Why you should shoot using the RAW image format
Have you ever taken a photograph that is too bright or too dark?
Maybe you have taken a photo that is both too bright and too dark at the same time (difficult lighting situation, too much contrast).
Then you open these images in your favorite photo editing software and try to correct them, but you get frustrated when you realize it’s not possible to bring back any detail in the shadows or highlights.
Chances are you are shooting in JPEG-format, which just don’t contain enough data for what you are trying to achieve.
The JPEG image format
There are many types of digital image formats, with JPEG being the most popular and common.
This is because JPEG has a good quality to compression ratio. The file sizes can be small, but still provide decent quality (here’s the nerdy explanation of the JPEG-format).
That’s the key word to the problems I described earlier. There is just not enough data available in the image to bring back all the details.
Don’t get me wrong though.
I’m not saying that JPEG is an image format that should be avoided. Not at all.
JPEG is great for image sharing and storing/presenting finished results (especially online, considering the size factor), but what I’m talking about here is when shooting.
The image taking process.
When shooting in JPEG, the camera applies all the image settings and then compresses it all into a JPEG file.
In many cases, you would be better off using…
The RAW image format
This format contains all the data that comes from the image sensor in the camera at the time of shooting (here’s the nerdy explanation of the RAW image format.)
The file that this format produces is rather a pure data file than an image file.
You’ll need a so-called RAW converter to read these files.
Popular editing software like Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop have this type of converter built in.
As these files contain more data than JPEG files, they are also bigger, taking up more space on your hard drive.
Most camera makers have their own proprietary version of the RAW image format. For example, Pentax have files with the .PEF extension.
There is also an open source version made by Adobe called .DNG (digital negative).
So what’s the advantage of this image format then?
RAW image format advantages
Correcting shadows/highlights more easily
This is the biggest reason why I shoot in RAW.
Being able to shoot in very contrasting light and still be able to save a slightly burnt out sky or plugged-up shadows (aka clipping).
Look at the example image at the top of this page.
Making the bottom image using the JPEG at the top as a source wouldn’t be possible, but with RAW files, all the data is kept.
Even data that isn’t obvious when you first look at your screen.
At first, it might be surprising how much “hidden” data (image details) you can bring out from a RAW file.
Of course there are limits, but you can really push them further with RAW than with JPEG.
Delaying creative decisions
When you shoot in JPEG, all the in-camera image settings like white balance, contrast, sharpness etc. are hard-coded into the JPEG file, making it difficult/impossible to change later in post-processing.
If you shoot in RAW these settings are not applied to the file. They may be saved WITH the file, depending on the camera make and model, but they can be easily changed later as they are not hard-coded.
If you have been shooting JPEG and switch your camera to shooting RAW and you don’t see any difference in the image on the camera LCD screen that is perfectly normal. The image that is displayed on the LCD screen is still a JPEG with the camera settings applied, but the file that is saved to the memory card is a RAW file. This can be a little confusing at first.
Many cameras can also let you shoot in both RAW and JPEG at the same time (saves a file of each image format type).
What you should make an effort to get right in-camera is the composition and exposure.
Exposure can also be more easily corrected if you shoot in RAW, but you might introduce noise or artifacts to your images if you make extreme corrections.
An example is a setting like the white balance, which has a great impact on the color tone of your image when shooting in JPEG, doesn’t matter when shooting in RAW. This can be set and fine-tuned later in post-processing.
So RAW lets you delay the decision on these settings until you get your image up in your favorite RAW converter and can judge it thoroughly on a bigger screen.
RAW image format disadvantages
Of course, there are often several sides to a story.
Time could be a disadvantage.
If you’re a reporter or something like it, who has a deadline to meet and you have to deliver finished photos quickly, RAW may not be ideal, as it demands at least some post-processing.
If you don’t like computers or you’re a purist who would like everything done right in the camera, then RAW isn’t for you.
Shooting in RAW will also, on most cameras, fill up the buffer more quickly when shooting in “burst mode” (continuous shooting mode), which makes for fewer shots at full framerate before it slows down.
As there are a few cons towards shooting in RAW, in my opinion (at least for the way I work), they don’t outweigh the pros.
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