Do you know why your image previews change in Lightroom or Bridge?

One of the most common questions at my workflow workshops is "When my RAW images are loading in to Lightroom (or Bridge) the previews look one way, but then they change...why!? I like the first preview better!"

When you shoot in RAW format (instead of JPEG), you gain many advantages for post processing. You have greater dynamic range in your photos and the ultimate flexibility in how the final image is processed with the ability to maintain image quality while adjusting things like white balance, exposure, contrast, etc. Since you are working on the high-bit data while making these adjustments, you avoid the degradation that can occur if you edited and re-saved a .JPG file with the same adjustments. 

One of the facts of a RAW file is that each manufacturer has their "way" of interpreting that RAW information to display it in the camera or on the computer. Liken the RAW file to our film negatives of days past. The same negative sent to different labs could produce significantly different prints. The lab had to decide, based on their eye and experience, what was the "best" way to print that negative. In essence, each RAW workflow software is like a unique lab.

When you shoot a RAW file, the camera saves the "RAW" data (the "negative") straight from the camera sensor and also creates a small .JPG file and embeds it in the RAW file for previewing purposes only. This .JPG contains that manufacturer's settings and adjustments from the camera and simulates what the image should look like when rendered in higher resolution. Now here's the catch: the image will ONLY look exactly like this .JPG preview IF the image is processed using the manufacturers software on the computer (or if it's captured in .JPG). Nikon and Canon both have their own software to process RAW files, but many users prefer other software - like Aperture, Bridge, or Lightroom.

Once the user imports the RAW image into any software other than the camera maker's software, the new software has to create its own rendering of the image directly from the RAW data. Rarely will this rendering exactly match what the embedded preview looks like. When a user imports a RAW file, the software initially displays the embedded low resolution JPG preview for reference, which is why it looks similar to how it did in camera - BUT then it has to take over and create its own version as soon as the user does anything to adjust the image. The software does this to maintain WYSIWYG editing of the image from that point on. It's important to remember that the camera makers embedded preview contains proprietary rendering info that Lightroom can't use - it has to create its own version. That's why the preview changes after rendering or adjustments are made.

So, the bottom line is that users of Lightroom, Aperture, or other non-camera-maker software for workflow and editing need to accept that their RAW files will not ever exactly match that of the embedded preview. This is not usually a bad thing. Adobe (or Apple) provides profiles for different cameras which they have determined are the best way to naturally render those particular RAW files. Many people like them out of the box, while others will tweak the adjustments and create their own unique formula for rendering the RAW files from specific cameras. Often this results in a default adjustment that is preferable to the host camera's rendering (as seen in the original JPG preview).

In my workflow, I've created adjustments that I like and have saved these as my defaults for my RAW files so that every RAW image imported immediately receives them and the new JPG preview is generated using these settings. In my next post, I'll show a couple of different ways you can do this yourself, with some sample settings to start with.

When things go bad.

Sometimes photographers REALLY don't like the default rendering that their workflow software creates - claiming it is far different from the original preview that first shows up - and from what they remember seeing on the camera. Several things could be happening: 

The first is that they may have made several adjustments within their camera to suit their particular tastes. The default "natural" rendering that Lightroom is creating will naturally be quite different. For example, if you've adjusted contrast, saturation, hue, sharpness, etc. in your camera, these adjustments will ONLY be shown in the JPG preview or when processing that RAW file in the camera maker's software. Lightroom has no clue that you've made these adjustments (remember, that's top secret proprietary information) and simply applies its own defaults. In this case, you'd need to emulate these adjustments in your Lightroom defaults and tell the program to use them on all your RAW files.

When you import a RAW file into Lightroom, Bridge, Aperture, etc. they only read and use basic information from the original file–like white balance. Any other adjustments that are made in camera are not read and only the Lightroom defaults will be used to create a preview.  

The second issue could be that your Lightroom defaults have somehow been messed with and you are not actually getting the Adobe intended defaults. In this case you need to reset the defaults within Lightroom.

The third possibility is that the Lightroom version is just plain different, not necessarily worse, and you need to look at it with fresh eyes and decide if maybe this version is just fine after all - and not expect it to match the original preview. 

It's also a good idea to check and make sure you have the latest profiles for your specific camera installed in Lightroom. Keeping Lightroom updated with the latest version helps assure this. Adobe occasionally updates camera profiles to provide better default rendering.

Sometimes a problem is a problem. Other times the perceived problem is just something different that we need to step back from and decide if it really is a problem - or a new opportunity. In Lightroom, we have the opportunity to render our files in infinite ways - with far more options than we have in camera. The key is in knowing how to use our tools to achieve the looks we want, and I'll offer some help with that in my next post. I welcome your thoughts and comments!