I often see people post images “straight out of the camera”. But what does this actually mean?
In the days when film cameras were the only option, images may well have seemed to come “straight out of the camera”, particularly if the photographer relied on the local chemist or sent them off in an envelope to be processed. You shot the film, trying to get the exposure correct, put it in an envelope, wrote out a cheque (remember them?) and sent it off. The prints (or slide film) came back and the images seemed to come straight out of the camera. You had to get as much as possible right in the camera because you didn’t have any control over what happened once it was in the envelope, or the hands of the lady at Boots.
However if, like me, you had neither the money to keep getting films processed, nor any confidence that Boots would actually get it right, some photographers processed their own films. This opened up a world of creative possibilities. You could “push” the film, making it grainy, but allowing a higher ISO to be used – up to 800 or even 1600 if you were lucky. You could cross-process the film, giving it an interesting tone since you were using a process designed for one film type on a different type of film. You could then produce your own prints – using the enlarger as a creative tool. You could “dodge” out the bits that looked a bit pale on the negative, and “burn in” the bits that looked a bit dark – usually the sky needed a bit longer onto the paper before you processed it. You cut a “mask” out of ordinary card to allow you to mask off bits you didn’t want to expose any more on the paper. You could add toners to your prints to give them sepia, blue or other tints. You could even airbrush small imperfections out.
In short, you did an awful lot of manipulation to get the perfect look for your photograph. But here’s the thing – so did Boots! Their print-making machines looked at the density of the negative and calculated exposure onto the paper taking account of this to produce a pleasing, if rather bland, image. In doing so they often managed to correct a negative that was actually pretty poor, but in many cases, unless we looked at the negatives, we had no idea they had done anything at all to it.
The difference between the manipulation the photographer who self-processed did and the machine at Boots did was that the photographer had a vision of what the final result should look like (often before even putting the film in the camera), whereas Boots produced something that worked pretty well most of the time for the average set of holiday snaps.
Roll on 40 years or so, and we have very good digital cameras. Instead of film, light triggers an electronic response on a sensor, which is converted into raw data – a series of 0s and 1s – which can be reconstituted as an image in a format that computers and other devices can read and display – usually a jpeg file.
But how does it get to be a jpeg file, when it starts off as a series of numbers? There are essentially two methods of achieving this – you can let the camera do it for you, or you can do it for yourself after retrieving the raw data from the camera. These are the modern-day equivalent of sending it to Boots, or doing a bit of creative work in the darkroom, but without the inconvenience of putting up black curtains and working in a very dim red light (or dark green for slide film) with smelly chemicals and your Mum shouting at you because she needed to use the loo (my darkroom was in the bathroom most of the time).
Cameras have some element of control over what the jpeg looks like – you can usually set some pre-sets which control things like contrast and saturation of colour, and some cameras have creative modes which add things like black and white or sepia filters, or soft focus, or whatever. But you have to take what the camera manufacturer says you should have – a sort of Boots-plus. You get a particular landscape look, night-time look, portrait look, black and white look and that is it.
Or you can do your own processing, just like in the old days of curtains, chemicals and frustrated family members queueing outside the bathroom. Like when you used chemicals and paper, this requires some creative thought right at the moment you take the photograph. You need to get it right so that you can produce the result you want to at the end of the process. This may require you to under or over-expose the image a bit (or a lot), shoot with a different white-balance, or use graduated, polarizing or neutral density filters, just as you did in the old days. Then, when you have the raw file, you use some software to produce the image you want to.
It is possible to completely alter the colour, feel and mood of the image by doing this. It is also possible, as it was in the days of film, to add and remove things that weren’t or were there – to produce a composite. But you have a lot more control over the creative process. Your black and white images will have the feel you want, not the feel that the camera says you should have. If to your eye, it was the greens, or yellows in a landscape that stood out, then you can emphasize these. If your sky needs burning in, just like in the old days with cardboard masks and an enlarger, you can do this. It is a bit easier, a bit more comfortable, a bit less smelly and a bit less inconvenient.
Now to me, the processing is at least half of the creative process involved in taking a photograph. The camera can do a great job a lot of the time. However everybody sees a different scene differently – this is because our eyes are not cameras, but what we see is a result of the processing done by our brains. The camera cannot do the same processing – it does the processing that seems right in the eyes of the people who wrote the software in the camera, just as the machine at Boots produced images according to the software in the processing machine. If you want it to look like you saw it, or imagined it, or it made you feel at the time, you have to do some of that yourself. You have to think, feel, imagine, and develop the technical skills to ensure that the final image is just the way you want it.
It is nice to see “straight out of the camera” images, particularly when a new model of camera comes out, and you want to see the sort of thing it can do without heavy interpretation by a photographer. However, posting “straight out of the camera” can simply be used as an excuse for not thinking about your photography. You spend a lot of time and money getting a good camera, a sharp lens, getting the right exposure, and the focus sharp – and then that is it. You leave it up to the digital equivalent of Boots to produce the final image. All “straight out of the camera” images are processed, it is just that the photographer doesn’t do the processing, the camera does.
As I have always done, I process my images. I correct the exposure (which you could do with prints), apply digital sharpening (the camera automatically does that with raw images but you can decide how much to apply if you do it yourself), adjust the contrast, apply some toning (like you could in the old days using chemicals and cross-processing), convert to black and white using colour balance to get the right feel for the image, soften the image or add clarity, adjust the saturation and sometimes crop the image (you could do that if you made your own prints). In this way I manage to produce an image that is what I imagined when I pressed the shutter, not how Canon or Olympus or Nikon or Sony imagined I would want it to look.
This does not mean that you don’t have to think about what you do when you push the shutter – you perhaps have to think even harder when you are also thinking about post processing, because this will influence how you take the image. You do try and get the exposure right, the focus sharp, the lighting right and so on. But it means you also use the skills and imagination you have to produce the image you saw in your head when you pushed the button.
To some people this is cheating – in which case I have been cheating all my life since I used to process my own films and make my own prints. To me, leaving it all up to the camera feels a bit lazy – like sending it off to Boots. The pictures I post are genuine – I don’t add things that weren’t there or take anything away that was there – but the are the product of my imagination, and I use a camera and the other tools at my disposal (Lightroom, Photoshop, Topaz Labs and so on) to convey my imagination to the rest of the world through these images. They are not “straight out of the camera” – a lot more thought goes into them than that.