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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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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!
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?
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.