Budding Photographer? Here’s Why You Should Be Shooting Raw

Every digital SLR, prosumer and even some high-end point-and-shoot cameras have the ability to save images as raw image files. This isn’t just a higher quality of image, it’s a gift from the photography gods bestowed upon those of us lucky to live in an age of digital photography. And yet, so many squander their chance at getting into Valhalla by opting for JPEG instead.

This needs to stop. By buying a decent camera, you’re exchanging money for the ability to shoot in this format, and if you really want to get the most out of your purchase, abilities and any other equipment you have invested in then saving your images in raw format (otherwise known as shooting raw) is the way to go.

The Magic After-Touch

Arguably the main reason many photographers have been shooting raw all along – even when such files consume precious storage space – is the unparalleled ability to adjust various image parameters after pressing the shutter button. This shouldn’t be seen so much as “shoot without thinking” mode, though it certainly gives you some leeway when it comes to problems like incorrect white balance, over- or under-exposure and correcting lens vignetting.

camera raw   Budding Photographer? Heres Why You Should Be Shooting Raw

Where the photo corrections end, the photo enhancements begin. It’s often amazing how much better an already passable image can get when you start tweaking it, allowing for some really creative touches to be added simply by moving some sliders around. As with any photo editing, restraint is key to ensure you don’t end up overdoing it, but really the sky is the limit.

I took the following photo in 2011, capturing both raw and small JPEG images on a rather old (but still perfectly functional) Nikon D50. This is the JPEG that came off my camera, with no processing:

unprocessed2   Budding Photographer? Heres Why You Should Be Shooting Raw

Here is the same photo, run through Adobe Camera RAW, a process that took a couple of minutes. I boosted the exposure slightly, corrected the white balance, desaturated a touch and slightly adjusted shadows, highlights and blacks before applying a 5×7 crop. Until I opened the raw image file and started playing around, I didn’t realise how much better it could be:

processed2   Budding Photographer? Heres Why You Should Be Shooting Raw

While it’s not exactly the difference between night and day, the corrections have improved the shot and given it a far more true-to-life appearance. Bakari wrote a great article about editing raw files in Adobe Camera RAW for those of you who use it, but other editors do exist. Just about every camera manufacturer has their own raw image editor, usually found on a CD in the same box your camera came in.

Nikon has ViewNX, Canon has Digital Photo Professional, Sony uses Image Data Converter which is available from their download centre and Olympus offers Image Viewer 3 from their downloads website. Such software are all free, though there are some manufacturer restrictions as ever. If you’re using Linux then I wrote an article all about raw editors for Linux a few years ago.

Lossless Gains

Most RAW formats these days are lossless (at the very least “high quality” lossy on older cameras), and a few manufacturers (specifically Nikon) have come up with a compressed lossless raw format too. This is in stark contrast to JPEG, which is fine for sharing images on the web where loading speeds are as important as the content itself. However, for archiving and creating high quality derivatives and prints, raw is king.

rawvsjpeg   Budding Photographer? Heres Why You Should Be Shooting Raw

Sure, the image files are a lot bigger than JPEGs but that’s because they contain a lot more information. This information enables you to make the edits I describe above with greater ease. Overall image quality is higher, simply because information is not being discarded. You’ll squeeze more out of shadows when boosting exposure, and you won’t see a patch of ugly compression artefact.

“But I Need A Quick JPEG…”

This is probably the most convincing reason to forgo the benefits of raw formats, but the fact is that cameras allow you to store both formats. Need a quick JPEG to show to your client, stick on eBay or share a look with a friend? Simply choose to shoot both! Most modern high-end cameras allow you save images in both raw and JPEG formats simultaneously. Got a bunch of RAW files you no longer need because that JPEG sufficed? Just delete them.

iphone photographer   Budding Photographer? Heres Why You Should Be Shooting Raw

Personally I’ve taken to using my iPhone as a method of snapping “one quick JPEG” because it’s hands-down the quickest way to shoot and share an image online. For anything that warrants more attention, potential edits or that you intend on keeping, then raw is the better choice.

“But RAW Files Are Huge!”

And SD cards are even bigger. The storage argument is no longer viable in a time when you can buy a 32 GB SDHC card for less than $30, with 64 GB cards coming in at around $50. It’s not exactly pocket change, but it’s not bad value considering the number of images you can save on the card, plus the flexibility shooting in RAW affords you. Just make sure your camera can handle such a large card before you buy it!

sdhc   Budding Photographer? Heres Why You Should Be Shooting Raw

If you shoot with reckless abandon, the large image files might make you consider your shots a little more carefully before spraying and praying, but you might also have to accept that you’ll be deleting more images than you would if you were shooting in JPEG. This isn’t a bad thing; there’s no point holding on to throwaway shots, after all.

