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RAW Perfection – Get in the Zone!

by Greg Basco | July 31, 2015

Copyright Greg BascoThose of you who follow my blog and/or have traveled with me on a photo tour here in Costa Rica know that I strive to capture the best RAW file possible and that I consider only a perfect (or near perfect!) RAW file to be a full success in my own photography. I don’t pretend that every photographer should adopt this standard in his or her own work; photographers have different goals and purposes for their images. And I don’t pretend to follow this standard all of the time in my own work. When a landscape can only be exposed properly by blending multiple images in the computer, I will do so. Or when a bit of cloning will really help an image, I’ll grab the clone tool.

Caribbean beach at dawn - Copyright Greg Basco

Caribbean beach at dawn, Costa Rica
Canon 5DIII, Canon 17-40 mm lens, circular polarizing filter, cloth over sky to balance exposure, tripod, cable release, mirror lockup, f16, 1 second, ISO 100, full-frame, standard tweaks in Lightroom

I believe that we have come to a point in nature photography where disclosure of how a photo was processed is a necessity to ensure public trust in nature photography and to establish a baseline for viewers evaluating the merit of nature photographs taken by professionals and amateurs alike. I also think that striving for RAW perfection will generate personal rewards in terms of self-satisfaction and photographic growth for the nature photographer in his or her own photography. Considering what I’m trying not too pretentiously to call “RAW Perfection” can lead any photographer to a richer experience in the field by sharpening your focus on photographic technique and awareness of the subject. You can really get into the “zone”, and that’s a great feeling in any endeavor.

As a nature photographer, I am interested in expressing my vision through my skill as a photographer, employing all of the tools that are available to me, in the field. When I view the work of other photographers, I have the same interest. The photographers that I most admire are able to use their photographic equipment, patience, knowledge, and creativity in the field to give us fascinating and unusual glimpses into the natural world, warts and all. In this article, I explain the criteria that make up the RAW Perfection approach, and I discuss the benefits to be reaped from following this approach.

Bioluminescent dinoflagellates - Copyright Greg Basco

Bioluminescent dinoflagellates break against rocky coast, Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica
Canon 1D Mark IV, Canon 17-40 mm zoom, tripod, cable release, f/4, 30 seconds, ISO 5000, full-frame, standard tweaks and noise reduction in Lightroom

Preface

I have started to write this article in my head, on paper, and on the computer a number of times but then worried about it being a bit too polemical and also about making myself look like a puritan or a saint. Believe me, I’m neither! We as photographers often have strong feelings about how to approach the imagemaking process, and that’s understandable but it’s important to respect other positions as well.

So, please understand that this article’s intent is to express my thoughts on the subject and to stimulate some healthy discussion but is not in any way meant to condemn particular nature photographers or particular approaches to nature photography, neither in the field nor in the digital darkroom. Many will disagree with the ideas presented here, and many will find loopholes in the logic. I respect your right to disagree, and I recognize that there are loopholes in the logic. But please read this with an open mind and in the spirit in which it was written—to make us think, to improve our own nature photography, to maintain a positive public perception of nature photography as a field, and to allow us to recognize the true masterpieces of nature photography as they are captured.

I think that many people today, myself included, are skeptical of nature photographs. In fact, I’ll go out on a limb here and admit that I’ve come to the point where I assume any image has been altered substantially from the RAW file unless the photographer demonstrates otherwise. This is unfortunate but understandable. I’ll share a little anecdote. My coffee table book on the wonders of Costa Rica’s protected area system uses one of my favorite recent photos as the cover. But it almost didn’t come to be.

Why? The US publisher of the book (Cornell University Press) assumed it was a composite image. It’s not, and I worked really hard to pull this off in one shot. The Costa Rica book publisher (Zona Tropical Press), who originally envisioned the project, assured them it was a single shot (Zona Tropical has the RAW file after all!), and it was then a green light. We all agree that it’s a great cover. It’s an iconic frog but photographed in an eye-catching and original way. Might some people in the general public, upon seeing the book on the shelves, assumes it’s Photoshopped? Quite possibly, and that’s a shame, but again, it’s understandable in a way that the general public has come to be skeptical about nature photographs (or digital photography in general).

I think that striving for perfection in RAW files will be of benefit to the photographer in his or her own photography and will encourage creativity in the field, leading to more truly exceptional images. I also believe that disclosure of post-processing techniques, especially on photography forums, will level the playing field for professionals and lead to realistic expectations for amateur photographers and will also help us to treasure the truly exceptional images captured by pros and amateurs alike. Finally, I think that striving for RAW perfection and disclosure of post-processing techniques will help to restore the public’s apparently eroding trust in nature photography. In the article below I draw on conversations with a number of well-known professional photographers with whom I lead tours here in Costa Rica and also conversations with many tour participants to outline some of the issues, pro and con, related to my approach to striving for RAW perfection.

Paca - Copyright Greg Basco

Paca (Agouti paca), a large endangered nocturnal rodent, cloud forest, Costa Rica
Canon 5D, Canon 300 mm f2.8 lens, 3 off-camera flashes, handheld, f9, 1/125, ISO 160, full-frame, standard tweaks in Lightroom

So, What is RAW Perfection?

