Since I switched from film to digital, quite a few years ago, I’d been walking in a haze, half asleep. The pictures I was taking were but ghosts of themselves. Letting the camera record a JPEG is like standing next to the Mona Lisa and sketching it on a piece of cardboard with white chalk; most of the original purity and complexity are lost and can never be restored.

I still attempted to enhance my shots on the computer, of course, but it was a messy process and would unavoidably cost me some resolution, definition or range. I’d manage to get decent small final images for the web, but often felt like I had pushed my luck a little far.

Then a few days ago, while doing research on the HDR topic – which was not giving me the results I’d expected – I stumbled upon a site which used slightly different terms and looked at things from a different angle. I read it once, the entire site, missing some of the subtleties, then read it again. And suddenly it struck me in all its simplicity: I’d been approaching digital photography from the wrong angle all along.

The secret it seems, lies in recognizing that just as traditional photographers have been incorporating darkroom work into their final output, so must digital photographers! And in order to do so, one must absolutely shoot initially in RAW format. The RAW format is the digital equivalent to an exposed but undeveloped roll of film. All the scene’s information is there, intact, untreated and uncompressed, as opposed to the JPEG format where information is interpreted and compressed by the camera, with a serious quality loss and no way back.

And so that web site spoke of “undeveloped” digital pictures, and of developing them, and it suddenly all made sense. The RAW file had become the “digital negative”, my favorite photo editing program would be the darkroom and only skill and patience would allow me to reveal the digital photograph’s secrets and make it come to life.

So after years of resisting the temptation, mostly because it meant sitting on twice the capacity my memory cards would have yielded, I have finally switched from shooting JPEGs to RAWs. Nothing about the move has been easy, nor fast. I’ve effectively dropped my in-camera storage space by half. I now have images that load slowly, which nobody can view as is and on which I’ll have to spend more time to get them to exist.

But I have also gained a new playground, a mysterious Cave of Ali Baba. I’ve opened my own digital darkroom.

And what’s even more promising is that I now have the option of incorporating High Dynamic Range blending techniques into the early development process, effectively gaining an HDR negative to start with.

It will take time. I have to learn photography all over again. But I can now look at scenes with a more daring eye. I am one step closer to the creative landscape photography I’ve always dreamed of accomplishing.

The sleeper has awakened.


[The first attempts at digital developping, shot on the Seawall, will be posted in a day or two…]