Monthly Archives: February 2012

jPEG Verses RAW Files For Retouching

For those of you that are interested in becoming a High-End retouch artist and are wondering whether to use jPEG verses RAW, this information is for you.

What exactly is the difference? RAW files are raw image sensor data, unprocessed and are similar to a negative from back in the film days, but it is not a negative it is just a compilation of information which needs to be processed. RAWs are not an image until they are processed further using software by a computer.  JPEGs are a digital image which is the result of a RAW file that has been processed by the camera adjusting sharpness, color and contrast. The camera records the jPEG and then deletes the RAW file. Most Cameras will give you the option of saving both RAW and jPEGs and some will offer a TIFF option as well.

As far as quality goes, there’s no difference. JPegs are a smaller file which take up less space and do not require any further processing. If you’re shooting sports or weddings or events, you can take fit a lot more jpegs on your memory card than you can RAW files. Most jPegs are acceptable enough for most clients and require none or very little further processing. For the purpose of high-end retouching, RAW files are the preferred choice, as you can control the color, clarity, exposure, sharpness, etc much better than you can with a camera processed jPEG. Chances are if you have an interest in being a high-end retoucher, then you’re a control freak and it makes perfect sense to begin with unprocessed data in where you have complete control from the beginning.

So What are the cons of choosing jPEG vs Raw?

Let’s start with RAWs. Digital technology continues to evolve and as with many different companies providing their input, a mutual baseline of standard has not yet been established. Nikon uses a NEF filie format, Canon uses CRW and neither side is recognized by the other. Advances in technology are leaning more towards a universally recognized format called DNG, however that has not been solidified as of yet. Lightroom and some other software RAW processing packages give you the option of converting your RAW over to a DNG file which seems to be the favored direction for a more universally recognized standard. As technology advances, newer software will become available to process RAW files more effectively. that means that 20 or 50 years from now, software of the future may not even recognize what a NEF file is. You may have heard someone say or read somewhere that RAW files go bad over time. But to clarify, it is not the RAW file that will ever degrade or go bad, it’s the ability of future software and technology to be able to read and process it. jPEGs are already a universally recognized file and will most likely be decades into the future. Although Personally, I shoot in RAW format and prefer to take control of the entire processing, at some point I may have to archive my entire library to make duplicate copies in a jPEG or TIFF form for use in the future. Hopefully, that will never happen, but it is always a lingering thought. As far as I’m concerned, RAW is the way to go for me. I convert to a DNG file which embeds any sidecar file (xmp) into the DNG file leaving me with only one file footprint in my Library.

So what are the disadvantages of using jPEG’s for High end retouching? When the need arises to do a seriously strong exposure or color correction, the information is just not there. There just isn’t enough information in a “fully baked” jPEG file to do the necessary adjustments. I had to go back into my files a few years to find this example in the image above. Although the in camera processor did a fairly good job of keeping the shadows and highlights within an acceptable range, you can clearly see that the highlights are completely clipped. even after dropping the exposure a half step and using the recovery slider all the way at 100, I was still unable to reveal any of the texture in the scales. What that means is that when this file goes to print, that entire clipped area will be read by the printer as all white.

As long as the image sensor captured a usable amount of information in the RAW file, in most cases the detail in both the shadow and the highlight areas can be brought back.

The bottom line is that although jPegs are the prefered choice for most shooters because of fast processing and transfer times, there just isn’t enough information in an off camera processed jPEG to do all of the adjustments as well as you could with a RAW file. There are other factors such as reduced color space, reduced bit depth and over sharpening in a jPEG which to most high-end retouch artists are just not worth giving up.

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Are Magazine Images Too Unrealistic?

This Topic of debate has been popping up a lot more recently and as a High End Retoucher and Photographer, I’m going to try to shed some light on the subject.


Yes, it should be no surprise that we are in the digital era. And that means the entertainment and advertising industries have a toolbox of computer technology which is used to transform digital negatives into highly polished images of perfection for the best presentation. You wouldn’t expect to purchase a new vehicle without a beautiful finished paint job or a cake without frosting, so it should be obvious that a digital image has been tuned up and polished using the tools of the trade. As human beings, we learn from an early age to always present our best and to expect others to do the same. So why is there so much debate about these images being presented as the best.

I’d like to break this all the way down to a primal simple level. It’s all reflective of the learning curve in life. The moments that we as human beings realize or discover or learn something which should have been obvious. In most cases, these revelations embarrasses us, anger us, or just make us feel amused. In this case I’m referring to the day that we find out that mostly all magazine and entertainment images have been altered or retouched in some way or another. To most people these times of discovery are neatly filed away as lessons learned and the person goes about their life happy to have obtained some new information. To others, they may feel as though they have been wronged or duped and feel a need to stand on a soap box to announce to the world their disapproval of the newly enlightened information in a way of processing the information. These are the ones that invoke topics of debate in their struggles to be heard while others are quick to jump on board while reflecting on their own associations.

The problem lies in the fact that this world constantly balances between quantity verses quality. There are many fantastic retouchers who know their toolbox so thoroughly that every image they work on is stellar. But there are also some paid retouchers who misuse or are unable to use the tools correctly or completely and the results produced are unrealistic images. When a person looks at an image, the brain instantly can interpret whether or not something looks off. when an image is perfect the brain files it away as a great shot. But when something is off, even though the brain might not realize exactly what, it is filed under the questionable category. In the case of beauty and fashion, I’m referring to elongated limbs and extremities, oversized eyes and lips and unrealistic body shapes. Somehow these ‘finished’ images make their way into the public’s eye, mostly for reasons of time or budget restrictions, poor management or lack of technical ability. Most of society has been bred to produce more quantity and to compromise quality.

But what about the images that are perfect? Where the skin is perfect and all the features of the face and body fall within the golden ratio of phi. The images that are raising expectations of the public to achieve perfection in their own appearance. This is a sensitive area which really deals with underlying issues that go much deeper. I will always have empathy for anyone who has an obsession or compulsion. whether it’s alcohol, money, appearance, knowledge or any form of obsession or addiction, There are many deep-rooted issues associated with each one. Unfortunately, it’s the loved ones of those victims who are quick to seek blame where ever they can. In the case of the strive for the perfect face and body, The industry is the target of that blame.

So the question arises, “Should there be warning labels for retouched images. My feelings are no, as retouched images are a standard for the industry and it is imperative to present a visually impacting image. Although it is not common knowledge that almost all digital files have been processed to one extent or another, we as retouchers must strive to hold a certain level of excellence in the anticipation that others will follow to meet and exceed the standards. The effect and repercussions on the public opinions will always be apparent and the industry will always be the target of blame. I find it curious that so many food advertisements are falsely presenting their products, as what you get is not actually what is Advertised. Yet somehow, fewer complaints are voiced because most of the population has become so tuned to accept mediocre products and purchase convenience items.  The beauty and fashion industry is no different. We all want the expensive home on the coast and the fancy sports cars in the driveways but for most, that is not realistically obtainable. Most people are okay with that fact and don’t dwell on the fact. But there will always be some who will become obsessed with obtaining those items with no regard to themselves or others.  Should money also have a warning label? how about the elite multi-million  dollar dreamhomes? Alcohol? Knowledge? power? the list is infinite.

As the population grows, the industry grows, and the need for finishers also will grow. My advice to anyone in the industry is to step up your game, hone your skills and become one with your tools. Set a standard of excellence for yourself and others to follow. Find the best team possible to work with and learn to walk away from the situations where quantity prevails over quality.

Bottom line: It’s the less skilled and hurried retouchers who are contributing to the stirring pot of controversy and providing evidence of unbelievable expectations.

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