Mirror Mirror
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Mirror Mirror • Posted: Mar 25, 2013 11:31:45Comments WelcomeVote CoolPhotoblogsPurchase a PrintShare

A comment recently added to a photo blog I read now and then states: "I never shoot RAW, too much trouble." It is certainly a can of worms, what that statement implies, but I think it worth considering.

For those who don't know, RAW is a data format for information recorded by digital cameras. Better known to most is the alternative format JPG or "Jay Peg", used by most consumer cameras and cell phones. The difference is that JPG data has been "sent to the drug store for processing", so to speak, while RAW data has not.

Working with RAW data is like processing your own film and prints in your own darkroom. JPG data is like sending it out for someone else to process. The two approaches have existed side by side since Kodak came out with the first Brownie camera, simultaneously offering to process and print the pictures it took. Their "we'll do it for you" approach afforded millions opportunity to "capture" a multitude of personal moments for later review, although not with entirely reliable satisfaction. The number of times novices have wondered why their pictures "didn't turned out" is heartbreaking in its enormity. JPG digital automation represents significant progress over film in conquering those uncertainties, but the JPG system is still not without its disappointments, especially for artisans intent on controlling every single nuance of their image making process.

The odd thing is we wouldn't actually know the JPG system isn't perfect if we didn't have what dedicated artisans produce to compare. Such people do not accept what others offer them, but instead seek control of the process themselves, pushing its limits in effort to realize a highly personal vision of perfection. What they achieve ordinary JPG people often view with envy, wondering why their cameras don't do as well.

In fact, it is not the camera or its processes, but artisans' skill in taking control and mastering the processes by which their images are created and presented. One approach is not necessarily better than the other. They are different. The JPG approach is more suited to a passive user, the RAW approach to an active user. The person whose comment I quote above is likely a passive user.

While not necessarily better, the RAW approach does offer some fascinating advantages the more passive JPG approach does not. When one seeks control of an image rendering process, one necessarily begins asking questions, starting with "How, exactly, does this system work? What variables are involved? And, what are the ranges of controls available?" Contrast those questions with the most common initial question a JPG person asks: "What button do I press?"

Within the RAW approach, one's initial questions often prompt one to ask even deeper questions, questions like: "What is light, anyway? How does it actually behave and why does it behave like that?" One might even be prompted to ask how a camera sensor is both like and different from the way sensing systems in human and animal eyes work. One might also find fascination in how we perceive color, how the brain recognizes shapes, textures, objects, and eventually how information about reality is perceived, sorted, and made sense of within the brain. One might even come to wonder about the nature of truth, about how one comes to believe something is true or isn't. One might also begin to wonder about communication, asking: "Are the colors I perceive the same as the colors you perceive?" and "Are the thoughts and emotions prompted by what I see the same thoughts and emotions prompted by what you see, even if we're looking at the same thing?"

Those are all profoundly interesting questions, profound because they get to the heart of what it is to be alive in this particular world. And, the answers are most certainly available to anyone who asks. It just takes discipline and perseverance to find them. And not only answers, but the quest to find those answers affords ever developing insight into who we all are, how the world works, and what we can and maybe should be doing with our time here. One doesn't really get to that stuff if one stops asking after "Which button do I press?" and instead begins spewing "Cool. Look what I did."

Tuesday, February 14th, 2012