shots did actually go through a post process.

The problem with the digital era is the fact that you can produce pictures for sharing right out of your camera - the JPEG format. That's a problem because you aren't really giving your pictures the tender loving care that they need - the little extra zing before you actually share. So what's wrong with a JPEG - after all, you can use Photoshop to enhance your JPEGs and even tools like iPhoto and Picasa give you some tools out of the box. The problem is that the JPEG file is just a snapshot of a moment in time - nothing more, nothing less. It doesn't capture any information about the light available for you to be able to make changes to the exposure of the scene or the colours without actually deteriorating the quality of your image. So each change that you make from the time that you start editing your JPEG file results in some loss in quality.

On the other hand, the RAW file is an information heavy format. It's a proprietary format that changes from manufacturer to manufacturer. In addition to the snapshot that the JPEG also captures, the RAW file captures a lot of information about the light in the scene. While the camera does a little bit of work on your JPEG file by increasing the saturation and vibrance and adding a little bit of sharpness to your shot, the RAW file usually looks pretty drab out of the box. However, you get the opportunity to make a number of tweaks to the vibrance, saturation, sharpness and exposure of the scene without dramatically reducing the quality of the shot. Nice huh?

Do remember though that all this flexibility comes at a cost. RAW files are pretty huge and fill up your memory cards and hard-drives quite fast!

A few minutes of love

That's all your images need really. Take a look at the above video. It takes me less than four minutes to rescue what you could call a hopeless picture to start with. Most pictures aren't going to be such a hopeless job and all you're going to need is  few little tweaks that don't take away the detail in your image. RAW files help you do just that.
Over the next few weeks I'm going to try and give you a bit of a build up to my talks at the Learning Solutions Conference 2012. I'm still undecided on the exact stuff I want to put up on the blog, so let me play it by ear for now. But let's see how this goes - keep reading and thanks for the encouragement.
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