Processing Raw Files (and with FREE Software!)

Last week I ran a two-part series on whether you should take pictures in raw or JPEG format.  Part I gave a brief explanation on the these two file formats.  Part II was a discussion on which format you’ll most likely want to use, and when.  In that series I stated that unprocessed raw photographs are unsuitable for either printing or viewing on a computer display because, “. . . the resulting picture would appear to be flat, lifeless, and unflattering, with dull colors and very little contrast.”

Just to recap, that’s because the color saturation, white balance, sharpness, and contrast aren’t part of the raw image.  The camera’s settings for these are appended to the file for later processing on your computer, but none of that information exists at the pixel level recorded by raw.  So, how do these unprocessed photographs appear when compared next to the processed JPEG?  Let’s take a look.

The following pictures are of a once-a-year bloom of a cactus in my front yard.  Being a rare event, I decided to photograph in raw to ensure the best chance of getting the white balance and other imaging parameters correct later, choosing to process the photographs myself rather than allowing my camera’s internal processor to do it for me.

Pictures on the left-side column are how an unprocessed raw image appears.  One look and I’m sure you’ll be saying, “Oh, yuck.  What a lousy photographer.”  But wait until you see the swans that can emerge.

The center column contains the same images processed using Google’s great little free program, Picasa 3 and then converted to JPEG.  The great things about Picasa are: it recognizes and processes the proprietary raw images from many camera manufacturers (click here for a complete list of recognized formats); it allows for some pretty basic processing, great for beginners; and if you don’t want to eyeball it, you can press the “I’m feeling lucky” button under the “Basic Fixes” tab.  “I’m feeling lucky” directs Picasa to take it’s best guess and automatically correct the Big 4—white balance, saturation, contrast, and sharpness.  Feeling a bit more industrious?  Click on the “Tuning” tab for manual adjustments.  For some real fun, try the “Effects” tab for everything from Black & White conversions to special effects.  The center column JPEGS are all the result of the “I’m feeling lucky” option, so you can see that it does a pretty decent job in a fairly short time.  My only quibble is that the pictures are a bit too contrasty and the saturation gives the photos an almost postcard quality, but there’s no denying the “wow” factor that makes these images pop.

The right-side column are JPEG files that I converted from the original raw images using the software that comes with Canon cameras that have raw image capability.  The software is DPP (Digital Photo Professional), and this is what I go to for some really intensive photo editing (although I also use Adobe Photoshop Elements for some things that DPP simply does not do).  These particular JPEGs used the camera’s internal settings (my own custom picture style formula that gives a more accurate color rendition than does Canon’s Standard, Portrait, or Landscape picture styles).  Then, before conversion, I increased contrast to nearly match what came out of Picasa and did a minor, automated tonal curve adjustment.  These come closest to the actual colors of the green cactus and the pinkish flower atop it.

Remember:  Left column simulates raw images; Middle column is conversion to JPEG using Picasa”s “I’m feeling lucky” setting; Right column is conversion to JPEG using the software that came with the camera.

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2 responses to “Processing Raw Files (and with FREE Software!)

  1. Amazing how clear the middle images are! Wow! Nice post.

  2. Doug,
    I’ve been enjoying this series of posts. Very well done. Thanks!

    My brother does some very nice photo work as well and I gave him a link to your blog.