A lesson learnt early on
Back in 2003 I got my hands on a Canon 10D digital SLR. Boy was I chuffed. You can read more about the that in 'The Return of the EOS' but one of the pieces of advice I had read, and heeded, was to shoot in Camera Raw.
What is Camera Raw? What are you talking about?
Okay, simply goes. The images you shoot on any digital device are recorded in memory of some sort. On traditional cameras a memory card, on a smart phone in its on-board memory somewhere. All devices will normally support the recording of these images as JPEG but the camera 'processes' the image and then saves it. The level of compression may be adjustable, but the more the compression that is applied the more detail is lost. It also makes decisions on the style of the shot, the sharpness and the light balance before saving these changes to your file.
Let me show you. This is a shot from 2016 which was saved as raw, before being lightly processed manually, and saved as a JPEG for this post.
The first thing I'm interested in is the quality of the image. So now let's have a close-up of some detail.
You'll notice the more compression applied the more pixelated it will become. Whilst this will not matter in small images on the screen, if you want to print it out, or crop the image, you'll start to notice the lack of quality.
Raw records your images exactly as they are captured by the sensor. This is great because once you have the raw images, you can process it as many different ways as you like and you'll always have the original as a reference - a bit like a film negative if you remember the days of film!
Raw is exactly what it says - it's the raw data from you camera's sensor.
So if I shoot in raw everything will be better?
Errr No. You remember I said JPEG is a lossy compression file format. Well that has its benefits.
The image above is 1.2mb as a JPEG at 20% (14.1mb at 100%) and as a raw file it’s 24mb. So you’ll need more/bigger memory cards, and more storage at home or in the cloud. Raw’s a chunky monkey.
Also, being larger files sizes it may well slow down the burst rate for shooting multiple images, that'll depend on your camera but it normally is slower for raw.
Oh and then the final sting in the tale, raw images need to be processed.
Yep, raw's strength may also be your weakness.
So my example raw shot actually look liked this when captured
Urgh, really? Yep, as I said the camera processes the raw data it captures and it tweaks it to give you your final image. And most of the time it does a reasonable job, plus you may have a choice of selecting the image style, which helps the camera out again. The problem is once the camera has done it's work it saves the output as the JPEG, any other info recorded by the sensor at the time is lost.
So if we're working with raw then we can get the most out of the shot.
Now you will have been provided with some raw editing software by your camera manufacturer. However, despite Canon's offering being quite good, I prefer to use Adobe's Lightroom, partnered with Adobe's Photoshop as my editing suite of choice. So from the raw image above I am able to extract this;
Within Adobe's Lightroom there are a number of presets within the develop module to get you going. It's easy to give your image different looks - plus there are always additional Lightroom plugin's available & you can create your own for a personal look.
This example uses Lightroom’s Old Polar Preset – looks like a photo found in an old tin box from the ’70’s
Now with a 'Aged Photo' preset
With an 'Antique' look applied.
But there’s more. Add to that Google’s Nik collection of free plugins and I can create further variates at a simple click of a button or two within Adobe’s Photoshop.
Here we use the 'Bright' default within the HDR Efex Pro 2 filter.
Then something darker using the 'Sinister' default.
If Black & White photography is your thing then check out the Silver Efex Pro 2 module There are 38 presets to get you started, and then you can create your own styles from there.
Now I appreciate you can apply filters and recreate similar effect with JPEGS, but the beauty of raw is that you start with one 'negative/original' image, with its full colour range, and you can take your shot in any direction you want. If you start with JPEG, there's always the very real possibility you'll commit one look, and you've lost the original. (I know - I've done it with a pre 2003 JPEG myself)
Any other downsides?
With larger file sizes that means bigger memory cards, or more of them, or both. It also means more storage either back home, in 'The Cloud', or on the road with you. Something to consider before switching to raw. Something I didn't on a 2004 trip to New York. I started to notice the impact of the larger file sizes and had to switch to JPEG. It's the only time I have switched back to JPEG.
Also you'll be editing larger files, so your PC/Mac/Laptop needs plenty of memory otherwise the process can become rather painful.
Another thing to consider is disappointment. As I said raw images need to be processed most of the time. You may be able to select a preset, but often, straight out of the camera they may look flat, and not as sharp as you would have hoped for. That's okay, you can do that now, it's your choice - if you've shot in JPEG your camera has already saved a predefined version.
So why shoot in raw?
Okay here's my 5 reasons.
You have captured 100% of the data from the image and from there you can make choices.
Correct white balance
What's white balance, it's the colour of light. You know how in a brightly lit kitchen, it's a different light to a warm evening by the beach, or sitting by an open camp fire - no really it is. Your camera may not understand this and it makes assumptions. If it's saved as JPEG it's committed - sure you can make adjustments, but it's working with a lower quality file to start with.
Correct minor exposure issues
It's possible to bring back detail in the brighter areas, and get more tones from the shadows. Just look at the sky in the original image to the processed one, more detail. Sometimes the sky may appear completely white, just reduce the highlights to see what you have. The overall image may appear dark, but the highlights are okay, well increase the mid-tones/shadows and see if it helps.
Digital cameras generally take soft images, i.e. not sharp, and then sharpen them in the processing phase of writing them as JPEGs. Let's say you don't want that to happen - for example a portrait where you actually want to soften the skin (and sharpen the eyes!). It's much easier if you have control.
What? I mean you don't actually edit the raw file. At the first level you change a series of values, and these are saved alongside the raw file. Take the first 3 examples above - same file, just different settings applied. With JPEG you are editing the original file. If you forget to 'Save As' you overwrite your original. I see tears…
What won't raw help with?
We have established raw is pretty cool and it can help correct some issues after the event. However, it's not magic, it cannot solve the following problems.
Oh the bane of every photographer who has removable lenses. There's a whole new post needed on sensor dust, but both raw and JPEG will capture the same detail from the same sensor.
This varies from mild to extreme, and good technique in taking the shots, as well as understanding exposure will help you here. Sorry raw can't get you out of this one.
Sure you can sharpen or soften as you need to, but if it's out of focus, or you've focused on the wrong element in your shot then again raw cannot help you.
Extreme over/under exposure
I mentioned in the 'plus' it can correct minor exposure defects. However, if you've done as I have and occasionally fired off a few shots without checking the settings then you may be doomed. The easiest way to confirm is to adjust the exposure to compensate. If the image is over-exposed, or bright then reduce the exposure all the way. If the image still has bright sections then chances are you've lost the data. Reverse the process for underexposed or dark images, and make sure there is colour & detail there. Whilst it may help, it may also introduce extra noise into the image. The moral of the story is to capture it right the first time, in camera. Then you can use the power of raw to get the maximum from your correctly exposed image.
If you switch to Raw you're giving yourself a chance of going back to old shots and improving them as your skills develop. You won't regret it - I promise.
Why shoot in raw format? Hopefully I have provided a compelling case for shooting in raw, if your camera supports it, and you're serious about photography.