I’ve been shooting so long that I forget many people don’t know what many photography terms are. Now that I look at the jargon from the other side — from a client’s perspective — I see how confusing all these different terms are. It’d be like me trying to understand sheet music. Isn’t one blot the same as another? In my mind I can hear the puzzled questions: “What are digital negatives? How are they different from edited files? What’s the difference between RAW and JPG? Wedding planning blogs tell me to ask for RAW files… but what’s the point of that? What is a proof and how is it different from a fully retouched photo?”
I decided to write this blog post to help couples who are confused by all of this photography stuff. Let’s unpack it in bits:
Back in the olden days (before digital), photographers would take photos on film. You’re probably familiar with this — a roll of Kodak that you popped into your camera until maybe the 2000s. The strip of film was developed with various chemicals in a light-safe tank. The finished strip would typically be cut into short chunks and these were used to make all subsequent enlargements in the darkroom. The strips of developed film were called the “negatives” and all enlargements were called “prints.”
In this day and age with digital photography, the negatives are the raw files. They are the originals from which all subsequent images can be created.
First, a disclosure: not all computer monitors are created equal. Mine is calibrated with a Spyder (affiliate link); so if the “final” images look oddly tinted or too bright or too dark for you, that’s your monitor’s fault and not my editing’s fault :)
A RAW file looks kind of gross in its natural state. Most RAW files are .NEF or .CR2 extensions and need special software to be read. Here is an .NEF file (screenshot as a JPG so that you can see it!) of Rachelle and Stephen:
Many photographer shoot in RAW because it’s an uncompressed (read: large) file and there’s more dynamic range to play with. Meaning, if I hadn’t metered the photo correctly and had shot it a stop above or a few stops below (over-exposed it — ie, the light parts would have been blown out — or under-exposed it — ie, the dark parts were all in black) then I could have saved the image by fixing the exposure. JPG files don’t give that much leeway. RAW is amazing for when you read the light wrong or if something happens and your camera settings are still set for a different light situation.
The above image is exposed correctly, so I didn’t have to worry about all that, but if I had needed to fix exposure in post-production, it would’ve been easy :)
A few examples of RAW’s capabilities…
My flashes misfired on this image, so it’s under-exposed by almost 2 stops. It’s all muddy and dark. Because it’s a RAW file, I was able to bring up the exposure and “find” all the information still contained within the file. I didn’t deliver this shot to the couple because my flashes went off correctly soon after this and actually showed the couple and some of the guests’ faces in a different, better, shot.
In the case of over-exposing, this shot (one of my favorites from Olivia and Amy’s wedding) was slightly too bright, but I was able to bring it down a bit. Notice how their dresses aren’t totally white in the bottom image and you can see the detailing. Some other editing was done to the finished shot as well.
But that’s not really why we are here, is it? You’re wondering if you, the client, need RAW files. And the answer is no. You really don’t need the RAW files at all. Most likely you are hiring your photographer because you love their vision and appreciate their work. The RAW is unbaked; it’s like going into your favorite desserts place and saying, “I love the coconut cake you make here. Do you mind giving me all the ingredients for your coconut cake and I’ll take it home and try to make it myself?” It’s not very nice to the chef, who takes pride in her talent and her recipe; it’s pointless for you, since you are not a desserts chef; and it’s equivalent to taking a pile of flour, coconut, eggs, oil, etc. to your house and letting it sit in your cupboard because you don’t know what to do with it.
Some photographers actually call their high-resolution files “digital negatives,” and that’s where we’re going next.
Some photographers include “high-resolution files” in their packages or à la carte. High-resolution files, also named as “high-res files, high-res images, high-res edited files,” or some variant thereof, are the edited JPGs of your images. JPGs are the readable images for the common computer. They’re a finished product, much like a coconut cake slice that you buy at your favorite desserts place and eat in a booth. Ready for action.
In the olden days, each copy of an image had to be created from the negative. These high-resolution files also act as a digital negative because you can take the file and make a thousand copies at your local printer’s. That’s where the confusion comes in. Digital negatives — are they RAW files or are they high-resolution files? Ask your photographer what they mean by “digital negative” if they mention it. I try to avoid the confusion by calling my edited files “high-resolution files.”
In any given wedding, I can deliver somewhere from 300-800 images. They’re all edited — they aren’t RAW, and I’ve tweaked the exposure, colors, clarity, contrast, fill light, and my secret recipe of whatever I do to make the images into my style — so that each image looks amazing. The editing process for this batch of images can take hours. These files are called proofs.
Proofs can be printed as-is. They look great in albums or on your Facebook wall. They are considered a final product.
Some photographers do not do a lot of editing on their proofs. I consider it a service to make my proofs as print-ready as possible, while straddling a fine line to keep myself from falling into a black hole of editing photos to “perfection.” Here’s an example of Rachelle and Stephen’s photo, from above, that went from RAW to a proof:
If the client has the high-res files, they can go print 5,000 copies of this photo and it would look great. When people buy wedding packages from me, they get all of their wedding proofs in the form of high-resolution files, delivered on a USB drive. Many clients are extremely happy with this because it gives them the freedom to print their wedding photos themselves.
The images I post on this blog are the edited files that I give to clients.
However, let’s say that Rachelle doesn’t like something about her photos. Let’s hypothesize that she loves the pose and the colors, but thinks that Stephen’s beard needs to be cleaned up because he didn’t trim. Or she wants to make her neck look longer. Or maybe she is self-conscious about freckles (note: I don’t think she needs to worry about any of these things; however, these are all just hypothetical worries that people may have!) That’s when retouching comes in.
Retouching is fixing all the little bits. It’s when people say “Can you Photoshop that out?” It works for acne, freckles, moles; trimming a waist, arm, thigh, whatever; erasing under-eye circles, bruises, scars; and oftentimes erasing the things we can’t always control, like fire extinguishers and exit signs in wedding venues.
Angelica and Christopher’s post-cake-cutting kiss unfortunately had a fire extinguisher in the photo, so I removed it for them when they picked the image to be in their wedding album:
Or this one — they loved this image enough to want to make it a full spread in the album, but the little lawn sign was distracting.
Retouching takes extra time, so I only do retouching for images that will actually be printed — images over 8×10″ or canvases that will be hung on walls (printed through me), and images used in the wedding album (also purchased through me). Even then, the requests have to be made in writing because — how else would I know what people think needs to be fixed? I try to be the most efficient with my time, so that means that I can’t (and won’t) retouch 500 images if the photos are just going to sit on a harddrive. Other photographers may have different policies; check with yours to see how they handle heavy retouching.
Photography terms, in this day and age, can be confusing. We’re throwing around words that applied to the old-school method of photography in this digital era.
Again, RAW files are the ingredients to make a coconut cake. You don’t need them, no matter what certain wedding blogs say.
JPG files (high-resolution digital files, high-res files, high-res images, sometimes “digital negatives”) are the actual coconut cake that you can receive and enjoy.
Proofs are sometimes, but not necessarily always, lightly edited images. They can stand in as the final product. 98% of images in my albums are the proofs, and the other 2% need a little extra help.
Retouching is done on those proofs to remove (or sometimes add) elements you don’t want: extra weight, blemishes, clutter, and so on.
I hope this helps you! Please let me know if there is anything that doesn’t make sense by leaving a WordPress comment. A big thanks to my clients who said it was okay for me to show RAW files of their weddings/sessions!!