If I Shoot Raw Do I Have To Pay Any Attention To Exposure? No!

Ask The Digital Photography Expert

Q: If I shoot raw, do I need to worry about getting my exposures correct anymore? I remember when I took photography in high school, the teacher had us bothering with confusing settings like shutter speed, apartachure and film fastness, and all of that was very hard to understand especially because I was really in photography to meet chicks and sniff the fixer tank fumes. Now I have decided that I am going to travel the world and take glamorous photos like a pro, teach glamorous photo workshops, and get a glamorous job at Life magazine where I will meet chicks, so I have decided to buy a camera and get started. I have been told that with today’s super smart digital cameras I don’t even need to be concerned with exposure settings anymore. Is that true? Sincerely yours, Nubert Eye’essoo.

A: Yes, Nube, it is true! You can pretty much take any photo at any exposure setting you wish, and fix it later in raw.* I do it all the time. Let’s consider an illustrative example…

I was editing some images I shot this summer to get them organized for a copyright submission and found a sequence of a blue whale that I had forgotten about. It was underexposed by at least three stops, perhaps four stops. I must have pressed the exposure-hold button while the camera was pointed up at the sky or some other lame-brain move. In the days of film a bluewater four-stop underexposure surely would have gone straight in the trash as fast as possible. Keeping something like this around, dwelling on it and thinking about the “what if”, is like remaining friends with an old flame — the tears, regret, and tequila gnaw at your gut. Better to put such things behind oneself, make a clean break and move forward. However, for some reason this sequence stayed on my hard disk, so today I took a look at one of the frames to see what image was buried in there. Low and behold I was able to pull out decent color and detail, enough for a half-page repro or web use. Yet again I am amazed at what we can do with a raw image — even a vastly underexposed one — with today’s software tools. Note also this is not even shot on a modern digital camera. The body that made this image is a six-year-old Canon 1DsII. I wonder how much better it would have been shot on a 5DII or 1DIV. Shown here are two frames in the sequence, one of which is “saved” and the other of which appears in its straight-from-the-camera form. Raw is amazing and can fix just about any mistake you can make. So go ahead and blast away and don’t worry about details like exposure settings or focus. As you can see, I certainly don’t!

* Ok, there are elements of poetic license of that answer. Actually, it was pretty much a total lie.