Whoah … these cameras cannot shoot RAW. So what the heck am I talking about?
Well, what I am really doing here is using the term RAW in place of the rather long winded – best capture that you can accomplish. Here’s what I mean …
Why is it that a lot of people play with HDR? Well, the reason is that they want to squeeze in all the tones that they can. They want the mountains in the distance to look good while the foreground is not a silhouette … they want the foreground to look nice while the mountains are not blown out to pure white. They want 13 stops of data to be displayed in their images. No blocked shadows and no blown highlights.
So how does that work?
Well, with dSLRs you can shoot RAW while exposing for the highlights. Then you pull up the shadows as best you can and deal with the noise. Some images will look pretty good, others will have nasty color shifts where you pulled up the shadows. More advanced shooters will use a graduated neutral density filter to control this wide difference between the sky/mountains and the foreground. This is tricky, but it leads to much better exposures.
With small sensors that allow RAW, you do the same thing and now you *really* get nasty colors in the shadows. Small sensors just do not handle this very well, so you should start making multiple bracketed exposures and playing with HDR software to combine them. And again the GND filter is always an option.
So what do you do with jpeg?
Well, not much. You will either blow out the skies and mountains or you will block the foreground shadows … very little choice there. Unless you shoot the EXR sensor. Then you can get the DR raised through hardware means, which flattens the tone curve and captures a lot more of the tones than any other technology can in a compact. This is even better than shooting RAW in a compact, since the two exposures do not shift colors noticeably …
This is the root of my recommendations for shooting EXR sensors. Get the best capture that you can. It’s that simple. Now, once you have that capture, you can tweak it trivially in Picasa, or you can open it in ACR6 and transfer to CS5 to really go to town on it. Perhaps you let Topaz Adjust 4 take a swing. The point is that you have captured all the tones and you now have the freedom to process it for any look you like.
Had you set up the camera to try to process a more dramatic version using lower DR settings (e.g. 100 or 200) or high res mode or (heaven forbid) the Astia or Velvia film settings, you will have bruised the pixels in some way or other. I see this all the time … blown highlights, blocked shadows, overall harsh presentation, lots of artifacts and edge destruction … it just sucks. And there is simply nothing you can do with such an image to improve it. You either like it or you toss it.
This was all brought home to me today (July 26) when Thom Hogan posted a commentary called Software Week. It’s on his front page today but will migrate to his 2010 archives in a few days. Look for it in either place.
Here is the relevant excerpt … it says it all.
But within that progression is hope. Software keeps getting better. After years of prodding to do better, the Adobe raw converter profiles are now in the realm of good for Nikon DSLRs, and I get regular emails from the team working on them asking if it's better. Yes, it is. Much. It can be even better ;~).
One of the things I've noticed in revisiting some older images is that I'm getting better final product from them today. Some of that is my own knowledge, which has obviously progressed over the years. But some of it is that the software tools have gotten better. It's almost as if we can go back into the darkroom and run our film through a different chemical set. It's a strong reason to shoot raw (or at least raw+JPEG).
This is one of the reasons why I say that the act of photographing is "the capture of optimal data." If you get the data capture right, as software gets better you're going to find that there's more in your pixels than you thought. But this is where we start: optimal data capture. If you goof up on that--and I did on this shot--you're going to have a ton of problems down the line.
So for those who want to be able to make better images as their skills improve or as software improves, I suggest that you consider getting the best captures that you can. With EXR sensors in compacts, Fuji does not give us RAW … but that does not mean that we must bruise our pixels. We just set the softest tones, the most neutral colors, and expose for the highlights … and then let time take care of improving our output.