So I've always shot film, and it was great because of the constraints it placed on color: you shoot 36 consecutive exposures with a particular feel, and if you don't like to results, deal with it because there isn't a whole lot you can do about it except practice and make better decisions.

While this was annoying at times, this was somehow comforting: the film's color handling was authoritative. You learned to work within the constraints. However I'm now shooting a digital Leica M-D, which is by the most film-like digital camera I can find, and yet it presents me with a dilemma: All the constraints are gone! I have no idea how to choose a color feel because the possibilities are literally infinite! And even if I did, it's really really hard to execute the vision it well!

How do people who've shot digital forever deal with this? Do you choose one VSCO filter for yourself and stick with it? Do you do crazy color calibration stuff so you can start from a perfectly neutral image and go from there creatively? Do you trust the camera's automatic white balance? Do you rely exclusively on the preset WB settings? Do you throw your hands in the air and shoot in black and white?

I don't expect a straightforward answer, but even a few words of advice would be good because the sheer number of options are driving me nuts.

  • 4
    Welcome to the world of infinite possibilities. You pay your money and you make your choice. Unless you want to emulate a particular film look, leave the VSCO filters behind and create your own "look."
    – Michael C
    Mar 6, 2017 at 2:14
  • Lots of references in the answers to "shoot RAW". The Leica M-D only shoots DNG.
    – dpollitt
    Mar 7, 2017 at 3:41
  • 3
    I doubt every future reader who is interested in the same question, "Help for a film shooter: how to cope with the paradox of choice?", will be shooting with a Leica M-D.
    – Michael C
    Mar 7, 2017 at 6:27
  • 1
    I use a neutral profile on my camera (only used for camera-generated JPG) and always shoot RAW. Then when I "develop" the RAW files in Lightroom, I try to be recreate my intention... or just be creative if I feel so.
    – roetnig
    Mar 29, 2017 at 14:59

8 Answers 8


There's no one way.

Personally I find digital frees me to defer choices until after the shot. Not only that but I can "discover" new interpretations of a scene with different crops, different toning, color and contrast.

So I'd suggest what you need to do is shift your perspective. Many people resist post processing as if it was an annoying nuisance. I'd strongly recommend you embrace the new freedom and look at it as giving you more creative scope.

Look upon it as part of the process of getting the image you want.

I'd also recommend you invest time in experimenting with the many tools available. You don't need to become an expert, but you need to become aware of what's possible.

Everyone is different and YMMV, but you asked so I'll tell you : I shoot RAW and work from the RAW files. As I shoot RAW I don't use auto white balance at all and generally correct white and color balance in various ways (there are many techniques). From RAW you have the most digital freedom - it is, in a sense, like working from undeveloped negative all the way through.

With a little perseverance you'll work out your own basic techniques.

It helps if you make at least a basic attempt to calibrate your computer display. Try this website.

  • +1. Even more - exposure also is a "delayed item". When shooting, I go ETTR (Expose To The Right). Go to as much data as you can. Even if I envision the photo to be low key (obviously within technical limits). Then I adjst in post processing to my vision. OBVIOUSLY this has limits - Gels to change flash colors are still useful, for example.
    – TomTom
    Mar 6, 2017 at 9:17
  • @TomTom That's not entirely unique to digital. What do you think Adams' Zone System is?
    – Michael C
    Mar 6, 2017 at 10:30
  • 1
    Many people resist post processing as if it was an annoying nuisance. ...Which I don't get since manually post-processing negatives into prints is held as a high art.
    – Blrfl
    Mar 6, 2017 at 17:28
  • 1
    @Blrfl Sure, high art that few people actually want to do. I think there's no contradiction. :)
    – mattdm
    Mar 6, 2017 at 20:15

I also came to digital from film. For me personalty I shoot only in RAW, when I post process I strive to achieve realistic colors and a true representation of the scene as I remember it.

My opinion is that at some point post processing techniques go beyond photography and are in the realm of graphic art. Where does artistic license cross that line? I don't know. But if I see a photo and the first thoughts are - are those real colors is this a true recording of the scene? That does not look right, - then credibility is in question to my mind. I KNOW most photographers disagree with me on this and i do not need to or want to argue my point with them. (tangential rant, albeit pertinent to the OP's question, is over)

So my advise, (take it for what its worth) take full control of your images and do not let the camera's software edit your images or discard data by using JPG.

