This is a phrase that I come across from time to time. It is a phrase that I have to say I find a little annoying. Why is that? It is because it implies a number of different things. It implies that if you don’t get it right in camera you are somewhat incapable or inferior. It also implies that you do not need to do anything else to the image post capture in Lightroom or Photoshop.
Another phrase you might have come across is ‘Straight Out of the Camera’ or SOOC. Try Googling it. There are Flickr groups and Facebook Groups dedicated to this Holy Grail. Indeed, you will also come across many discussions on the subject waxing lyrical about what this actually does mean. So, what does it mean? Well, it means that you use the JPEG or RAW file straight out of the camera with no additional post processing. This already includes a contradiction. A JPEG file is post processed in camera. You can set a number of different parameters in camera and rely on your camera manufacturer to create a viewable image based on their interpretation of how the raw file should be presented as a jpeg. So, while it might be referred to as ‘Straight Out of the Camera’, this doesn’t really qualify in my opinion. On the other hand, a RAW file is simply what it says. Referring to Wikipedia, a RAW file is defined as follows: ‘A camera raw image file contains minimally processed data from the image sensor of either a digital camera, motion picture film scanner or image scanner. Raw files are named so because they are not yet processed and therefore not ready to be printed or edited with a bitmap graphic editor (such as Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw). It goes on to say, ‘they fulfil the same role as negatives in film photography; that is, the negative is not directly usable as an image, but has all of the information needed to create an image.
However, as soon as you bring it into a bitmap graphic editor, such as Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw/Photoshop, some kind of interpretation is done so that the bits and bytes that make up the digital file are converted to become viewable.
Perhaps this is being pedantic and we should assume that the opening an image in Lightroom or Photoshop is a necessary step and is essentially ‘straight out of the camera’. The question is whether this image at this stage is satisfactory? What we have to think about is what is an image and how it relates to what we see. I am guessing that the SOOC purists expect the two to be the same. Indeed, I could concede that the image you get out of the camera is decent enough, but is it really what you saw?
When we look at a scene, a beautiful landscape, you in fact survey it, taking in different parts of the view and assimilating them in your mind. Your pupil is contracting and dilating to account for different levels of brightness. In summary, you are taking multiple and different exposures. The camera is different. You can only select one exposure that is good for the shadows and also good for the highlights. The dynamic range of the camera sensor (for the Nikon D850 this is 14.8) is much less than the human eye (around 20 stops). In short, the exposure you select is often a compromise. The overall brightness of the scene may be quite different to what you have chosen to expose for. It is for that reason alone that some level of post processing in Lightroom or Photoshop is necessary. You have to recover or control the highlights and the shadows as well as the blacks and whites in the image. Often, when viewing an image straight out of the camera or the first time in an editor, it is usually ‘flat’. Indeed, you could present this version to the world and claim how wonderful the image is as it is ‘straight out of the camera’.
Nevertheless, there are many different components of an image that cannot be corrected or addressed in post-production and these are the things that need to be taken care of in the field.
Focus and depth of field
You cannot make something sharp in post-production that was not already properly focused during the exposure. There is only one plane of focus in an image and you have to choose where that is. Linked to this is depth of field which are those areas in front of, and behind the focal plane that are acceptably sharp. In other words, they appear sharp to our eyes but are in fact not on the plane of focus. If you want shallow depth of field you could in theory blur the background to simulate this if you didn’t quite get it right in camera. However, this could take some effort which can easily be avoided by getting it right at the time of making the image.
Having great depth of field is another challenge and it may be necessary to use a specialist lens such as a tilt and shift lens or use focus stacking. In the latter case, it is important to make sure that all the images are identical, other than the position of the plane of focus, to aid blending in post-production.
You may think this is one of the things that can easily be corrected in Lightroom or Photoshop and you would be right. However, you have to consider the implications of doing this. If, when taking the image, you have clipped your black or your white points then no amount of moving sliders in Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw will recover this. Clipping is means there is no data. Clipping of blacks results in pure black and have no shadow detail within them. Similarly, clipped whites are pure white with no highlight detail within them.
Another concern you might have with under exposed images will be noise. As you increase the exposure in Lightroom or Photoshop then the noise in these areas will become more apparent. In the same way; subtle tones in highlights may well be lost in over exposed images.
It is essential to get the right exposure in camera to ensure that you have most latitude in post-production. It is important that blacks and whites are not clipped and that a sufficient exposure time has been chosen to capture shadow detail. If the dynamic range of the subject is too great then multiple exposures may be the way forward. One exposure is made specifically to capture shadows detail and one dedicated to capture highlight detail. In post-production, these can be blended together.
If you are a landscape photographer, you may well be using graduated filters to help manage bright skies. Holding back highlights in this way helps reduce the brightness range of the scene also allowing you to expose for those important shadow details. Using a graduated filter in Photoshop, Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw is not the same thing and is not to be confused with using a graduated filter in the field. In post processing, a graduated filter is simply a way of declaring what areas of an image are to be affected when making adjustments.
Some filters are used for creative effect. These would include Neutral Density filters and Polarising filters. Using a neutral density filter cuts out light uniformly and enables you to prolong exposure times. In this way, you can capture movement. Objects moving within the scene are blurred to a lesser or greater extent depending on the exposure time. This effect cannot be created in Photoshop or Lightroom. Similarly, a polarising filter can manage reflections and in so doing increase the apparent saturation of the subject.
The composition and all of the elements within it, including objects and light, are at the heart of your image making. It is this that makes your photograph fabulous or just ordinary. So, getting this right, in camera, is absolutely essential.
We know we can add to an image or use the transform tools in Photoshop to change the perspective of an image or correct a ‘wonky’ horizon or converging verticals when pointing upwards at buildings or trees. You can remove some irritating items in the frame such as wayward branches, telephone lines or even drop in a whole new sky (you don’t do that, do you?).
As a landscape or nature photographer, relying on the whims of natural light and the weather, you will unlikely have an image that is finished straight out of the camera However, you can do a lot of things to make sure that you have created the best possible capture creating a ‘digital negative’ that is ready for creating that exhibition quality print.
Good camera craft, familiarity and confidence in your equipment means that you can direct your energies in, para-phrasing Ansel Adams, making a photograph and not taking it.