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Creative Control with RAW Files-Turning Challenges into Opportunities

Though RAW files have become the norm among photographers who want total creative control over their images, it does pose a challenge that I find many struggle with: how to develop their raw files creatively.

Sure, we gain all the technical advantages; better quality than a jpeg, greater color and tonal depth, and much greater flexibility in the editing stage using a powerful tool like Lightroom.

But that flexibility presents a challenge—how to interpret the raw information to arrive at an aesthetically pleasing result. When shooting in jpeg, the camera does much of this work for us, applying various adjustments to the raw data to make it look more "photographic" and similar to the way our brains process the information entering our retina. In the film days, we chose a film based on the "look" it would impart on an image. That often became a signature style for certain photographers who always chose that particular film type.

With the advent of digital, camera manufacturers like Canon created "picture styles" that often tried to emulate the look of film, adding contrast, saturation, sharpening, and temperature adjustments for aesthetic appeal. Like film, this look is baked in with the jpeg and so the resulting images just feel more finished.

But a raw file has no such adjustments added, it is nothing more than the raw data captured by your camera's sensor, and it uses a linear encoding format. This results in an image that often appears flat and dull, and not like film at all. So before we can actually see a raw file we need to apply an encoding profile–hence we have the various camera raw profiles in Lightroom that convert the raw data into a gama-encoded space that more closely resembles how we perceive light and shadow.

Lightroom comes with some generic raw profiles such as "Adobe Color, Adobe Landscape, Adobe Portrait," which are all useful depending on your image. This is why I always suggest you try different profiles before starting to make adjustments since it can change the look of your raw file significantly…for the better.

Lightroom's camera profiles provide many options for selecting a "look" for your image before you start any editing.

But now the question becomes how to develop the image to realize your creative vision, and that assumes you have some sort of vision for the image. This is the step I see many students struggle with and what I try to focus on whenever I critique an image. In order to select the appropriate adjustments in LR and feel confident about your decisions, you need to know what the story of the image is.

Who or what is the main character? What is playing a supportive role? What role do the highlights and shadows play, and are you emphasizing those roles in your editing? Is it clear to the viewer what's most important about your image? And once you have some answers to these questions, you need to know how to apply the appropriate adjustments in Lightroom—what tools to use—to achieve the results that match your vision. That comes from a good understanding of composition and visual design.

The unedited raw file with the Canon "Neutral" profile applied.
The finished image with all adjustments done in Lightroom.

This is not to suggest in any way that shooting in jpeg solves this problem or even gets you closer to your vision. It may get you closer if the look matches up with your vision, but that's not always the case, and you won't have the advantages of raw. Another option is Lightroom Develop Presets, either the ones built in, or commercially available from third parties. But that again shifts the creative burden away from you, and in the end, does not promote your own creative growth.

I prefer to think of this burden as an opportunity to expand your visual vocabulary, develop mastery of Lightroom's tools, and gain the personal satisfaction that comes from the work involved. It's not about winning contests, or gaining lots of social likes, but rather of doing something difficult because it's meaningful to you for its own sake. That is a rare thing in today's world indeed.

One of the most significant changes I made in my own development was when I decided to simplify my approach to photography; the gear, the editing workflow, the way I worked in the field. By limiting my choices, I began to focus more on gaining depth in each area, for example realizing that getting better at composition and visual design was a much better investment than buying new lenses.

And that translates to greater clarity and more creative control when interpreting a raw file. In upcoming articles I'll share more specifics on how to develop your own sense of creative clarity and how to translate those to the tools available in Lightroom.

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