I picked up the latest Popular Photography at the airport yesterday and got as far as the Letters to the Editor section when I saw something that kind of surprised me. The first two letters were from readers that were seriously angry about RAW and didn’t see why they should use it instead of JPEG. Apparently Debbie Grossman wrote an article in the November issue entitled “Why RAW Works”. Now truth be told, I have not read this article but then again, I know why it works. I am still amazed though at how little awareness there is by camera owners at the power and importance of shooting in a RAW format. The big complaints seemed to be as follows; no way to open and work with their RAW formatted images, larger file sizes, waiting for images to write to the memory card, less capacity on the memory card, longer download times, and, well, you get the idea.
I am just going to take a stab at this and guess that the folks that are having issues understanding the RAW format are those that have recently moved up to a DSLR camera and have previously been shooting strictly JPEG images. So let me start off with a few comments about JPEG. First, there is nothing wrong with JPEG if you are just taking happy snaps. Why go through the process of adjusting RAW images of the kids opening presents when you are just going to email them to Grandma. Then there are the journalists and sports photographers that are shooting 9 frames a second and need to transmit their images across the wire. Once again JPEG is just fine. So what is wrong with JPEG? Absolutely nothing, that is unless you care about having complete creative control over all of your image data as opposed to what an algorithm thinks is important.
First of all, did you know that JPEG is not an image format? It is actually a compression standard and compression is where things go bad. When you have your camera set to JPEG, whether it is Fine,
So what does RAW have to offer?
Well, first and foremost, RAW images are not compressed (there are some cameras that have a compressed RAW format but it is lossless compression which means there is no loss of actual image data).
RAW images also have a greater dynamic range than JPEG processed images. This means that you can recover image detail in the highlights and shadows that just aren’t available in JPEG processed images.
There is more color information in a RAW image because it is typically a 12, 14, or 16-bit image which means it contains more color information than a JPEG which is almost always 8-bits. More color information means more to work with and smoother changes. Kind of like the difference between performing surgery with a scalpel as opposed to a butcher’s knife. They’ll both get the job done but one will do less damage.
Sharpening a RAW image is more controlled because you are the one that is applying the setting according to the result you want to achieve. Once again, JPEG processing applies a standard amount of sharpening that you can not change after the fact. Once it is done, it’s done.
And that brings me to my final and possibly most important fact. A RAW file is your negative. No matter what you do to it, you won’t change it unless you save your file in a different format. This means that you can come back to that same file and try different processing settings to achieve differing results and never harm the original image. Make a change to your JPEG and accidentally save the file and guess what, you have a new original file and you will not ever get back to that first image. That alone should make you sit up and take notice.
Final advice for new RAW shooters
Don’t give up on shooting RAW just because it means more work. Hey, if it takes up more space on your card, buy bigger cards or more smaller ones. Will it take more time to download, yes, but good things come to those that wait. Many programs like Lightroom let you start working with your images while they are downloading. If you don’t understand the process, find a book or even better, a friend that knows how to work with RAW. Read your owners manual about your camera’s particular format. The chances are that it actually came with some RAW processing software that you weren’t aware of. Move away from the amateur mindset of JPEG and think about how much better your images could be if you took complete control of them instead of handing that over to some algorithm. After all, you took the photograph; shouldn’t you be the one to decide how it looks in the end?
I have heard numerous times that if Ansel Adams were alive and shooting today, he would be shooting digital. I have no doubt about this but I also bet he would be using RAW, not JPEG.