Photography

Is it worth it to post-process your photos?

I wish I had kept track of how many hours it took me to post-process the digital photos I took in Ireland. I shot 999 photos, all in RAW, with my Canon S95. If it averaged me a minute per to work them over in Photoshop — and that estimate is probably light — that’s about 16½ hours of processing. No wonder I’ve gotten so little else done since I got back to Indiana.

I kept thinking about Eric Kim’s recent article extolling the virtues of just shooting JPEG and simply accepting the results. He’s right: it’s faster and easier. And your digital camera does correct for lens distortion and adjusts color and contrast. Kim says that modern digital cameras make pretty good choices. Why post-process when the camera can do it well enough for you?

But I don’t usually like the choices my S95 makes. I wonder whether my six-year-old camera qualifies as modern anymore. Kim is shooting with cameras much newer.

And no camera can do certain things as well as Photoshop can.

Let me show you what I mean. I acutally shoot RAW+JPEG, meaning I get a RAW file and the in-camera JPEG each time I click the shutter. Here’s the JPEG I got of a dramatic scene at Carrick-a-Rede Island.

img_3168

Here it is after I worked it over in Photoshop. Check out all of the detail Photoshop and I pulled out of the shadows. And the sky isn’t blown out anymore. Also, the S95’s images run a little colder/bluer than my mind remembers them. I warmed this up slightly.

At Carrick-a-Rede Bridge

It really is remarkable how much information the RAW file contains that the JPEG doesn’t. Here’s a church and cemetery in Ardara, a coastal town in County Donegal.

img_3403

Just look at all the detail Photoshop found on the hillside cemetery. I also made some corrections to perspective to more properly anchor the church in the photograph. I take a lot of architectural photos from ground level, leading to buildings appearing to lean back. I frequently tweak perspective, even on my film photographs, trying to make buildings look more natural.

Church of the Holy Family, Ardara, Ireland

But sometimes the results are mixed. This is the JPEG I got of a scene as Margaret and I climbed the breathtaking cliffs at Slieve League. The distant hill is a little hazy, but the colors are pretty good.

img_3457

My work in Photoshop clarified that hill and made the sky a lot more interesting, but I couldn’t do that without dulling the foreground.

At Slieve League

I’m going to process most of my photos whether or not I shoot RAW. I’ll tweak white balance, fix perspective problems, straighten things up when I didn’t have the camera perfectly level, and enhance colors. So I might as well shoot RAW; it gives me so much more information to work with.

Perhaps the solution is to shoot fewer photographs, but make each one I do shoot count. That way, I’ll have fewer to process when I get home. This is what happens automatically when I shoot film, by the way.

Because I want those 16½ hours back.

What are your thoughts and feelings around shooting RAW and post-processing?

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51 thoughts on “Is it worth it to post-process your photos?

  1. My thoughts are not quite on your specific question, but address the question you started to ask.

    When I was young, there were 12 exposures on a roll of film. Later it went to 24 or even 36. I always found that 36 shots never yielded 3x the quality pictures I got from a roll of 12. Then there was the cost of processing, which was not insubstantial.

    Digital has made photography almost free, meaning we take so many more shots. Almost free to me, anyhow, because I’m not really into photography. They are not free to you, because you sweat the details for each one. The problem is that the costs sneak up on you in processing time.

    I can’t tell you to take fewer shots because you clearly value them more than I do. But perhaps you ought to come up with the amount of money that 3 minutes of processing time represents to you and think of that number before you click the imaginary shutter. It’s always about weighing costs and benefits. Can you tell I was an econ major?

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    • That’s a good way to look at it: what is it going to cost me to make this shot. Because the 17-ish hours I spent processing my photos from Ireland were not easy to come by. It’s opportunity cost I’m incurring — there are so many things I need to be doing.

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  2. Hello Jim, I always tend to shoot raw and post process much like yourself. If I am using the Sigma DP1 raw is the only way as the jpeg’s aren’t really that good. My Olympus EPL1 and E620 give great quality jpeg’s but I shoot raw to get that bit extra out of the images in Lightroom.

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    • If my S95 gave me better JPEGs (less distortion, better clarity) I would probably just use the JPEGs for 80% of everything, and process only the 20% that I was trying to rescue, or that were great but I could make better, or that I was trying to do something artistic with. That would be my preference!