I’ll start with a definition of what I consider a successful nature photograph in terms of in-camera capture and post-processing. To me, a fully successful nature image is one that requires no cropping whatsoever (that is, it was captured full-frame in-camera), does not have any cloning applied (either taking things away or especially adding things, including added canvas), and has only a minimum of post-processing adjustments applied (I consider this to mean normal adjustments in saturation, tones, exposure, recovery, noise reduction and of course sharpening). This doesn’t mean that I don’t do go beyond these criteria in my own photography (I do on occasion) but I make it a point to rely on these only as a last resort, after exhausting all possibilities to work with a single, clean capture in the field. OK, I can already hear the objections out in the ether, so let’s consider these criteria separately before moving on to the rest of the article 🙂

No Cropping

There are a number of threads out on the nature photo forums discussing this (e.g. how much do you crop?, how much should you crop?, what is an acceptable crop?) and to my mind the thrust of the discussions always becomes sidetracked by the issue of how many pixels we need to make a certain size print. Indeed, you might be thinking right now that someone with a 22 MP camera and a full-frame sensor, which has higher quality/larger pixels (say a Canon 5DIII) could crop quite a bit and still produce an image of equal or higher quality (especially at higher ISO values) than someone with a Canon 7DII, which has 20 megapixels and also uses a smaller sensor with smaller/lower quality (e.g., less light gathered per pixel) pixels.

Or someone might be thinking that they are only making small prints or posting to a website or web forum so they don’t need that many pixels and can actually crop quite significantly. Even some of the big contests will accept moderately cropped files. So, these files must be good enough to make big prints. Indeed, I have no quarrel with the logic behind this. Modern cameras are plenty good enough to make big prints, and upsizing software such as Photoshop or Perfect Resize makes enlarging painless. I have made 24×36 prints from Canon 20D images, and they looked great. And I just recently bought the Canon 5Ds, a full-frame 50 MP sensor camera, which would allow me to crop to high heaven. Nevertheless, I’ll keep trying to frame things in-camera because I consider compositional forethought to be an important part of the art of photography.

Alternatively, there are issues in the field that might make cropping attractive or necessary. For instance, some subjects are simply harder to compose in-camera than others. Is it fair to apply the same no cropping standard to a bird in flight photographer as to a landscape photographer? Probably not but my issue with this line of thinking is that making cropping a matter of course and not openly disclosing it can lead to two unfavorable outcomes. First, I see with many photo tour clients a tendency to rely on cropping as an excuse for lack of attention to detail and craft in the field. Rather than trying to approach a bit closer, putting on a teleconverter, choosing a different camera body, or paying close attention to composition, people may be more apt to resort to cropping in the computer.

I realize that one can’t always afford the luxury of trying to get exactly what they want in-camera (particularly when traveling in a group and coming across an animal that may give the visiting photographer only one brief chance at a photo) but falling into the trap of relying on post-processing to do things that could have been taken care of in the field is a bad habit. (Check out the online photo forum posts and you are sure to read “cropped for composition” or “cropped to vertical from horizontal” along with the tech specs of many images posted there.) I assure you that you will be more proud of yourself for getting what you want in the field than doing so in post-processing. Second, even though it can be difficult to compose in the field, if we as viewers are bombarded with perfectly composed photos, perfection becomes mundane. It’s likely that only a very few of these great photos out there were actually composed in-camera. As in making a good choice for purchasing a car or a camera or organic vegetables, we need information to evaluate nature photographs. If we don’t know which photographs have been cropped, how are we to recognize and appreciate those instances where skill, patience, and luck combined for a photographer to produce those truly special images?

Another argument relates to different sensor sizes. What if I am out with a full-frame camera (say a Canon 5DIII) and a 500 mm lens and next to me is a photographer with the same lens but a smaller sensor/crop factor camera (say a Canon 7DII)? I have a better camera (in terms of straight image quality) so why would I be penalized for cropping if I get the same quality as the 7DII shooter next to me who is filling the frame with the bird? Does the photographer next to me have more skill because he or she composed in-camera with a 7DII while I shot the exact same image with my 5DIII but had to crop in post-processing to produce the same composition? This is a tough one but I would say yes. The photographer with the 7DII chose the right tool for the job and had the added task of composing precisely in-camera. In this case, I would have enjoyed the luxury of composing in post-processing through the use of the crop tool.

Another issue has to do with getting too close to wildlife and the potential to adversely affect our subjects. What if my no cropping standard tempts me to disturb wildlife unduly in order to produce a full-frame image? Would I not be better off staying back and cropping the image later? This is an issue where responsible nature photography is the answer to the question. No matter how obsessed we are with getting an image, we need to respect our subjects. If composing in-camera will cause harm to the subject, the image simply is not meant to be or, alternatively, you shoot as best you can, crop in post-processing, and disclose the cropping later when presenting the image online or in print.

There is also an important last point to be made with regard to trying to compose in-camera. There are some situations where we absolutely can not get close enough (no matter what camera and lens combination we have available) to fill the frame with a subject. Is this a problem? On the contrary, it’s a fantastic opportunity to be creative and look for more interesting compositions in-camera. Step back, include some environment with strong leading lines, and your images will be much more dynamic and have more impact than any standard frame-filling stock shot would be. Capturing images of this sort is actually more difficult but the rewards can be great.

