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The Power of RAW Photography

Take a look at what a RAW file is and how it compares to an ordinary JPEG file. Which one should you choose when taking photos and why?

What is RAW?

RAW is an image format that is used in many D-SLR cameras. There is no standard file extension, every camera developer (and some software tools) have their own extension — but the backbone is the same.

The RAW format captures what the camera sees and stores it together with the metadata information in the file. In fact, every camera shoots in “RAW”, but if not set up properly (or if not capable) will compress the RAW files to JPEG’s. In this article, I’ll show you the ups and downs to using RAW in photography.

Hack your Camera to Support RAW

Even if you own a simple point-and-shoot camera that doesn’t support RAW format, there is a possibility that you can grab developer tools that will allow you to get by! Lifehacker put together a nice post describing how to enable RAW and other features on a large selection of Canon Digital Cameras.

The Positive Sides of Using RAW

Unlike JPEG files that are compressed, the RAW files remain uncompressed (or uses a lossless compression in some cases) which doesn’t affect the image quality.

In post-production, the photography has the ability to set the white balance without affecting the image quality, allowing for greater accuracy — such as being able to select a specific point to set the white balance at AFTER the photo is taken, instead of settling for a default setting like “indoors”. Even if you have your camera set to “Auto W/B” you will still have full control over it if you shoot in RAW during post-production.

The RAW format also gives you the ability to set color saturation, contrast and sharpness to greater extent than you can in other formats. If you shoot in JPEG these settings will be compressed into the file when photographing and changing then later will decrease the image quality. If you shoot in RAW you can decide whether you want to use the cameras settings or select your own.

The ability to bring back shadows and change highlights is greatly increased. This is mostly due to the fact that RAW is either 12 or 14 bits, while JPEGs are only 8 bits and are severely lacking the detail in shadows/highlights.

The Negative Sides of Using RAW

Unfortunately, this powerful set of tools that are RAW does come with some negative aspects as well.
RAW files are much larger in size than JPEG, but with the low prices on both hard drives and flash cards this issue is becoming less important. RAW files takes longer for the camera to write, which will decrease the frames per seconds or need to buffer longer — this can be a problem for sport photographers that want rapid series of shots.

RAW is for photographers that intend to do some sort of post-production, if you want to print/upload your photos directly from your camera this is not the format for you.

So far there is no standard RAW format, every developer have their own format; sometimes different formats for different cameras in the same series even. This has led to some uncertainty on what’s going to happen in the future, will there be a standard format or will this “madness” continue?

Due to these several different formats most post-production software needs to be updated to support the latest format/cameras.

Final thoughts

If you find yourself rarely doing any post-production work on your photographs you should probably not use the RAW format. The same thing goes for people that just photograph snapshots or the like, when the details aren’t visible.

For post-production use there are several different software solutions. Each camera company has their own software, and in most cases I would stay away from these simply because there are better tools out there. A commonly used software is the Camera Raw in Adobe Photoshop (CS and later versions), which gives you a great set of tools, although I find it a bit bulky.

Adobe also has a dedicated workspace for photographers called Lightroom that’s a good tool with great workflow. Capture One from Phase One is yet another alternative, with both pro and consumer versions. Last but not least is Apple’s Aperture, which is a Mac only software, provides great workflow and powerful tools, but is the most hardware demanding of the ones listed here.

I personally always shoot in RAW, I choose to do so because I want to have the ability to set the white balance and bring back shadows among other things without loosing quality. The extra ability that the RAW format gives me as a photographer is very welcome from my part, it’s like a darkroom in itself.

Take it to the forums!

I’ve done a bit of Q&A on the Forums if you’re interested in learning more about shooting in RAW.

27 Comments

  1. Add point Subtract point
    MicMart (2 Points) April 20, 2011 at 7:12 am

    Many thanks to you guys, I’m beginning to learn digital photography thru your tutorial.

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    Photoshop tutorials, from beginner to advanced. photo manipulation, icon design, text effects, interface, layout, painting, photo effects, psd tuts, maxon cinema 4d, designing.
    http://photoshopcs8.co.cc

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  3. Add point Subtract point

    very useful information to share good work

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  4. Add point Subtract point
    habibah (1 Point) July 13, 2010 at 4:46 pm

    this is about the most intresting and simplest tutorial.its very helpful, as i’m new to photography and working towards making it as a professional photographer. i’m actually interested in wedding, occasions and events and portrait photography.
    good work. i’ll appreciate more useful tips. thanks

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  5. Add point Subtract point
    Dave (3 Points) May 13, 2010 at 9:39 am

    There’s really no sense in shooting raw. Too much work (to correct what should be a good image to begin with) and too large a file size, for what I can get in a jpeg.

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    โหลดเพลงฟรี (1 Point) February 3, 2010 at 12:59 am

    Great post . Thanks153

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  7. Add point Subtract point
    เพลงใหม่ล่าสุด (2 Points) February 1, 2010 at 11:03 pm

    Great post . Thanks146

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  8. Add point Subtract point
    เพลงใหม่ล่าสุด (1 Point) February 1, 2010 at 1:06 am

    Great post . Thanks141

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  9. Add point Subtract point
    เพลงใหม่ล่าสุด (1 Point) January 30, 2010 at 8:12 am

    great tutorial . Thanks

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  10. Add point Subtract point

    I don’t really know any “real” photographer that shoots JPG, RAW file sizes are not much bigger than JPG when shot in high quality anyway and the extra flexibility given is total win, seriously on a 16GB Card what’s the worry on file size? :)

    Unless you intend to shoot more than 5000 shots in a single session :)

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  11. Add point Subtract point

    Loads of usefull tips and hints, thanks a lot to all invollved

    MIke

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  12. Add point Subtract point

    Even though there is no standard camera raw format in terms of in-camera support, Adobe DNG is becoming more and more widespread. There are also advantages to be gained by taking that extra step of converting from a proprietary raw format to DNG.