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  3. I use Lightroom, and that alters my approach a bit. To me, Lightroom is designed with the idea of minimizing these dilemmas. I used to shoot transparencies, as you know, and I’m so glad I learned in that medium. As noted above, the cost per frame made me slow down my mental process and consider. I’m a little more willing with the shutter these days, but not too awfully much. So in any given situation, my harvest of images will be lower than usual. That helps a lot.

    That said, I’ve done the thing where I just shoot jpeg, and I will never go back. Secondarily, I tend to make my energy-expense choices in determining which of the group I ever subject to Lightroom in the first place. I generally only bother with 1-10% of the shots.

    Long way of saying that the difference between jpeg and the detailed changes I can make it Lightroom is more than worth it to me, once I’ve culled which images I work with in the first place.

    Ireland sounds great! Looking forward to more images. :)

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    • I have Lightroom, and presently use it mostly as a way to catalog my shots. I haven’t looked at its image editing features yet. I find the program is a memory and disk hog and doesn’t release resources well, causing my computer to bog down all the time. Argh. But maybe I should give it another look.

      I think your phrase, “once I’ve culled which images I work with in the first place,” is key. I don’t do that. The OCD perfectionist in me wants to edit every last image. Or almost every last image; I just delete the ones that didn’t turn out at all.

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      • Funny — I only use the editing features and not the catalog! :) It’s weird — I don’t find that it slows my laptop down at all. I’ll have to consult my brother on this (he does historical reenactment photography, how’s that for a niche) and how he avoids it. But yeah — I cull A LOT. Or else I’d go insane. :)

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  4. bodegabayf2 says:

    You are being too hard on yourself and your camera here. Once-in-a-lifetime trips, vacations, etc., where you are shooting 999…999!!!…photos are not appropriate times to think about changing your image workflow. At these times, we tend to shoot photos of everything because we are so visually stimulated. My recent trips to Lake Tahoe and Yosemite are good examples. I had a great time but took mostly snapshots, none of which were worth toiling over in front of a computer screen. Remember, even Ansel Adams had lots of negatives he never printed. Enjoy your images, revisit them in a few months. You may find that there are a manageable number that you want to work on in PS.

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    • Well, good point. I shot a lot because when am I ever going to be there again? But I’d say 1/3 of my photos were expendable on some level. I processed most of them anyway…because I *might* want to use them on the blog. The blog actually drove me to process them right away, because I need content for this beast. Without the blog, I would have worked through them more slowly. But also, without the blog I don’t know that I would have become the photographer I am. So it’s a tradeoff.

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  5. Andy Umbo says:

    As a long time “pro”, we shot transparency on everything for publication. That means we also brought filters to improve color based on the light that existed, and all that. I generally preset my cameras with the contrast I’ve already tested out with printing, that I think looks like a “film print”. And I actually still use glass correction filters, but you have to set “daylight” or “tungsten” in the camera, just like you were using those films. I get better results than I would having everything on “auto”, but it still doesn’t replace film, as far as I’m concerned. Even when I was shooting for “record”, with a pocket point-and-shoot and negative color, the film processor and printer (even the Walgreens), would make better and quicker auto-correct in the printing machine than I would do today on a computer…

    Been shooting digital professionally since 2006, and I still don’t like it…

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    • The kind of work you do is a whole new world to me. I’m just a hobbyist in the end. But even this hobbyist has noticed that the autocorrect at the processor’s is pretty darned good.

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  6. Coming from a canon system I can tell you that their jpg engine is horrible. I never used OOC jpgs out of any of my canons G15, 50d, or 5d3. Didn’t matter which sensor I was using they all felt flat and lifeless with compressed DR. I shot raw, imported them into lightroom, sorted, post processed them and sometimes add a little creativity in photoshop. Finally after that I would export jpgs for social media or client use.

    A little while ago I made the switch to micro 4/3 and I can tell you that Olympus has a stunning, fantastically awesome jpg engine built in camera. I rarely shoot raw anymore unless I have something creative I’m planning from the start. I am now back to shooting which is the part I love.

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    • Yes, flat and (mostly) lifeless is what I’ve been getting. But also I get a fair amount of pincushion distortion that Photoshop fixes in one step. I keep looking at the Olympus OM-D and drooling.

