Yes, RAW. I know you've heard of it, even if you're not using it. It's that sort-of intimidating format you hear so many other photographers swear by. If you're filtering out most of the white noise you hear about shooting in RAW, what you're probably getting is this: RAW is better. But why? And is it for you?
[ Top image on the many ways of filtering light by Flickr user ecstaticist]
When NOT to shoot RAW
Let's back up a bit. RAW is not always better. There are plenty of reasons why you should not be shooting in RAW. The first one is that all RAW files require some sort of post processing so that they can be viewed on the internet or in standard photo viewing platforms. If you don't have that kind of time to spend with your photos, RAW is not for you.
RAW is also bad for action photography. Are you shooting a sporting event or something else that moves fast? RAW files are much bigger than JPG files, and they take longer to write to a memory card. They also take up a lot of space. So with action photography you have the dual disadvantage of not being able to take full advantage of your camera's burst mode (RAW files write too slowly for that) and of filling up your memory cards too fast, since action photography tends to produce more frames than, say, landscape photography.
Finally, if you're mainly just concerned with printing your photos at 4x6 and you're just not bothered by things like a little loss of detail in the shadows, or complete dynamic range, keep shooting in JPG. And actually if you're at all intimiated by RAW, then I recommend you continue to use JPG. JPG can still produce beautiful images. But if you're aiming for technically beautiful images with a broad range of tones and detail, then switching to RAW is something you should consider.
And there are a multitude of reasons why:
You'll get more dynamic range
I already mentioned dynamic range, but here are some specifics. Your camera's sensor is really only capable of capturing a part of the available dynamic range in a scene. That means that the entire range of tones from darks to lights isn't going to make it onto your image. By shooting in RAW, you capture the most data that your sensor is capable of collecting. JPG does not keep all of that data, and that's why JPG images sometimes have blown-out highlights or way-too-black shadows. [For more info on Dynamic Range, see my article on HDR Photography]
Why is there a difference? JPG is a compressed image format. That means that it is by its nature a format that attempts to create a small file. When your camera captures a JPG image, there's processing that happens in the camera. Some information is ruled as unnecessary and discarded. The camera also decides for itself what ought to be done to that image to make it look better. It may sharpen the image, or it may saturate the colors a little, it may adjust the contrast. A RAW file, on the other hand, is just that: RAW. It keeps all the information it collects and it doesn't muck around with the file at all.
You have full control
All this means that you're the guy in charge of what those photos will ultimately look like. You're smarter than your camera's processor, and chances are you also have much better software on your computer than what's inbuilt into your camera. So shouldn't you be the one making creative decisions about your images?
Do you want the colors to be more saturated? Saturate them yourself. Do you want to pull some details out of the shadows? Great, because the RAW file saved all those details for you and all you have to do is fix them. Do you want to change the white balance? You can do that, too. You're in charge of how that image looks, and if you change your mind you can always undo all of those changes.
While you can do all this with a JPG, you won't get results that are as good because your camera has already thrown away a lot of information about the image when it made the JPG file.
Have you ever been disappointed by your software's ability to sharpen your JPG files? It's not entirely the software's fault. JPGs are already sharpened, so it's easy to over-sharpen them. And with a RAW file you can selectively sharpen parts of a scene while leaving other parts alone.
U Zlatého Stromu by Flickr user filip.farag
You can edit non-destructively
What does that mean? Well, have you ever edited your JPG file, saved it and then realized that you copied over the original? Maybe that's fine - maybe you're not planning to recover that old version. But what if you made the file smaller, or you applied an artistic filter to it, or you did something cool and creative with it but ultimately did not want that version to be your only version of the image? If you're working in JPG, you're out of luck. Unless you can "undo" in Photoshop, you're stuck with your edited version. With RAW you can always go back and retrieve that original file. What's more, RAW keeps track of everything you've done to your file, so you never have to scratch your head and wonder how to undo something you did to that image, maybe weeks or months earlier.
The sad truth about JPG is that the more you edit them, the more quality they lose. So every time you open up a JPG, tweak it and then save it again, it's that little bit worse. This is what's called a "lossy" file format (not to be confused with "lousy", or possibly very much to be confused with "lousy"). Hint: this is why if you shoot JPG, you should always, always save the original version of the file. Never edit it directly and save over it.
Sara by Flickr user source
You don't have to worry about white balance
As you know, your camera's auto white-balance setting doesn't always get it right. You don't always get it right, either. Setting your white-balance for indoor lighting isn't going to be effective if you also have daylight coming through your windows. And using a white card isn't very practical or quick. If you shoot in RAW, you don't need to worry about the white balance in your camera at all. All you need to do to correct the white balance is move a little slider back and forth in your paint program to warm up the whites or to cool them down. Your editor can change the white balance with almost no degradation of your image.
On The Road to Glenorchy by Flickr user stewartbaird
You can get more out of difficult lighting situations
Everyone knows you should always shoot at the magic hour. But let's face it, the action doesn't always happen during the magic hour. If you're shooting in very bright conditions where you know you're going to end up with some blown-out highlights, switch to RAW. If you lose some detail in the highlights, the chances are pretty good that you'll be able to retrieve them again in post processing. That's because the RAW format captures between 4,000+ and 16,000+ levels of brightness. How many does JPG do? 256. That's pretty pathetic, really, and it means that you can do a lot more to improve your RAW images than you can a JPG. You can even fix a very poorly exposed picture.
Note that you might not be able to retrieve anything from really blown out areas; like the top of the baby image below. While RAW does capture a lot of extra brightness levels, it still can't capture them all. So rather than trying to save that partially-overexposed image, maybe turn it into an artistic high-key image!
Untitled by Flickr user paul goyette
You can print your images at large sizes
You can print a JPG at a large size, too, but there's a limit to how large you can go before you start to see those JPG artifacts - pixelated details, for example. A RAW file is only limited by how many megapixels your camera is capable of. With today's uber-megapixel cameras, that means you can potentially create huge prints without any loss of quality.
City of Austin Power Plant by Flickr user Apogee Photography
Still not sure? Most cameras give you the option to shoot in RAW and JPEG at the same time. You'll have the JPEG versions so you can print them out and send them to Grandma, or Instagram them. But you'll also have the RAW versions on hand in case you want to go back later and improve your files. Now your only obstacle is your camera's speed and the size of your memory card/hard drive. If you're a sports photographer then you may still have a good reason to shoot JPG. But if you don't shoot at high speed and both your hard drive and your memory cards are large enough to capture and keep those RAW files (and memory gets cheaper all the time), you're out of excuses.
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