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Q&A with Robert Randall

Robert Randall is an award-winning commercial advertising photographer based in Chicago. He works primarily with ad agencies, design firms, major corporations and publications.

Robert recently discussed his workflow with professional photographer and MM Admin, Dean Johnson.

Dean Johnson: Can you briefly describe your work as a photographer and a retoucher as it relates to the use of RAW and JPEG files? Do you use both in your work?

Robert Randall: I do use both RAW and JPEG images in my workflow as a retouch artist. Many of the images I receive from clients come from stock houses such as Getty or Shutterstock, which most people think of as high quality, but nothing could be further from the truth. Typically, files from stock houses are noisy; the subject of interest in the image is small and therefore suffering loss of detail.

Periodically I receive files from clients who hired other photographers to shoot their projects. Many times those files are even worse than those found at stock houses. Focus and noise are typical problems found in those images

Dean: What are the advantages to shooting RAW? How do those advantages help the average MM user who perhaps only makes the occasional print? Are there disadvantages to using RAW for that individual?

Robert: The major advantage in shooting RAW has to do with dynamic range or exposure latitude and flexibility of process. RAW files are nothing more than buckets of pixels arranged in accordance with the luminosity of the captured scene. There is little in the way of instruction that you would find in the header of a TIFF or PSD file, which also accounts for its comparatively smaller file size. The downside, when compared to a JPEG file, is in a different form of compression, allowing for JPEGs to be quite a bit smaller.

Basically, with a quality RAW converter you can make just about anything you want from a RAW file, noting that any damage done to the file will appear in the processed file, and not the original RAW file.

The greater dynamic range of a RAW file only becomes apparent when the files are properly exposed. Display of a RAW file on a typical monitor has the same issues you find when displaying an HDR image. The monitor is incapable of displaying the full range of the file.


NBA superstar Derrick Rose photographed by Robert Randall

If you expose for the shadows and let the highlights seemingly blow out, you’ll find that proper use of the highlight recovery tool will bring the file back to a range the monitor can display.  As long as the highlight of an unaffected RAW file reads at least one channel at 254 or below, you can recover highlight information even if the other two channels are pegged at 255.  In my work, there are many instances where the highlight was completely pegged, all three channels were at 255, and highlight detail was still recoverable. The problem with this approach is the lack of barometer to judge how far the highlight goes past recoverable.

Dean: As I understand it, 255 is pure white, so there is no color information left to recover. Can you explain that for us?

Robert: I made the statement that if I have at least one channel showing less than 255, I’m positive that there is detail to be recovered from the highlight. This applies to RAW only, not JPEG. Again, the problem stems from the inability of the monitor to display the entire range of data available.  While I’m positive I can retrieve data if one channel has a number lower than 255, I’m very confident I can retrieve data even when the numbers are pegged at 255 in a RAW file, unless the histogram indicates a severe exposure problem. If the histogram indicates a slight bias toward the highlight, but it hasn’t severely separated from the shadow, I know there is overhead in the highlight that can be retrieved. The software is assigning an arbitrary number to what the monitor is displaying, not what the file contains. This is the primary reason why most of the photographers I know shoot for shadows and leave the highlight alone until RAW processing.

I’ve attached a screen grab of a RAW file as it sits in Capture One. This was from a national ad campaign for Montessori schools. I say that only to lend credence to how much confidence I have in exposure latitude when it comes to highlight recovery in a RAW file. I use this technique on live jobs. Notice the red arrow in the original non-altered representation of the RAW file. That area had zero detail in the original, and the numbers substantiated that claim as they read 255 in all three channels.

Now look at that same area in the recovered file, and you’ll see quite a bit of detail. When you move that slider for highlight recovery, it assigns a linear curve to the data, bringing the highlight numbers down in a smooth and proportionate manner, which is what accounts for the muddy look in the rest of the file.

This is an extreme example of how much latitude there is in the highlight; I don’t use that much help very often. If a client says he likes the tonal qualities of the image, but would prefer a bit of detail in the windows, all I have to do is recover the windows and mask them into the scene.

Basically, the software and the monitor only display the detail that is within the data range of the monitor and artificial means are necessary to bring all the data into view. This is very similar in nature to Ansel Adam’s zone system for suppressing or expanding information in an analog system.

Dean: What are the advantages of shooting JPEG? Will the average photographer, or one who hopes to be published, be at some disadvantage by shooting JPEG?