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      • Andy Umbo says:

        Joshua and Jim, I bought a few Canon digital point-and-shoots a while back and was completely floored by how bad their jpegs were. Really flat, not really sharp and soft to the point of distraction. I wondered if Canon was gaming their “noise” stats by making the image soft. I have a buddy that has a Nikon digital credit card size camera that cost about 80 bucks, and his results were amazing far superior. That’s when I gave up on Canon for point-and-shoot.

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        • My S95 has done some wonderful straight JPEG work. So I think it’s on the better end of the Canon scale. But I still wish for a digicam that does far better JPEG work for the routine photos I take. Even routine vacation photos in a distant land.

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        • I’m not sure what Canon’s Achilles heel is when it comes to jpgs. To be honest, if i could go back in time i would have told my past self to steer clear of all canon products. Nikon, Sony and Olympus have realized that if their customers are given a good jpg option, most will actually use jpg.

          Liked by 1 person

      • I have a E-P5 and an E-M1, i’m fairly in love with Olympus. The E-M1 is probably my favorite digital camera ever. Colors are spectacular, punchy vibrant and full of DR. An E-M1 / 35mm (FFE) F/1.8 can be had for 1/3 of the cost and weight of a FF DSLR body only.

        Also Speaking of pincushion, most Olympus cameras have automatic keystone correction, awesome when used for cityscapes/architecture.

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        • The EM-10 is all the goodness of the EM-5 without the weather sealing. Incredible camera! When you are ready to buy one, look at Olympus’s online store. They have great deals on factory reconditioned camera bodies. I’ve seen EM-10II’s selling for $399.

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  7. DougD says:

    You’re going to be disappointed Jim, but I use a Canon EOS 60D and I’ve never shot a RAW photo with it. I have no time for post processing, and yes I’m sometimes disappointed by the results.
    Maybe I should try RAW sometime..

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  8. hmunro says:

    To answer your initial question — “Is it worth it to post-process your photos?” — I’m weighing in with a big HELLS TO THE YEAH. Slightly crooked horizons, weird color casts, and lens distortions are distracting and can ruin an otherwise lovely photo. Plus, post-processing forces you to look at your photos more critically (which is never a bad thing).

    As for the RAW file quandary: If your computer and editing software can handle RAW files, why not do so? You get so much more information with which to work, and you’re less likely to end up with weird artifacts. I equate RAW files to a digital negative from which you can make multiple prints with different approaches to toning. JPEG files are more like a finished print. Some cameras’ JPEG engines are skillful “printers,” but because you’re letting them make decisions for you (especially in high-contrast images) there’s always a chance they’ll get it wrong and discard something that was important to your eye when you surveyed the scene.

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    • I appreciate your perspective. I think I’m coming to see that what I want is a camera that does better JPEG work for routine photos, especially documentary ones (“I was here and saw this”). Not every photo has to be art! But I also want the ability to shoot RAW so that if I decide to go for art, I’m not limiting the tools in my box. The S95’s JPEG processing just isn’t everything I want it to be, so I find myself tweaking nearly every photo in Photoshop, and I really wish I didn’t have to spend that much time.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Andy Umbo says:

        One of the problems with shooting RAW and processing, is that you better actually have a computer so that you can see the difference! I manage an e-comm photo department for a big company, and WE don’t have computers that can distinguish “sharpness” no matter where the setting is on the in the program, you can slide it back and forth and there’s no see-able difference. You’d have to actually send each version to a high rez printer to print out and compare against each other! File sharpness is one of the main things I look for when I’m looking at digital. Having over-sharp “etched image” looking files are the give-away of an amateur! Same for “off” color (i.e warm tones, but not natural).

        I can say as a professional, almost 99.9% of the people shooting in a digital “prosumer” capacity, don’t know squat about PhotoShopping from RAW to get the best look out of things. They’re just hobby doing it to taste. We have whole departments of people that just do that, and they don’t take pictures as pros!

        When I first tested my current digital camera in jpeg, I set the sharpness and contrast in one to two setting differences, then literally printed each one out, and I can tell you the best “look” (i.e. settings that looked most like film), were no where near the middle of their respective scales. The sharpness was near the top (by the middle of the scale, the image was unacceptably “soft”), and the contrast was above normal as well.

