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I shoot all my pictures in RAW format and every time during post processing I need to tinker with the saturation because the color comes out bland. I do realize that changing camera saturation level has no effect if shooting in RAW but am I doing something wrong? Do colors always come out bland if shooting RAW?

Does this mean that having a polarizing filter to enhance the blue sky has no effect on RAW?

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Clarifying question: What kind/model of camera software are you using and what software are you using for your RAW conversion? –  Steve Ross Sep 24 '11 at 0:51
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It would be very helpful to see an example as well... same scene shot with raw and through your processing and with in camera jpeg. (ideally if you can get your camera to save both at once.) –  cabbey Sep 24 '11 at 0:58

5 Answers 5

up vote 17 down vote accepted

This is an observation made by many when they start to shoot in raw after being used to JPEG.

You have to understand that what you see with a raw image is exactly what came off the sensor when you took the picture.

Digital cameras provide all kinds of on board post processing such as noise reduction, sharpening, saturation and contrast settings which are applied to the raw data prior to creating a JPEG image file.

With raw files, none of this is applied so the image you see on the computer is very often flatter and softer than the JPEG would have been or what you saw on the camera itself.

This is another reason for the confusion, most cameras apply the post processing to the image that is shown on the cameras LCD which also leads to disappointment when first seeing a raw file on your computer.

Raw is provided as a format because it captures every piece of data coming from the sensor in order for you to apply your own post processing on your computer in order to get the best final result. This means that to get the contrasty sometimes over saturated results often seen with JPEG output, especially from entry level DSLRs, requires you replicate the in camera image processing settings on your computer in the raw processing software.

This is the beauty of raw, it allows the most post processing possibilities but does require almost every image to have some work put into it.

Filters in front of the camera will affect the raw output because they change the light falling on the sensor so a polarizing filter will change the output.

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The point is not that the raw image you see is what comes directly of the camera, but it is rather, that it is data open to the individual interpretation of the software that renders the image. As @Itai says, you should look at altering the default settings of your software to archive your desired style. So increasing this for saturation might do the job for you. –  niklasfi Sep 25 '11 at 7:37

No, not really. As @jrista said, RAW is not an image, so you are never seeing a RAW file, what you are seeing is what the software you use is showing you. Some viewing software show you RAW files by using the embedded JPEG image and will therefore show you exactly what your JPEG settings are set to.

Software is involved in the preview of RAW files and, later, software (possibly a different one) is involved in the conversion. Most RAW conversion software can give you any style of color (saturated, muted, accurate, etc) you want from RAW files.

Depending on the software you use, you may be able to set a default conversion (preset) which has a conversion in terms of color, contrast and sharpness that you like and you wont have to see initially dull RAW files anymore. The conversion that comes with the camera usually does a great job of mimicking the in-camera JPEG conversion, so you should also see something quite appealing.

Remember though that since you are choosing to shoot RAW, you are choosing to supply your own processing. If it gets tedious doing it one-by-one then make sure you learn the way to do batch conversion and use presets with your software.

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RAW is a rather ambiguous beast when it comes to post processing. Fundamentally, a RAW image is simply the direct results for each bayer pixel as read off the sensor. As such, the pixel data stored in a RAW file is not directly viewable on a computer screen...it must first be processed to transform (interpolate) bayer pixels into screen pixels. Not every RAW image processor is equal when it comes to how they process RAW files, what default tone curves they apply with that processing, and whether they apply any other adjustments like saturation boost or noise removal. Some RAW processors simply process all RAW images with a default built-in tone curve profile, while others utilize embedded metadata in the RAW image to process it as closely to the camera settings as they can.

It may simply be that the software you are using to process your image is only applying a basic tone curve and no other processing when it converts your raw into something that can be displayed on a screen. I would check to see if your RAW processing software supports alternative tone curves, or has the ability to apply the same settings that the camera applies. You may also want to look into alternative software. Adobe Lightroom and Adobe ACR+Photoshop support a lot of camera models, and have extensive sets of tone curves that aim to mimic built in camera settings and modes (i.e. Faithful, Neutral, Standard, etc.) Apple Aperture supports something similar. You might try out a trial of those packages and see if they produce better results. If you are limited to the software you have, you might want to create a default settings or processing profile to apply to each of your RAW images after import to bring them to an acceptable baseline, from which you can then apply further processing.

Regarding physical filtration, like a polarizing filter having no effect. Adding physical filtration to your camera will always have an effect, since such filters modify the actual light that passes into your lens and reaches your sensor. Regardless of the format used, filters will always have an effect because they occur before sensor readout to an image file.

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"Fundamentally, a RAW image is simply the direct results for each bayer pixel as read off the sensor" - unless you have a non Bayer pixel, like the Foveon, in which case RAW is the value read off the non Bayer pixel. Sorry my OCD made me do it. –  Jason Tan Jan 3 at 9:48
    
@JasonTan: LOL! Well, indeed, you are correct. :D –  jrista Jan 5 at 0:33

RAW format captures, as the name implies, the raw output from the camera sensor.

In addition to the lossy compression of the JPEG format, digital cameras will typically apply in-camera post processing effects when shooting to JPEG. These effects include white balance, sharpening, contrast and color saturation. Depending on your camera, you might be able to choose between different predefined picture styles, or even make your own custom settings of sharpening, contrast, etc.

With the RAW format, you are completely free to post process the output from the camera sensor. RAW formats are also typically able to capture a larger dynamic range than JPEG, which also would contribute to a more bland look on an average computer monitor.

RAW takes up more space and requires more work in post, but gives you more options as well. If minimizing post processing off-camera is a higher priority, then you should go with JPEG rather than RAW.

Finally, anything you put in front of the sensor is captured both in RAW and JPEG, so the effect of a polarizing filter is captured with both formats.

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A polarizing filter will change the quality of the light coming into the lens well before the sensor sees it, meaning raw or jpeg, doesn't matter, it will have an impact.

Most cameras by default use a jpeg conversion that does various adjustments to the image, so to counteract the way the sensor works, some to mimic the look of film, others just to make a "more pleasing" image for the novice.

Raw conversion software typically defaults to "faithful" or "neutral" which tries to remain as accurate to the relative colors as possible. But that doesn't mean "bland" by any stretch of the imagination.

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