Straight Out of Camera is the Purest Form of Photography… or IS It?

The ultimate skill for a photographer, or artist is to capture the beauty of the scene “in the present”. The Natural Landscape Photo Award is perhaps the epitome of this with minimal image manipulation allowed, while the World Press Photo has a Code of Ethics. So straight-out-of-camera (SOOC) has got to be the pinnacle of ability, hasn’t it? Is there more to understanding what an image looks like and the skills required for producing them?

Photography is simple. Photographers simply record the light, i.e. count photons) of the scene in front of you to create a permanent 2D image. Of course, this simplifies the conception that we duplicate the scene we see with our eyes, which we can never do, not least because the human eye has remarkable capabilities. It acts like a video stream. Our brains constantly process what we see.

In fact, the static image can be considered an inalienable violation to how we see the world. John Berger (in Another Way of Telling) recognized this with his concept of how long an image “speaks” for. We subconsciously imply time into any image we see and perceive what has just passed and what will come to pass.

Henri Cartier–Bresson implicitly recognized this when he sought the “decisive minute” in order to capture images that are both visually pleasing and that allow us to see what just passed as well as what will happen. It is the most aesthetically pleasing image that you could capture, but identifying that point – without the benefit perhaps of Panasonic’s 4K photo mode – requires some deft camera handling.

Of course, all of this becomes more difficult once you factor in exposure and the limited capabilities (compared to the eye) of the camera. Achieving appropriate depth-of-field and a fast shutter speed is difficult and, in the world of manual film cameras, considerable skill was required just to get a well-exposed image let alone one that hit your aesthetic, which is why the work of good press photographers was so sought after, particularly if limited post-production was required.

Post-Production

But there that word has crept in: post-production. In the digital world, there is a clear demarcation with post-production; you download your raw file and ingest it into your processing workflow and adjust it to your heart’s content. However the film world has always had post-production and this is no better exemplified than by Ansel Adams, who saw “the negative [as] the score, and the print the performance.”

Adams also crosses us over from the press photographer to the fine art photographer. It’s a pertinent point because the journalist is concerned with realism – the world as it is – and would choose focal length and exposure to best achieve this. The fine art photographer will have a different set of criteria – and technical choices – from which they will start. Some photo awards require only minimal post-production. Others are more focused on extensive manipulations and use techniques like compositing.

Pre-Production

However, thinking outside of the realm of competitions and awards where there are often strict rules to follow (that may require submission of the original raw file), there still remains the notion that SOOC is the pinnacle of photographic skill simply because to get those compositional and technical elements to align in an elegant photo requires a degree of mastery. And there is an element of truth in that you obviously do need to have the camera in right place to capture the scene you want.

Pre-production requires an active selection of focal length to control field-of-view, alongside creative choices of depth-of-field and shutter speed, while still also meeting exposure requirements. It’s a delicate balancing act, but is SOOC the answer to the photographic question?

When you chimp the back of a camera to see what you have captured, you are not looking at the raw file. In fact, many photographers choose not to record a raw at all, preferring a JPEG at the outset. Remember that a camera is actually only a photon recording device and these counts are stored in the raw file. The camera has to capture those photons on the sensor efficiently, before shunting the counts off to the memory card as quickly as possible. This is a tricky balance when dealing with images of high resolution and high frames per second.

Also remember that a camera only has one sensor in it, not three. This is important. Computers use color mixing to produce the entire gamut of colors our eyes see. The basis is red, green and blue. The camera’s sensor is actually sensitive to all visible light and a color filter array (CFA) sits over the sensor letting through only red, green, or blue on a pixel-by-pixel basis. The Bayer CFA is the most common layout, although Fuji uses its own design on the X-Trans sensor. What this actually records in the raw file is an incomplete, intermingled, “picture” of red, green, and blue pixels. De-mosaicing separates the red, green and blue pixels and interpolates them into each pixel within each layer.

This is a lot of work and you haven’t seen the final image. When chimping the screen, the camera typically produces a low-resolution JPEG using the default picture style settings before displaying it on the LCD along with the histogram produced from this image.

Is There Such a Thing as “Pure” Photography?

The camera workflow actually highlights that not only has there been pre-production, but there is also post-production involved in the creation of an in-camera JPEG or quick look on the camera back. The same as film photographers had more freedom to develop negatives, digital photographers have greater control over how they work with raw files. This allows them to make their vision from what was captured.

The raw file contains the entirety of the light physically recorded and so marks the scope of what can be achieved with it. You can extend this further — as smartphones have done — with Computational Raw, which creates a single file from multiple inputs and is the natural progression of raw imaging. To a certain extent, there is a nod to pre-production in photographic awards as they typically allow simple global image adjustments alongside corrections such as dust spot removal.

What’s striking about SOOC is that it is actually more about expediency. What you gain in the immediacy and speed of production, you lose in the amount of control you have over the final output image: shooting in JPEG means letting the camera decide how to produce your photo. There are two possible uses for this.

Firstly, there are those concerned about each and every pixel who will shoot tethered; you bypass the in-camera production system, using it as a capture device and shunting the pixels straight to a computer. The obvious downsides are related to portability, but you retain control, getting the raw image into your post-production environment immediately.

Secondly, for those concerned with speed — such as sports shooters — switching to JPEG allows the camera to bypass raw storage, applying in-camera production on the fly. Although this is faster than traditional raw storage, it does mean that you will lose some production control.

This highlights a key question and a key point. Firstly, will cameras ever have enough processing speed to offer JPEG-like shooting with a raw? In the strictest sense, maybe. Although pro-spec cameras tend to sacrifice resolution for speed, they are still not fast enough. If you were offered a 12-megapixel camera that could shoot raw images at JPEG speeds, would you buy it?

HTML2_ This highlights flaws in camera processing, and the ease with which end-users can use their smartphones to process images. Perhaps this all just points to the fact that shooters want cameras to become more smartphone-like in experience but with the quality of full-frame.

All of this brings us back to Ansel Adams. While capturing the image is the foundation, post-production is essential to create outstanding images. While both aspects require skills, digital post-production may be easier than film because it has a lower barrier of entry and more options.

SOOC takes an image and uses the pre-, post-, and production skills of the manufacturer to produce the file. It might work sometimes, and other times it may not.


Image credits: Photographs from Depositphotos

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