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        • Funny you say this. I have been seriously struggling to avoid warm but unnatural tones as I’ve processed the Ireland photos. It shows me that I don’t really know what I’m doing. I mean, I often get results that please me, but it is super hard for me to figure out how to arrive at results that look truly natural.

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  9. I went to Africa in March. I had three cameras with me (Nikon D800, D600 and Coolpix A). I brought back thousands and thousands of images (I forget the exact total, but can look it up when I get home). Thankfully, my approach to photography and what I share changed fairly dramatically before the trip.

    Like you, I find that my “hit” rate with film is way, way higher than with digital. Ming Thein has written several blog posts about this and I think it’s just the nature of the two media. In my case, I use film and digital pretty differently. With film, I’m often shooting my YashicaMat LM. That slows me down and makes me think quite deliberately and critically about what I’m shooting. And it doesn’t do well with action, so I tend to stick to landscapes and such with it. A lot of the subjects that I shoot with digital require a different approach, though. Not quite “spray and pray,” but I’m definitely more liberal with digital captures. In Africa, particularly, I found myself shooting a lot of frames of the same subjects. Since a lot of those subjects were animals and Maasai people, the liberal shooting was an effort to catch peak moments. These were new subjects to me, so I wasn’t sure how to predict their actions. So that led to a lot of frames.

    Shortly before I left, though, I really started thinking about how I approach film and digital and how I share all of that. It wasn’t that long ago that I shared a LOT of my images on the ‘net. When I contemplated the film side of the equation, though, my thoughts drifted back to the days when I shared work with family and friends via slideshows. Slideshows get a bad rap. It’s easy to think of long, tedious slideshows filled with nothing but “Here we are at the world’s second largest ball of twine. And here we are again. And here’s Aunt Milly with the ball of twine. And this was the dog that came out to bark at us.” Etc. etc. ad nauseum. The key to a good slideshow is to feature nothing but your very, very best work. If you keep it short and fill it with good stuff, the audience can’t help but want more.

    I’ve since taken a similar approach to sharing online. My sharing varies a bit by platform. For instance, I’ll share more on Facebook because some stuff is of interest to family and friends, even it’s not quite portfolio grade. I share far less on Flickr. And I share the least on my webpage that I’m starting to put together. So despite having thousands and thousands of images from Africa, to date I’ve shared around 80 on Facebook, 53 on Flickr and 46 on my website.

    To relate the whole thing to your post, it doesn’t matter that I shoot RAW. The biggest time constraint on me now is selecting the images that I want to share. And I’ve become a tough self critic, so even this isn’t that bad. Unless an image meets my toughest criteria or has some kind of special meaning, it won’t get processed. What’s left doesn’t take very long to process. The other benefit is that I see a LOT more page hits from fewer images. People like to have the world distilled down to simplicity. If you show them a few images and make sure those images are really excellent, they’re going to pay more attention than if you post hundreds of merely good images.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have much the same experience: while I don’t shoot indiscriminately with my digital camera, I am more liberal about shooting, and often find myself shooting the same frame many times trying to get it “right,” whatever that means to me at that moment.

      There really is something to be said about carefully selecting what you share. I sort of wish now that I haven’t always used Flickr as a dumping ground. I never know what I’m going to want to share online and if everything is simply on Flickr I can easily share it whenever I want. I share the least on this blog, but even it isn’t tightly managed to just my best work. I need to think about this more deeply.

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  10. Bill Jurasz says:

    I’ve seen Eric’s article before. He’s way off the marks but that’s besides the point. Years ago a RAW workflow was painful, utterly painful. If you weren’t making money off your images it was hard to justify. But the advent of Lightroom and Aperture made the workflow nearly as easy as shooting JPG. I’ll give my example. I had come up with a set of image adjustments in Aperture (a constrast, black point and saturation setting, plus a curve) that I would apply automatically upon import of RAW images. And 95% of the time the images were correct, very good, and much better than the JPG the camera would have given me. All for zero pain on my part. Its hard to argue not shooting RAW with a workflow like that.

    Now, Apple has stopped Aperture, and Photos is a far cry from being a reasonable replacement. And I refuse to use LR (what a crappy user interface, really). But the good thing is my Olympus gives me really good JPGs out of the camera anyway, compared to my old Canon, so it doesn’t bother me as much. I shoot JPG mostly now, except for rare occaisions where I’m shooting something for money or that is very critical.