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    whaddupyo (1 Point) September 18, 2008 at 3:18 pm

    Great Tut!

    For those of you using Canon cameras (that’s what I use, I can’t speak for the Nikon, Sony, or other type users) interested in shooting RAW, please note that RAW does not work in the BASIC modes, only the CREATIVE modes- M, AV, TV, & P.

    I highly recommend learning to use the CREATIVE mode, not only because it gives you the awesome ability to use RAW but primarily it will help make you a better photographer. If you are SERIOUS about learning how to take professional looking digital photos, start out in the “M” mode (Manual) and work your way up from there. Yes, it’s more difficult than putting the camera mode on “Auto” and just clicking away but in no time at all you will be learning how aperture, shutter speed, and ISO work together. “Bracketing” your shots (3 pics taken at virtually the same time, with one shot at what you think is perfect and then 2 ore pics taken 1 stop higher and 1 stop lower) will greatly aid you in figuring it out. I use a Canon xti and it can do this automatically if you set it up.

    OH!!! and read this other Tut by Frederik on Depth of Field to help you in understanding why/how/when you should shoot in CREATIVE Mode-

    http://www.tutorial9.net/photography/depth-of-field-in-photography/

    Get a good grip on how these two tutorials work and you will never go back to point and shoot!

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  14. Add point Subtract point

    @Beth, Thanks!
    This depends on what print size you’re aiming for and what printer service you use. I would never re-size my photos to a smaller size for printing, the largest possible image size is always desirable. But you often do need to convert the raw files into another format since many companies don’t accept them (yet?).
    I personally convert my raw files to .TIFF files before printing. It’s a good format that most printing stores accept, but make sure they do, some of them I’ve seen only accept JPEGs. If you’re only gonna do small prints you should be more than fine with .jpg-files, but at least save them at 100% quality – anything less than that and you might be able to tell a difference.

    But then again, the outcome of a print can depend more on the quality of the printer and the paper than what conversion or file size you use.

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    Love your tutorials. Lots to learn and you make it very…digestible. Question: Before you go to print should you make the file size smaller so you can upload to print easier and if so how and to what resolution for great print quality?

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    Jana (1 Point) June 8, 2008 at 9:13 am

    Wow! Thanksfor clearing this up to me :) I knew that you could get soem kick-ass colors using RAW, but I really didnt know the difference. Now I do and thank you for that. Now one thing that’s missing – a good camera for me *dreams*

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    Aristides Echauri (1 Point) June 4, 2008 at 1:30 pm

    Thanks
    very nice….

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  18. Add point Subtract point

    @Dave – Thanks, and I totally agree with you. As much as possible should be done at the moment the photograph is taken. Even if RAW has the ability to change the exposure that’s no excuse not to try and get perfect exposure with every shot. So yeah, do as much as possible on the shoot and then you’ll only have to do small changes in the post-process.

    @Iceberg – I’m not 100% sure when Adobe launched all their stuff, but Camera Raw works perfectly on CS2. I know I used Camera Raw on my old PC and I only bought CS3 after moving to Mac so I know it’s supported. However I’m not sure if it’s bundled with CS2 or if it’s a free plug-in from Adobe’s website. I know they have released a free download for previous version of PS, but I highly doubt CS2 doesn’t have it included. Give it a try and see what happens.

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    Iceberg (1 Point) May 31, 2008 at 8:29 pm

    Is Adobe Photoshop Camera Raw compatible with Photoshop CS2?

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    Great post Fredrik. Throughly enjoyed your comparisons.

    I find myself using RAW more often than not (unless I’m shooting rapidly, and my cards simply can’t write fast enough to keep up with more than 10 or so sequential shots), and have found it to be a real lifesaver in my photographs.

    All that said, I think it’s always important as a photographer to do as much of the setup as possible while taking shots rather than totally rely on post-processing. I guess it’s that whole GIGO mindset, but you can definitely save some time doing things right the first time round. That, and there are some things that you can’t simply fix when shooting in RAW.

    Again, awesome tutorial man!

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  21. Add point Subtract point
    doncarlito (1 Point) May 31, 2008 at 2:16 pm

    thanks fredrik,i learn alot from you and looking forward to learn more of your tutorials :)

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    You’re welcome!
    @doncarlito – there will be tutorials on post process coming somewhat soon. I will try and see if I can add some information about the different software solutions and how they works as well.

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    Photo Retouch Tutorials (1 Point) May 31, 2008 at 1:10 pm

    Finally I undertand what RAw is. I’ve always seen all this “RAW vs JPEG” but never knew what they where really talking about.
    Thanks for explaining it :)

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    doncarlito (1 Point) May 31, 2008 at 10:24 am

    good day fredrik! now i fully understand what RAW is,you make it simple and very easy to understand..now its about post prosesing,if you just have
    extra time,i know your a very busy person,would really appreciate if you can add how to post prosses using lightroom or camera raw,even just a simple guide which bottons in lightroom to be use..hope you can understand my writing.thank you so much.

    charlie chan

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