Back when I was first dipping my toe into the photography water, I had a friend who was something of a mentor to me. He recommended the camera I bought (Canon AE-1) as it was relatively affordable to a college student and had an inexpensive power winder that I needed. He shot a couple Olympus 35mm cameras at the time and had a great eye.
He would tell me it was both less expensive and more interesting to shoot transparencies – slide film like Ektachrome and Kodachrome – than shooting negative film. Developing was somewhat more expensive, but you didn’t have to pay for prints (and Ektachrome was pretty easy to develop at home). But more important, when you viewed a slide, you would see more plainly the skill of the photographer. In the process of printing, one could adjust for a less-than-perfect exposure, do dodging and burning, etc., cropping, and even alter the color balance. When you sent your film to be processed and printed, you would also lose some information about how you did. Is this print dark because I underexposed or because they printed it that way? (This assumes you aren’t color printing yourself.)
Shooting transparency film in the early 1980s.
I took this to heart, and for many years I shot almost exclusively slides. I learned that slides really are less forgiving than, say, Kodacolor negative film. The latitude – the range from lightest to darkest – was compressed and contrast was pretty high. I eventually set up a color darkroom and printed onto Cibachrome, a color reversal paper designed for printing slides. I learned then the darkroom techniques that could let me alter an image more to my liking. Still, the original slides were pretty much a product of what I did with my camera.
Let’s now look at digital. A term widely bantered about on photography discussion sites is SOOC, an abbreviation for Straight Out Of the Camera.” The implication is, this is the unaltered image, just as I took it, with no – zero – manipulation. Sometimes this is used as a before image to compare to the after image produced using editing software. Sometimes it’s shown as the “see what I can do without using Photoshop or manipulating the photo” sort of bravado. It’s basically trying to be analogous to a slide.
But, let’s look at this more closely. When you press the shutter, your camera collects a set of data from the sensor. Each sensor site – pixel – stores a numerical value representing the amount of light it has received. That light has passed through a red, green, or blue filter. These are laid out in a pattern, and now something – a computer – must interpret this data and make sense of it. It is not yet a photo until all the data is assembled into a photo. And the choice of how the various red, green, and blue pixels are combined to make a particular color is yet to be decided.
Suppose you are shooting in JPEG mode – you direct the camera to store JPEG images on the memory card. If we look at one of those photos, is that photo SOOC? Well, strictly speaking it is literally SOOC. But, does it represent an unaltered, unmanipulated photograph? No. There is no such thing. In order for the camera’s computer to write that JPEG file, it has to interpret the sensor data and manipulate it according to the settings you provide. My camera has several modes like Camera Neutral or Landscape. The color rendition will be dramatically affected by this choice. It has noise reduction and sharpness settings which again have a noticeable effect. If they didn’t have a noticeable effect, they wouldn’t bother creating those settings. I can choose sRGB or AdobeRGB color space which will affect how the red, green, and blue data are combined.
To say this photo represents the scene as I saw it, with no manipulation, is disingenuous and wrong. Were those beautiful rich greens actually there or enhanced due to saturation settings and using Landscape mode?
If instead of shooting JPEG, I shoot RAW, then little has changed. Now, instead of the camera’s computer assembling the sensor data into a viewable image, we just move that operation to a computer running Lightroom or Camera Raw or one of the other RAW editing programs. There’s no avoiding it. Even if you set the program to its defaults, you have made a choice that affects the image. And if you use different RAW processors using different algorithms, you’ll see different results.
In fact, with a RAW file, you can’t even produce a photo that is literally SOOC (aside from the tiny imbedded JPEG the camera adds to the RAW file). The RAW data is just ones and zeros, there is no photograph until that data is processed.
What, then, does SOOC mean? Not a lot, I’m afraid. If you want to show before-after comparisons, that’s fine, and one can see what you did between the two. And, for the most part, the adjustments and manipulation done in-camera or during RAW file import tend to be globally applied, so we can know that.
But, if you want to brag about your photography chops and disparage those who want to use all the brushes in the paint set, don’t bother. Or, shoot transparency film. Oh, and we’ll view those on a light board with a loupe – any scanning or printing will, you know, manipulate the image.