Fasciated tiger heron - Copyright Greg Basco

Fasciated Tiger Heron (Tigrisoma fasciatum), calling in late afternoon along a rainforest riverbank, Costa Rica
Canon 7DII, Canon 70-300 mm L IS zoom lens, handheld, f7.1, 1/125, ISO 250, Canon 70-300 mm L IS zoom lens, full-frame, standard tweaks in Lightroom

No Cloning

This one should provoke little argument. It’s a standard rule in photo contests and seems quite logical in applying criteria for a successful nature photograph. I would argue that putting something in (e.g., cloning in a wingtip, adding canvas, changing a background by major blurring or even replacing a background or adding a flower to a picture) is more egregious than removing something (e.g., cloning out a few bits of floating detritus from water, cloning a distracting branch from the background, removing an electric wire from a landscape). But in the end, I think most would agree we should strive to position ourselves in such a way, choose lenses, apertures, and lighting in such a way, and compose in such a way that cloning is not necessary to improve things. Note that I take this position not from a reality standpoint (I make in-camera choices all the time that distort reality from what what our eyes see) but because I again am interested in those special images where the conditions all come together favorably.

That said, sometimes it’s impossible to get the clean shot. What to do? Easy peasy. Clone or heal or use content-aware until your heart’s content, and then simply mention that fact when posting the image online!

No Major Post-processing

Green-crowned brilliant hummingbird - Copyright Greg Basco

Green-crowned Brilliant hummingbird (Heliodoxa jacula) at ornamental banana flower on a rainy day in the cloud forest, Costa Rica
Canon 7DII, Canon 300 mm f2.8 lens, Phottix Mitros + flash at TTL -3, handheld, f3.5, 1/1250, ISO 4000, full-frame, standard tweaks and noise reduction in Lightroom

This is probably the hardest criterion to define due to the simple fact that it’s tough, if not impossible, to say how much is too much. And there’s also a slippery-slope element to this issue; once we do one post-processing task, why not do another, and another? Many nature photographers will limit post-processing work to the things done in the traditional darkroom by film photographers. And while that’s a pretty good rule, many photographers (e.g., Ansel Adams) did quite a lot of post-processing, reportedly even cloning things out by masking.

My take on this is that, for a successful nature image, the viewer should look at our final image as presented and then be able to see the RAW image without being surprised at the difference. That is, the viewer shouldn’t perceive that we have majorly manipulated an image – subjective and messy I know, but it seems to me to be a good common sense litmus test.

In my own photography, I try to adhere whenever possible to the general digital processing guidelines stated by the rules of the Veolia Wildlife Photographer of the Year and the Nature’s Best Windland Smith Rice photo competitions. This is not because I’m always thinking about those contests or because I think every one of my images is a potential contest winner but simply because I find the processing rules of those contests to fit with my shooting style and approaches in the field and at the computer.

Poas Volcano National Park - Copyright Greg Basco

Cloud forest on the lower slopes of Poas Volcano National Park is silhoutted as the sun sets over the high mountains of the Juan Castro Blanco National Park, Costa Rica
Canon 1D Mark IV, Canon 70-300 mm L IS zoom lens, handheld, f8, 1/160, ISO 500, full-frame, standard tweaks in Lightroom

Why the Insistence on RAW Perfection?

As mentioned in the previous section, there are a number of arguments in favor of relaxing or ignoring one or all of the three criteria above. All of these arguments have merit but none of them, singly or together, sways me from my insistence on striving for a “perfect” RAW file. Why? The main reason is that I simply am not satisfied with my own effort unless I get as close to exactly what I want in-camera. And I think the viewer of my images will appreciate the dedication to photography out in the field and will place more merit on an image that closely resembles what came out of my camera than they would on an image that has been cropped, cloned, and otherwise heavily manipulated in post-processing. I believe that this evaluation stands whether the viewer is a casual fan of nature, a potential print buyer, a potential Costa Rica photo tour client, a contest judge, or a magazine editor or other potential stock photo buyer (though in the world of advertising this is probably unrealistic; in fact, the opposite may be true!).

I apply the same mindset when I view other photographers’ work. When I see an image that meets the above three criteria I am impressed by the skill of the photographer. Don’t get me wrong; there is a lot of skill that goes into good post-processing, and people who are really into Photoshop have a lot of talent and ability. When enjoying nature photography, I’m simply more impressed by a good photographer than I am a good digital photo processor 🙂

Katydid - Copyright Greg Basco

A katydid in lowland rainforest, Costa Rica
Canon 5DII, Sigma 150 mm f2.8 macro lens, tripod, cable release, mirror lockup, f2.8, 1/100, ISO 500, full-frame, standard tweaks in Lightroom

A Call for Disclosure

Given the above discussion, you may have guessed that I want to know what has been done to any photo I view. And I am all about sharing what I have done to my photos. But why? I explained above that the main reason I strive to get the RAW file I want is for reasons of personal satisfaction and pride in my work. Nonetheless, I think knowing what has been done to a photo has some very important ramifications for both professional and amateur photographers alike.