Shoot in RAW, choose the white balance that is appropriate for light source you are shooting in (you are in raw so you can tweak it in in post if you like).

Calibrate your equipment to as close to true life as possible, use the widest color space - gamut - palette.

Post process to your individual taste and goals.

Take what ever artistic license you wish. It is YOUR photography.

  • What is the source of your quote?
    – Michael C
    Mar 6, 2017 at 11:20
  • 2
    @MichaelClark I think it's an unsuitable use of quotation markup, rather than an actual quotation. Mar 6, 2017 at 11:22
  • @MichaelClark what quote are you referring to?
    – Alaska Man
    Mar 6, 2017 at 17:08
  • 1
    The section in blue above, where you used the > markup to indicate a quotation.
    – mattdm
    Mar 6, 2017 at 20:17
  • +1 My thoughts exactly, especially regarding photography vs. graphics arts. I find most of the "popular" pictures on 500px horrendous.
    – user29608
    Mar 9, 2017 at 13:40

It probably depends on what you intend to do with the photos. Your concerns will be different if you're shooting professionally for print publication vs. snapping candid family photos. I used to shoot raw all the time, just in case I wanted to play with the white balance later. But after only doing this to a handful of images over several years, and seeing how much disk space my raw files were taking up, I abandoned raw and started trusting the camera. The camera usually does a good job. And when it doesn't, because most of my photos are personal, I don't care so much about achieving technical perfection. I sometimes switch back to raw for particularly "important" photos, but only rarely.

  • I agree with "it depends.." but personally, I just buy another hard drive & work it til it's full.
    – Tetsujin
    Mar 6, 2017 at 6:52
  • @Tetsujin Depending on the camera, shooting raw may require you to do all that post-processing on every photo. Mine also creates a low-quality jpeg with each raw file, but I prefer to have a high-quality jpeg and avoid the extra work. Mar 6, 2017 at 6:54
  • 3
    @KevinKrumwiede Shooting raw doesn't have to require "...all that post-processing on every photo." Most of the camera makers' in-house raw conversion software can be set to open the raw file with the in-camera settings in effect at the time the image was shot. Only if one chooses to use third party raw applications that typically ignore the in camera settings are any adjustments required before converting if the in-camera settings were correct as shot. And there's always RAW+JPEG with the vast majority of cameras.
    – Michael C
    Mar 6, 2017 at 11:25
  • @KevinKrumwiede As you say, dependent on the camera. All Canon DSLRs can be set up to store a high-quality JPEG and the RAW file. But even without the JPEG, you can get whatever software you use to produce high-quality JPEGs by batch-converting the RAW files with default settings. Of course, that is some extra work, but it's almost none. Mar 6, 2017 at 11:28
  • The difference is if you batch convert using the application's default settings differences in camera settings between photos within the series will be ignored. If you use an application that applies the in-camera settings at the time each image was created, any changes made between frames will be applied.
    – Michael C
    Mar 7, 2017 at 6:25

Just pick a choice at random.

If you see no reason why one choice will be superior to another, there is no reason to let decision paralysis and the myth of "the right choice" to hobble you. Pick a look you want to go for, any look, and then start systematically selecting some from your endless tools and exercising getting to that look until you feel you can pull it off reasonably well. Note which process gives you the best result. Then pick another look, rinse, repeat.

With time, you might develop a narrow "style" and create a toolchain for yourself which gives your signature look without much effort. Or you might find that you are a good experimenter, giving each new project a unique feel. Or turn out to be somewhere in the middle. In any case, whatever you learn while learning to create the first look, will make you better at making the second. And the first and second will make you better at trying the third. And so on.

The decision to rely on presets or not is not really important. It resolves itself in the process of finding out how to get to the look you are aiming for in the current project. And please don't let others tell you that you are doing something wrong if you are using the camera's WB or similar! Most ambitioned photographers do end up doing most of that stuff manually, but only because they find that having the additional control makes it easier to achieve whatever they are going for. Once you have a goal towards you are working, you will find for yourself where you need or want the extra control and where a preset is sufficient.

The constraints of film may have helped you focus, because each frame "counted" more. But you don't need external constraints to focus, once you know how focusing works. The upside of the unconstrained digital environment is that it makes it safe to fail - you have as many tries as you need to achieve good results (and don't forget to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good). These are the best prerequisites for learning - go out there, use them, and shoot.


