The New Age of RAW Processing

Digital photography, like all other technology based industries, continues to improve in leaps and bounds.  Not only are the newer digital SLR cameras getting better and better at managing noise and capturing better dynamic range, but the post processing tools are also constantly improving.

Like most photographers out there, I shoot everything in RAW format and prefer to do 100% of my own post processing out of camera.  My image categorization and RAW processing happens in Adobe Lightroom.  The latest version of this software incorporates Adobe’s latest Camera RAW plugin, and the changes are truly a photographers dream when it comes to RAW processing.  The primary changes are around the shadow and highlight recovery capabilities.  Traditionally photographers have to either use filters in the field or take multiple exposures to manage the wide dynamic range of light, in order to overcome the limitations of the digital SLR camera sensor.  Although there are still plenty of instances where capturing dynamic range is required, the amazing RAW recovery capabilities are making this less and less the case.

I know of many photographers that capture 4-5 or even dozens of exposures in the field for dynamic range blending.  Unless you are doing focus stacking, this is no longer required.  At most I capture 1-2 additional exposures in the field now days, and often end up using a single RAW file for processing or in more extreme cases blend 2 exposures.  Don’t make things in post processing harder than they have to be, as is always the case when dealing with complicated blends.  A lot of times you can get away with a single exposure by utilizing these powerful tools in Lightroom 4.  Take a look at the image below, which I recently photographed on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island.  This was shot in the direction of the setting sun shortly before the sun set on the horizon.  You can imagine how bright the scene must be when photographing in the direction of a sunset, and the shadows on the back sides of the sea stacks.  And yet, as complicated of a scene as this must seem, I was able to process this final image from a single exposure RAW file, without any blend required.  Filters could not have achieved the same result either, due to them darkening the stacks beyond recovery.


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This is not always the case, and you should always assess the scene in the field and generally go ahead and capture your multiple exposures in the field.  However, you should be aware of the power of these tools and whenever possible try to save yourself time and complications by first attempting to process your image from a single file.  As things continue to progress, I would not be surprised if in a few years we photographers no longer need to bother with blending at all.