Shoot Raw? You can ignore these In-Camera Settings

Some camera settings just don’t matter if you shoot in raw format

Tulips, photographed with my Nikon D850 in RAW format and processed with Lightroom Classic CC.

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
    • Contrast
    • Saturation
    • Sharpness
    • Clarity
    • Brightness
    • Hue
  • Noise Reduction (High ISO NR)
  • Color Space (sRGB/Adobe RGB)
  • Active D-Lighting (Nikon DSLRs)
  • Lens Corrections
    • Distortion correction
    • Chromatic aberration
Nikon picture controls
Image styles, or Picture Controls, have no impact whatsoever on your RAW image when you process your images using a 3rd-party software application.

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.

Before: The embedded preview uses your camera’s as-shot settings.
After: Once an image goes into your RAW converter, the preview is generated by your converter’s settings, not the as-shot ones.

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

Image histogram
The image histogram displayed by your camera is based on the color and contrast settings you choose.

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.

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7 thoughts on “Shoot Raw? You can ignore these In-Camera Settings”

  1. Hi Jason
    I just bought a Z7 and one thing I like is the ‘real time’ histogram in the electronic viewfinder. Wondering if it is also ‘derived from a jpeg’ or is it generated differently?

  2. Hi Jason, Good article! As you say this issue is often the subject of much debate. However, I think you should warn people that ADL has some effect on the image in Lightroom.
    I shoot Nikon in either A priority or M + Auto ISO. In the case of the former the shutter speed is raised with increased ADL and in the latter the ISO is lowered with increased ADL. The net result is that the image is somewhat darker when opened in Lightroom, and exposure correction is required.
    I find this useful in avoiding “blowing the highlights”, and don’t mind the extra post production step.
    Thanks and regards

  3. You have done some similar comments in your “The Photographer’s Guide to Capture NX2. ” At that time they were very useful indeed, as well as today.

  4. Thank you for this informative article. Can you please clarify a little more about what a “low-contrast style setting” that you mention in your ending would be? Thank you.

  5. Hi Duncan-
    You are correct. Active D-Lighting is only applied properly when using Nikon’s Raw converters (Capture NX-D). Because it affects your exposure settings, I always disable it in-camera.

  6. As far as I know, it’s derived from the preview image which is based on the in-camera Picture Control settings, just like live view histograms on Nikon DSLRs.

  7. Hi Elizabeth, for Nikon cameras, select “Neutral” or “Flat” picture control settings. The images won’t pop on the LCD, but your histogram will be closer to what’s in the raw file.

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