If you said the RAW image is the one on the left, you’re correct! As you can see, the RAW image is in need of post-processing, as it appears rather flat and dull, while the JPEG is ready straight out of camera. The bananas look positively vibrant!
In this guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know about taking the leap into shooting in RAW:
- RAW: What is it exactly?
- Why aren’t you shooting in RAW?
- Why should you start shooting in RAW?
- Higher quality images (digital & print)
- Better detail
- Simple correction of under/overexposed images
- Non-destructive editing
- Greater control over sharpness and noise
- Better dynamic range
- Easy adjustment of white balance
- Greater accessibility
- Higher quality enlargements
- When using JPEG may come in handy
- What to adjust in Adobe Camera Raw
- The RAW downside
What Does It Mean to Shoot in RAW?
The two file formats used most often to save digital images are JPEG and RAW. JPEG is the default setting on most cameras – whether that camera is a DSLR, a shiny new mirrorless, an everyday point-and-shoot, or your cell phone’s camera.
Shooting in RAW means you are snapping a picture that will be saved in an uncompressed digital file format. This means that the digital file keeps all of the data from the camera’s sensor. The RAW format is often referred to as “lossless,” because all of the data has been maintained and nothing has been lost.
Shooting in RAW is considered necessary by most for fine art and fashion photography, along with portraits. It is suitable for professionals, whose clients are paying for a finely tuned and flawless end product.
Sometimes a RAW image file is called a digital negative, because photographers rarely use the photo they initially snapped in RAW as the finished image. You still need to manipulate the data in that image a bit – or a whole lot – to come up with a final, polished image.
Why Aren’t You Shooting in RAW?
Let’s start by troubleshooting a few reasons you might be hesitant to try shooting in RAW:
- You’re not sure of where to start. To learn how to set your camera’s file type to RAW, consult your manual. Don’t worry if you can’t find the copy that came with it! Your camera’s manual should be relatively easy to find online, or a little tinkering in the Settings menu might get you to where you want to be. After that, you’ll be able to open, view and edit these files in the image manipulation software of your choice. Adobe Camera Raw in Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom is the preferred software of most professionals, but many image editors are now able to process RAW files.
- You may still be wondering if RAW is worth the switch. It’s true that, based on what and why you shoot, you may not need (or want) to shoot in RAW. However, you may still want to look at some of the benefits of shooting RAW below, in case there are some situations where it will prove useful to you.
- You may feel intimidated about learning something new. This can be especially true if you’re someone who already knows their way around the camera. It’s hard to expand your horizons when you’re already comfortable with a few great, go-to techniques. But, as Henri Cartier-Bresson said: “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.” In other words, there is a learning curve to photography, but the good news is that you will get better the more you shoot!
Shooting in RAW can be time-consuming, but after you’ve learned how to set up your workflow you will find yourself having fun – and it will be time well spent.
The question of whether or not you should shoot in RAW isn’t new, but arguments for or against it have evolved greatly recently. Technology has been updated significantly since the first DSLRs hit the market and the quality of digital photography equipment (camera sensors, firmware and components) has improved dramatically as well. So, you need to consider your needs carefully when deciding to go RAW or JPEG.
What Are the Benefits of Shooting in RAW?
In a nutshell, shooting in RAW allows you to exert a great amount of control over your finished image. More specifically, shooting in RAW gets you:
1. Higher Quality Images
Shooting in RAW causes your camera to put all of the information gathered from the sensor into an image file. You are going to get the highest quality image possible when you shoot in RAW.
You’ll see the difference in print, too! There is a finer gradation of tones and colors when you print from more detailed files, and you’ll also get fewer occurrences of color banding.
Here’s an example of color banding extending across the sky:
2. Better Detail
When your camera creates JPEG images, in a sense you are processing the image from RAW into JPEG inside your camera.
In contrast, when you shoot in RAW, you can process your images using your computer, which has much more powerful algorithms (for instance, sharpening and noise algorithms) than your camera.
3. Easy Correction of Over/Underexposed Images
Sometimes it’s hard to get a perfect exposure on the spot, especially if you’re in charge of photographing an event where there isn’t much time for setting up an ideal shot. A RAW file allows for a beautifully wide dynamic range, so if you over- or underexpose by a bit, the visual information for the poorly exposed areas is still available in your file. This is great news when you’re looking at blown highlights or clipped shadows! You can reign those areas back in and recover some of the original scene for a higher quality end product.
Below is a shot snapped in New York’s Central Park. You’ll notice that there’s a high dynamic range here, so shooting in RAW is a great backup to exposure bracketing. You want to see the detail in those lights and the darks, too!
4. Non-Destructive Editing
When you’re editing a RAW photograph, you are not making adjustments to the original image file you snapped. Instead, you’ll be essentially making a copy and saving it in a new file format. You should still have the original version as long as you keep it backed up. This keeps everything low-stress: You never have to think about destroying an image to the point of no return! You can go right back to square one any time a project goes off the rails.
5. Greater Control over Sharpness and Noise
We all crave crisp details in our images, so extra control over sharpness is always a good thing. In addition, a photographer is always on the hunt for ways to reduce pesky digital noise in post-processing. This aspect of finer control is especially great for outdoor night shots or indoor shoots where you can’t use a flash. It’s definitely a point in favor of RAW.
6. It’s Accessible
You don’t necessarily need a DSLR to shoot in RAW. Some point-and-shoots come equipped to shoot in RAW as well. We obviously can’t bring up other types of cameras without mentioning the most handy camera of them all: your smartphone. Some phones have a RAW mode built in to their default camera, but for others you’ll have to download an app such as Adobe Lightroom CC, VSCO or Snapseed.
7. Superior Enlargements
When you’re shooting RAW, you have a lot more flexibility when it comes time to enlarge those images. Since the process of compressing a JPEG file involves a permanent loss of some of the data in your image, enlarging the image beyond a certain point may result in noticeable fuzziness or distortion.
RAW shooting poses similar advantages (and challenges) to filmmakers. Although cameras that film in RAW are becoming more accessible financially, some critique the idea because the file sizes and workflows seem prohibitive. For instance, because your camera’s media storage will likely fill up super quickly, you may have to change media mid-shot. Others argue that managing workflow goes a long way towards making RAW a reality in many environments (with the exclusion of time-sensitive work such as news coverage).
You Might Be a JPEG Photographer If…
Scenario 1: You’re shooting a long event such as a wedding, your kid’s school play, or a birthday party. In these situations, you’re going to want to save on memory space, both in your camera and on your computer. You can get two to three times more images on your card by taking your photos in JPEG.
Scenario 2: You’re shooting a sports event, for instance an amateur hockey game or your friend’s rugby match. Because things are moving at a fast pace, a JPEG could be the key to snagging that perfect action shot. If you were to use RAW in this scenario, you might be stuck waiting for your camera to process the images between shots.
Scenario 3: Your end goal is to post your photos on social media, where you’re pointing, shooting and uploading from the camera. Of course, if you’re a blogger who doesn’t have time to edit and process photos, JPEG could be perfect for you as well.
Scenario 4: You do little or no post-processing. JPEGs are not meant to be changed and saved many times, and you will see a lot of degradation in quality the more you edit them. This is fine if you want to train yourself to make adjustments in-camera or if you’re under a time constraint, but make sure you know your process before deciding on your file type.
Remember, JPEG images are compressed files. The image looks like a final product right away. However, unlike with RAW, some of the digital information has been carved off of the image file during compression.