While solid state drives make your computer faster than before, hard drives are still the go-to option for storing large amounts of data, and they’re still relatively cheap. For best results, go for a network drive with at least as much space reserved for backup as you have for data to be stored. We’ve covered building your own NAS from scratch before, and you can even do it on the cheap with a Raspberry Pi. Failing that, buy a ready-to-go NAS like the Synology DiskStation James reviewed and loved.

Learn As You Shoot

Quite possibly the best and most underrated reason to use raw image formats is that you will develop as a photographer by doing so. By noticing what it is you’re frequently correcting, you’re less likely to make the same mistakes time and time again. Not only will you get a better idea of where your strengths and weaknesses lie as a photographer, you’ll probably adjust your shooting style to suit. I’m a firm believer that you never stop learning, and that means you never stop improving. What better way to improve than to learn from your own examples?

greyscale   Budding Photographer? Heres Why You Should Be Shooting Raw

It’s also a surprisingly good way of getting to know your equipment. Two things I learned from shooting raw were to never trust my camera’s white balance setting unless it was a custom reading, and that it’s often best to leave the ISO low and boost the exposure in post rather than ending up with a generally grainier image. The lens correction tool in Adobe Camera RAW made those “straight” lines stand out for what they really were, and I virtually learned everything about effective use of greyscale by adjusting individual colour channels by quite literally fiddling with the desaturation settings.

And For The Future…

If there’s one thing I find cathartic when I’m in a particularly creative mood, it’s going back and reprocessing raw images I took years ago. Not only can I take a peek at my original “finished” products, but I can see how I’ve developed over the years. This is before realising your newfound skills and appreciation for nostalgia can bring the best out of what you initially thought was a bad image.

Looking at old photographs is fun, but reprocessing old photographs is even better.

Do you shoot raw? Have you learned anything from doing so? Share your thoughts in the comments, below.

Image credits: 135L (Nicolas Goulet)SDHC Card (Cristiano Betta), Observing the Professional (Quasic)

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8 Comments -

0 votes

Mark P.

While I agree that shooting in RAW is a great thing to do I find the hassle to be too much. I prefer to take my time shooting the photo making sure everything is right (you can prepare) and take the photo rather than having the mindset of ‘i’ll fix it in post’ it’s best to do as much as you can in camera and only do adjustments that are absolutely needed. This is what I do and while this isn’t for everyone this method is much nicer to me.

0 votes

Mike T

I agree with the author. I am not as good as many and this article is perfect for me to learn to shoot in raw to end up with a better picture. Both learning and correcting will make me a better person. It will also help my business on selling used test equipment.

0 votes

Tim B

Just because it’s a fairly dynamic and Photoshop-friendly image format doesn’t mean you should approach it with a “i’ll fix it in post” mentality. Raw will not fix bad photographs, full stop. Composition cannot be altered, nor can shutter speed or aperture. You can’t man-handle the depth of field or even choose a better ISO setting. If your image is already too grainy, well aside from some (iffy, at best) noise reduction, there’s little that can be done.

This means there’s just as much emphasis on getting it right first time round as there is if you’re shooting JPEG. And as Mike has already said, if you really want to learn to be a better photographer one of the best steps you can take is by shooting raw. Not only is it a far more robust format, allowing you to “save” seemingly unrecoverable photos, you can actually see your mistakes as a photographer.

So, while I understand many people feel that raw is hassle, I personally don’t buy it. Especially considering you can batch process or shoot RAW+JPEG if you’re after some quick shareable photos.

When I started shooting raw, I had to force myself into the habit. I wasn’t really using my processing tools to their full potential, but six months down the line once I’d seen the light and realised what I could do with my photos, I was really pleased that I had all those glorious digital negatives to go back and process. You might feel the same one day, too!

1 votes

Nick Galante

After years of being a committed JPG shooter using Bridge and Photoshop I made the leap to RAW and Lightroom. Forget what your hear about RAW being more work. I photography families on the beach. I shoot hundreds of photos per session. First I can bring good images back from places I never thought possible – especially over exposure. And B it is way faster than Bridge and Photoshop. I love it.

0 votes

Adrian

“…but the fact is that cameras allow you to store both formats.”…actually that isn’t true. Some do, others don’t.

0 votes

beefog

@Adrian –
“Most modern high-end cameras allow you save images in both raw and JPEG formats simultaneously.”

Re-read the article — he said MOST.

1 votes

Andrew L.

I grew up shooting black & white, then into the darkroom I went.
I still remember my steadfast initial desire (still holding true) to ‘think’ as an artist throughout the entire photograph process.
I believe shooting raw AND the thinking you have the ‘one trigger pull’ mindset of a perfectionist artist can and should coexist.

0 votes

Tim B

Great comment. I also try to take this approach as much as possible, though when I was regularly shooting live music I was very glad for my ability to burst shoot and discard the failures, particularly at f/1.4 where you’ve got a thin blade of focus and plenty of opportunity for subjects to disappear. Taught me a thing or two though!