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Author Talk: Photographer Jeff Schewe on Raw Image Processing (Podcast Transcript)

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Peachpit and New Riders Publisher Nancy Ruenzel interviews professional photographer Jeff Schewe about his latest book. They touch on Jeff's role in the early development of Camera Raw and Lighroom, and why he chose to title his book The Digital Negative.

This interview is a transcription of the podcast, Photographer Jeff Schewe on Raw Image Processing.

From the author of

Nancy Aldrich-Ruenzel:  I’m here today with Jeff Schewe, an author who’s not only an exceptional photographer and self-proclaimed photography addict, but also someone who’s been extremely influential in the early development of Camera Raw and Lightroom.  He’s written numerous books and co-written numerous books, and we’re here today to talk about his latest release, a book I’m personally very excited about: The Digital Negative. So welcome, Jeff.

Jeff Schewe:  Well, thanks for having me come visit on your podcast, Nancy. 

Nancy:  Well this is, what I believe to be, an unparalleled book, Jeff – a major contribution to the industry about raw processing. My question to you is why did you call the book The Digital Negative?

Jeff:  Well Nancy, first thanks for the high compliments. That’s high praise indeed. The Digital Negative—when I was growing up and first getting into photography, there was series of books by Ansel Adams called The Camera, The Negative and The Print.  Back in the old days—I’m a bit of a greybeard, you know—so back in the old days we didn’t have the Internet. I shudder to think about the fact that we didn’t have the Internet. So I actually had to go to libraries and I found this series of books. Also, another series, called The Time-Life Series on Photography, was instrumental. But The Digital Negative is a direct result and pays homage to the fact that, well, back in the old days we didn’t have applications. We had chemicals. We had stinky darkrooms. And in this day and age, I thought it would be important to do something that was cross-application. I have a lot of good friends and colleagues that write books on Photoshop and on Lightroom. I’ve co-authored a book on Camera Raw. But I didn’t see any books out there that were cross-application about the fundamental problem of optimizing for raw processing.

Nancy:  So who did you write the book for?

Jeff:  Actually I wrote it for myself, to tell you the truth. The actual target audience is anybody who uses Lightroom and Camera Raw or Photoshop and shooting with cameras that can produce raw images. I kind of draw the line in the sand. While Camera Raw and Lightroom can use jpegs and tiffs, that’s not really what it was originally designed for. So, amateur, professional, anybody who wants to get the most out of the image quality—and when I say “amateur”, I actually revere that term because it’s from the French for “love”. I really admire people that do photography for the love of it as opposed to just doing it for money. So I think there are a lot of amateurs out there that are passionate about getting the best image quality that they can possibly get, and so it’s really for people who want the best IQ [image quality] out of their images. 

Nancy:  Well, on behalf of all the amateurs listening, I want to thank you for that praise because it’s not often we hear that from professional photographers. 

Jeff:  I’m actually a reformed professional photographer. I don’t really do much commercial work at all any more. I mean, the nature of the industry has changed, and I’ve found that I’ve actually gone from being a professional more to an amateur because I prefer to shoot for myself now. I go on photographic expeditions with friends and go out and take pictures not because I have to, but because I want to. I find that is really refreshing and, to be honest, it’s kind of changed my attitude about amateurs. 

Nancy:  Interesting. Do you miss anything about film-based photography?

Jeff:  Yes and no. There’s kind of a melancholy nostalgia, but last Fall my daughter graduated from college, and one of the elective classes—she had gotten to the point where there weren’t many classes she could still take—but one of her classes was Photo 101 and it was actually taught with a film camera using black and white film. She had to process the film, make contact proofs, and then actually make prints with an enlarger. She begged me to use my old darkroom, which was still in place but stuffed with all my computer boxes. So I had to clean that out and helping her load film on the reels, processing the film, processing the prints, there was this nostalgia. But spending a long time in a darkened room with stinky chemicals, no there’s really not a lot, I guess.

Nancy:  So what, if you were facing a classroom—say your daughter’s Photo 101 classroom—and you had to talk about real world raw image processing, what one concept would you consider the most essential for those students to grasp before they left that lecture? 

Jeff:  Well, I think that the one concept is—particularly when you are shooting in raw—get the shot. There’s something to be said for doing an optimal focus and exposure and composition. You know, the better your original image, the better any resulting images from that original will be. But in any effect, get the shot because the post-processing capability in Lightroom and Camera Raw and Photoshop if you have a vision and you can take the shot, the capture that you got in the camera, and apply the enormous amount of power of flexibility to adjusting the images to be exactly the way you want it to look. So I guess, get the shot and then make it look the way you want it. 

Nancy:  So even if you’re not ready and you don’t feel like you have all the right things in place, just get it, and your book helps us learn more about how we capture that vision. So what I’m curious to know is your personal workflow between Lightroom and Photoshop. Which application, for example, you spend most of your time in and why? I’m sure listeners would be interested as well.

