And a new Lightroom Preset!
The primary reason for working in RAW is to gain access to your sensor’s unmanipulated data: the pristine pixels captured. Standard procedure is to-somehow-get your pictures into an image editing program so that you can create a version of your picture for output to screen or print. It is easy to be lulled into the belief that because you are shooting RAW you are getting data that hasn’t yet been massaged. Depending upon your RAW converter of choice, that may not be the case.
“Perhaps you can find some room
for improvement by doing a
little unimprovement first.”
I prefer Lightroom from Adobe as a RAW converter for managing many images. One of the things beginners to Lightroom fail to realize is that the image that appears after import is not your pristine image. It has had a few tweaks applied, non destructively, to give you a more pleasing appearance to begin with. They are not as severe as the adjustments necessary to produce a JPG file but the adjustments still modify your image’s appearance somewhat.
The types of adjustments pre-applied to your image typically don’t vary by camera. With my Canon equipment, the images receive a Brightness boost of 50 and a Contrast boost of 25. The blacks are pulled to +5. A medium contrast curve is applied. Finally a modest amount of sharpening and noise reduction is added. All files get color noise reduction by default. All of this is done to make your RAW file look just a little more pleasing straight out of the camera. True, the changes are non-destructive but you are not beginning at that zero-adjustment starting point you might believe you were.
The above example illustrates the difference in the standard RAW pre-processing in Lightroom for the Canon camera and the file as it is set back to Zero. In situations where you are trying to pull detail from shadows or highlights, this pre-conditioning of your RAW file might be handicapping your efforts. Consider the following histograms.
The pre-processed file has already plugged shadow detail. It has also pushed the highlights to the edge. The zeroed file has plenty of room in the shadow detail and the highlight range to control these areas sufficiently in your post-processing regiment. Which histogram would you rather work with?
It isn’t a big deal. The RAW converter is simply trying to give you a little head start on where most RAW images need to go. You can always undo Lightroom’s settings and slide all those pre-adjusted values back to zero. You just have to remember where they are and get them all reset. You also have the option of zeroing everything and then setting as the new default for a particular camera on import. Or you can use a preset so that you can adjust one image quickly or do all your images on import. If you are working on an HDR Scene or an over or under exposed scene you might want to try turning off the pre-conditioning and see if you can get a better adjustment on your own.
I have done this. I have zeroed all the options and created a preset that sets everything Lightroom preconditions back to the way it was on the original file. With this preset, I can preview the effect (or rather lack of adjustments) in the Navigation window with a mouse over, I can apply it and undo it just like any other effect or preset and I can apply it to all images during import.
I have made a copy of my Original RAW File Preset available on my website or by clicking the button above. Install it as you would any Preset and see if you like working from scratch better than with the pre-packaged ingredients offered by the standard Lightroom import. As with all my free presets, you, the user, are responsible for its proper use and appropriateness.
If you are importing RAW directly into your application ala Corel PhotoPaint, PSP or other image editor, a little understanding of what dedicated RAW converters are doing behind the scenes to pre-treat the data can help your improve conversion efforts. If you use another dedicated RAW converter, double check it to see what import settings it may be applying to your image before you get your hands on it. Perhaps you can find some room for improvement by doing a little unimprovement first.
Rikk Flohr © 2009
Editor’s Note: As Mark points out in the comment section, Lightroom provides a “General-Zero” preset. A quick comparison of the two in a text editor will reveal that they are very similar but not identical. I thought you should be aware of the existence of the Adobe pre-canned preset.