    Lastly, I’ll leave you with this thought. WE ALL SHOOT IN RAW ALL THE TIME. The only difference is some of us let the camera be the RAW converter, while others do it on the computer. Once you realize this, and once you view your camera as just another RAW converter, your mindset changes.

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    • People really seem to like to criticize Eric Kim. I don’t know if I care whether I agree with him all the time or not; I like how he writes about photography juxtaposed against living the kind of life you want to live.

      Perhaps I need to look into automating my work in Photoshop/Lightroom. (Yes, the Lightroom UI is an damn nightmare. Oy.) If I have a set of things I can automatically apply to every RAW file, which also will “fix” the majority of my images, it would make this more viable.

      I’ve got serious expenses these days sending Damion to college and his brother in 2017, but at some point I will upgrade to a new digital camera and the OM-10 series is enormously attractive to me. You’re not the only person to say its JPEGs are brilliant. I’d like to shoot JPEG for 75% of what I do – family snaps, documentary work on road trips, etc., and live with the results. But I also want RAW for those times I’m doing something more serious.

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      • A quick plug for LR: I use it to import pictures off of my camera. While it is importing i have a set routine per camera that i use. It applies all of my metadata, tags and camera specific tweaks while importing. You’re done! Post, print and enjoy an adult beverage while reveling in your photographic genius.

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        • I am new to Lightroom, having signed up for the monthly plan just several months ago. So there’s still a lot to learn. I’m going to admit I’m not exactly eager to learn it, but perhaps the pain of manual processing will drive me to it.

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    • Andy Umbo says:

      I think I brought this up on here before, but the “normal” workflow shooting for professional clients (like ad agencies and ad departments in business to business situations) , is to shoot jpgs and raws, then turn the jpegs into the art directors and let them select which ones they want so that you can go back and process the raw file to a tiff. When you do what I do, which is try and get it in the camera, you’d be amazed how many clients just tell me they don’t need the tiff, the jpeg is “fine”. It happens like 70% of the time!

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  11. Jim, a few thoughts, I’ll try to stay brief –

    1. I use a Sony NEX 3N for my digital photos, plus adapters and vintage lenses, mostly M42 and Minolta SR (MD/MC). I don’t have any modern AF lenses at all. shoot RAW then simply convert (export) to JPEG in LightRoom. I’m really happy with the colours from the NEX plus vintage lenses straight out of the camera and don’t do any PP.

    I bought the NEX used for about £130 and the adapters are less than £10. You already have the vintage lenses! Maybe this is an option you can look at to replace the Canon digital?

    2. For a few digital shots, mostly shots of cameras I upload to Flickr and my blog, I use one or two presets in LightRoom. I shoot with the NEX, on JPEG 5MP mode (I don’t need anything bigger/better for a simple shot of a camera) then click a button to apply one of the presets, then export as JPEG again. Sometimes I’ll slightly adjust contrast or exposure or grain levels, but it takes a few seconds.

    3. When I shoot film or digital, I first open all the photos from one batch/film, then immediately sweep through and remove any that don’t make the grade. then I sweep through again, and maybe once more, until I’m just left with the best. With film, I then upload these to Flickr. With digital, I create a new subfolder within the folder where the images are, called “Flickr”, and using LightRoom, export JPEG versions of the “keepers” to this folder, then upload them to Flickr.

    The point here is I try to cull the photos I don’t want to share, quite aggressively. There’s no point (in my view) tweaking and processing an image where fundamentally I don’t like the composition, the focus is wrong etc or it’s just a boring photo.

    Incidentally, with film I just have it processed and scanned to CD at my local supermarket lab. They have Fuji Frontier equipment and I’m perfectly happy with the scans I get from the CD.

    I decided some time ago, with film and digital, that for me the enjoyment is getting out and exploring and using the cameras, not slaving over a computer PP’ing images for hours. That’s the opposite of why I go out and photograph in the first place!

    I actually got to the point where I was going out less because I was dreading the PP when I got back. Which was ruining the joy of photography.

    Anyway. hope that’s of some help Jim!

