Understanding RAW Format Photography

When I first made the switch to digital photography one area that caused me a lot of confusion was using RAW format. My problem was that I didn’t understand what RAW format photography was only that it sounded difficult. This was reinforced by all the debate on the internet that seemed to surround the topic. Despite this I adopted RAW format for my photography and it quickly became second nature to me. So much so, that I sometimes forget that others might be facing some of the same question. This article discusses the benefits (or not) of using RAW format photography and hopefully answers some of the common questions you might have.

To start, here is an image captured using RAW format photography and processed in Lightroom.

 

RAW Format Photography

RAW Format Photography

Here is the same image captured using JPEG format.

 

JPEG Format Photography

JPEG Format Photography

What is RAW Format Photography

When you take a photograph with a digital camera, the image is focussed by the camera lens onto the digital sensor. This sensor contains photo receptive sites that represent the pixels in the image. If you were to record the information that was captured by the sensor without further processing, this would be the information in the RAW file.

This is actually an oversimplification as many cameras will process the data from the sensor before saving it to the RAW file, but this doesn’t matter for our purposes. Effectively you can think of the RAW file as containing the unprocessed image data from the camera sensor.

As this image data is unprocessed, it isn’t actually a photograph at this stage. To translate it into a photograph you will need a RAW converter. This is a special piece of software that can read RAW files and convert them into images that can be viewed. Many of these RAW converters will also allow you to perform other special editing to the images as part of the conversion processes. These are typically settings such as exposure, contrast, sharpness and saturation although RAW converters are becoming increasingly more complex all the time.

At this stage I should point out that not all cameras will save their images in RAW format. In fact most consumer compact cameras don’t, as RAW format introduces an overhead in processing your photographs that many people don’t want. RAW format tends to be favoured by those who are “serious” about photography and therefore this capability is usually restricted to DSLR’s, Compact System Cameras (with interchangeable lenses) and serious (more expensive) compact cameras.

An alternative recording format for images that’s supported by all cameras is the JPEG. This is a true image file and is also supported by computers everywhere as well as being the standard for the internet. It therefore removes the need to convert the RAW file to an image which is why it is so widely adopted. What is happening is that the internal processor in the camera is converting the RAW sensor data into a JPEG image and saving that to the memory card.

During this conversion process the camera is making decisions about exposure, contrast, sharpness, saturation, noise reduction based on its software. These decision may or may not be what you want and they may or may not be the optimal settings for your image. Often you can control these settings through the settings in the camera menu but you must do this in advance.

Benefits of RAW Format Photography

If you have read this far you might already have spotted some of the benefits of using RAW format for your photography. In case you haven’t, let’s cover them in this section.

  • RAW files contain much more image information than JPEG images. They therefore allow much more adjustment to be made after the camera has been taken. They will also withstand such adjustments much better than a JPEG would.
  • There has been minimal adjustment to the image data in a RAW file as compared to a JPEG. This not only allows greater flexibility in the post capture editing you can do, it will ensure your images are of the highest quality. For example, if you look at an image captured in JPEG format, it might look fine at first glance. But compare it to the same image captured in RAW and you will see that the JPEG image is slightly softer and may lack fine details. This is caused by the in camera processing that was required to produce the JPEG.

Image section shot in JPEG format at 100% magnification

Sample 1 shot in JPEG

Sample 1 shot in JPEG

Same image section in RAW format

Ssample 1 shot in RAW Format

Ssample 1 shot in RAW Format

Further section in JPEG

Sample 2 shot in JPEG

Sample 2 shot in JPEG

And again in RAW format

Sample 2 shot in RAW format

Sample 2 shot in RAW format

  • One feature of RAW files is that the edits you make in your RAW converter are non-destructive. This means that you can always return to the starting position and that the RAW image data is never actually changed. This isn’t the case with a JPEG where if you make changes to the file which you save, there is no way back to the original unless you hold a backup copy.
  • A single RAW file can be reprocessed into many different image variations. You can think of the RAW file as being almost a negative from which each new print is made.

Disadvantages of the RAW Format

It’s fair to say that there are probably more disadvantages to shooting photographs in RAW format than there are advantages. These include:

  • There is the overhead of converting the RAW file into an image, which also requires special software. This software may have been supplied with your camera or you might need to buy it. If you want to use the best RAW converters such as Lightroom, Photoshop and Capture One, you will have an additional expense.
  • To create the best image quality when converting from JPEG requires skill with your chosen RAW converter. This can take time to learn and for some converters it may also be difficult.
  • RAW files are much larger than the equivalent JPEG image and therefore take up more storage space and computer processing power to edit. You might also need to invest in larger (and more) memory cards for your camera as you will use the space more quickly.
  • Different camera manufacturers have different RAW formats and tend to change these each time they release a new model. There is a risk that the RAW format for older cameras stops being supported as RAW converters advance. But more of an issue is that when you buy a new camera, you often need to buy an up to date RAW converter that supports the new file format.

Which approach is the right one for you is a personal choice.

Do you have the time and inclination to convert your RAW files to images?

Is producing the highest quality photography very important to you? If so, RAW will be the better format.

Are you happy to learn how to use another piece of software or do you just want to enjoy the finished photograph without further effort?

Do you only show your images on the internet or digitally? In which case the deficiencies in the JPEG or the benefits of RAW may not be visible.

Do you want to future proof your images to take advantage of future technological advances? If so, the RAW format will offer more than JPEG.

Further Reading

One of the most important aspects of RAW Format Photography is photo editing. On Lenscraft you can find advice about a large range of RAW converters. If you're an Adobe Lightroom user I recommend you read my book Mastering Lightroom's Develop module. It will show you how to make the most of Lightroom's powerful RAW photo editing tools.

 

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