The Incredible, Edible RAW File

I started teaching another round of beginning digital photography Monday night. One thing we cover in the initial stages of this class is file formats. Of course, my students are very familiar with JPEGs, since these files are ubiquitous, from the photos on this blog to the shots of me at the front of the class in their cameras. I make it a point, though, to tell them about RAW files, and about their strengths and weaknesses. Anyone with experience using RAW files knows about these traits; RAW files are much larger than JPEGs, and are proprietary, meaning that they need special software to open and edit. But RAW files offer a lot too.

The image of Tracey in Vanoss with no correction, just as it came straight out of the camera
The image of Tracey in Vanoss with no correction, just as it came straight out of the camera

An example of the magic of the RAW file format happened the next evening, Tuesday night at Vanoss High School, where I was covering a couple of basketball games. I shot bunches of decent stuff in the third quarter, so I went into the stands and sat with my friend Tracey, who had promised she would take my class but can’t until later in the year. We talked about all kinds of stuff, but one thing she wanted to know was why her photos in gyms around the state were too dark and too yellow. I gave her the five minute tutorial on white balance and exposure compensation, then asked her if she ever considered shooting RAW files in area venues. She never heard of RAW files, but since by then the next game was about to start, I told her I hoped to see her in class this spring.

During our talk, though, she got up to wrangle her two year old, and I snapped a frame of her with my D100, which I deliberately made sure was too dark and too yellow. That’s not hard in the poorly lit basketball courts around our area. I knew that I could fix it right up in Photoshop, since of course it was a RAW file. Sure enough, it took about three clicks and a short drag of the”Exposure” slider in Photoshop’s Camera RAW dialog to remove a ton of noise, fix the white balance, and bring the exposure to where I wanted it. If I’d shot a JPEG, I might not have been able to make these corrections nearly as effectively. RAW made it easy.

Color, exposure and noise all fixed, thanks to shooting in RAW
Color, exposure and noise all fixed, thanks to shooting in RAW

The Golden Moment

Garden of Eden, Arches National Park, 2002; note pleasant but predictable mid-after light
Garden of Eden, Arches National Park, 2002; note pleasant but predictable mid-afternoon light

Photographers who shoot outdoors a lot try to take advantage of what has become known as the “Golden Hour” or “Golden Moment.” In reality, this period of time during the first or last light of day can vary depending on what you are shooting and how you want to use the light. Essentially, this moment is when the sun is low in the sky, and providing desirable illumination, whether on human faces, or the landscape all around. It differs quite dramatically from the harsh glare of midday sun, and also from the soft light of cloudy days.

Light from the Golden Moment is generally warmer, meaning that it is rich in reds and yellows that convey warmth. An additional element of the Golden Moment is that the sky itself is often beautifully lit by the setting sun, though this often happens shortly after the Golden Moment on your subjects subsides.

I look at first and last light every day, and shoot using it when I can. The only thing a photographer can control about this light is where he is when he expects the light to be right.

Garden of Eden, Arches National Park, 2004, just before sunset; note dramtically warmer tones and a more inviting character of the image
Garden of Eden, Arches National Park, 2004, just before sunset; note dramtically warmer tones and a more inviting character of the image

The Agony of Delete

A Unique View of East Central University Football Practice
A unique view of East Central University football practice; deleted from the gallery

One thing I stress to my photo students is the value of editing. Specifically, I tell them that no one wants to see 1200 photos of anything, and that no matter who shot those 1200 photos, only a tiny fraction of them are any good. (I cite 1200 based on a gallery of someone I knew years ago who simply uploaded the entire contents of his camera to his gallery after his vacations.) Editing is more critical than ever in the information age, since viewers of the internet look at hundreds or even thousands of images a day, and very few of them have any real value.

Of course, I make myself edit, too, and it’s never easy. As I write this, I am in the process of creating a web page of my photojournalism from 2009. I am building two pages, one of sports, and one of news. Since I shoot a lot more sports, I have more images for that page. News rounded out at about 40 images, and I felt it would be smart to make my sports page have the same number of images. I had to delete a lot of images I thought were pretty cool. But in the end, I don’t imagine page viewers are going to want to see hundreds of images.

It’s not easy, but editing is an essential tool in the box of great photographers.

