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The Perfect Exposure


Exposing and Editing RAW Files the Right Way

The path to technically optimal images leads through two stages: the best possible RAW exposure and competent post-processing. That’s why my Fuji X Secrets RAW workshops deal with both aspects equally.

by Rico Pfirstinger

Note: This is the English version of my German blog entry on Fuji X Secrets. Click here to read the original article in German.

From time to time, participants submit images to my RAW workshops that have been exposed incorrectly. Usually, this is because they want to compensate for their exposure error by processing the RAW image and “salvage” it somehow. This is based on a misunderstanding: RAW processing is not primarily intended as a rescue expedition to improve the technical (and sometimes also creative) mishaps of photos that have turned out badly. Although this may well be possible in individual cases, our goal should be to deliver RAW files that are as technically well exposed as possible. Then we can process them with all the skill at our disposal to make the most out of them.

Garbage In, Garbage Out

The quality of the captured RAW data determines what you can achieve with them in the RAW converter. A simple rule applies: The more light the camera can capture in a shot, the technically superior the image will be. So, do you overexpose vigorously? Of course not! A shot with blown-out highlights that cannot be recovered in the RAW converter is not attractive.

The principle of letting as much light hit the sensor as possible is thus limited by the fact that image-critical highlights in the scene should not be destroyed by the exposure. The photographer decides what is image-critical, not the camera. For a technically pristine image, it is always better to control the camera – rather than being controlled by it.

The Correct Exposure

To set the optimal exposure for a scene, we need some help. Fujifilm’s mirrorless X and GFX Series cameras have several things going for them in this respect:

  • The live view usually (not always!) displays a WYSIWYG preview of the JPEG shot – and thus also serves as an exposure preview.
  • Respectively, the RGB histogram shows the brightness distribution of the JPEG for each individual color channel.
  • A blinking overexposure warning indicates overexposed (blown-out) areas in the live view.
  • Spot metering allows pinpoint brightness measurements for isolated areas in manual exposure mode (M).

Since the live view, the histogram and the blinking overexposure alerts always refer to the JPEG to be generated by the camera (and not to the RAW data), they are based on the JPEG settings that apply at the time. So, it does make a difference which film simulation, contrast or white balance setting is currently in effect. This allows us to specifically find in-camera JPEG settings that are closest to the potential of the RAW data – let’s call them “JPEG settings for RAW shooters”.

Live view, histogram and overexposure warnings depend on the currently selected JPEG settings of the camera. The image above shows the factory settings of an X-H1, the one below our custom “JPEG settings for RAW shooters”. For the live view and the histogram to correspond as closely as possible to the exposure of the RAW file, I recommend low-contrast JPEG settings with reduced color saturation. 

Low-contrast settings like these make it easier to determine the optimal exposure for the critical highlights of the image. Still, they are often only half the battle. With subjects that are particularly rich in contrast, the optimal exposure for the image-critical highlights often results in the remainder of the subject appearing too dark in the live view. Sometimes so dark, in fact, that it becomes difficult to frame the shot. This is where tricks like “ISO-equivalent settings” come into play, that we can realize with the DR function or the DR-P function. Alternatively, there is a “nuclear option”: turning off the exposure preview in manual exposure mode (M) at the touch of a button – after the optimal exposure has been determined and set.

While this RAW exposure on the image-critical highlights (above) is technically correct, it looks far too dark in the live view to effortlessly frame the subject in the electronic viewfinder. Therefore, my RAW workshop provides you with tools that can brighten up the viewfinder display by several stops without altering the correct RAW exposure. You’ll also learn how to maximize the dynamic range during RAW processing using tone-mapping. That way, the shot from above will turn into the result shown below. This example was taken with an X-T3. It is a single shot, not HDR.

Not only does Fuji X Secrets RAW explain how to determine the correct exposure, but it also shows you how to practically implement that exposure in the live view of a Fujifilm mirrorless camera. This includes clever settings that decouple the live view (i.e., the JPEG image) from the RAW data. The RAW data retains the ideal exposure for the image-relevant highlights, while the live view renders even high-contrast subjects sufficiently bright so you can still see what’s happening in the darker areas. After all, who wants to be left in the dark?

Proper Processing

Once the RAW data are “in the box”, they must be converted into presentable JPEGs. This is done either in-camera (with the built-in RAW converter) or with an external application like Adobe Lightroom or Capture One. The external solution provides much more latitude and options for this. That said, there are a few things to consider, such as:

  • How does the converter apply digital lens corrections based on profiles or RAW metadata?
  • Are the camera’s film simulations also available in the external converter, and how do they differ from the in-camera originals?
  • What demosaicing options are available (thinking of “worms” and other artifacts)?
  • How to optimally sharpen RAW files without artifacts?
  • How can we achieve natural-looking tone-mapping with high-contrast images?

My RAW workshop also offers numerous tips and tricks for obtaining the best possible image from RAW data – all without Photoshop and similar programs. Everything happens non-destructively inside the RAW converter. Examples are local corrections including skin retouching, noise reduction, or an analog film look with grain and gentle highlight clipping.

Fuji X Secrets Workshops Are Back!

It has been almost a year since I have conducted my last Fuji X Secrets online workshop. After this long break, I’m now back with new online workshops for German-speaking Fujifilm X and GFX series users:

Fuji X Secrets Settings – the ultimate settings workshop for Fujifilm X and GFX

This online workshop will be conducted in German via Zoom. It takes place on September 5, from 2pm to 6:30pm CEST.

Are you looking for the optimal camera settings? Do you want expert explanations why certain settings are beneficial and others aren’t? Then Fuji X Secrets Settings is perfect for you.

Fuji X Secrets Settings is a collaborative online workshop, and it is presented in high-definition via Zoom. This 4-5 hours long workshop will be conducted in German. However, there are plans to also offer this and other Fuji X Secrets workshops in English in the future. Stay tuned!

  • Click here for more information on this workshop.

I also offer a Fuji X Secrets RAW online workshop on September 11:

Fuji X Secrets RAW – better images with Fujifilm X cameras and RAW

This online workshop will be conducted in German via Zoom. It will take place on September 11 from 14:00 to 18:30 CEST.

Fully tailored for Fujifilm users, Fuji X Secrets RAW introduces field-tested tools and procedures for the complete photographic workflow – from the best camera settings and ideal exposure to optimal image processing and output.
  • Click here for more information.
Fuji X Secrets Settings and Fuji X Secrets RAW online workshops in English are planned for winter 2021/2022. Stay tuned!

Personal X Tutoring

If you don’t want to wait for English workshops or you’d like to enjoy personalized 1:1 online tutoring that can encompass all Fujifilm-related topics (you choose, mix and match!), you can always book a 1:1 Zoom session in German or English with me. It’s only 60 EUR per hour! If you are interested, please drop me a note.

Fuji X Secrets Books

If you are looking for an in-depth book that helps you making the most of your Fujifilm X or GFX camera, please consider my comprehensive Fuji X Secrets book that pretty much covers all cameras with X-Processor Pro and X-Processor 4:

  • Fuji X Secrets book and eBook, English version: click here. Use code XPERT40 on checkout for a 40% discount!
  • Fuji X Secrets book and eBook, German version: click here.

Disclaimer: With the exception of links to my own products and services, all affiliate links in this article are from and for Fujirumors.