Deal 9: Hacking Photography mega-deal
You can find many articles online discussing the benefits of shooting in RAW and probably an equal number full of counter arguments stating that it is possible to obtain equally good results shooting in JPEG. Whilst that is definitely true, I want to discuss the reasons that pushed me to exclusively use RAW in the hope that it can persuade others to do the same.
I liken RAW processing to taking the camera off ‘auto’ and shooting in ‘manual’ mode. When people are starting out in digital photography, it can seem like another area full of technical jargon that forms a barrier preventing its uptake. However, once you have an small understanding of the processes involved and how different settings can impact your results, you will find that letting your camera do the processing can be the limiting factor in achieving your photographic vision.
A RAW file is an uncompressed image file that records the data from the sensor ‘as is’, with minimal processing. Depending on your camera, this file will most likely contain either 12-bit or 14-bit data. When shooting in JPEG, the camera will take the RAW file, process it with a number of generic actions (typically contrast/saturation adjustments, correcting for white balance and sharpening) before compressing the image down to an 8-bit JPEG file.
That difference in ‘bit depth’ is the key here. The 12-bit image will contain 2^12=4096 tones per channel. Given that there are three channels per pixel (red, green and blue), that equates to 4096x4096x4096= 69 billion possible tones per pixel. If we compare that to the other bit depths, you will see the difference:
Tones per channel
Possible tones per pixel
2^8 = 256
2^12 = 4096
2^14 = 16384
Now those numbers are almost too large to comprehend, however it is quite simple to consider in context. When you take a JPEG file from your camera into Photoshop to process, there are only 256 possible tones to define the colour for each red, green or blue channel, which means that when you start apply changes to contrast or brightness, there are a very limited number of possible tones for each pixel, which can result in obvious image degradation if pushed too far. With a RAW image, the number of possible tones is that much greater that more significant changes to can be made without any impact on the final image quality.
This doesn’t come without a cost though. Due to the increased bit depth of RAW files, they are anywhere from 2-6 times larger than the corresponding JPEG when recorded in camera. This will make your vast memory card seem very limited. Additionally, where as a JPEG is typically printer-ready straight out of the camera, a RAW file will need to be manually processed in your digital darkroom. So, to answer the obvious question of ‘is it worth it?’, lets consider the benefits…
As mentioned above, when shooting JPEG, the camera processes the image internally, before compressing it to a lower bit depth. The processing applied by the camera is generic, and uniform across the entire image. In contrast, when you capture RAW images, you have full control over how much processing is applied to an image, and where in that image you apply it.
Given the increased bit depth of the RAW files, any image you capture is much more forgiving than the corresponding JPEG would be. For example, if you didn’t nail your exposure, and you over-exposed the sky of a landscape photograph, leaving it nearly white, you will be able to recover much more tonal data in the RAW file and potentially save what, otherwise, may be an image destined for the recycle bin. Similarly for shadow data, much more information is retained meaning under-exposed regions of an image can be recovered to show detail that would otherwise have been lost.
Similarly, one image can contain enough tonal detail to create an HDR-style image from one file. The exposure of the image can be increased/decreased during post processing to give 3 images, as if bracketed, and can be combined to give that effect of increased dynamic range, but all from just one image.
When shooting in RAW, you no longer need to set your white balance in camera. The increased bit depth of RAW files means that the white balance can be defined, by precise colour temperature (in Kelvin), during post processing rather than by a limited number of defined presets in camera before the shutter is pressed. Due to the increased bit depth, significant white balance shifts do not have a negative impact on the final image quality. No longer do you fire off a few frames before remembering that you left the white balance on ‘incandescent’ even though you are now outdoors.
Sharpening can be applied as much as you want and even where you want, without over-sharpening a pre-sharpened JPEG image. This can be used to emphasise details in one section of an image, or just generally give you control over the final image output.
As if the above points weren’t enough, what has to be one of my favourite reasons for shooting in RAW is that all image editing is non-destructive. Unlike a JPEG file, where any changes made to the image are permanent, all changes made to a RAW image are stored in a metadata file associated with the RAW file, leaving the original file untouched. This means you can never irreparably ruin an image by saving some mistaken changes and also you can go back to an image a few weeks, months or years later and reprocess it, from the original RAW, as your processing skills improve.
