The Raw File Shuffle

Adobe Photoshop has been around for 21 years now. Given that, I think it’s safe to say that we’re finally dealing with an adult. For the better part of that 21 years, Photoshop was the place where you went to work on, to crop, to color-correct or to manipulate, more or less, one image at a time. In the process, Photoshop became synonymous with photography. Despite the fact that most people using it were graphic designers, it was still considered the tool for serious photographers.

Over time, some of us built up quite large digital libraries of scanned photographs. But it wasn’t until the advent of what I call "viable digital capture" that the entire photographic industry realized—nearly all at once—that it had a serious asset management problem. (I mark the advent of viable digital capture to be the release of the Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II.) As it turns out, Photoshop wasn’t up to that challenge. It wasn’t, in any way, shape or form, designed or built for asset management on the scale that photographers suddenly required. It was a pixel editor.

Fig. 1

Add to this that with a new generation of digital cameras and software, we also gained access to our cameras’ raw sensor data. Processing photos yourself from the raw capture into RGB had obvious benefits. At the same time, it presented yet another curve ball for photographers. At first glance, shooting raw seemed to be just another file format to be understood, cataloged and archived. But the fact that the path from raw data to an RGB image is essentially a one-way street turned out to be a blessing in disguise (Fig. 1).

Raw files had to be treated as read-only, which meant that, by their very nature, the processing instructions were nondestructive to the source image. And storing nondestructive processing instructions in a database, along with image previews and other photo metadata, turned out to be a pretty useful combination. In fact, it helped change photography.

Enter a new generation of photo programs specifically designed to address these new conditions, notably Apple Aperture and Adobe Photoshop Lightroom. These programs built their image processing, workflow and output around a database that stored everything. Add rapidly expanding hard-drive capacities to the mix, and photographers finally began to realize the dream of being able to build and manage one giant digital photo library. It was a revolution. In this article, I’m focusing on Lightroom because it’s the program I helped develop and the one I use. See the sidebar "Working With Apple Aperture" to get an idea of the similarities and differences between Aperture and Lightroom.

Of course, this didn’t mean that Photoshop was headed for obsolescence. Rather, it meant that the roles programs were playing were about to become much more clearly defined. Photoshop was still the king of the hill when it came to retouching, compositing, photo design and just about any other discipline that required pushing around actual pixels. At the same time, it had just gained a new raw-processing and image-management partner in Lightroom.

Leave a Reply