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Friday, February 5, 2010

The RAW Deal: Why I (Now) Always Shoot RAW Format

If there was such a thing as a photographers' bar (and maybe there is and no one's told me about it yet), I'm sure that one of the most heated topics of happy-hour debate would be the perpetual row over RAW vs. Jpeg camera formats. Other than the fifty-year Canon vs. Nikon holy war, nothing incenses the opposing factions in photo circles like the discussion over which recording format is better. And if you think that I'm going to stick my foot in the middle of that dog fight, well...maybe just a bit.

The truth is, of course, that neither format is inherently superior to the other; it's all a matter of how you work and how involved you are with image editing (and if someone insists that one is intrinsically best, beware that bulging vein in their neck--it's about to start throbbing). It actually took me years to arrive at the decision that RAW was a better format for me and, in professional circles, at least, I was very late to the game. Now, however, I shoot RAW almost exclusively--and I'll tell you why.

First, let me briefly explain the differences. Whenever you take a photograph in the jpeg format, regardless of how you have the camera set up or what mode you're working in, the camera processes your image before you see it, automatically enhancing things like color saturation and sharpness, for example, to make your images look as good as possible right out of the camera. And for a lot of photographers (and photographic situations), that's a good thing. If all that you do is drop your card off at the local CVS to be printed, for instance, this will vastly improve the quality and "prettiness" factor of your images. So what's wrong with that? Nothing.

The price you pay for that quality convenience, however, is that the camera has taken a certain amount of creative control away from you. You can choose to set the white balance to "cloudy day," for instance, to warm up shots on a cloudy day--but you are stuck with that white balance. You are also stuck, to a degree, with the exposure that was set when you shot the photo. Again, in many cases, this isn't that big a problem. A larger problem is that, in order to keep files as small and manageable as possible and to keep your camera cranking out images as quickly as you can press the shutter button, the camera also compresses those images. That's what jpeg is--a compression scenario that shrinks images by tossing out similar pixels before you even seen them. Jpeg, in fact, is known as a lossy format--it loses information during processing.

RAW images, on the other, hand, are recorded with virtually no behind-the-scenes enhancement. The image that comes out of the camera is almost exactly as you shot it. The most common analogy for this, in fact, is that a RAW image is like a camera negative--all of the information is there for you to alter as you like in editing--just as you would interpret a negative in the traditional darkroom. Even more importantly, nothing is lost or left behind in translation. Every pixel that was exposed is maintained and nothing is "compressed," thus RAW is referred to as a lossless format.

Where RAW really gets interesting, and quite useful, is during the pre-editing process. Whenever you download and then open a RAW file you must first go through a "conversion" step that enables you to change some key things like exposure, white balance, tint, contrast and saturation--and on a very detailed level. In terms of exposure, for example, you can be off be several stops in-camera and actually change the exposure during editing. You're not just making a curves or levels adjustment, as you can do with a jpeg file, but you're actually changing the exposure. You can also adjust the white balance in any way you like. If, for example, you weren't sure if you wanted the image to be warm or cool, or if the dominant light source was tungsten or daylight, no problem--you can make that decision after the fact. You can also adjust the hue/saturation/luminosity of each individual color before you even begin to edit the image--quite amazing. And you can pre-adjust curves in the conversion process (though to be honest, I do all of my real curves work in Photsohop after conversion.)

It was largely the ability to change the first two things--exposure and white balance--that won me over. That and the fact that my good friend and one of the world's premiere food photographers, Jon Van Gorder, convinced me that by not tossing away duplicate pixels and by editing in 16-bits instead of 8-bits (another RAW feature), the quality of my images would vastly improve. I tried it for a few weeks and he was right. Once I switched to RAW, my images were radically better. My editing also became more careful, more calculated and I understood more about what I was doing and why.

Are there downsides to shooting RAW? Yes, but for me they are slight. For one, RAW files take up huge amounts of both card space and hard drive space. But memory prices have plummeted so much that that is no longer a concern to me. You can buy a terabyte hard drive now for a few hundred dollars--unimaginable when I started shooting digitally. Also, because the files are so large it slows your shooting down; it simply takes the camera longer to transfer the images from the buffer to your memory card. And finally, there is that extra step in processing that you must go through.

So is RAW better? Ask me in the photographers' bar some night. In the meantime, look at the type of work you do, the level of quality you demand from your images, how much time you want to spend editing and how many memory cards you're willing to own. Don't let anyone tell you you're wrong to shoot jpeg if the balance for you tips in that direction. But if RAW sounds appealing to you, try it. I think once you do, you'll be evangelizing in no time.

Now, speaking of camera brands...


aquashell said...

You've explained it in such simple terms - thanks! I was always confused by the differences between these 2 formats. I think I may just have to try out RAW and see how Iike it. Thanks for opening a new door for me.

Frank said...

I tend to shoot in both RAW and jpg formats most of the time. Unless I am just taking vacation snapshots or fiddling around when it is just jpgs. Like you said, the fact that space is so cheap has made this a fairly easy decision for me.

Why both formats? First, I have the jpgs available right away for sharing and printing. Second, if I do want to really play with an image, I can. It gives me more flexibility than if I just shot one or the other. (Fortunately, my camera lets me shoot both a large jpg and RAW.) Since the majority of pictures I take are at the Masonic events I go to, the flexibility works very well for me. If someone sees a picture they really like and they want me to make it better, I can do that.

Thanks for the thoughts,


Jeff Wignall said...

Thanks for both of your comments. I meant to mention your point too, Frank, about shooting both at once and just forgot--but it's a good point, some cameras allow you to shoot both. I haven't done that very often, but at times it makes a lot of sense.


Victoria said...

I'm going to bookmark this and come back and STUDY it... so far... I've just been doing highest quality jpg but now I see (after reading this) that maybe some of what I've been UNABLE to do in post processing would be possible if I'd been shooting RAW. (and I would be one who, like Frank, would do both formats so I can quickly post and share images that I don't want to fuss with in detail) Besides which I don't really do a lot of post-processing and need to learn SO MUCH more in order to be good at it!

Thanks for stopping by my blog from time to time... I really feel honored when you crop a nice comment! :-)

Janet said...

I just have a question. It does take longer to get put on the memory card, especially long night exposures..should those be taken in jpg's? I have your "Joy of Photography" book and have learned alot. I plan to get "Exposure Photo Workshop" next...so I can get it right..out of the camera!