Now, I would be lying if I said there was not a learning curve associated with RAW processing. You will need dedicated RAW processing software to manipulate your images, but typically cameras that support shooting in RAW should ship with the manufacturers own software for doing so. There are also a large number of alternative free programs out there, as well as software packages from well know image editing giants, such as Adobe. With a little bit of research, you will see how easy it is to squeeze the most out of your images, and you will soon wonder why you weren’t shooting in RAW sooner.
Given that most cameras should give the option of shooting in ‘RAW+JPEG’, where the camera records both the RAW file and processed JPEG file to the memory card, you haven’t got an excuse to not give it a go the next time you are out with your camera.
December 14, 2012 07:54 am
Nicely written article explaining the differences between RAW and JPEG and also the benefits and problems associated with both. However, is there really a "need" to shoot RAW ALL the time? I think not. But that's just my opinion. Certainly a topic that can be discussed more and more if desired. But my point is simply - just as photographers should not rely on fixing a photo in Photoshop, RAW users shouldn't shoot RAW just as a safety net. I realize not all RAW shooters are using RAW as a safe guard and safety is good, but I believe in trying to nail exposure accurately in camera, as done in the days of film. You are absolutely right, its up to the photographer to choose which format is best for them, but also can depend on your conditions within the shoot - as not every part of a photoshoot should be a situation where the increased dynamic range is a must OR the white balance is way off. Just my 2 cents.
December 10, 2012 09:49 am
For me the big advantage for RAW is the increased dynamic range. After accounting for noise, a 14-bit RAW file can accommodate about 12 EV of DR. An 8-bit JPEG can only display about 6 EV of DR. Thus, a single RAW file can contain as much information as a series of JPEGs exposed at -3, 0, +3!
The only time I consider shooting JPEG is if I need a faster frame rate than my gear is capable of maintaining while shooting RAW. And because just about any option available in-camera can be applied to a RAW file on the computer, turning off things like Peripheral Illumination Correction, Auto Lighting Optimizer, and Noise Reduction in camera can help your burst rate while shooting RAW, especially with a memory card that has a write speed as fast as the capability of your camera.
If you use the manufacturer's software, such as Canon's DPP, you can batch convert your RAW files without making any changes and get the same results you would by shooting JPEG because the in camera recipe is saved as part of the header for the .CR2 file.
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November 14, 2012 08:53 am
I use Photoshop CS4 which converts my RAW Images to DNS to be able to process in Adobe Raw. Never been sure if this is good or bad! Any views?
November 11, 2012 04:06 am
Thank you for a very good article although I was already convinced of the value of RAW.
There are however, I believe, some minor inaccuracies. In the article it is stated that the RAW files are uncompressed. If that was the case then all raw files would be the same size. I have read elsewhere that RAW files are compressed but the compression is lossless. Can anyone substantiate that?
Also I am wonderuing about the basic premise of the math. I understand that most sensors have twice as many green sensors as as red and blue. That is 2 green sensors for every one red or blue sensors. So a pixel would have R+G+B+G giving at 8 bits/per pixel (2^8)^4 or 2^32 = 4,294,967,296 possible colours. Do they simple gather the additional data about the green channel and throw it away?
November 9, 2012 08:01 pm
Good article. There are photographers who use jpg, others using raw. Both have advantages and disadvantages. Depends what you want to accomplish. I use both.
November 9, 2012 04:43 pm
David, for the PC I love Faststone- fast, comprehensive, Free for non commercial use.....I put it on every computer. Great organizing program as well with many features
November 9, 2012 12:04 pm
I have used both for sometime now and learnt pretty quickly to purchase much larger memory cards and to always carry a spare. I use jpeg for quick post processing for my web sites, but love to experiment with RAW to create "different" versions of a shot. If there is a downside to shooting RAW, I believe it could be that it gives you an excuse not to go to completely manual settings on the camera which in my opinion is essential to learning more about your craft.
November 9, 2012 11:37 am
I switched to RAW when I boughr a 2nd hand D70, and will not come back. Yes it is sometimes a pain to have to "develop" 300 photographs that you need by tomorrow moring, but in that case raw + jpeg may be helpful. I still have about half of 8000 raw photographs take on a trio in Britisch Columbia this summer that need my attention, but the results I get are so much better. So who cares if it takes me a few months to catch up, as I only do this as a hobby on free evenings or rainy weekends. Of course having a good and fast camera body helps, I can now shoot with a D3S without a problem 8 or 9 raw images in a single burst, the processor will follow and so will the CF card. So I have no reason at all to stick to jpg.