Robert: I’m not certain the term average is applicable here because the average photographer is primarily someone in a family taking snapshots to record events in their lives. They know nothing of the inner workings of the camera, the file formats, post-processing, or anything else relative to making pictures. For them, there is no drawback in shooting JPEGs.

I’m pretty sure that most photojournalists are shooting JPEG because the upload time is significantly shorter due to compressed file sizes. I know that most sports photographers connected to servers in stadiums via Wi-Fi are shooting JPEG. Shooting RAW under those circumstances would be fatal to careers.

Basically, if you know what you’re doing with cameras and lights (be they artificial or organic), shooting in JPEG offers few disadvantages. It only becomes an issue when salvation is required, and that is typically a situation occuring for the inexperienced photographer when using manual camera controls.

I hear photographers brag ad nauseam about their abilities with manual control and how you mustn’t be any good if you shoot in automatic mode. Nothing on a job could be further from the truth. If the light situation is volatile, you can choose one of two paths while shooting. Either pay attention to the shoot, or pay attention to the camera settings. I guarantee you that any top drawer photographer, regardless of the number of assistants on set, will opt for automatic settings if changing light is a problem and they have a camera that supports automatic controls.

If you shoot a RAW and JPEG file that are the same physical size and both exposed properly, there would be no difference in the published picture. Most people think that JPEG artifacts are the issue in print. However, if you shoot to a finer level of compression (less loss) most every JPEG I’ve ever seen will reproduce well enough for print. Remember, the dot pattern in offset printing is usually more coarse that any JPEG artifact.

Bill Kurtis — the news anchor, producer, and documentarian — is a very accomplished photographer. He has traveled the world over, documenting his travels with a digital camera ever since they became available. He shoots nothing but JPEG, and the display prints on the walls of his office are extraordinary in every definable aspect. The sizes range from 20 X 24 to 40 X 60, and they are exquisite.

Dean: We know that RAW files contain more information than JPEGS. What does this mean for the average MM photographer? Do you think that the average photographer even knows how to take advantage of that additional info?

Robert: RAW files contain more pixel information. JPEGs actually contain more file information. As stated before, the range in a RAW file may extend beyond the ability of the monitor to display that range. As a photographer, you would have to know how to restructure that range into a visible parameter. It’s a simple process for someone who knows how to do it; it’s a locked secret to the average photographer.

In viewing the range of portfolios available on MM, I would say that most MM photographers have an idea of how to use a RAW file converter.  For most of them, the advantage is in recovering files that were exposed poorly. I would suggest that learning how a meter (either in camera or hand-held) interprets light is of more importance than learning how to use a slider control in a RAW converter.


Nicole R, Factor Chicago, photographed by Robert Randall

Dean: What about the printing process? Isn’t most printing done with 8-bit TIFF files? What would the need be for 16-bit RAW captures? If 8 bits of info is lost at this point, why have it in the first place?

Robert: Nothing that I know of currently takes advantage of a 16-bit file — not your display, continuous tone output device, offset print process or web site. About the only thing I can see using 16-bit processing for is to reduce banding in gradients. Note the term “reduce,” not eliminate, because it doesn’t eliminate banding — it just makes the bands tighter together and slightly less noticeable.

At this point, the highest bit rate of display I can find in a consumer level graphics card is 30 bit, not 48. And that AMD card is brand new, so even when you’re working on a 16-bit file in Photoshop, most readers are still only seeing an 8-bit approximation of what a 16-bit file should look like.

There are those who say the process is less destructive when using 16-bit because you have more information to play with, and the loss of a little information won’t be as readily noticed. While that may be true, I’ve never seen a real world display of that advantage. I have seen comparisons in which the author has torked the files so out of shape that both 8 and 16 bit files look terrible. But when is the last time you saw anyone tork a file so badly that it was completely destroyed in the process? The conclusion is that under normal stress levels, 8-bit will visually hold up just as well as 16-bit, with the exception of banding.

Dean: One of the big advantages of RAW is that it allows for more latitude in exposure and rescues images that weren’t exposed correctly, but wouldn’t it make more sense for photographers to just learn how to properly expose in the first place?

Robert: Absolutely! Most photographers are unfamiliar with how a light meter works, be it in their camera or hand-held. The major advantage to working in RAW becomes obvious when working in a scene that has a brightness range beyond what a JPEG will handle. Typically this occurs in natural light situations where highlights and shadows are many stops apart, and there is no means of fill with artificial light or bounce.

