I always shoot RAW. I have my camera set to shoot in the RAW format and I never change that setting.
But I know that there's some controversy about shooting RAW vs. JPEG. It seems that everyone has an opinion on it. Obviously, I do too.
So in this post, I'll explain why I shoot RAW and why I think you might want to too.
First, a little background.
A RAW file, sometimes referred to as a "digital negative", is the unprocessed and uncompressed data captured by your camera's image sensor when you snap a photo. Think of it as something akin to a data dump. A RAW file contains all of the original, unfiltered information that is collected by the sensor when a photo is taken.
A JPEG, on the other hand, is a processed, compressed image file.
When your camera saves an image as a JPEG, it takes the raw data from the image sensor and applies certain settings–things like white balance, exposure, saturation, image sharpening and tone curve adjustments–to the photo, baking those settings permanently into the image file. The remaining data on the image sensor is then discarded and the image file is compressed to reduce space before it's saved to the memory card.
Most cameras give you the option to save the images that you shoot in one of several file format types. JPEG is the most common and is usually the default setting.
But most cameras allow you to can change that to save your photos as RAW files.
To set your camera to save files in the RAW format, you will need to access your camera's menu system. If your camera can save images in the RAW format, you will find that option under the Image Quality setting of your camera's shooting menu:
To find out the specifics of selecting the RAW format on your particular camera, be sure and check the user manual.
Since JPEG's and RAW images contain different data and are processed (or unprocessed) differently, the two files have very different properties. And with that, not surprisingly, there are pros and cons to working with each of these image formats.
Because it contains all of the sensor data, a RAW file is significantly larger than a corresponding JPEG and will take up more room on your memory card as well as your computer's hard drive.
Since the data it contains is unprocessed, a RAW image will tend to look flat, dark, and lack contrast right out of the camera. JPEGs, on the other hand, are processed within the camera with exposure and other settings already applied. So a JPEG will look more 'finished' directly out of the camera.
JPEGs can be used directly out of the camera, and you don't need specialized software to edit JPEG files. Any basic photo editor will let you edit a JPEG file.
On the other hand, RAW photos need to be processed before being used, printed or shared. And you need software that specifically works with RAW files–Adobe's Camera Raw, Lightroom or Capture One–to process and edit these files.
Each camera brand has its own proprietary RAW format. This means that camera manufacturers haven't disclosed the specifics of their RAW format, including information on reading and converting these files.
For this reason, you have to use software that knows how to decode your camera's particular brand of RAW files. Most manufacturers will usually supply you with their own raw processing software. Or you can use software from companies like Adobe or Phase One, the maker of Capture One, who have licensed this software from the camera manufacturer.
But even with that, the big question is whether you will have the software needed to open these RAW files 10 or 20 years down the road.
RAW images preserve more colors and a much larger dynamic range than JPEGs. For that reason, RAW files will have information on all of the colors captured by your camera's sensor without the limits imposed by the compressed JPEG format.
The same goes for dynamic range. A RAW image will show more detail in the brightest and darkest parts of your image than a JPEG will.
Because RAW files are larger files, they take longer to write to your camera's memory card. That means that shooting a large number of RAW images in rapid succession can slow down your camera.
By contrast, JPEGs are small and lightweight files that won't bog down your camera's CPU.
RAW files give the maximum flexility when editing.
With RAW images, you can make changes in key areas such as white balance, exposure and contrast in ways that are simply not possible with JPEGs. You can edit a RAW file to dramatically change basic image settings without any loss in quality because all of the sensor data is still available to work with.
That level of editing isn't an option when you are working with a JPEG because when the image is processed in the camera, the settings are applied and made permanent and the remaining data is discarded.
I shoot RAW for a number of reasons.
But first, I have to say that I honestly don't understand why you wouldn't want to have access to all of your image data. If you are spending money to get a DSLR, why throw away such a large chunk of the data that it is able to collect?
Okay, that aside, the bottom line for me is that the power of shooting in the RAW format far outweighs any of its disadvantages.
The editing flexibility that you have with RAW is really remarkable.
With RAW files, you have the option to process the image any way you like. You can change the white balance to give a photo a particular mood, or pop the exposure and drop the contrast to create a high key image, or you can make the photo black and white, or grayscale.
And RAW files give you a second chance to get it right because you have access to so much more data. For example, if you under- or overexpose a photo and find that you have clipped shadows or highlights, there's not much that you can do if you are working with a JPEG. That's because, when the JPEG was saved by your camera, it discarded the extra data that could have allowed you to recover the details in those areas.
But if you had saved that image as a RAW file, there's a good chance that you could recover the details in those areas because you have all of the image data available to you.
So, with RAW files, you a lot more latitude in post-production to make corrections.
The video below by photographer Edin Chavez illustrates this and really brings home the awesome power of RAW editing:
But along with this editing flexibility, shooting RAW has made me a better photographer because it allows me to concentrate on what matters most when I'm shooting: my subject.
With RAW, I don't have to worry about all of my picture settings. What white balance setting should I use? Should I shoot vivid? How much sharpening should I use? Contrast, Brightness, Saturation?
I don't want to think about these things when I'm out shooting. In fact, if I had had to worry about all of these settings, I'm sure I would have missed some of my best shots.
No, that's not how I want to spend my time when I'm out shooting.
I just want to concentrate on my subject, my composition and my lighting. And I want to work with my aperture and shutter speed settings so that I can get the effect I want. Do I want to control the depth of field or am I more interested in controlling motion?
Those are the things I want to think about when I'm shooting. Everything else can come later.
And with RAW, I can work that way. I couldn't if I were shooting JPEG.
Being able to concentrate on what's right in front of me–my subject–has made me a better photographer.
That's the bottom line.
Now maybe you don't want to work this way. But even if you don't mind taking the time to think about all these settings before you snap an image, shooting RAW gives you an insurance policy. Since you can freely change your shooting settings after the fact, the RAW format gives you a way to recover from a bad decision.
Because no matter how good you are, no one gets it right the first time all the time. No one.
That's why I shoot raw.
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