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I shoot with a Canon DSLR (I usually shoot in JPEG cos I'm a noob) and like to upload good photos to Instagram. Typically this involves importing the images to my computer, uploading them to Google Drive, and then opening them on the Instagram app on my phone, since Instagram has no desktop upload service.

I usually opt to add/remove contrast, saturation, brightness etc using the editing features Instagram provides because they are quick and dirty, which got me thinking:

Are the basic editing tools such as: saturation, contrast, brightness and exposure the same across different photo editing softwares? Do they apply them in the same way? Would there be an appreciable difference between applying contrast in Photoshop then transferring to Instagram/Tumblr and editing the photos directly in-app? Does some software degrade IQ when altering the image more than others?

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It depends on what type of file you are editing with Photoshop or Lightroom. Those applications handle raw files in a totally different way than they handle jpegs, pngs, or even tiffs.

The biggest difference between editing a jpeg using photoshop and editing it with most online editors is the degree of control over the adjustments. You will likely not only have finer gradations of control but wider extremes as well. Instead of a single hue and saturation control you can adjust the hue, saturation, and luminance independently for eight different color bands ranging from red, orange, yellow, and green, to aqua, blue purple, and magenta. You can use more sophisticated noise reduction with more user controlled variables. You can draw your own gamma curves instead of only adjusting for contrast and perhaps highlights and shadows.

But to get the full power and functionality of Photoshop, Lightroom (both use Adobe Camera Raw to process raw files, they just differ in the way the interface with ACR works), and other such applications you need to bring the raw file with all of the information collected by your camera's sensor.

When you save your files as jpegs most of how the photo will look is pretty well baked in. A high percentage of the raw data from the sensor is discarded and there is no way to recover it from the resulting jpeg file. At that point most of your editing options are to take away some of the information you have left. This is fundamentally different from editing a raw file in which you may discard some information from the interpretation of the data you see on your screen, but you also have the option to add information from the raw data that is not used in the initial depiction on your screen. You have as much flexibility with regard to color temperature, white balance, contrast, black point, white point, saturation, etc. as the sensor on your camera can record and which the application you are using can take advantage.

  • Michael, thanks for your answer. Apologies if my question is badly worded, this isn't entirely what I was asking. I have an understanding of raw vs jpeg; my question is whether or not all photo editing programs, be they high end like Photoshop, or free, like Instagram, add enhancements and adjustments in the same way. – Phil May 17 '16 at 15:51
  • Well, the biggest difference is that they can handle and edit raw files. The biggest practical difference between LR and something like Instagram filters depends on which type of file they are handling. LR and photoshop can handle jpegs, tiffs, etc., but most of their functionality requires using a raw file. Only some of the modules within LR can be used to edit non-raw image files. – Michael C May 17 '16 at 15:55
  • So I shoot in jpeg. My question boils down to this: I take image and open it in two different software editing packages (take your pick). I apply an equivalent amount of contrast in both (let's assume both programs use the same scale of adjustment). Is the resulting image the same from both softwares? – Phil May 17 '16 at 16:00
  • There is no standardized +1 for contrast, so to get the same result you may need to use +1 with one tool and +1.78 with another, and +0.89 with a third. But only one of those may let you use increments less than integers or tenths. But you're not going to be able to adjust the contrast of a jpeg much at all before the whole thing starts falling apart. If you can adjust the contrast of a jpeg by a quarter's worth before it starts looking wonky, you can adjust a reasonably well exposed raw file by $10 worth and it will look just as good as if the camera applied the contrast to the raw data... – Michael C May 17 '16 at 16:12
  • ... before it converted it to jpeg. Talking about the differences between one jpeg editor vs. another with someone who regularly shoots raw files is like talking to Warren Buffet about your passbook savings account down at the community credit union. He may make an observation about what option will get you .55% interest instead of .52% interest, but in his mind he is wondering why you don't invest at least some of it in guaranteed investments that will yield 6-8%. – Michael C May 17 '16 at 16:16
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Each program has its own algorithm for these processes and the result will be different. Indeed, programs like Photoshop have a lot of different ways to make any adjustment. And you have a lot of parameters that may adjust, not only a numerical level. Moreover, as they have told you, they work with different versions of the image file.

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