The meter, no matter which one you use or what mode you use, will accept light as it relates to 18% gray. If you use a spot meter and read the specular highlight on a face, the meter will tell you to underexpose the scene to make the highlight 18% gray, which is much too dark. Conversely, if you put the meter on something dark, such as a black scarf, the meter will tell you to overexpose the scene in an effort to make the black scarf 18% gray.

Averaging meters do a good job of interpreting an entire scene to a value of 18% gray, and weighted averaging meters do an even better job of it. But they can still be fooled if you aren’t taking into account the heavy bias a scene may have toward dark or light. This is the time when RAW capture shines because if you are careful with metering, the range outside the visible capture can be saved. As far as I’m concerned this is the one and only true advantage of RAW over JPEG. Anything else is just window dressing.

“Beyond the Zone System” by Phil Davis is one of the best tutorials on metering that I’ve ever read. If you adhere to the principles he outlines, you’ll never have to worry about this subject again.


Photographer: Robert Randall; Makeup Artist: Ashley Vest

Dean: It is commonly said that JPEGS can’t be edited or that saving them will destroy them. It’s my opinion that this is exaggerated and JPEGS can take saving more times than most would think. But even with that, I try to avoid saving JPEGS unnecessarily (to that end, I convert the original JPEG to TIFF, do all my edits, then convert it back to JPEG for web display). Is that a good alternative to saving a JPEG file multiple times?

Robert: First of all, it’s almost certainly folklore regarding the destruction of files when saved multiple times as JPEGs. As a test, I just took a cut of a PSD file and saved it as a PSD file. I then opened it and saved it as a JPEG, assigning a value level of 3. No one really assigns a value level that low because in terms of saving space it just isn’t necessary. However, I opened and saved the same file at a level of 3, renaming it every time, and the net result after 10 renamed saves was an incredibly slight reduction in sharpness.

Bearing in mind all the complaints about this process, you would think I would be looking at extreme corruption by the 10th time. The fears and stories just aren’t founded in truth; it’s all hyperbole.

Saving JPEGs to TIFFS is fine, but TIFF files are larger that PSD files and I’m uncertain whether all the potential in Photoshop is available when using TIFF. From the vantage point of a streamlined workflow, it seems counterproductive. Also, it’s very rare to encounter a situation in which a PSD file isn’t recognized by the recipient software. When using a JPEG, my workflow is to convert it immediately to a PSD file.

Dean: Let’s say the final output of the file will be a large print or publication in a high-end magazine or poster. How much real difference will there be when comparing one JPEG capture to one RAW capture? Can one even tell the difference just by looking at it? What will those differences be? Better color? Less noise?

Robert: Depending on the quality of the capture and how many effects are enabled in post-processing, it’s possible for there to be no difference between a JPEG and a RAW file. Obviously, due to the amount of leverage available in a well-exposed RAW file, there is potential for a great deal of difference. But again, that depends on how well-exposed the JPEG was.

People have the idea stuck in their heads that a JPEG file doesn’t allow for flexibility or have room for manipulation, which is false. I can no longer count the number of times I’ve saved poorly captured JPEG files that were destined for national publications or billboards. Basically, in the hands of a competent photographer, there is little difference other than what has already been discussed.

As far as seeing any differences simply by looking at the final print, I challenge anyone to see a difference in the files I work on. Given optimum conditions for both formats, there will be no difference in color, contrast, noise or artifacts of any kind.

Dean: Can you help us understand the differences between destructive and nondestructive editing?

Robert: The difference between destructive and nondestructive imaging is actually quite simple. Suppose you want to affect an image with a curve. If you choose to use Command M to invoke the curve, make the adjustment and hit OK, the adjustment is immediately and forever a part of the file, providing you don’t undo the action and you commit a save on the file. If, however, you elect to use a layer curve, nothing happens to the file until you flatten the file and commit it with a save. Basically, working in layers is nondestructive, and working without layers is destructive.

Join the discussion of this Q&A with Robert Randall in the Model Mayhem forum.

Robert Randall

Robert Randall is a commercial advertising photographer based in Chicago. He works primarily with ad agencies, design firms, major corporations and publications. Robert's commercial work has won multiple awards, including the BMA National Award of Excellence. His website is www.robert-randall.com.

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