For Diane, if I have a properly exposed picture, sometimes I need to do nothing at all (as I sharpen only very lightly after resizing the final picture). Most of the time I will work with the raw file to straighten the horizon (missing by 0,5 degree is very common), correct the lens distortion if it's visible, lighten up some shadows and add a little contrast / saturation if some areas of the image need it. I can try out various underexpose or overexpose settings to evaluate special effects or add more (naturally looking) saturation and deepness in colors, light or dark areas. I can darken the sky and add contrast to make the clouds come out. And as the changes are non destructive, I can experiment till I'm happy at no risk at all of spoiling the original or even an intermediate version. I hardly need to compromise. Some photos I can postprocess in 20 sceonds, while others will take my attention during several minutes. Using a software like Nikon Capture NX2 you can really make your final image without any need for photoshopping later on, I guess Lightroom is also capable of this.
November 9, 2012 10:41 am
Thank you for an excellent article. It supplies information that justifies the often heard mantra that "you should be shooting in RAW". One caveat - it does limit your burst rate
November 9, 2012 09:16 am
Can anyone recommend Raw processing software? Free would be great, but I am willing to spend some money.
November 9, 2012 08:56 am
I only shoot jpeg when I need the camera to quickly record what I'm photographing - fireworks, races, fast-moving subjects. For everything else, I shoot RAW. While I think all photographers should try it, the process is one you grow into and it's not for everybody. If you have the patience to post-process your images and you like learning editing programs like Photoshop, RAW is terrific. It's a digital negative and you control the end result. However, if you're like some of my friends who want to shoot and post with minimal fuss, RAW can be frustrating. In that case, it's best to spend the time and practice on learning the settings that will yield your best jpegs straight from camera.
November 9, 2012 08:39 am
My two bits: sometimes it does become a matter or choice, or even of more mundane things as the rate available on the job; BUT before discarding or refusing to shoot RAW make sure you've tried it first :)
My own photography was transformed when I started shooting RAW. Sometimes I wish I could get RAW files from my mobile phone!
November 9, 2012 05:20 am
Excellent article. I've been shooting raw exclusively since 2005 and this last summer I was doing work at a camp and was asked to use Jpg by the editor. I agreed and didn't think to use both RAW and jpg because they weren't going to be my images. Big mistake. I had some great shots that I could have really improved with WB, and processed with increased DR had they been RAW files but alas, I was limited by the jpg files. Additionally shooting quickly into and out of the sun and shadows, RAW is totally forgiving. With Raw, if you get the basics of focus and depth of field, your chances of a good shot are much, much better.
November 9, 2012 05:06 am
Just 2weeks ago I bought a Nikon D90 and matched it up with my 18-200 lens wondering just how to move forward with my photography and what effect shooting in raw would make . As a result of your article I now shoot in raw and even when using only Photoshop elements have noticed so much more detail / depth to my pics . Thanks, Mike
November 9, 2012 04:49 am
One of the great things about this site is the user/reader comments that follow. Thanks for the persuasive article Elliot. I shoot JPEG most of the time until I get to high contrast. Then usually HDR. However, this coming year, I have made a resolution to get down to RAW shooting - finally, and mainly because so many people argue that this is the way to go. By the way, JPEGs can be modified, not destructively. Just do a 'Save As' at the end. Then you have a new picture and retain the original unaltered image as well.
Good contributions everyone! Loved them all.
November 9, 2012 04:31 am
When shooting RAW, and you have a properly exposed image, what steps need to be done in editing to finish the image other than sharpening? I would love to know what others do to a RAW image before saving and printing it.
November 9, 2012 04:13 am
Even tho my Panasonic Lumix G1 can shoot in raw and raw + jpeg, I feel that since content and meaning
are the most important criteria in a photo, the time I save is more important than the miniscule improvement in quality. I prefer to shoot with the proper white balance and exposure for good results.
November 9, 2012 03:54 am
here's a pretty good article on myths abotu jpg and why the author prefers usign jpgs- it's a short itnerestign read:
The Real Truth About JPEG images http://www.michaelfurtman.com/jpeg_myths.htm
November 9, 2012 03:42 am
The only time I don't shoot RAW is when I'm shooting my wife/daughter around the house, or I have handed off the camera to my wife to take some shots (in which case the camera is first set to AUTO also). I really appreciate the flexibility of the RAW image.