First, professional photographers are competing for attention, whether simply for prestige/reputation or for stock sales, print sales, and photo tour and workshop clients. In fact, these four areas are nearly inextricably intertwined for today’s professional nature photographer. More prestige or better reputation can lead to more stock sales, more print sales, and more tour and workshop clients. And then more sales in terms of prints, stock, and tours leads to more prestige. Photography is a competitive business, and I believe the playing field is not level if one photographer is presenting images that closely adhere to the RAW file while another is presenting images that have been substantially digitally manipulated or enhanced without disclosing that fact or while even intentionally obscuring that fact.

Most of the major photography forums have stated guidelines to disclose post-processing and technical specs when posting images for critique. Nevertheless, it seems that full disclosure is rarely offered. People post images both to receive feedback and to gain recognition for their work on these forums. I think it only fair that the viewers know what they are looking at.

By a similar token, when choosing a photographic tour or workshop, I believe that potential clients want to know what they are seeing when they view a leader’s photography. In addition, I think it is important for images from a certain part of the world to accurately reflect what kinds of photographs are possible in order to avoid unrealistic expectations on the part of the participants. If presented images are wildly different from the RAW files actually captured in the field, problems could arise for the trip leader as they have essentially advertised their product in a false manner.

And finally, I think the general public, the consumers of nature photography, would benefit from knowing what has been done to an image so that they can feel confident that what they see is what they get.

For all of these reasons, I propose that nature photographers try to disclose as fully as possible what post-processing has been done whenever an image is presented on the web. This may be more difficult to do on personal portfolio/showcase websites where style and layout considerations are very important but on photographers’ blogs it is quite easy to point out what post-processing has been done. And on the photo forums, I think it would make sense to have a rule to post a jpeg straight from the RAW file along with the presented image in critique forums. This way viewers will have the information at hand to judge the photo according to their own standards. Viewers will feel differently, of course, about what level of post-processing to abide, and that’s fine. But at least they will have the information necessary to make an informed judgement according to their own personal taste.

Hairy woodpecker - Copyright Greg Basco

A Hairy Woodpecker (Leuconotopicus villosus) brings food to the nest on a rainy day in the high oak cloud forest, Costa Rica
Canon 7DII, Canon 300 mm f2.8 lens, tripod, f2.8, 1/3200, ISO 2500, full-frame, standard tweaks and noise reduction in Lightroom

Final Thoughts

As I stated at the outset of this article, I don’t pretend to have all of the answers or that my approach is the only or correct approach. Nevertheless, I do feel that striving for perfection in RAW files and disclosing post-processing techniques will bring multiple benefits to the individual nature photographer, the business of nature photography, and the larger nature photographer community. I have read numerous times on the web that digital manipulation is OK; those images that are heavily manipulated simply become fine art images, as if for some reason only nature photographs that depart from a literal representation of a subject constitute art or that non-literal interpretations can only be produced in the computer. I could not disagree more strongly with this point of view.

I try to produce fine art nature photography, which means photography that intends to fulfill or express the creative vision of the photographer. To me, as a photographer, that vision is expressed most strongly through the tools I have available to me in the field. So, I make use of different lenses, different apertures, unusual perspectives, flashes, limited dynamic range, and chiaroscuro principles to try to make images that are different from what our eyes see but hint at the essence of my rainforest and cloud forest subjects. To my way of thinking, the photographer is both artist and craftperson, and I most admire those who can use their tools to create fine art in the field. And when a good photographer is able to put everything together—their skill, their technical knowledge, their patience, their creativity, and a bit of good luck—we can celebrate those truly incredible and special images of the natural world.

I’m interested to read what you think. Please feel free to share this article and to leave comments!

By the way, the images presented along with this article fully fit the three criteria elaborated here; I consider them to be among my successful nature images!

Finally, you might be asking yourself, well, what about captive animals, live baiting, and setups? That’s the subject for an upcoming article 🙂

Cheers from Costa Rica!

Greg

Beach waves at Ballena National Park - Copyright Greg Basco

Waves break on a beach in Ballena National Park, shot from an ultralight plane, Pacific Coast, Costa Rica
Canon 5DII, Canon 70-300 mm L IS zoom lens, circular polarizer, handheld, f5.6, 1/1250, ISO 500, full-frame, standard tweaks in Lightroom

About the Author

Greg Basco lives and works in Costa Rica where he photographs the rainforest. His photos have been awarded in both the Veolia Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition and the Nature's Best Windland Smith Rice Competition (most recently winning the Art in Nature category in the latter). He is co-author of the popular e-book The Guide to Tropical Nature Photography and recently finished a coffee table book titled National Parks of Costa Rica.

He is co-founder of a new conservation photography organization called The Tropical Conservation Photography Group which will work to provide photographic support for local and national conservation and sustainable development efforts in Costa Rica. When he is not out photographing, he leads photo workshops in Latin America, including a number of popular Costa Rica tours through NatureScapes.

You can see more of Greg's work on his website at www.deepgreenphotography.com.

22 thoughts on “RAW Perfection – Get in the Zone!

