The Benefits of a Raw File Format :: Digital Photo Secrets

The Benefits of a Raw File Format

by David Peterson 12 comments

Intermediate Raw vs. jpeg is a debate that continues to exist in the digital photography world. But there are some distinct advantages to the raw format. If you have considered adjusting your camera’s image quality setting to raw, it is worth a try to see what all of the fuss is about. You will need to be prepared to spend more time post processing (at least initially), but therein lies the beauty of a raw file. There is so much you can do!

Raw files, or digital negatives, contain the complete data from your camera’s sensor. Just like raw food is uncooked, raw images are unprocessed. They are not compressed or modified in any way. It is truly untouched and "as is". None of the typical adjustments your camera may make to an image in terms of sharpness, noise reduction, etc. have occurred. The file must be processed and exported as an image file for use. Raw opens up a whole new world of editing possibilities. Many of the common problems with images, like poor exposure or improper white balance, can be "fixed" in post processing of a raw image.

Color

Raw files are typically 12 or 14-bit as compared to an 8-bit jpeg. What does this mean to you? Well, simply put it means that there are a lot more shades or tones of red, green, and blue available in raw format. There are more color tones available per pixel of the picture. This gives you increased flexibility for color adjustments post processing.

Exposure

Raw files also give you more wiggle room if your photo is not correctly exposed. Raw file formats have a higher dynamic range. That refers to the range of light to dark that a camera can capture without being completely white or black. If you have ever taken a photo using the wrong mode or in poor lighting and ended up with too-dark or too-bright images, you can compensate for this mistake to a much greater extent when you use a raw image.

There is more information to work with in a raw file, so you can make more adjustments without a loss of quality. You can apply exposure compensation after the fact and adjust metering mistakes or bring out lost shadow or highlight detail.

The photo below was taken directly into the setting sun. If you expose for the bright background, this will result in the plants in the foreground looking like dark blobs. Shooting in raw gives you more data to work with in post processing if it is not quite right. With a jpeg image the shadowy plant detail is likely lost forever, but with raw data you can recover most of the detail, as in the image below.

White Balance

Another great advantage offered by raw is the incredible white balance control. White balance is the adjustment that makes white things look white and gives your photos the correct color cast. When shooting in raw, there is no need to set white balance in your camera - Instead of the somewhat blanket settings of daylight, shade, incandescent, etc. to choose from you can specifically adjust the color temperature of your photo in post processing.

Maybe you shot a bunch of jpg photos in bright sun using the fluorescent setting. When you got home, you discover that all your photos have a blue-ish tint, or cast. You can remove this in post processing but using jpg, the resulting image won't be as nice as when processing a raw image because there is not as much data to work with.

With a raw file format, big changes in white balance do not negatively impact the image. You can precisely adjust the color temperature of the photo during post processing without destroying any color bits. You can warm or cool to your heart’s content! Proper white balance is key to a great photo and raw files allow for more adjustments with better results.

Sharpness

It may be a surprise to you that a raw file is actually less sharp than a jpeg image. If you are shooting in jpg, your camera is sharpening your image for you. It may seem contradictory but taking your camera’s sharpening capability out of the equation actually allows you more control over picture sharpness.

Although your DSLR is pretty "smart", your computer is actually much "smarter" because it has more processing power. It can use more complicated sharpening algorithms that create less artifacts. The result is again more control over the final image. You can sharpen a raw file where and how much you want to, depending on the type of image you desire. After effective post processing, raw file formats can yield incredibly sharp images without the side effects of pre sharpening by your camera. In an image like the one below, raw format gives you much greater control to emphasize and sharpen the focus of your composition, in this case the lemur’s amazing eyes!

Non-destructive Editing

Raw files also allow for editing of the image in a non destructive way. All changes made to a raw file are stored in an associated metadata file or sidecar. As you edit a raw file, the original data remains untouched. The beauty of this is that you do not need to worry about accidentally ruining or saving over an image. You can always reset your adjustments and start again. Let the editing begin!

