Tuesday, November 29, 2011

RAW vs JPEG with the Sony A77

Straight out of the A77

As a shooter of RAW (or Sony *.ARW) files, it was a bit scary to be out shooting JPEGs the other day. But I did it for a couple of reasons.
First, I had entered a SOOC (straight out of the camera; that is, no post processing) contest in the fun photographers' group I'm in (US Photographers in Europe) and was still in that frame of mind.
Second, I had read a lot about how blurry the A77's JPEGs were, yet also how poorly Lightroom renders the RAW files. So I had to do some practical testing in JPEG mode!
Finally, I wanted to try out some of the fun picture effects which the A77 offers: toy camera, pop color, posterization (color or b/w), retro photo, soft high-key, partial color (image retains either red, green, blue or yellow and makes the rest b/w), high contrast mono, soft focus, HDR painting, rich-tone mono, and miniature. This was something I had never had the option to get SOOC, so I decided to test my eye. You need to find the right situation to use such filters effectively.

In the digital age, when you shoot RAW files, you end up with a digital negative, with which you can do all the non-destructive post-processing you want in a program like Lightroom and never lose your original data. The files are larger than the compressed JPEGs and must be processed to some degree to look like anything at all. But the point is that afterwards you can (re-)create the picture that you (wished you) had taken with your camera. The emphasis with RAW is on the word 'afterwards'.
With JPEGs you have to do a lot of thinking beforehand, which is not necessarily bad. Some of the most personally satisfying photos I've taken were visualized and sketched out before I shot them. Since the camera compresses the image, little can be done to the picture in post-processing without damaging it. So it is best to set the white balance correctly and to have the creative style (vivid, b/w, light, clear, etc.) chosen with the particular motif in mind. That doesn't always work for my type of photography because I do a lot of spontaneous street shooting.

Down at Stuttgart's beautiful Christmas market, I decided to try some of the effects on the miniature train landscape that is built up there every year. First there was the in-camera HDR painting look. The camera releases the shutter three times and gives you one picture, the intensity of which you can set beforehand. With this effect, you can almost make a miniature landscape blend in with a heroic-looking backdrop.

The miniature effect adds vivid colors to the picture and defocuses parts of the picture that you choose. The effect is similar to what you would get with an expensive tilt-shift lens or with a Lens Baby attachment. You can clearly see what parts of the picture will be out of focus.

However, the idea is to make a life-size landscape or city-scape look miniature. This type of selective blurring can also be done in post-processing fairly easily.

In the picture below I chose to have the checkered man in focus and the passers-by blurred.

The selective blurring in the following picture also seems to be effective, especially when combined with the in-camera vivid setting.

Another effect I've grown fond of is the posterization effect. You can try it with high contrast colors or in black-and-white. It is good to have bright colors in the picture to begin with, but even if you don't the camera setting will create them for you. This plate of bread with red peppers, cream cheese and anchovies was set on a light brown table. Again, as with most of the other effects, you see what the picture will look like before you take it. The HDR and rich-tone monochromatic settings take three pictures and composite them in the camera, so you don't see the result until the processing has been done. Expect to wait approximately 13 seconds for the camera to do its thing!

The advantage of using the b/w posterization effect is that high-ISO settings are not a problem. What might be a potential problem with this effect (both color and b/w) is that the white parts have no information in them and cannot be changed much in normal post-processing.

These are the effects I would probably use the most because they are eye-catching and very different from what my normal post-processing work would show. The others are more subtle and require a bit more finesse. For instance, the retro photo look combines sepia tones and reduced contrast. This is one of the types of looks that you can get from an iPhone app and thus it is all the rage. I think I've seen too many of these instamatix pix to appreciate their novelty any more.

The A77 can also master many more in-camera effects, including panoramas, 3D panoramas and hand-held twilight pictures. I'll report on these after I've had more experience with them.