  1. Hi Greg,
    I generally agree with most of what you have to say. I too, only use full frame cameras and almost never crop (small crops to make horizontal lines horizontal, due to faulty hand holding is my only exception). Here comes the “but”! But, you seem to feel that the RAW file is somehow perfect. I seem to recall reading that the RAW file is a series of 1’s and 0’s that engineers at various camera mfrs. decide to interpret “in their own ways” to produce a jpg on the back of your camera to let you know if you are in the ballpark in regards to over or under exposure. This jpg that is produced can vary quite a bit from mfr to mfr in terms of color balance, contrast, saturation, and detail. It’s obvious to me, from looking at the LCD backs of a variety of different camera mfrs. of fellow photogs capturing generally the same scene, that those jpgs can vary greatly, based on what picture style they chose in their menus. I use standard in my bodies, and it is this picture style one chooses that comes up in your RAW processor when viewing your images. Thus, how that photo gets processed is already influenced by those electronic engineers at your camera mfr. Also, RAW files almost never produce a jpg that is capable of what our eyes can see, which means we are using inferior tools to convey our experience to people who weren’t there with us. Example: Contrast, color balance and saturation are some of the many ways photos can be mis-represented online and, to me, they are the most common egregious post-processing decisions out there I don’t mind a small distracting, out-of-focus branch or plant being cloned out, but a large one changes my opinion. The problem is everyone has a different opinion on what is small and what is large. I guess it mostly comes down to why you chose photography: to accurately convey what you experience with others (ie editorial and news photogs) or to display your personal artistic expression to others (ie. most everybody else). Love your photos by the way! Having photographed Costa Rica, I envy your choice of home!

  2. I understand that in the film days, when NatGeo sent a photog on assignment, they instructed the photog that upon return, the photog was to submit ALL the images back to them.

    And yes, I can fully understand any publishing entity requiring the photog to submit the RAW along with the JPEG. It makes all the sense in the world. And….it is their right.

    If I am running a national photo contest……. your darned right I would require that photographers submit the RAW along with the JPEG that they want me to give them an award for.

    BUT….regarding my website…….if you want to require me to explain my post processing before you view my images, you need to go to a different website. LOL I will do whatever I want on it. Besides, my slant or theme is nature, much, much more than it is nature photography. That is probably because I am a Wildlife Biologist and I have a lot that I want to say and teach. Yes, it is the truth 🙂

  3. As a former newspaper photographer, I can certainly sympathize with the concept of getting things right in camera. And yet…

    Fully digital photography is new. Many pros have only made the switch in last the ten years, during which time digital manipulation has become common. It’s a simple fact that most people will use a tool if it’s available. Photoshop is ubiquitous. It will be used. There would undoubtedly been more photo manipulation in the past if darkroom processing hadn’t been so time and skill intensive.

    Look at the many conveniences that were brought into being in the 20th century that we now wouldn’t think of living without. Forget that. Think of the iPhone and how it’s changed our lives. It only came out in 2007. Smartphones are now fully integrated into society. Within the next 20 years (probably less), except for photojournalism, I doubt that most people will expect or really appreciate a non-photoshopped photo. I also fear that the attitude put forth here will increasingly be considered quaint and elitist.

  4. Greg,

    Nice thought provoking article. I found myself agreeing wholeheartedly at times, while at others becoming defensive and argumentative.

    Interestingly, depending on what I am shooting, I have very different approaches (in the context of this article) and sometimes those approaches contradict one another.

    When I shoot landscapes, I spend a lot of time worrying about composition in camera. When shooting wildlife (which is truly wild) from my bobbing kayak, I worry less about composition and more about SS and Aperture to make sure I get the best detail on the subject, and admittedly crop for comp.

    When shooting landscapes and wildlife, I never clone, rarely import an image into photoshop and stick with basic LR adjustments… however occasionally those basic LR adjustments can be quite powerful tools assisting to achieve the artistic vision. Occasionally, a heavy hand must be applied to an image to simply make even a quite “perfect RAW” file properly represent the fidelity of a challenging scene.

    With astrophotography, I spend an incredible amount of time post procession an image. With such a low signal to noise ratio of most celestial objects, it is just the nature of the beast, to try and separate that signal and produce an appealing image.

    All of this said, my tweaks in LR might be way over the top for you… Or… perhaps, your tweaks are too aggressive for my tastes. I was going to go into more depth to support or (friendly) debate some of your points, however I even with your descriptions, I still don’t know exactly where you stand on each of these topics. You make a point in your article that you believe when an image is posted, that the RAW files be posted next to it as a full disclosure of PP. So, to strengthen your article and help clarify your position on what an acceptable level of Post Processing is, would you mind posting what the un-edited version of all of these images looked like?

    Thanks for the stimulating article.

    • Chris, thanks very much for your thoughtful reply. Totally agree that even within this framework, tastes on what is too much will vary. Unfortunately, due to way the articles are structured here, I can’t put in more pictures after the fact without making more work for the NSN staff. I do understand your point about including the RAW files. I will try to do that when I get a chance for this article on my own blog.

      Suffice it say, however, that for the pictures presented above, you would have a hard time picking out the differences with the RAW files 🙂

      Thanks again for reading and commenting.

      Best!
      Greg

  5. Greg,

    Thanks for some great “food-for-thought”. It reminded me of our many discussions about equipment, technique and creativity to produce “Gonzo” images under sometimes challenging conditions. Like you, I strive to capture the best image I can with the equipment at my disposal when I press the shutter. Unfortunately, in today’s world of “full disclosure” and “PC” everything, I think folks lose sight of two very fundamental principles which I follow and will tell anyone who asks for photographic advice: 1) it’s not about the equipment – it’s about seeing and being in the right position at the right time, and 2) the equipment you have, including software, are merely tools used to demonstrate and enhance technique, vision, and creativity. How these two principals are used, in my opinion, is totally at the discretion of the photographer, as they should be.