Jeff:  In fact, it’s even a sidebar in the book: the Pateral Principle, which was based upon an Italian, I want to say “mathematician” but he may have been an Italian economist. The whole concept is 80/20. I spend probably more time in Lightroom trying to do selection editing and global overall image adjustments before actually selecting the final “hero” two or three that I will then commit and invest the time to perfect the image in Photoshop. So I think most of the time is spent in Lightroom, at least from the time that I do a shot or a series of shots. The final time spent in Photoshop, dependent upon what exactly it is that I’m required to do to “perfect the shot”, on a given single image I will spend however long it takes to get it exactly the way I want. But I think 80/20 you can do an enormous amount of work on a lot of images. That’s one of the advantages of the Lightroom workflow. And then use Photoshop really only for those last final precious few that you want to take and really complete the image. 

Nancy:  So what are your favorite features of Lightroom and Photoshop?

Jeff:  In Lightroom, I have two: obviously the develop module and the new process version 2012 that came with Lightroom 4 and Camera Raw 7.1 were just remarkable. We’re actually at an unprecedented stage in photography where your originals can actually get better over time because of improvements in the image-processing software. Unlike Mathew Brady with his glass plates, you couldn’t go back and redevelop film, but now you can actually go back and redevelop raw image captures and get better results with the new software. 

Nancy:  That’s amazing. 

Jeff:  In Photoshop I don’t have a single favorite feature. Well, the feature I would say is the massive amount of tools and functionality that you can bring to bear. Now Photoshop is a big scary program and it’s got a lot of stuff in there that I don’t use. I don’t do 3-D. There are a lot of features and functionality for the various market groups that Photoshop is used by, but in terms of being able to get to very precise masking and photo composition, that’s really what I like about Photoshop. It’s the massive amount of power and flexibility that it provides. It can do stuff, obviously, that Lightroom can’t do, and that’s why what I try to do in the book is really to explain what’s optimal to do in Lightroom or Camera Raw, and then what’s optimal to defer to Photoshop. You can spend an awful lot of time, for example, spot healing an image doing retouching in Lightroom or Camera Raw, but just pop it into Photoshop and the healing brush is so much easier. So it’s knowing the right time and what tool to use to accomplish what it is that you want to do. 

Nancy:  Well Jeff, therein lies the value of the book. You can save readers so much time having to make those critical decisions. I am wondering if you could share with readers what they would find on your companion website, which is at thedigitalnegativebook.com. What might we find there?

Jeff:  Well, you guys kind of cheated, Nancy. The original publishing date was the 23rd or 28th or something and you guys actually got the book out early. So at the moment the website is live. I’ve got about a half a dozen of the examples in chapter 4 of the advanced raw processing available to download as DNGs, so that you can actually open up the DNG in Lightroom and Camera Raw and see exactly what the before and the after, as I showed in the book, actually is. They are for personal use only, personal educational use only, and I’m reserving all reproduction rights for myself. I am the copyright holder of the images. But also, as time goes by, and as I get the opportunity to add additional content, there will be information about Photoshop and Lightroom and Camera Raw posted as well. It’s kind of a blog. It’s not intended to be a daily check-in sort of news blog; it’s just intended to be a reference site for the book.

Nancy:  Great. Well I recommend folks check it out, but first buy the book!

Jeff:  There is actually a little trick. In order to get to the DNGs that are on the website, you actually have to know the password and the password is actually given in the book. So if you go to the website you have to go to Figure 2.2 and there is a word, you know I’ve given a really good clue, but there’s a word that acts as the password to access the protected content. So it’s kind of like a treasure hunt. 

Nancy:  Great. I’d love to give listeners just one piece of insider information.  You give a shoutout in your book, and in previous books as well, to the Pixel Mafia.  What the heck is that or are you under some kind of code of silence that you can’t share more?

Jeff:  It’s actually a bunch of friends in the industry. You know our late friend Bruce Fraser was a member, Greg Gorman, people from the Pixel Genius company, plus our extended friends: people like John Paul Caponigro, just a bunch of people that over the years have gotten together again.  We try to do things to help the industry.  You won’t see the name “Pixel Mafia” mentioned much, except for in various people’s books, but it’s kind of a bunch of friends at the top of the industry. 

Nancy:  Sure, well and a little bit underground. So thanks for that insider info and, again Jeff, congratulations—just great work, and I’m eager to hear what’s next.  In fact, a little birdie, your editor, told me there’s yet another to come in the spring.  So I’m excited for this release and what’s to come.

Jeff:  Well, I thank you very much Nancy, and I’m tickled to death that Peachpit decided to do this book. I think my good friend and partner, Martin Evening, is a little bit jealous. He has excellent books on Photoshop and Lightroom, but has to actually go through and write about everything about Lightroom, whereas I’ve cherry-picked and only had to write about the stuff that I think is truly essential to optimizing your raw captures. So it is a different kind of book and I really appreciate the opportunity to do it.

Nancy:  Well absolutely. Thank you so much Jeff.

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