Basics: What is RAW and how does it help Photographers? :: Digital Photo Secrets

Basics: What is RAW and how does it help Photographers?

by David Peterson 26 comments

Does your camera have a RAW file format selection in its Image Quality option? Chances are it has one, but most of the time this gets ignored in favor of the JPEGs. After all, we are more familiar with the JPEG options, right? So in this article we are going to dive in and learn about this image file format and see how it can benefit us in our photography.


The RAW is an image file format that contains the actual ‘unprocessed’ information as recorded by the camera sensor. Unprocessed meaning the image data is in its raw state and cannot be displayed or viewed as an image.

Normally for the image data to be usable, it has to undergo further processing to convert the raw data into a viewable image. Converting this raw data entails passing through in-camera processing such as white balance, contrast, color saturation, sharpening, noise reduction, and compressing the resultant file into a JPEG format. Once the image file has been processed and converted to JPEG, the actual raw data is discarded by the camera. If you save your image data in its RAW file format, then the image from the sensor is saved directly to the memory card without further in-camera processing.

Advantages of shooting in RAW

So what benefits can you gain from saving your images in RAW?

1. Easy correction of over or underexposed images. Shooting in RAW gives you the ability to correct slight mistakes in exposure. Unlike a JPEG file where the data has already been processed and compressed, a RAW file contains more information about the photo. This gives you the complete data to use when making adjustments in an image that has been overexposed or underexposed, allowing you to regain detail in washed out highlights as well as over darkened shadows.

  • Panasonic DMC-GX1
  • 160
  • f/5.6
  • 1/3200 sec
  • 20 mm

/ \ by Flickr user Thomas Leuthard

2.Greater degrees of brightness. This refers to the shades of colors in an image. Using RAW you will have more color information to work with. Raw files have 12 or 14 bits per pixel (basically this means for each color, there are 4,096 to 16,384 levels of brightness saved) compared to a JPEG which has 8 bits per pixel (256 levels of brightness). This can be significant especially when working on the highlights or the shadows. Also, because of the amount of levels of brightness available in a RAW file, the transition of the tones will be smoother. This avoids posterization or the abrupt jump between brightness levels, which can show up in a JPEG file. Notice the bands in the sky in the image below.

3. Better details. Processing of the image is done externally using a much more powerful computer and better software the result is an output with finer details as compared to if it was done in-camera.

4. Modifiable white balance. When you shoot in JPEG, the White Balance is automatically applied on the image during in-camera processing. That setting isn’t applied on the RAW image, you have the option to modify or adjust the White Balance setting based on your preference during processing.

5.Better quality prints. Since the information retained in a RAW file is 2 to 6 times higher than a JPEG image, with greater levels of brightness, better tonal gradation and enhanced details the resulting enlarged print will be better than those enlarged from a JPEG image processed in-camera. Note that the difference will only be visible in extremely large-sized prints and not on small-sized prints.

Disadvantages of RAW

While there are significant benefits in using a RAW file format, there are drawbacks worth mentioning when you shoot in RAW. These are:

1. Extra workflow. Recause the RAW file is ‘unprocessed’, it cannot be viewed directly without it passing through conversion software to decode the data and convert it into a readable file. Also you cannot send the RAW file just to anyone since they too have to have the right conversion software to decode and read the file. For it to be usable, it has to be converted first. While the conversion itself is a simple process, it gets tedious and time-consuming if you have multiple files to process.

2. Non-standardized Format. There is no standard set for RAW file format. Different camera manufacturers all have their own proprietary formats. You need to use the conversion software provided by your camera manufacturer, or one of the third party programs (like Photoshop, Elements or Lightroom) that can read most RAW formats. To avoid this you can convert your RAW files into the open source DNG (Digital Negative) format, but that's yet another step.

3. The need for extra storage. Because RAW format avoids compression of the data unlike JPEG, the size of a RAW file is significantly larger. This takes up more space in a memory card, filling it up faster although with the price of cards and storage going down this isn’t as much of an issue as it was in the past.

4.The camera can slow down. Because of the large file size of the RAW file, it takes a longer time for the camera to write the data files into the memory card. This results in the overflow of the buffer and slows the camera down. To address this problem, use a faster memory card or, when buying a camera, choose one with a larger buffer.

Have it both ways

If you want to make the plunge into using the RAW format, but don't want the disadvantages of having to post process all your images, see if your camera supports saving to both JPEG+RAW formats. With this option enabled, the camera will still save the JPEG image so you can quickly see and edit the image. But it also saves the RAW file so if you take an image you love, you can use the RAW format for better processing and printing options.

Recommendations on when to use RAW

Hopefully by now, you have more or less an idea of what a RAW file is, its advantages and its disadvantages. While the options of a RAW file format are good to have, using them is another matter. You can’t be shooting everything in RAW unless you don’t mind a lot of processing. If you do enjoy processing your images, will you have the time? Another reason to avoid RAW would be shooting action or sports photography. Will your camera be able to handle the volume of images being shot without overflowing the buffer? There’s a good chance you might end up missing the peak of the action because your camera is too busy to accept additional images.

So here are some recommendations on when to use RAW:

1. Shooting selected images. RAW is good to use if you only shoot a few images a day, or at least keep it to the number you can handle when processing the image. Otherwise they’ll just be saved on a drive or a disk, piled up, and be forgotten somewhere. It’s best to be selective on which image to use it for. If the image you are shooting is beautiful and has a potential to be shared, printed or archived by all means shoot in RAW. That way you are able to preserve the integrity of the image.

