To RAW, or not to RAW... That is the question.

So for those of you really new to photography, this might not even be a question you have ever thought about.  For those of you relitivley new, you have probably thought about it, but decided it wasn't another thing you wanted to add to the countless things you're already learning about photography.  For those of you who have been shooting a long time, you're probably already shooting raw and if you're not... what's wrong with you?  You're clearly doing it wrong! ;-)  Okay, shooting RAW isn't for everybody but I do think it's for a lot of people.  In this post I'll try to highlight some of the benefits and reasons to make the change.  You may decide it's still not right for you... that's okay... as long as you know.  If you make the conscious decision, knowing the facts, to be wrong, well I won't hold that against you. :-)

First thing we have to ask ourselves is what the heck is RAW anyway?  In some cases, like sushi, it's the most delicious way to eat fish.  I kinda wish this was a blog entry about eating sushi, cause, well, it's awesome, but I digress.  When it comes to photography, RAW is a file format that captures all image data recorded by the sensor when you take a photo. Now you're probably asking yourself... Self, isn't that what happens every time I take a picture?  Well, not in most cases.  Most cameras, if you haven't changed any of the settings, shoot JPEGs.  When shooting JPEGs your photos are compressed and a lot of the information that affects the quality of the image is lost. Because no information is compressed with RAW you’re able to produce higher quality images, as well as correct problem images that would be unrecoverable if shot in the JPEG format.  Don't worry, though, many cameras these days shoot RAW, including point and shoots! So even if you’re using a teenie weenie camera, you might still be able to take advantage of the RAW file format.  No, the new iPhone doesn't shoot RAW, but it is awesome and has a great camera, so go out and get one... I'll wait.

So, let's talk about the benefits of shooting RAW.

 

Get the Highest Level of Quality

This is one of the biggest benefits. When you shoot in RAW you record all of the data from the sensor.  None of the data is thrown away, or loss during the compression process like it is with JPEGs. This gives the highest quality files. And when it comes to your images, you want high quality.  Now that's assuming your photos are awesome.  If you have some sucky ones, feel free to compress those until the cows come home. The problem with letting your camera convert your photos into JPEGs automatically is that the camera does its own processing to convert the RAW information into a JPEG.  However, your camera is nowhere near as smart as you are... or at least I am, nor is it as powerful as your computer. When you shoot RAW, you’re able to do that processing yourself. You can make the decisions on how the image should look, and in my opinion, produce way better results.

 

Record Greater Levels of Brightnes

Levels of brightness are the number of steps from black to white in an image. The more you have, the smoother the transitions of tones. Smooth is good.

JPEG records 256 levels of brightness, and RAW records between 4,096 to 16,384 levels! This is described with the term “bit”. JPEG captures in 8bit, and RAW is either 12bit or 14bit. The effect this has on your images is huge. Those additional steps of brightness let you make more adjustments (exposure, blacks, fill light, recovery, contrast, brightness) to your image without a significant reduction of quality, because there’s more levels to work with!  

 

Easily Correct Dramatically Over/Under Exposed Images

Obviously you want to get the best exposure in camera, but sometimes that doesn't happen and you wind up with a dramatically over or under exposed image. Since there is basically more information in the photo for you to play with.  A photo that's overexposed, when shot RAW, will have a greater ability to tone down the highlights and recover that blown out information, making the photo beautiful again!.

 

Easily Adjust White Balance

When you shoot JPEG the white balance is applied to the image. You can’t just easily choose another option. With RAW the white balance is still recorded, but because you have way more data, it’s way more easy to adjust.  Was that even english?  I don't think so, but I'm trying to make a point.

Great white balance and colour are essential to an awesome image, and shooting RAW lets you make the adjustments easier and faster, with better results.

 

Get Better Detail

When you shoot RAW you'll have access to sharpening and noise reduction tools in a program like Lightroom (uh, have I mentioned how much I love this program) that are way more powerful than those found in your camera.  You have to use a post processing program like Lightroom to work with your photos when shooting RAW and we'll touch on that more in a bit.

 

Non-Destructive Editing

 When you make adjustments to a RAW file, you’re not actually doing anything to the original data. What you’re doing is creating a set of instructions for how the JPEG or other file format should be saved.

The awesomness of this is that you never ever have to worry about ruining an image, not that you would after reading this blog . You can always reset your adjustments, and start over again.

 

 

SO THIS IS AWESOME!  THERE ARE NO PROBLEMS?

 Now, at this point, you're probably asking yourself either, "why am I still reading this shit," or, "okay, this is pretty awesome, so are the any reasons not to shoot RAW?  There are always pros and cons to every option, and RAW does have a few downsides. I personally think the pros really outweigh the cons, but we'll talk about the cons anyway... just for fun.

 

NEED TO BE PROCESSED

A common argument against shooting RAW is that because the files need to be processed, it takes more time to shoot RAW than JPEG. If you don’t do any processing to your JPEGs that might be true.  However since reading this blog you all know how awesome, powerful and awesome Lightroom is, that's not really an issue.  Your photos will turn out more awesomer and if you're like me, you'll really enjoy editing your photos.

Then, when you add in the fact that adjustments like white balancing, and recovering highlights and shadows are faster and easier with RAW files, and it almost starts looking like processing RAW can be faster than JPEG!!

Then, with RAW, you can easily export to JPEG, as well as convert to various sizes and other file formats.

 

TAKES UP MORE SPACE

Since RAW files have more uncompressed information they can be 2-3 times larger than JPEG files. This is definitely a concern for many people, especially those who create a lot of images.  However, when you look at how inexpensive storage has become, it's not nearly as much of an issue.  I recently bought a 2TB hard drive for about $100.  Now there's a lot to consider when buying storage, but the point is it's become more and more affordable, so adding space to your computer easy.

Memory cards are the same deal. They’re constantly getting cheaper and cheaper.  I remember a few years ago, spending about $90 on a 1GB SD card for one of our cameras. 1GB!!  A few months ago I bought another 16GB card for a recent trip and spent $30.  $30!!!

Yes, RAW files are bigger and take up more space. But that’s because they’re of higher quality. Go with high quality and get some extra storage.  Its easier, safer and more affordable than ever!

 

SLOWS THE CAMERA DOWN

 RAW files are larger than JPEGs, so they’ll fill up the buffer of your camera faster. The camera will still shoot the same frames per second, regardless of wehther it is RAW or JPEG, but you may have to wait for the camera to write to the memory card if the buffer fills up. If shooting fast sequences if critical for you, you're probably a professional sports photographer, or just cooler than me.  If you want to shoot RAW and you probably do, you can purchase faster memory cards, or a more expensive camera with a larger buffer.

 

IN A PROPRIETARY FORMAT

 RAW files are often recorded in a proprietary format, which means that the camera manufacturers haven’t officially disclosed how the raw data can be converted. Companies like Adobe either need to license software to decode the RAW files or reverse engineer how the files should be converted. (For Canon cameras the RAW format looks like .CR2 and for Nikon it’s .NEF).  So how do we view this RAW files on our computers?  BUY LIGHTROOM!  With a program like Lightroom, Photoshop, Camera RAW, or many others, you'll be able to open, edit and save your RAW photos anyway you like.

 

SO NOW WHAT

So there it is, at least in my mind. Hopefully this look at RAW and it’s benefits has cleared things up a bit! You know have most, if not all of the information to make a decision on how you want to shoot.  Uncompressed RAW images or compressed, poopy, JPEG images. ;-)  Each have their advantages.  Whatever you decide... just go out and take some pictures.