    I would like to see folks spend more time “pre-visualizing” the image even before they go into the field. On my plane ride to working with you in Costa Rica and Ecuador, I was thinking about the shooting opportunities, the types of images that would be possible, and the challenges I would have capturing those images. I was not thinking about how the image would be perceived by judges or even my stock agency. I was totally focused on the creative process and what I needed to bring to bear to “create” the best image I could. And of course, many thanks to you for helping me solve the more challenging shooting situations we encountered.
    I think that we can all be thankful that Ansel Adams did not have to work under the pressures that seem prevalent today, which in my view, appear to diminish the creative talent of the photographer and produce a “sameness” of image. Many who apply strict “rules” of what a nature image is should keep in mind that in the eyes of the “judge”, all rules become subjective (eek – I hate spiders! eek – I hate HDR!). For those with chronic issues about image or subject manipulation, I would suggest they call themselves “nature photojournalists” in keeping with their desire for an unadulterated image. Or even more to the point, I would suggest they return to the “Land of Film” where they can truly limit their ability to manipulate the image assuming they all use the same film, and don’t use warming filters, polarizers or split neutral density filters to maintain that “TRUE” representation of the world.

    I for one will continue to “create” the best nature images I can according to my ability, vision, and tools, and be thankful that Ansel was free in his day to “create” “Moonrise over Hernandez” (eek – black skies!). I think he would be hard pressed to get his images by the critics of today.

    Richard Green http://www.downtoearthportraits.com

  6. Thanks, everyone, for reading this with an open mind and in the spirit in which I intended — to address what I feel is an important issue and to offer an approach that I feel can serve to improve any photographer’s in-camera skills in nature photography, whether hobbyist, serious amateur, or pro.

    Just a few comments.

    First, many have drawn the conclusion that this post is meant to be exclusionary, either in terms of equipment or in terms of pro status. That’s certainly not the case, and I think I’ve taken pains in the article to make that clear. I don’t think better equipment makes for a better photographer at all. My longest lens is, in fact, a 300 mm. And, as I discuss in this article, I use that to my advantage in trying to take photos that don’t look like every photo out there taken with a big gun. It’s actually relatively easy to take a frame-filling image of a subject with a big lens and decent technique. It’s more difficult to work with less focal length and produce something that hints at the environment of a subject. I firmly believe that it’s the photographer, and not the equipment, that makes the image in the field. And I see fantastic nature images by non-pros and plenty of mediocre stuff by the pros. Official status has nothing to do with ability in the field.

    Second, some have tended to take the argument into a minimal disturbance direction as a criterion for a successful nature photograph. As I state at the end, that’s an article for another day and is certainly an important consideration. I will be doing a second article on precisely this issue, it’s not one that I raised in this article. And that was by design — in order to have a cohesive, coherent article, I needed to keep things on topic.

    Third, some have mentioned exceptions to my approach. I totally agree and have mentioned many of these in the text of the article. For instance, with regard to no cropping, I recognize that when people are on a photo trip, they don’t have the luxury of going for the perfect shot and risking taking home nothing. I lead lots of workshops and always encourage to start out shooting as we encounter a new animal. If the opportunity presents itself, I then encourage people to start refining their technique.

    Fourth, on the disclosure, a number of people mentioned that this may not matter depending on the intended purpose of the photos we take. I agree with that and say so in the article. The problem as I see it is that many photographers actively or passively obscure major processing and lead people to believe that a photo is something it’s not where there are certain expectations. I’m thinking especially of sites like 500 px and the like. There’s a reason that certain magazines (Nat. Geo, BBC, and Ranger Rick) actually make the photographer present a RAW file.

    In the end, I do hope you appreciate that this was not an easy article to write. It’s a controversial but important subject, and it’s difficult to break it down into a logical and readable piece. Believe me, it would have been much easier to write a more generic photo tips article 🙂

    This piece originally appeared on my blog about three years ago, and, as I tweaked it a bit for this site, I found that my views hadn’t really changed that much. I still feel that the “RAW Perfection” approach is a mentality that will help any nature photographer improve his or her in-camera skills and enjoy the photographic experience even more in the field. And it doesn’t take away from one’s enjoyment of nature. When things aren’t coming together for a great photo, I will kick back and enjoy being out in nature. When things start to look promising, that’s when I try to get into the zone!

    Cheers,
    Greg

  7. Thanks for a great article. I agree with the topics as stated, though with spontaneous bird images it is hard not to crop. Alternatively, allow the publisher to adjust the for the final image; which are often my recommentions to clients. I usually give them the RAW plus my final TIFF version. On product photography, no matter how thoroughly one cleans, it is quite impossible to remove every particle of dust, so cloning or erasing is a must.

    I would like to know what ‘Picture Style’ you shoot with?

