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Raw Photography: Why the RAW File Format Is Right for You

March 13, 2014 General, Photography 0 Comments

Raw Photography: Why the RAW File Format Is Right for YouThe raw movement is all the rage these days — the raw photography movement, that is. If you're looking to get the most out of your photographs, it's time to stop letting the camera firmware do all the work for you and to take full control of your images by working with the RAW file format. Before you dive in headfirst, take a few minutes to learn more about what RAW files really are, and the advantages and disadvantages of RAW photography.

The RAW Format Explained

When the shutter on a digital camera opens, the sensor records the image as a series of varying electrical charges determined by the amount of light reaching the sensor. When you shoot in JPG format, the camera then uses its built-in software to process the raw data into a format that can be easily viewed, edited and printed. While it is convenient, this in-camera processing can reduce image quality and limit exposure and color-balance-correction options.

When shooting in RAW, the data is minimally processed in the camera. Instead, you open the image using a RAW converter program on your computer, which allows you to make fine adjustments to the image with more control and finesse than the camera firmware does.

RAW Format Advantages

As a tool for serious photographers, the RAW image format is unrivaled in image quality and editing flexibility. Here are some of the key advantages to shooting with RAW over JPG.

  • More dynamic range: A typical 8-bit JPG file has only 256 different levels between pure white and pure black. A 16-bit RAW file has 65,536 brightness levels between white and black. This gives you more highlight and shadow detail as well as more leeway to adjust exposure without losing those details.
  • Better white balance adjustment and correction: Unlike JPGs, RAW files have no inherent white balance. While the white balance setting used to capture the image is recorded in the metadata for reference, the white balance can be set during post-processing. This is helpful for color correction when you are under odd color-temperature lights.
  • No in-camera processing: JPG images must be processed and compressed in-camera using limited hardware and firmware. RAW images are processed on the computer using more advanced algorithms and greater processing power for higher quality images.
  • Nondestructive editing: When you adjust exposure, white balance and other settings on a RAW file, you don't actually alter the RAW file itself. Instead, you are creating a set of instructions for how the JPG version should be saved. This means your original files are always intact and can be reprocessed differently at any time.

RAW Format Disadvantages

Of course, you never get something for nothing, and shooting RAW is no exception. While the drawbacks to RAW over JPG are minor for most people, they're still worth noting.

  • Storage space: RAW files take up massive amounts of storage space. On average, you can fit two to three times as many JPGs on a memory card as you can fit RAW images. RAWs also take up more space on your computer's hard drive.
  • RAW converter requirement: Unlike JPGs, which can be viewed right out of the camera using standard programs such as Windows Photo Gallery, RAW images cannot be viewed quickly in this manner. The images also cannot be printed directly off the camera. Instead, images must be converted to JPG using Photoshop, Lightroom and other similar editing applications.
  • Workflow alterations: If you are used to processing your JPGs in a certain manner or using a batch process to apply corrections quickly, you may find your workflow is less efficient at first as you adapt to running your images through the RAW converter. Budget a little more time for the first couple of editing sessions.

RAW Is Good for You

While the transition to RAW photography from shooting JPG may take some adjustment, the benefits for the professional photographer shooting RAW cannot be overlooked or overstated. If you want total control over your images, there is only one way to go — RAW.

Photo credit: morgueFile

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