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

The ultimate skill of the photographer—the artist—is to create the aesthetics of the scene before them “in the moment.” 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 off the camera (SOOC) has to be the pinnacle of capability, right? Or is there more to the notion of what an image is and where the skill to produce it lies?

Photography is simple. You record light (i.e. count photons) from 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 will never be able to do, especially because the human eye has remarkable capabilities. Not only that, but it acts more like a video stream, with our brains constantly processing what we “see”.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that the static image is an inalienable violation of the way we perceive the world. John Berger (in Another way to tell) recognized this with his concept of how long an image “speaks”. We unconsciously implicate time in any image we see and perceive what has just happened and what is about to happen.

Henri Cartier-Bresson understood this implicitly in his quest for the “decisive moment”. Although this term has become a cliché, it says that if there is a temporal element to a scene, then there is a moment that allows us to understand what just happened but, more importantly, who speaks with eloquence of what is happening. happen. It’s the most aesthetically pleasing image you can capture, but pinpointing that spot – perhaps without the benefit of Panasonic’s 4K photo mode – requires deft camera handling.

Of course, this all becomes more difficult once you take into account the exposure and the limited capabilities (compared to the eye) of the camera. It’s hard to get a proper depth of field and a fast shutter speed and in the world of handheld film cameras considerable skill was required just to get a well exposed image, let alone one that has hit your aesthetic, which is why the work of good press photographers was so sought after, especially if limited post-production was needed.

Post production

But there, this word slipped 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 impression of the performance.

Adams also takes us from press photographer to art photographer. This is a relevant point because the journalist is concerned with realism – the world as it is – and would choose the focal length and exposure to best achieve this. The fine art photographer will have a different set of criteria – and technical choices – from which to go. As the introduction made clear, some photo awards stipulate limited post-production, while others aim for extensive manipulation and use techniques such as composition.


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

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

When you use the back of a camera to see what you’ve captured, you’re not looking at the raw file. In fact, many photographers choose not to record a raw at all, preferring a JPEG initially. Remember that a camera is really just a photon recording device and these counts are stored in the raw file. The camera must effectively capture these photons on the sensor, before transferring the counts to the memory card as quickly as possible. It’s a tricky balancing act when you’re dealing with high resolution images, potentially at high frame rates.

Also remember that a camera only has a sensor in it, not three. Why is this important? Well, computers use color mixing to create the full range of colors that our eyes can see. the basis for this is red, green and blue. The camera sensor is actually sensitive to all visible light and a color filter array (CFA) sits above the sensor allowing only red, green or blue to pass pixel by pixel. The Bayer CFA is the most common layout, although Fuji uses its own design on the X-Trans sensor. What this actually saves to the raw file is an incomplete, jumbled “image” of red, green, and blue pixels. The demosaicing process separates red, green, and blue pixels into separate layers, then interpolates the values ​​in each pixel of each layer.

It’s a lot of pre-production and you haven’t “seen” the picture yet. When screen chimping, 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 that image.

Does a “pure” photograph exist?

The camera workflow highlights that not only has there been pre-production, but there is also post-production involved in creating an in-camera JPEG or with a quick glance at the back of the camera. In the same way that film photographers might find greater latitude in the negative during development, the digital photographer might find greater latitude in working with the raw file to create their own vision from the pixels they have. captured.

The raw file contains all of the physically recorded light and thus marks the extent 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 imagery. To some extent, there’s a nod to pre-production in photography awards as they usually allow for simple overall image adjustments as well as corrections such as dust spot removal.

What’s striking about SOOC is that it’s actually more about opportunity. What you gain in speed and speed of production, you lose in control over the final output image: shooting in JPEG means letting the camera decide how to produce your photo. This leads to two obvious end uses.

First, there are those who are concerned about every pixel that will fire in tethered mode; you bypass the in-camera production system, use it as a capture device, and pipe the pixels straight to a computer. The obvious downsides are portability, but you’re in control, getting the raw image right away in your post-production environment.

Second, for those interested in speed – like sports shooters – switching to JPEG allows the camera to bypass raw storage, applying production on the fly. It’s much faster, but you lose production control.

This highlights a key question and a key point. First, will cameras ever have enough processing speed to offer JPEG-like shooting with raw? In the strictest sense, perhaps. Pro-spec cameras have tended to trade off resolution in favor of speed, but they still aren’t fast enough. If you were offered a 12-megapixel camera capable of taking raw images at JPEG speeds, would you buy it?

Second, it highlights the weaknesses of in-camera processing and end users’ familiarity with image processing on their phones, whether it’s raw editing through apps like Snapseed or filters. and stickers via Snapchat. Maybe all of this just points to the fact that shooters want cameras to become more smartphone-like, but with full-frame quality.

This all comes back to Ansel Adams: capturing the photo lays the groundwork, but to produce an image of exceptional quality requires more or less post-production. Both aspects of the photographic workflow require skill, but perhaps digital post-production has both a lower barrier to entry (than film) and a huge range of options available.

SOOC simply takes the captured image and applies the camera manufacturer’s pre- and post-production skills to create the output file. Sometimes that might be what you want, but sometimes not.

Picture credits: Photographs by Depositphotos

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