    Frederick Correa

  8. I tend to agree with Dr Mike as part of the 99% of photographers just striving to compose a nice photograph with any means at my disposal. Yes it starts with understanding your camera and its functions but it does not end there certainly. However some of the comments seem to resent people not knowing their fstops, ISO, shutter speed, why?
    We all come to this hobby with our own interests and while dslr usage and sales are on huge decline which is not good for any of us I argue that there is a group who likes keeping it complex and if you can’t talk in all the arcane pixel peeper science somehow you are not a real photographer.
    I noticed this point of view in another enlist sport fly fishing as well. Where there is a group within the sport that if you cannot pronounce the fly in its original Latin name somehow you are not really one of us.Thankfully despite enjoying it for 25 years no I am not .

    But to get back to your point of view, unlike most professional photographers who are on their 15 th trip to Africa where they can return time and again for that killer shot, most of us work and save for that trip of a lifetime and if cropping a lion or Grizzly in Alasaka makes for a better photograph so be it. But somehow we should be made to feel our photo is less of value or consideration, I don’t buy it.
    This argument seems a bit precious when the pro photographer has $7000 500 mm prime lens on a full frame and you want to criticize me for cropping in on my 70-300 zoom lens one? I only wish I could pondering choosing the right tool in the field between my Full frame or crop sensor body.
    Maybe you resent I am even there standing with you. Something I observed recently when shooting owls in Vancouver. I was invited behind the fence by the naturalist to take a better look at barn owl. I walked up and was shoulder to shoulder with 5 gentlemen with Canon and Nikon full frame cameras and various 400- 600 mm prime lens mounted on Gitzo carbon legs and gimbal mounts, all fully wrapped in camouflage like a Special Forces sniper team.
    Me I had my lovely Nikon 7100 and my 70-300 mm lens. You would think I was a hillbilly in jeans at a black tie event. One difference was that while they stood there talking about whose lens and tele extender was better they missed seeing an owl behind them which I walked quietly to and shot to my hearts content. Full disclosure I cropped it to.

    Having said that if I was entering competitions for BBC nature photographer of the year certainly there should be rules to even the playing field against, the equivalent of doping in Tour de France maybe ‘photodoping’ is a better expression than Raw perfection.
    But who decides where the line is?
    Is shooting with three off camera flashes in a jungle in Costa Rica any less manipulative than cropping a photo or any less disturbing than trying to gently walk a little closer to the animal or bird in question? I have to sit and wait for an hour for an eagle or Heron to come into the existing light to get that perfect shot. I only wish I had an outdoor lighting studio to cart around with me.
    Where does it begin and end in what who does is manipulative and what is not?
    Perhaps the purest way to judge who is shooting the truest photos out of the camera is if you all shot with Polaroid’s and peel back instant film . In fact maybe that is how all professionals should shoot if they want to truly even the playing field.
    Me I will be hunched frustratingly over LR trying to improve my shot by any means possible.

    Lancej
    Canada

    • Lance wrote: “Maybe you resent I am even there standing with you.”

      Lance, I don’t think I gave that impression anywhere in the article. If you knew me, you would know that this is emphatically not the case.

      Cheers,
      Greg

      • Greg hello,
        Apologies in that I did not meant to call you Greg out specifically but rather meant those who are a bit more elitist and seem to resent any newcomers who did not come up from the school of hard knocks.. No I did not come to this hobby shooting film for 25 years and processing it in a unheated darkroom under my stairs. I love this hobby it is for my pleasure and the pursuit of my creativity and not for professional sale . My whole premise is that as an amateur I need all the tools at my disposal my ; creative vision, my in field technical skills, and my ever evolving post production ones. I totally agree that people should disclose what they did versus pretend that it all happened in camera. I just took away that Those who crop and post improve are cheating their hobby.
        Thanks for writing such a compelling point of view that got so many people really discussing your thoughts versus the typical comments one reads. I enjoyed reading everyone else weighing in on this as much as your original post. I look forward to reading many more. Your worst picture that you delete is probably my keeper so anytime I can read and learn from the best is time well spent.
        Cheers
        Lancej
        Toronto Canada

        • Hi, Lance. Thanks very much for your reply. It was the use of the pronoun “you” that made me want to reply, but I understand now that it was a generic “you” rather than being directed at me 🙂

          Thanks also for your additional comments on the article. I think disclosure is the real key. As I mentioned, I don’t always follow this approach in my own photography either (see here if you’re interested: http://www.deepgreenphotography.com/blogarchive/2013/12/behind-the-lens-poas-volcano-with-heavy-post-processing). As long as people aren’t deceiving the viewers, I appreciate good post-production.

          I do think striving to get what you want in-camera is a fun exercise that can help a photographer grow. For instance, next time you find yourself limited in terms of focal length, forget about trying to fill the frame or shooting with the intent to crop in tighter after the fact. Try to look for a more environmental composition, and I think you’ll find you enjoy it and will get some great shots that tell a story.

          All the best,
          Greg

  9. I agree that is best to capture the best raw image possible, but I disagree with many of your other points. I think Ansel Adams would disagree also. I have no problems with cloning away minor distractions, but feel that adding additional compositional elemnts is wrong. Your no cropping rule doesn’t make much sense to me. i’m concerned only with that I have enough megapixels to make a large print. I also consider the frame to be a compositional element and crop to the ratio that best suits my composition, whether it be a panoramic or a 4:5 or some other ratio.
    The main point is that each person’s line in the sand will be different and we will never reach a consensus. If a contest or publisher wants to see a raw file, I will provide it, but I will continue to photgraph to my own standards.