2. Shooting high contrast images. In difficult lighting situations, RAW would be a good choice. Because of the greater amount of data saved, shooting in RAW would allow you to capture a wide range of tones. Also, because it has more data, it is easy to correct for an over-or under-exposed image. That’s a wide margin of safety net for you!

  • Panasonic DMC-GX1
  • 1250
  • f/1.7
  • 0.017 sec (1/60)
  • 20 mm

Walking down... by Flickr user Thomas Leuthard

3. Shooting for Enlargements It goes without saying that because of the qualities of the RAW file we mentioned earlier, it’s an ideal choice if you plan to blow up your image, poster-size or bigger. Heck, you can even have your image printed as big as a billboard if you’ve got the money!

As they say, you can compare RAW to a negative film; where you can do a lot of development or processing to come up with the desired image. You can liken JPEG to a print, where you already have a viewable product. So which file format do you plan to use? The choice is yours.

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Comments

  1. Janet says:

    I enjoy these newsletters even though they are a little over my head. I am still at the very beginning stage and take RAW/Jpeg photos. What software do I need on my computer to open the RAW images?

    thanks

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Janet,

      Sorry about that! My "RAW" newsletter was a special edition. Most aren't that complex.

      Your camera will come with software you can use to open RAW images on your computer, and save them as JPG. Alternatively, most commercial software (like Elements or Photoshop) that can open RAW files will support the file formats of most cameras.

      David.

  2. ELENI LEDFORD says:

    Hi,

    I have been shooting in RAW, saving my pics to TIFF when I do a light edit. I intend to print some of my pics, but is TIFF a good format to do so?

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Eleni,

      TIFF is okay to print with if you make sure your print shop supports that image format.

      However, I'd recommend against it. The main difference between TIFF and JPG is image size (JPG is smaller) and quality (TIFF has better quality). But the better quality in my opinion doesn't offset the loss of sharing ability.

      David.

  3. Mervyn Halsey says:

    Thanks David,
    As usual your article was right on the mark. One point not mentioned 'this time' in your article (I have followed all your articles for some years now and really enjoy them - refreshing is always good) is that once you have adjusted the photo in RAW and saved it in JPEG (or just opened it in RAW and saved it in JPEG without adjustments) you still have both versions provided you keep the original RAW file - I do. Should you at a later date want revisit this shot and make any corrections, such as light or cropping, or whatever, you still have the original in RAW to work with. If you try to do this in JPEG and save it again to JPEG the file will automatically be re compressed - although not so severely this time, and quality will suffer. Additionally if you work with the JPEG file you will be working with only the low level of 256 levels of brightness. (The levels of brightness dropping from 16,384 (RAW maximum) to 256 (JPEG total) is a sure indication of the value of RAW.) I know you know all of this David and my comment is purely to assist the people who have commented above or have not realised this.
    Thanks again,
    Mervyn.

  4. Ahmed Albaqer says:

    Thanks David, It's an amazing and helpful article. I don't used RAW format all the times . Only for artistic photography !.

  5. David Southey says:

    David - Excellent article on benefits of shooting in RAW (a lot of the time)! It is straightforward to download JPEG images from camera (in my case Nikon) onto one's laptop but seems to be a lot more complicated downloading RAW images and then getting them into Photoshop for editing. Why is this? is there a simple step-by-step process if using Windows software to download and then dragging into Photoshop?
    Many thanks!

    • David Peterson says:

      Photoshop comes with software called "Adobe Bridge" that a plugin that will help you organize your images. It loads a program called "Photo Downloader" that will transfer photos from your camera (including converting them) when you plug it into the computer.

      However, if you take a lot of photos, I highly recommend purchasing Lightroom. It has a much superior way of organizing your photos and importing from your camera. As a bonus, you can work directly in the RAW files rather than needing to convert to the PSD format for use with Photoshop.

      David.

  6. Rodney Phillpotts says:

    Great article on RAW v JPEG
    my question is what app or process do I use to covert these large photo files?
    I have just started with my new camera Nikon D3300 and do not have light room or photoshop
    the only photo processing i have is photos on my IMAC
    Regards ROD

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Rodney,

      Nikon have a free program that will convert the RAW files created by Nikon cameras into JPGs. Search for "Capture NX-D" to download it.

      But I do recommend using Lightroom or Photoshop Elements. Both have ways to fine-tune your image before saving as JPG.

      And if you need it, you can get help with Lightroom or Elements using my "Post Processing for Photographers" course here: http://www.digital-photo-secrets.com/post/

      David.

  7. Fernando Paula says:

    Great article. It helped me to understand when I should use RAW, Jpeg, or both at the same time. I have a Canon 600D and use Picasa a lot. Dont need to download the RAWer.

  8. Brian Fairbqanks says:

    Shoot in RAW and save your processed files as TIFF. Each time a JPG is saved the file is resampled and the image deteriorates. Thanks David for keeping us stimulated with your newsletters, we do value their content and advice.

  9. Liz says:

    After shooting in both RAW and JPG my images are initially processed in Picasa. I find it interesting to compare the 2 versions of the same file, especially in scenes with high contrast like ones with clouds and shadows. You can actually see the details kept alive in the RAW version and how the JPG version blows out the bright sunlit clouds. Sometimes the JPG version is good enough for what I want to do with the shot, but sometimes I feel the image is ruined so the RAW version is processed the way I'd like to remember it.

  10. alan says:

    nobody mentions, the advantages of tiFF's

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