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It's easy to fall on the "too-much" side when playing with raw editing software. I guess it is mainly a matter of moderation, and the question might raise criticism over his broadness, yet I am still wondering : are there a set of settings or ranges I should (generally) stick to or avoid if I want to ensure my final image has a "natural" appearance ?

By "natural", I mean something like "plausible as a real life eye view" (without sunglasses or anything).

NB : FWIW, I'm using rawtherapee.

NB2 : This question and this other question are somehow related, focusing respectively on philosophical aspects and ethics of image processing (though the questioner of the second one mentions a few relevant technical criterions).

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    "Natural" is a very subjective term. This is especially true when you consider that everything between the lens and the final product applies its own flavor of distortion to the image. – Blrfl Aug 25 '15 at 15:25
  • Use the XRite passport to create a profile for the camera. – JDługosz Aug 25 '15 at 15:29
  • @Blrfl : Of course, hence the quotation marks. Your comment gave me an idea on how to clarify the question, though. – Skippy le Grand Gourou Aug 25 '15 at 15:47
  • I am not sure raw editing softwares provide a lot of similar settings. White Balance, exposure/color correction or sharpening are common. What about vignetting, cloning/correcting... Maybe you should make a list of the settings you want to be discussed. Even then, I'm really not certain you will get an answer... To much subjectivity is at play in my opinion. – Olivier Aug 25 '15 at 15:56
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    Process the day you took the photo so you remember what "natural" was. – Whelkaholism Aug 26 '15 at 8:56
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Each control has two different uses; to compensate for shortcomings in the original exposure, or to add an effect to the image. In a certain range the control has the first use, beyond that it has the second use.

The problem is that there is no specific values where a control goes from compensating to effect, and in each case there isn't even a specific point where it goes from one to the other. It varies a lot depending on the type of image and how good the original exposure is, and it also depends on what you consider to be a natural image.

A reasonable value for some controls (for example contrast), can vary very much from one image to the next, while others (for example local contrast) usually lies within a small range.

One way to see what effect a control has is to push it way into the range where you know it's beyond just compensating. That gives you an idea of what exactly the control does to the image, and what to look for when determining if you use it too much. If you for example push the local contrast too far in either direction, you get halo effects around bright and dark items in the image.

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I think the natural answer is that if the goal is "natural", then avoid the Vivid and Landscape colors.

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    What do you mean by Vivid and Landscape colors? Are they some feature of rawthereapee, or another raw converter? I know Nikon have picture controls which include Vivid and Landscape, but they only apply to in-camera processed JPGs, not really relevant for post-processing raw file. – MikeW Aug 25 '15 at 19:01
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    Yes, but raw processors have to offer the same profiles, so we have that control in raw. We just don't have to choose Vivid, but they offer it. At least Adobe certainly does. I have not seen rawtherapee. – WayneF Aug 25 '15 at 22:06
  • AFAICS there is no such exact profile in Rawtherapee, but there are probably other profiles to avoid indeed in most cases (e.g. "punchy"). – Skippy le Grand Gourou Aug 26 '15 at 10:59
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There is no such thing as a natural photo. Whether intentional or not, every photo is an interpretation of reality. Cameras don't see the same way our eyes/brains do. I don't think I've ever seen a photograph that was "plausible as a real life eye view." I'm always aware I am viewing a photograph rather than the actual scene.

What is included and what is excluded from the frame is an interpretive decision. So is the perspective that results from the selected shooting distance.

The aperture selected that determines depth of field creates a certain interpretation. The same exact scene shot with a 300mm lens at f/2.8 will look entirely different than that same scene shot at f/16, especially if there are large differences in distance from the camera between the nearest and most distant objects in the field of view. Which interpretation is natural and which is not natural?

How long the shutter is open can be very interpretive depending on how static or how much motion is in the scene. Which interpretation is natural and which is not natural?

How bright the overall exposure is as determined by the combination of shutter speed, aperture, and sensitivity (ISO) can greatly alter the mood of the scene. Which interpretation is natural and which is not natural?

Even the amount of noise or distortion introduced by the camera or lens can alter the interpretation of reality created by a photo. Which interpretation is natural and which is not natural?

All of those interpretive decisions have already been made at the time the shutter button is pressed all the way down! We could go on and on about each step in the editing process as well. And editing a photo, whether in the darkroom or at the computer, has always been an interpretive process.

Just study the differences in prints Ansel Adams made of Moonrise, Hernadez, New Mexico over the years. He took the image in 1941 and produced over 1,300 prints from the negative over the course of his life. It is probably his most well known image, and certainly the negative from which he produced the most prints. The prints he considered the definitive versions weren't made until the mid-1970s! He spent 35 years fiddling with it in the darkroom before getting the look he wanted from the scene he recorded in 1941! Yet Adams is often cited as one of the best examples of the straight photography movement!


For further reading:
The future of photography

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    Though your points are interesting, I think you missed my definition of "natural" : "By "natural", I mean something like "plausible as a real life eye view" (without sunglasses or anything).". In most of your examples, both photos could be considered as natural. Maybe I was thinking "straight photography" indeed. – Skippy le Grand Gourou Aug 26 '15 at 11:06
  • Great point about Ansel Adams' work, however, and his vision of the negative as the score and the print as the performance. This will definitely change my view on photography. – Skippy le Grand Gourou Aug 26 '15 at 11:09
  • Cameras don't see the same way our eyes/brains do. I don't think I've ever seen a photograph that was "plausible as a real life eye view." I'm always aware I am viewing a photograph rather than the actual scene. – Michael C Aug 26 '15 at 13:13
  • Yet I'm sure you've seen plenty of images that felt really "unnatural" because of too much post-processing, don't you ? – Skippy le Grand Gourou Aug 26 '15 at 17:11
  • (Of course I'm not talking about images that "naturally" seem "unnatural", like those.) – Skippy le Grand Gourou Aug 26 '15 at 17:48

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