  10. Dear Greg ,

    It is really a burning topic to discuss. With advancement of digital technology (both in camera & PP) the boundary is slowly diminishing. You have nicely expressed your ethics of nature photography here. I am agreeing with you in several points 7 at the same time I believe that A true & passionate nature photographer actually has two artists inside. One is a field artist who strives hard to get his subject & to capture it with its true essence. He also works hard to get the shot as you said with perfect raw with his knowledge, experience & technique & being satisfied. In the field he does not deceive his heart to capture his subject as he wish. After coming home during processing another artist inside evolve. Who with his available tool of Photoshop create an image, & in my opinion this final image or product is a presentation which after creation will speak for itself. Call for disclosure is welcome but at the same time both the artists should have their freedom to create a image. A truly good nature photo is the output of both of these artists, so none of them should be deprived from getting their due respect.

    • “capture it with its true essence”
      I suggest the essence, or what is most amazing about any living thing can never be recorded with any camera.
      It requires keen observance with all of one’s senses, and even then is a very difficult and rare thing to “see”.

  11. I see little difference in focusing your camera to control what will appear out of focus on a original raw file, and using the blur tool in Photoshop to accomplish a similar thing. They are both tools in the “making a picture” process.
    The end result of the photographic process is not a collection of zeros and ones (a raw file), it is what the viewer feels and/or learns from seeing the end result. Why limit any available tools to convey the information or emotion you wish? It’s not as if photographs are reality anyway, not even close, they are all just two dimensional impressions of something.

  12. Greg,
    Your recent essay on RAW PERFECTION provides excellent insight and certainly food for thought. As a non-professional photographer who evolved from basic 35mm (Argus C-3) to my current 7DII, and the processing from receiving developed transparencies in the mail and tossing out those that were unacceptable. My current joy is in editing in Photoshop CS6 as soon as I return from a trip.

    I have long both cursed and praised the evolution of photographic technology. Too many of those I encounter in the nature photo sites have no concept of what an f-stop actually is or does; how ISO (formerly ASA) affects images; the difference between Kodak 25 and Fuji 100; or why you even need an M, Av or Tv setting on the new cameras when all you need is P.

    Many years ago I quit submitting images for contests, calendars or publications when (1) I found suburb images submitted by non-professionals were often not chosen over less striking images of the same subject by professionals with name-recognition; and (2) Competition became horrendous. In the 1970’s I financed my nature photography hobby by selling framed nature prints at art and craft shows in the Pacific Northwest (although my wife will tell you I spent much more on trips, processing and framing than I ever brought in). Initially I’d be the only photographer at a show but as the competition increased I found that as a part-time photographer (having a family to feed) I could not compete with those who were willing to suffer Top Ramen for every meal so they could hitch-hike to Alaska for bear photography.

    I want to assure you that my issue with your essay is not in any way argumentative as to your philosophy. But, while appearing to be directed towards all Naturscape submissions, it appears really a focused consideration for professional photographers and it fails to discern the wide variety of motives of the thousands of us who are not.

    Today my wildlife photography is my personal passion and is used solely for personal and environmental educational purposes. I use it to develop Powerpoint presentations on numerous nature subjects and make bi-monthly presentations to the 3rd, 4th and 5th grade levels of several local, my way of paying back for the exceptional opportunities I had in my 50 year career as a wildlife biologist when there was still much untrammeled wilderness in this country. My shows range from pictorial hikes across California from the ocean to the desert showing the various habitats and species; animal adaptations and camouflage; world biomes; and over 25 others. I’m always amazed at how much these students pick up as they usually individually present me with a “thank you” card at the end of the year telling me what shows they liked best.
    What I’m getting at is I don’t find it necessary to explain to my audience if I cropped the toucan photo so it fills the screen; if I removed a fence line or a beer can from a desert scenario to exemplify a habitat type; if I cloned out the radio-collar from the gray wolf in Yellowstone; or if I reduced the yellows in the Bokah so that the warbler jumps out at you. If I explained my manipulations to them (1) They wouldn’t understand them and (2) They wouldn’t care. They are happy to see the image in the best identifiable way possible.

    In my submissions to Naturescapes I normally limit the CS6 manipulations to what you term “Standard Tweaks in Lightroom” but am not in the least bit embarrassed by the removal of an offending branch, cloning out a reflection on a beak, or adding a bit of canvas. Does everyone really want to know this? Yes, sometimes I go a bit far and am called on it (“You have a sharpening halo!” or “You left artifacts!”) Sometimes I can see it and sometimes not, but I realize others did. That’s good; I’m not chagrined and always go back to look at the original and try to improve it (Yes…I save all my RAW images!)

    Dean Carrier

  13. Greg,

    While I can appreciate that attaining RAW perfection might prove to be extremely satisfying to some photographers (me included), I wonder about its applicability to the 99% of photographers who are essentially point and shootists with DSLRs.

    In reality, I think the image must speak for itself, no matter how it was obtained. There is much to be said for the digital magician who can make lemonade out of lemons, which is what most photographers bring home from their one-time photo safaris to far away places.

    As an artist I can enjoy a good painting without asking how the image was made. Likewise, I hope that the viewers of my photographs are impressed with my images, and don’t much care for my digital techniques unless they want to copy them.

    Dr. Mike O’Connor
    http://www.mikesmeanderings.com

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