Sunset of Golden Rays over the Pacific Ocean


Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.  – Anais Nin

This sunset image was taken several months ago near San Diego.It is the result of quite a bit of processing, as the original appeared dull and flat. It was an example of digital images (RAW files) being inherently low contrast, appearing soft (unsharp) and flat with a limited perceived depth. (In spite of this, RAW files are generally the most desirable format because they contain so much image information that a plethora of post-processing functions can be performed on them with excellent results.)

(Jpg images are different. They are processed and sharpened within the camera at the time the photo is taken. The degree of sharpening depends on the setting that you have chosen for sharpness in the shooting menu. This is an advantage if a person sure that they will never want to enhance or further process their (jpg) images. Otherwise, RAW file capacity is an advantage. (As EvaUhu of commented below, the best file format to shoot depends on the intended use for the image.)

Sharpening is a form of increasing contrast. Specifically, it is a very localized increase of contrast between adjacent dark light pixels (such as at edges). Some other modes to increase contrast, besides the actual “contrast” sliders, are: pre-sharpening, levels, curves, dodging, burning, white point, black point, gamma setting, tonal contrast, detail enhancer, detail extractor, structure and output sharpening. This is only a partial list. The fact that there are so many different ways to adjust the contrast of digital images reflects the degree that raw files suffer from poor contrast.

When I took this photo, the in-camera histogram indicated correct exposure for both highlights and shadows. However, when the RAW file was downloaded, the appearance was flat, dull and somewhat underexposed. Here is that original image, cropped but otherwise totally unprocessed.

6898 origlDSz2

(My thanks to Kyle Kuns of of and to Heather of for recommending that I include this original image)

To create the image at the very beginning of this post, contrast was added in six different ways. These were: first in Adobe Camera Raw for brightness and (1) pre-sharpening; then with Color Efex Pro4 adjustments for (2) curves, (3) tonal contrast and (4) darkening the side edges and finally with Nik Sharpener Pro 3 (5) adaptive sharpening for display output. Each of the first 4 steps (except for the pre-sharpening which was purposely kept very weak to avoid halo artifacts) improved the appearance, but not enough. The final image, however, looks pretty good to me.

My point is to explain that digital images, shot as RAW files, require processing in order to look their best. Even the best shooting technique does not overcome this limitation.

I welcome comments and suggestions (criticisms).

J. Michael Harroun©2013


13 comments on “Sunset of Golden Rays over the Pacific Ocean

  1. TBM says:

    Your photos are making me miss home. I grew up in California and boy do I miss the Pacific Ocean. So many happy memories playing on the beach.

  2. Heather says:

    I agree that seeing an unprocessed or incompletely processed version would help illustrate your point.
    Do you ever do any split-toning on your sunset+water photos? I sometimes feel like the camera picks up the highlights in the sky very well, but doesn’t get the highlights on the water as colorful as I see it.
    Another thing – I am so glad to have found your blog! I didn’t even realize that some of my lack of sharpness was coming from switching to RAW. I had been using a very cheap polarized filter (as a trial), and that had definitely impacted image clarity, but I hadn’t even realized that RAW could affect things. Thanks for helping me slowly make the switch from faux-tographer to photographer 😉

    • Thank you, also, for suggesting that I include the original, unprocessed image. I have done so now and the post is much improved.
      I’m thrilled that you have found an explanation (and solution) for your soft RAW images. That’s definitely the right file format to be using. Add some processing and you will be in great shape. RAW processors can also add “clarity” (local contrast) and “vibrance” (a subtle saturation increase) which add pop and bring an image come to life.
      Yes, split processing (processing an image once for the sky and once for the water) is very effective. It can be done in a RAW processor such as Adobe Camera Raw and then blended with post-processing software. Photoshop Elements makes this easy with a tool called Exposure Blending. Alternatively, each image can be added as a layer for manual composite via masking and the brush tool.
      This is the first time that I have heard of “faux-tographer”. That’s a great word, but does not apply to you. Every good photographer is still learning; and we all have to start somewhere.
      Thank you again for your feedback.

  3. EvaUhu says:

    I usually shoot in raw format rather than in jpeg, I like the possibility of making major alterations (which raw files provide), though I always try not to overdo the post-processing. on the whole I don’t see the mentioned qualities of raw images as a limitation. rather on the contrary. in the end, I think it depends on what you intend to do with the images and how quickly you need them ‘ready’ whether you choose raw or jpeg format.

    • Thank you for taking the time to comment.
      I totally agree with you. Ultimately the appropriate file format for images depends on their intended use.
      I think I did not express my thoughts well. I personally shoot exclusively raw files and recommend them because they include so much more image information than jpgs. As you point out, they allow far more post-processing options. (jpgs, as you know, often cannot tolerate even mild changes of saturation or color adjustment without showing artifact that cannot be removed)
      Thank you again for your feedback.

  4. Kyle Kuns says:

    I was confused by the first paragraph because I like the image. At the end I learned the image shown was not the RAW format version but the version that you improved by using various contrast techniques. Maybe next time show both.

  5. Beautiful! Love sunsets over the water.

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