I find it helpful to edit pictures as sequences, rather than individually. If I go on a walk or I take a trip, I will try to find a style that works well with all the pictures, and I'll try to match the pictures together. This is very easy when you have pictures from the same setting and lighting conditions. The benefit of this approach is that it will severely limit your options, as you will need to find a more moderate style that will work many pictures. Here is my workflow:

  1. I find the white balance for one picture and apply it to every picture in the sequence.
  2. I adjust the vignetting on each individual picture (this is helpful if you crop later).
  3. I correct the exposure of each individual picture; beginning with exposure (brightness), then black and whites (usually) to fill out the histogram, and then I tailor the contrast to the specific picture. I make sure there's continuity between the pictures.
  4. I shop for a style preset that works with the whole sequence, which is usually pretty easy because most of them ruin some pictures.
  5. I go through the images one by one and take notice of pictures that stick out, and why; and then I make smaller adjustments to the white balance and exposure.

This workflow significantly simplified color correction for me, as I'm no longer looking for perfection.

I've also found it helpful to create an Adobe Camera Profile with Adobe DNG Profile Editor for each camera and lens combination using a color card (from this eBay store), so that I don't have to worry about the differences in color between cameras and lenses. I prefer using those over the camera specific VSCO presets that come with camera profiles, which I found gave bad results.

Lastly, you could try to create your own style presets with the curves in Adobe instead of always opting for film emulation with VSCO. That will often yield better results than any preset.


If you are happy with natural seeming colors, or you're just doing a bunch of quick candid photos, and you don't want to give yourself a headache... Use a white balance card.

I think this description of how to do that applies to your camera:

If you read the Leica MD Type 262 manual, there is no discussion on how to use white balance and there is no button push or menu item for white balance. So, how would one use a white balance card with this type of camera? The answer is easy! Simple expose the white balance card in a frame, just like you would with an M Type 240. When you download all your images to your computer and edit them, you can then just use the white balance eye dropper in Adobe Lightroom and select the white balance card in that shot. The temperature will be set to what you saw in the actual scene. Then, simply copy it or synch the photos to use the same temperature for the other images. Voila! White balance is set using a manual digital camera!


Do you rely exclusively on the preset WB settings?

Quite the opposite. With RAW/DNG files, you don’t decide that at exposure time, so the setting is irrelevant except for the preview and its histogram.

I shoot a grey cloth in context if I can, then, at the computer after copying off the files, use that shot to set the WB on all of them. If I don’t have a calibration shot then I might find enough neutral objects in one shot or another — once found, carry the setting over to all the exposures.

I'll only ever use the camera’s WB on “auto” or “custom”. The latter is for serious videos, which are not RAW, so I get a reading ahead of time.

Do you do crazy color calibration stuff so you can start from a perfectly neutral image and go from there creatively?

Yes, that. For normally lit subjects. For bizzare or bad lighting, I’ll worry about skin tones and recognisable colors. Unless you want the parking lot to look like the sodium lighting… really, in-life you put up with more of that then in a picture, so a properly evocotive print might be half way between restored skin tone a d the waxy look of the low-CRI lamps.

Note that “accurate” is simply one possible color feel. But you need to start with that before applying a filter to create some other feel, if you want consistent results.


This is a general answer, for cameras that do raw+jpeg, since the question doesn't seem to be specifically about the Leica M-D. I address raw-only cameras at the end.

Use your camera's built in jpegs, straight out of camera, with default settings. This eliminates the "paradox of choice" entirely. When evaluating this option, shoot in raw+jpeg, but archive the raw files and only use the jpeg files. Do this until you have a good feel for the results - do you like them? If so, the problem is solved. If not, start investigating other "looks", either by adjusting the in-camera settings for contrast, saturation etc (probably a good first step), or by finding a computer-based equivalent (a preset in Lightroom or similar). When you find a "look" that you like, go back and process all of your RAW files. As an optional step, then consider shooting in jpeg only. This workflow described so far applies to most cameras from Nikon, Canon, Sony, Fuji etc.

It might be of interest to others to know that FujiFilm cameras come with jpeg settings which aim to closely emulate a number of their film stocks.

If you have a raw-only camera, skip the in-camera jpegs and go straight to finding a "look" in Lightroom or similar. Once this is decided, apply it to all of your raw files. If you want it to be "authoritative", then delete the raw files and keep only jpegs.

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