Miss Oklahoma 2009/Miss Ada 2006 Taylor Treat; Deleted from the Gallery
Miss Oklahoma 2009/Miss Ada 2006 Taylor Treat; deleted from the gallery

Sharpness: Value, Perception and Reality

Frequently in the field or the classroom I am asked how I get my images so sharp. Often the question takes a more vague form, like, “how do you get your images so crisp?” or, “Why are my pictures so fuzzy?”

In the biz, the opposites are sharp and soft. In the world of the internet, sharpness is often regarded as the gold standard on which images are judged, and this can often lead people astray when making pictures. I feel that the reason for this is that raw sharpness is sometimes difficult to achieve on a technical level, and reaching a skill level at which one is making sharp images represents a “graduation” of sorts. Regrettably, many potential photographers stop at that point on the learning curve, and remain satisfied to post their photos of their cat’s whiskers or a blue jay’s plumage, proving that they are “good” photographers.

So much time is wasted doing this. And as new and supposedly better digital cameras come to the market, much money is wasted as well. Being able to make sharp images should be regarded as a tool in the box of picture taking, not a goal or destination. History and photography are burdened with sharp photographs that do little to inspire the human condition.

Once you learn to make sharp photos, you can forget it. So much more lies in front of your camera.

Sharp images, like this one of wildflowers, impersonate the idea of seeing things clearly with the human eye, but the art of photography is capable of rendering perception in so many different ways.
Sharp images, like this one of wildflowers, impersonate the idea of seeing things clearly with the human eye, but the art of photography is capable of rendering perception in so many different ways.

A Photo that Shall Live in Infamy

I have shot a lot of hard-hitting photos in my career, spanning personal tragedy, death, natural disasters, the human drama of athletic competition, and much more. I have been threatened, called names, yelled at, almost assaulted, run over by athletes on the field, hit by baseballs, etc. Once I even covered my own car crash.

Flattened Armadillo, Oklahoma State Highway 19, c. 1991
Flattened Armadillo, Oklahoma State Highway 19, c. 1991

With all the images over the years, you would imagine that images at scenes that showed life and property being lost would garner the most wrath from a sensitive public. But no. The most offensive image I ever published, at least based on the incredibly hostile reaction of our readers, was this 1991 image of an armadillo that had been squished by traffic, then painted over by the highway department while striping the centerline on state highway 19 west of Ada. One caller to my home phone, who courageously withheld his identity, said I was, “a sick son of a b!tch.”

Why Your Web Site (or Photoblog) is Unviewable

Here are some things you can do to discourage me from visiting your web site.

  • Intro page that says “click here to enter my site.” Let’s assume I went to your web site to enter it in the first place. Thanks for wasting my time.
  • Flash player intro that takes more than a second or two to load. I could take the chance that this thing won’t take nine minutes to load, or I could close it right now.
  • Mysterious images to click on with no words. I am never in the mood to guess about what I am clicking, even if you think it makes you seem deep or dark.
  • Music that automatically plays without my requesting it. I’m either enjoying my own music, or have a legitimate reason for having it turned off, like conversation. If you have music on your web site, it’s as if you think we all need to hear music that you like. Window closed, bookmarked not.
  • Sparkletags, ads that claim I’ve won something, animations that invite me to shoot something and win, or animated slide shows of your terrible photos. Do I really want to spend 90 seconds watching all this crap load? The internet is big enough without you gobbling up my broadband with your terrible taste.
  • Any page that resizes my windows or changes any of my settings. People, please. This is my computer.

    Sunrise, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, 2004
    Sunrise, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, 2004
  • Text that is a color or style that conflicts with the background. Usually this is bright red text against a royal blue background, but also includes repeating photos in the background. Trust me when I say that you have nothing worth saying that requires me to squint or get a headache.
  • Your terrible blogging. What you are really asking your readers to do is something you would not: read about the banal minutia of other people’s lives. If you want readers, your blog must be entertaining.

I’m not saying that all websites are train wrecks, but come on, you know who you are. Maybe it’s time to remove that dancing icon you found on AOL in 1997, and move on. Maybe it’s time to rethink the blaze green headlines and blaze orange text. Maybe we don’t want to hear “Rock You Like a Hurricane” as often as you do. Think about it.