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.
/ \ 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!
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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