If you are unfamiliar with this continuing series, start HERE.
When shooting with modern camera sensors in RAW, the dynamic range captured at base ISO never ceases to amaze me. When properly exposed, the NEX-7 can reproduce 13.4 stops of dynamic range in a scene. This is right in the range of what the human eye can see in any given instance. Here’s the problem, a “properly exposed” image straight-out-of-camera will look something like this:
For those that shoot in RAW, they already know that files produced in post-processing seem to render very “flat”, compared to JPEGs of the same image. Intuitively, this makes sense, as the JPEG image has already been processed to some degree (depending on the shooting mode, such as Vivid, High-Contrast B&W, etc.), while the RAW file is essentially untouched sensor data.
To see improved image quality of RAW compared to JPEG, you HAVE to post-process to some degree. For most instances, all that is required is a bit of a contrast/saturation bump to give files a bit more punch. This sort of workflow can get pretty speedy with practice (I’ve gotten down to about 15 seconds per file). Where the true advantages of RAW lie are in drastic adjustment. Photographers are human after all. We sometimes over-/under-expose, completely miss white-balance, or even need to eek out more detail in a file that might not necessarily be there for a large print. Shooting in RAW and post-processing in an adequate program (Lightroom 4, Aperture 3, PhaseOne CaptureOne Pro 7, etc.) can mitigate all these problems with ease.
Another advantage of RAW that is being explored with high-dynamic-range cameras such as the NEX-7 in recent years is tone-mapping, sometimes erroneously called single-exposure HDR. By exposing for a “neutral shade” of a scene, where neither the shadows or highlights are too drastically under-/over-exposed (respectively), detail can be boosted and recovered with care. Depending on the intensity of recovery, images processed this way can have that “HDR look” of multiple exposures combined together. The catch here is we’re working with only ONE exposure! No need to shoot on a tripod and carefully align images in post-processing!
Results using this method can be mixed all depending on the subject material, and single-exposure tone-mapping can NEVER replace true HDR and its inherent benefits (possibility for even more extended dynamic range, better finite control of tones, better detail at extremes of dynamic range). However, there are times when I couldn’t be happier working with only one exposure.
In this example, a few hours before sunset, I fully brought down the highlights and boosted the shadows, and added a graduated filter to the sky to increase contrast and clarity (this gave clouds more detail and showcased the crepuscular rays better). Some saturation and sharpness adjustments later, and this tone-mapped file was finished!
A shame that I couldn’t completely bring down the highlights in the sky (see areas of white clipping), but that didn’t do much to hurt the image’s overall aesthetic. The multi-layered clouds, dynamic lighting, and lush farm field more than make up for that.
That’s all for this brief adventure in post-processing, guys and gals. Thanks for dropping by!