Some camera settings just don’t matter if you shoot in raw format
I see a lot of the same questions over and over on the online discussion groups. You’ve just gotten a new DSLR and you want to set it up. There are so many customizations in today’s digital cameras, so you want to do it right. As it turns out, many settings that are applied in-camera will have no meaning if you capture in RAW format and use a 3rd-party raw converter (Lightroom, Capture One, Luminar, Photos) to edit your images.
Image settings that your RAW converter ignores
Unless you use the raw conversion software from your camera manufacturer, most of the image “style” settings are completely ignored. These settings include Nikon’s “Picture Controls.” The only setting your RAW converter reads outside of the raw exposure data itself is the as-shot White Balance (WB).
- Picture Controls/Styles
- Noise Reduction (High ISO NR)
- Color Space (sRGB/Adobe RGB)
- Active D-Lighting (Nikon DSLRs)
- Lens Corrections
- Distortion correction
- Chromatic aberration
That’s a pretty long list, but it’s true. None of the above settings matter when you bring a RAW image into a 3rd-party RAW editor. They are instead replaced by the conversion parameters that your editor uses. For example, Lightroom Classic CC uses the “Adobe Color” profile as its default color and tone curve rendition. You can change this setting after the fact, or modify the software defaults to a different profile. All of the settings listed above are plastic when you shoot RAW, and are really intended for JPEG shooters who want to use the camera to process their images. If you shoot RAW, then these settings are only applied to the embedded preview JPEG that’s used by your camera when reviewing images.
Digital Camera Settings That Matter
There are a few settings that absolutely matter when it comes to setting up your camera. Here are a few settings you should try to get right:
- Exposure: This one should seem obvious, but your RAW processor has a limited range to adjust exposure, so you want to get it right
- White Balance: You can change it in post, but it’s good to try to get it close in-camera when possible
- Long Exposure Noise Reduction: This setting is not the same as high ISO noise reduction, and cannot be applied in post in the same way as the camera does it.
Real World Application of Image Styles
The image style settings (Contrast/Color etc) are intended to allow JPEG shooters to customize the look of their photographs. In a RAW workflow, we only see the image styles when reviewing shots on the camera LCD, or using an image browser that can access the embedded preview JPEGs. Based on this knowledge, it really doesn’t matter what image style you use when shooting RAW. However, there is one other consideration that RAW shooters must make, and that’s the knowledge that your image histogram is derived from the embedded JPEG previews. Your in-camera image histogram does not necessarily reflect the tone distribution that exists in the RAW file. For this reason, I advocate using a low-contrast style setting for RAW capture. Doing so will give you a more accurate image histogram.
Update: May 22
Nikon Mirrorless Cameras
A few astute readers have pointed out that Adobe Lightroom Classic does indeed match many of the in-camera settings in the new Mirrorless Nikons (Z6/Z7). Remember, though, that you can still create new defaults in Lightroom and override any in-camera settings.
Active D-Lighting (Nikon cameras)
Another Nikon feature that you need to be aware of is Active D-Lighting (ADL). This setting is intended to help balance highlights and shadows in your images. Active D-Lighting affects the metering settings and often deliberately sets the camera to under-expose, followed by an in-camera processing adjustment. Because ADL affects the camera’s exposure settings, I leave it off on my Nikon DSLRs when shooting RAW.