April 23rd, 2024

Straight-out-of-camera ephemerality


Not too long ago Luke posted a link to this thing about how "the raw vs. jpeg debate needs to end."

I don't think it's a great piece in part because it doesn't really do justice to Team Raw and in part because I'm a human being and frequently fall prey to informal fallacies, such as the one that leads me to say, "of course some guy who sells 'recipes' that make your photos irrecoverable if you ever decide that a caricature of 'the film look' was a bad artistic choice thinks it's insulting to tell people otherwise."

"It is difficult to get a man to understand something," said Upton Sinclair, " when his salary depends on his not understanding it."

Snark aside, it was a useful piece for me, because it ignored the reason I'd give you for at least capturing a raw version, which is pretty simple: You can do more with a raw file if it turns out you made a mistake configuring your in-camera presets.

Thought that shot would look great in monochrome and used a monochrome preset? With a jpeg, you never get to change your mind. With a raw file, you can change your mind.

Highlights and shadows are more recoverable. White balance is more easily managed. You have more flexibility with sharpening.

Are there tradeoffs? Yep.

Importing a day of raws takes a long time. If you don' t know how to use raw workflow tools effectively it takes more work to get a raw image to a workable baseline. It's way more storage intensive. Not all raws are processed alike. You're at the mercy of Apple and Adobe to release support for newer cameras.

The guy's not wrong to say "use what works for you," but he wants to have an artistic argument about a technical workflow choice and its attendant tradeoffs.

Anyhow, I'm not here to litigate the weaknesses of his position.  I am here to say that thinking through the weaknesses of his position caused me to reconsider the artistic argument he missed.

To skip back a little, I went through a huge cull of my photos last year. I had a lot of free time, so I just bunkered down and started plowing through 25 years of digital photos. 

Things that went: Pictures of things I couldn't place in time and space and that evoked nothing. Closeups of flowers? Probably gone unless somewhere within 10 or 15 pictures there was something that helped locate them and evoke some memory. 

Things that stayed: Pictures that made something move inside me. 

It was the difference between "a nice picture of the Portland skyline from across the river at night that I don't remember taking," and  "a nice picture of the Portland skyline from across the river at night I remember taking because it was the first time I had a camera I could use in the rain, the first time I had thought to bring along a tripod for my commute that day, and the  time I stood there in the rain considering my photographic choices and feeling pretty good that I'd created the conditions to do something I loved better than I had been." 

This photo was taken at 10:44 a.m. I had been using my new X-T2 for about a month and was still messing around with it, trying to find my rhythm. It's a jpeg using Fuji's Acros film simulation. 

People in the terminal at O'Hare Airport
People in the terminal at O'Hare Airport

There are 34 seconds between that photo and this one, shot at 10:45 a.m.:

A person in the terminal at O'Hare Airport
A person in the terminal at O'Hare Airport

That photo is a raw file. Sometime in between shooting the first one and shooting the second one I thought better of my choice to shoot jpegs and flipped to raw capture.

The second one is more to my taste these days in terms of color, and it has been constantly becoming more or less to my taste for almost eight years now. I frequently find myself going back to it and tweaking and fiddling. Before I posted it this time I applied perspective correction to it for the first time, for instance.

Sometimes I wish I'd saved the first photo as a raw file, because I like it more and wish I could bring some of the things I've brought to the latter image to it as my tastes have changed. But I can't. I shot it in monochrome as a jpeg.

But I feel more connection with it, too, because I remember why I made that choice at that time. At the time, I was really enjoying the way I could use the camera to see in black and white, using shadow and highlight tone to push each image into starker and starker contrast. I didn't trust myself to judge color, either. I wasn't comfortable nudging reality that way. Monochrome felt safer to me.

Alison once said, as we went through family photos from Ben's childhood, "you're not in many of these pictures."

I said, "I'm in every single one of them."

I captured myself in that jpeg, and I lose touch with myself in that moment with that raw.

I am not sure what to do with that. 

I've enjoyed not worrying about the permanent record with my writing. I've enjoyed making my toots self-destruct. I've enjoyed coming across objects, feeling a pang of protectiveness and attachment toward them,  and then choosing to discard them and free myself of them. 

What do I most want to do with my pictures? 

I find myself devaluing the ones I can't pin to place, time, or self no matter how well executed they are. I am drawn to the ones where I can place them and myself in space, time, and feeling, even when they are not what I'd choose to take today. 

To keep any picture at all is to retain some vestige of attachment to something, and I don't like to think of myself as a purist or dogmatist. 

I am not sure what to do with that.