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    • Dan, thank you for your perspective. I like your aggressive culling tactic and I think I’m going to adopt it. With one hedge: when I make a trip, the photos help me remember, even the crappy ones. So the culling will be for the photos I want to *share* — and those are the only ones I will process.

      The thing I’ve always loved about the S95 is that it slides easily into the back pocket of my jeans. Man, that’s hard to give up. And while when shooting other cameras I like primes, the 28-105mm zoom on the S95 is super useful to me. Perhaps one day I’ll find a camera as versatile and easy to carry that gives me better JPEGs.

      Oh, do I ever wish we still had film labs at supermarkets and drug stores. I used to take my color 35mm film to a nearby CVS pharmacy and they’d process it and scan it in an hour for $6. The work was of adequate quality (I get better work from the mail-order labs I use) and the price was certainly right. But those kinds of labs are all gone now.

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      • Andy Umbo says:

        Ditto! I took all my film from my Olympus pocket camera to the local Walgreens a few blocks away…they even made 3X5 prints, which I like better than the 4X6 for putting in my diaries and scrapbooks. For what I was using it for, it was perfect.

        Between still being able to get professional Kodak transparency film (my favorite E-100G), still being able to get local high-grade transparency processing, still being able to get Fuji-roid for my Hasselblad test back, and being able to do digital (when called for based on delivery schedule); that was the best of all eras!

        Gone now…

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      • Jim, I think you’ve done well to identify the two different reasons/types of photographs, and that’s going to be very helpful for you in the future.

        For family or holiday shots I don’t think it matters so much what camera we use, as long we get a decent enough shot to capture the memory.

        I wonder if you’ve thought about using a camera phone? I started off using cameraphones back in around 2006, a Sony CyberShot which only had I think a 3MP camera, but it got me plenty of great images.

        I had another couple of Sonys with 5 and 6MP cameras which really were very decent.

        Now I use my iPhone (5C) for lots of family shots, and with an app like Hipstamatic you can get some amazing looking images. On a holiday last year I took just my iPhone, and I don’t look back at the photos and think “I wish I’d taken a better camera with me” plus it was with me all the time anyway, so was super convenient.

        With our more deliberate photography, we’re more concerned about making an aesthetically pleasing image that we want to share with others, so naturally this is when we might want to spend more time finding the camera/ lens/ film/ processing combinations that yield the most pleasing results…

        My supermarket lab actually told me a few months back they are very busy, and whilst they process film canisters from cameras like they do for me, the majority of their business is processing film in disposable cameras people take to weddings, holidays, parties etc… So it’s seems round here at least it’s this segment of the film industry that’s keeping such labs thriving…

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        • Jim, what did you do in terms of post processing with the iPhone? (I’m thinking much less than you do when you shoot RAW on your little Canon digital).

          Shots on that post you linked to like the traffic lights at sunset are fantastic, and surely all you need for a portable digital camera?

          About the ergonomics, yeh, it’s never going to feel like a dedicated camera. I’ve found if you hold it sideways (landscape orientation) and use either of the volume buttons on the side (which are on the top of the phone when it’s held sideways!) it feels a lot more like a camera. : )

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        • What I find is that I’m constantly straightening the photos and fixing keystoning, because I can’t seem to hold the dang thing level like I can with a dedicated camera. Maybe I just need more practice. But the sharpness and color almost never need adjusted, to be sure.

          I use my iPhone a lot, actually, to record stuff when I’m out and about. Is it a viable vacation camera, where I’m going to shoot 1,000 photos, though? I don’t know. I used my old iPhone 5 on a one-day excursion a few years ago and shot a few hundred shots — and the battery died, even after being fully charged when I left. That wasn’t exciting. Maybe I should try again because my 6s has far better battery life

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  12. Great post Jim and Hi again! Great demonstration on why one should shoot RAW. That said, I have to admit with a guilty face that I’ve been doing the jpeg thing for quite a while. Eric has a good point on the jpegs on today’s cameras, especially the Sony cameras. However, I still shoot a RAW and jpeg on those “important” shots just in case :-)

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  13. I like to shoot RAW+JPEG but very often I need the RAW to recover skyes or shadows. Even though I setup my cameras to reduce contrast while shooting, the RAW usually allows for more leeway. But if the JPEG looks fine to me, I’ll use that and happily scrap the RAW.

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