In a nutshell, making the switch to raw provides you with more control. Mistakes you make in camera can be more easily adjusted during post processing. It is still important to take the best photo possible, but raw is more forgiving once you learn how to edit effectively. You will have access to every piece of data your camera recorded, and it is up to you to know how to use it. You have more creative control over color, exposure, white balance, sharpness and other key elements of your photos. It will require some patience and practice but give raw a try and see if you can take your photography to the next level.

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Comments

  1. Savio Menezes says:

    You are really awesome. Your articles are highly informative,yet simple to understand. I wish you were in my town to be my Photography Guru. Thanks for being my source to a wealth of information.

  2. Kelvin Smallwood says:

    Hi David re: your last comment-RAW images are processed in PS and/or LR thereafter can be saved in various file formats eg JPEG, TIFF etc. Thereafter one can do anything with the edited photo eg post/e-mail etc. Am I correct? I haven't tried RAW yet but do know what the differences are between it and other formats. Kelvin

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Kelvin,

      That's absolutely correct. Once you save as JPG or TIFF, you can then save/share/email/print the image just like you can when the camera directly creates a JPG file.

      David.

  3. WesMal says:

    Hi David, I want to switch to RAW...What is the proper settings,I have a nikon D3300...Thanks Wes.

    • David Peterson says:

      I'm not sure what you are asking, Wes. All you need to do is to change your camera to save in RAW format. You don't need to change any of the settings.

      David.

  4. Liz van Niekerk says:

    Hi David, I took picture in RAW but when I want to download it from the memory card 70% of the photos dont want to down load. What can I do. Please help.

    Thanks

    Liz

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Liz,

      You don't say what error you're getting, so I can only guess at the cause, but the most likely is a faulty (or worn out) memory card. I recommend you purchase a new one and see if that works better. It won't have anything to do with using RAW rather than JPG.

      David.

  5. ronald says:

    no wonder my play button says cant display file i have it on jpeg fine and raw seems clearer then just raw fine

  6. Des Crocker says:

    Hi David,
    I have read the article on the Benefits of RAW file and in particular your reference to sharpness. Could you please clarify for me if you are suggesting that maybe the sharpness camera settings for RAW files should be set to the minimum for better post processing. Or some other figure. I have been using a setting of 7 in Standard Picture Style on my 450D and have sometimes wondered if the post processing sharpness is as good as it might be, not really giving any thought to the possibility of algorithm conflicts.
    Could it also be said of the other settings, contrast, saturation and color tone that they should be set to 0 too?

    Or is there simply an argument to use Neutral or Faithful (on the 450D) which are default to 0,0,0,0 and rely entirely upon post processing techniques for the end result?

    Please note that this is only opinion seeking and in no way meant to be in deference to your expertise in these matters. I continue to derive a lot of benefit and memory joggers from these articles that turn up every week or so. Thanks for your untiring efforts.

    • David Peterson says:

      Des,

      If you disable sharpening, contrast, saturation etc on your camera, then you will need to do that on your computer. And if you need to do that, then it would be much better to instead work in the RAW format straight from your camera rather than an un-processed jpg.

      So I would recommend you tell you camera to save both RAW and JPG formats (with sharpening enabled). Use the JPG for most shots, except when you want to spend a bit of time in post processing, when you should start with the RAW.

      David.

  7. Peter Davies says:

    David,

    Thank you for an interesting and informative article.

    I've no doubt that RAW can, with good editing capabilities, produce a better photograph.

    However, if like most of us, that photo will likely be shared 'on-line' requiring JPEG or TIFF,RAW is not accepted by the majority of programs used by 'ordinary' photographers.

    Your article does not mention this 'data transfer' problem, and I was wondering if there is now a fix for this.

    I really do want to try RAW, but what's the point if I cannot send photos elsewhere (say, Facebook) using RAW?

    Your comments and recommendations are, as always, very much appreciated.

    Many thanks,

    Peter Davies

    • David Peterson says:

      Thanks for the comment, Peter.

      I didn't make it clear in the article, but RAW is not designed to be used for upload to websites or for sharing. For those tasks. jpg is still the best file format to use.

      Shooting in RAW will help you create a better jpg image because you have more camera data to work with. You can change exposure, white balance and other options without losing quality, as you do when working with a jpg file from your camera.

      I hope that helps.

      David.

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