November 9, 2012 03:22 am
I think the author of this article has done an excellent job of explaining the tremendous value of shooting in RAW (and manual). The advice and opinions offered certainly seem applicable to every pro-photographer. However, there is one added dimension which I feel is equally valid, i.e. non-pro shooters (or even pros who are not on a job). The situation could be exampled by asking (rhetorically) how one should shoot one's daughter's birthday party, knowing that all the shots kept will end up as 4x6 prints in a table-top photo album? Here, I would argue, is a very valid use of both JPEG and auto.
It would also seem that several others who have responded might also say: "Shooting in RAW + manual.....well, it depends....
November 8, 2012 04:25 am
I started shooting everything in RAW about 2 years ago and do not plan on going back to .jpg unless there is a very specific reason. I have however been going back and forth for a while as to which RAW format to use. I am currently using the CR2 coming from my camera, but have been thinking about switching to DNG lately.
November 8, 2012 02:05 am
Ok I heard plenty of times the benefits of RAW and I'm convinced is better. I just can't use it because my camera is too new (sony a37) and I don't have the latest OS in my mac. As I said, I do believe is better to manipulate the picture in my computer, but I hate the fact that RAW only works if you have the latest software and computers and bla, bla, bla. I bought a new camera dreaming on the benefits of RAW but turned out to be useless because the RAW file is a different format only released for the latest softwares and with no updates for the old ones. At the day that RAW become a unified format and not a stupid proprietary one then maybe I will use it more frequently.
November 8, 2012 01:20 am
One other benefit of shooting RAW even when you are starting out is that you can go back later when you are more familiar with the process and make adjustments to less than stellar images.
November 7, 2012 11:01 pm
For the easy stuff where you can set up the shot? Yup RAW all the way. but when I make money shooting a racing event? Jpeg only because I need to shoot frames as fast as that camera can. The difference between 1/20th of a second is the difference between getting a shot that is publication worthy and having ho hum.
November 7, 2012 10:06 pm
I shoot RAW + JPEG whilst using an Eye-Fi card.
The card transfers the lower resolution small JPEG to my iPad which I can then use in 'semi' real time for image review.
November 7, 2012 07:40 pm
Thanks for all the comments, some good points made!
Stephanie: you will need some dedicated RAW processing software to be able to view/edit your RAWs. Your camera should have come with some capable software, if not there are free/cheap alternatives out there. To start, you could try Google Picasa as a free option to see how you get on.
November 7, 2012 03:52 pm
Is no one going to comment on Ricardo's comment that there is no difference between the RAW and the JPG image? I have tried and my post miraculously did not show up. In short, there is so much more data the the RAW image than the JPG that comes out of the camera that for an "ACE from ADOBE" to declare them the same seems a bit odd... RAW gives you so much more to work with along with the numerous other advantages mentioned in this article... I won't try to add my side by side comparison as maybe that is why my previous attempts to make this point have been dumped - but I wil repeat that it is odd that no comments have challenged Ricardo to substantiate his claim as his claim, if true, would basically invalidate this entire article... and one quick check of any image you have ever taken in both JPG and RAW will quickly verify the validity of all the points made in this article.
November 7, 2012 03:06 pm
Thanks Elliot for your informative article.
Since I started shooting 100% digital in 2008 I have been shooting in RAW all the time. RAW gives me more flexibility and I can control my images better and I can produce my images to my liking. Although the trade-off is time-consuming processing it is for me worth it. Shooting in RAW also gives me liberty in choosing my WB, do some correction to distortions caused by my lens when it comes to shooting architecture and I am also able to control grain better when it comes to higher ISO shooting.
November 7, 2012 01:16 pm
I started shooting Raw when I picked up the D800... While the file sizes are a becoming a pain, I have not looked back. The added flexibility far outweighs the extra time and costs of shooting in RAW.
November 7, 2012 12:06 pm
Someday I'd love to see an article written about why people still feel the need to write raw in all uppercase. Boggles my mind that even articles entirely about on this one subject continue the bad habit.
