Ever come across the term “rendering” in the course of editing your images and wondered what it meant?
The term can be confusing, as it has a number of similar meanings and the meanings in the world of photography aren’t quite the same as in the realm of 3D graphics.
In this guide, we’ll be discussing what image rendering is, the rendering process, and why it matters.
Let’s dive right in.
Table of Contents
What Does it Mean to Render an Image?
In photography, image rendering can refer to a few different processes, all of which can be boiled down to how a device or browser translates image data into a viewable format.
What your device “sees” is a dataset that describes the visual properties of an image or graphic. How it renders that information will determine what you see on screen.
Image Rendering In-Camera
When taking photographs, the first place you’ll come across a rendered image on your camera itself.
Whatever device you’re taking a photo on has to interpret the data sent to it from the image sensor and then translate that information into a picture.
The image you see on your electronic viewfinder and/or LCD screen is your camera’s rendering of the scene.
How this picture will look depends on the algorithm your camera uses to image render, as well as the settings you’ve chosen.
Every camera does it a bit differently.
Image Rendering During Post-Processing
The next render in photography happens during the editing phase.
Your post-processing program needs to interpret the data in each image file and then render it on whatever screen you’re editing on.
Just like with cameras, each image editing program has its own unique algorithm and output. You may not notice these differences when editing Jpeg photos, but if you shoot in RAW the differences can become pretty significant.
One common misconception is that images that are “straight out of camera” (SOOTC) are pure because they’re “unedited.” This is actually far from the truth.
If you’re shooting in Jpeg, the camera is “editing” for you via the settings in your camera (including AUTO mode). You may choose to post-process the image or not, but either way, it’s already been initially “edited.”
If you’re shooting in RAW, your camera will simply collate all the data into a large image file. How it ultimately gets rendered during post-processing will depend on the software you’re using.
Unlike with Jpegs, with RAW photos you’ll be making all your own decisions about how the image will look. The starting point will be dependent on the quality of the RAW image rendering ability of the software you choose.
If you’re doing photography on a professional level, how your image initially gets rendered on screen can make a difference to your workflow.
Image Rendering When Making Composites
Another way the term rendering is used in post-processing is in reference to creating separate layers when making a composite image.
It’s also used to refer to the final image, when all the different layers have been merged together into a flattened image and saved into a single image file. This is sometimes referred to as the “final render,” though you’ll see this most often in regards to 3D image rendering.
This isn’t a frequent use of the word “render” – most of the time we just say we’re cutting out elements and placing them in a composite – but it’s out there and you might come across it.
3D Image Rendering
Perhaps the most exciting form of image rendering (and the most often referred to) is in terms of three-dimensional image rendering.
In this process, a designer will create separate elements (called render passes) and then combine them into a complete, often life-like image.
When done well, these generated images can be nearly impossible to discern from real photographs.
These days this form of image rendering is ubiquitous, inundating everything from movies and gaming to online catalogs, architectural designs, and indoor decorating.
As a photographer, you’ll likely never have the need to learn this type of rendering.
The exception is if you provide product photography and want to offer your clients as many options as possible.
How do I Render a Photo?
Most of the time photographers aren’t called upon to render images in the technical sense – that’s for your device’s software and/or your browser to do.
If, however, you’re using “render” to mean cutting out the different elements of a composite, how you do this will depend on what software you’re using.
What’s important is that you have an image editor that has layer functionality and a decent tool set for making fine selections.
(Beware, not all selection tools are created equal. Photoshop is still the best software available when it comes to making fine selections.)
If you’re just looking to change the background, many programs will do this automatically. The same is true of switching skies.
The results won’t often be perfect – you’ll still have to put on the final touches – but the technology has definitely come a long way.
If, however, you’re looking to make multiple fine cutouts, using a program like Photoshop or GIMP will be your best bet.
From there, you’ll need to learn your selection tools of choice (there are many). Once the part of the image you want to use is selected, hit “copy” and then “paste” into a separate layer in the composite you’re making.
Once you have all your elements present and aligned, you can then “flatten” your image (i.e. combine all the layers into a single layer). You now have your final render.
Which Programs Have the Best RAW Image Rendering?
If you shoot in RAW, choosing the best RAW image rendering software can be a game-changer, at last in terms of workflow.
As far as render quality goes, our top picks for RAW image conversion are
Of course, the quality of your RAW image converter isn’t the only factor when choosing editing software, but it definitely should be a consideration if you primarily shoot in RAW.
In many programs (i.e. Lightroom), you can also change your RAW converter’s default rendering via the import dialogue. This can save a lot of time if you tend to make the same adjustments to every image.
When most people refer to image rendering, they’ll be referring to 3-D renders.
That being said, it’s still important to understand rendering in terms of photography.
From an artistic sense, we want our images to truly capture the essence and experience of the scene we pushed the shutter button on. The closer an image render gets to what we were trying to create, the less post-processing work we’ll have to do to get it there.
From a product photography standpoint, 3-D rendering is changing the way we create and display images online. It may well be the wave of the future.
At this point, technology is now so developed that it’s becoming more and more difficult to determine if a rendering is a photo or a photo is a generated rendering.
So while you may not ever be called upon to render any images, you’re surrounded by them all the time – whether on your camera screen, on the web, or on your gaming system.
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