Techniques

Why Camera Settings Don’t Matter

by Tim Grey | March 1, 2012

© Tim GreyIn a recent edition of my daily Ask Tim Grey eNewsletter, I addressed the following question posed by a reader: “If I photograph in both RAW and JPEG, is the histogram reading the RAW or the JPEG?”

This is, of course, a very reasonable question. After all, when you capture in the RAW+JPEG mode, the camera is creating two individual files. So which is used to generate the histogram display? The answer might come as a little bit of a surprise. In short, no matter what file format you capture with, you could say that the histogram (and indeed, the preview on the LCD display) is based on the JPEG capture.

As I explained in my answer:

The JPEG is created by the camera based on the in-camera RAW conversion software. If you are shooting in RAW, that software is essentially used to create a JPEG version of the image (which is embedded as a preview in most RAW file formats) and also as the basis of the histogram you see.

As a result, you could also say that the histogram shown for a RAW capture isn’t completely accurate, because it is based on the way the camera converted your RAW capture to a JPEG image. You could achieve different results (perhaps with greater highlight and shadow detail, for example) with careful adjustments in the RAW conversion process.

So, I recommend using the histogram as a very good guide relating to the exposure, but you should keep in mind that you do have some additional latitude in the RAW conversion. For example, if I capture an image with a very tiny amount of blown highlight detail based on the camera’s histogram, I won’t worry too much because that information is probably still available in the RAW capture.

To get a little bit more accurate histogram for your RAW captures, you can set the in-camera color space to Adobe RGB. This won’t actually affect the RAW data you’re capturing, just the JPEG rendering of that RAW capture, and thus the histogram. If you’d rather have a preview image that looks better in terms of contrast and saturation, you can set your camera’s color space to sRGB.

This issue is somewhat related to what might be another surprise to most photographers: Most settings on your digital camera will have no effect on a RAW capture.

In fact, for most digital cameras, the only settings that actually affect a RAW capture are lens aperture, shutter speed, and ISO setting. On some cameras there are additional features that will affect the RAW data, such as long-exposure noise reduction and highlight protection. But by and large, other settings don’t affect RAW.

If you use one of your camera’s shooting modes, it won’t affect the RAW capture. If you boost contrast or saturation, it won’t affect the RAW capture. Shooting in black and white mode won’t affect the RAW capture. Even the white balance setting doesn’t affect the RAW capture.

Well, OK, that’s not entirely true. If you adjust the white balance setting it will affect the value for white balance placed in metadata for the capture. And it will change the default setting for the RAW conversion for many software applications. But it won’t change the actual image data in the RAW file, which is simply a record of the information gathered by the image sensor.

When shooting in RAW, the wide-range of in-camera settings that alter the appearance of a photo will affect the embedded JPEG preview, and thus will affect what you see on the LCD display. So, for example, shooting with the black and white feature enabled can be helpful for getting a better sense of how the scene will look in black and white. But when shooting in RAW, during processing later you will still have the full color “original” to work with.

In my mind there are two ways to look at this issue. The first way is to realize (perhaps for the first time) that those in-camera settings don’t matter, and so you can completely ignore them. The other way is to accept that most in-camera settings don’t affect a RAW capture, but do affect the preview on the LCD, so they can be used as a tool for evaluating the images you’re capturing.

Regardless of your take on the fact that most settings on your camera don’t actually affect a RAW capture, the most important thing is to have a good understanding of the tools you use in your photography. After all, knowing all you can about the tools you use will help you produce better images.

To get answers to questions related to digital photography and imaging, sign up for the free Ask Tim Grey eNewsletter at www.asktimgrey.com.


Frosted tree © Tim Grey

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About the Author

Tim Grey is an educator in digital photography and imaging, offering clear guidance on complex subjects through his writing and speaking.

Tim has written more than a dozen books on digital imaging for photographers, has published dozens of video training courses, has had hundreds of articles published in magazines such as Digital Photo Pro and Outdoor Photographer, among others. For more than a dozen years he has been publishing the daily Ask Tim Grey eNewsletter, answering questions from photographers, and produces the related Ask Tim Grey Podcast. He also publishes the monthly Pixology electronic magazine, and publishes video training courses through GreyLearning.com. Tim teaches through workshops, seminars, and appearances at major events around the country and around the world.

Tim can be reached via email at tim@timgrey.com.

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