November 7, 2012 11:58 am
Even though I personally do not do a whole lot in way of post production on my photos, I have permanently begun shooting in RAW on my Olympus Pen. The big preference for RAW comes from both knowing that the camera is not messing with my image at all, and also that, as I convert my images to the Adobe DNG format, it has a bit of an archival quality to them, incase I ever wanted to go back an make modifications to my images for whatever reason.
November 7, 2012 09:57 am
I always shoot in RAW, though I am not into hardcore post processing. It is not that I am against it. In fact in some photographs that it is essential to have better control over the photographs to make it the way we want it to be and RAW sure helps in that perspective. I do a bit of post processing since I am new to all this and RAW still gives me better control my images. Great writing Elliot.
November 7, 2012 09:23 am
I have owned a nikon D90 for three years and shot solely in raw. I have nearly always used lightroom to tweak my images anyway, even if it's just for WB, saturation or just the tone curve.The jpeg files straight of camera were usually far from satisfying my vision of the scene. However recently I acquired a small olympus e-pl3 and did several shots and compared the jpeg files in lightroom. This time around I have realised that for 90% of my images jpeg files were more satisfying.
Now it's a known fact that the Olympus jpegs are somehow more saturated even if the picture control is set to natural. This might be a good reason for my eventual liking of the files. On the other hand eventhough I spent a good time on raw files in lightroom in order to imitate the jpeg files I could not succeed. ( of course olympus software renders the raws indentically to the jpegs but I am used to work in lightroom for its simplicity and speed).
Another point I've realised was that the raw files of olympus were not even half as flexible as my old nikon. Of course this is also to be expected especially when it comes to exposure related issues seen that a micro 4/3 sensor is relatively small compared to a dx sensor and it makes a difference even if it's an aged sensor. DxO tests proves the fact. It might also be that lightroom is not optimised for olympus raw files. But currently I feel that I have to shot in jpeg also, keeping the raw files for the future, hoping that lightroom will render them decently soon or later.?
November 7, 2012 08:25 am
when you open a JPEG in ACR
it also saves the edits to the metadata tunes
few people know or believe it ...
I'm ACE from ADOBE
and never see diference when the sensor is the same
RAW was created for bad sensors (1995)
nowadays when ISO is the new Megapixel
does not matter raw or jpeg if you use a D800 for instance
November 7, 2012 08:11 am
I couldn't agree more with pretty much everything said in this post. I shoot only in RAW, and if I'd known the advantages earlier on, I'd have had much better images sooner.
November 7, 2012 08:02 am
It all depends for me. The biggest thing, of course, is that I use Lightroom so all editing is non-destructive.
As a sports photographer (most of the time) JPEG is what I use. Even though I do individually edit (crop + exposure + detail, mainly) each photo, the size each photo takes up and the time it can take for the camera to process the pictures (not mentioned in the article) makes them unsuitable for my use generally. With my little 550D (I will admit higher end cameras will probably have less of an issue), I can only shoot 6 or so RAW in a row (not an issue overly) and then it's a good few seconds before I can shoot again.
Of course, storage is my primary issue with RAW - I take a good 1000-2000 shots/day at an event and I don't have enough memory cards or hard drives to deal with that.
However, fully in agreement that for most types of traditional photography, RAW is *the* format to use.
November 7, 2012 07:48 am
i use both, however if i am dialing in everything manually, white balance/shutter/iso, etc. i use jpeg because 8/10 it will be just the way i want it.
if i don't have time to fiddle with controls or can't control the lighting or may not have time to set up everything, but still want the shot, then i go with the raw file to correct my mistakes.
no biggie. shoot what's good for YOU. it depends on the situation and nothing with me is ALWAYS use this or that.
i hate post processing, but not always. ;) now go out and take some photos people.
November 7, 2012 07:30 am
I use both RAW and JPeG and honestly I consider the need for RAW very specific. If you get the shot right it really wont matter whether you record JPeG or RAW. Now we do not always get the shot right and make minor mistakes and at this point still JPeg and RAW can be used , with the right tools, and corrected. RAW is so often sold as the fix all to a persons photographic mistakes, but a bad photo is a bad photo and no matter what you use you will not rescue that image.
Does RAW give us greater flexiblity, of course, without a doubt, however RAW requires more time and better understanding of what you working with, so it really depends how much time and what effect you require.
There are many many professionals, and I mean well known and well paid professionals who shoot solely in JPeg, since it suits their requirements, usually quick editting time, smaller file size and any number of other reasons, so its really down to the need. Do you want to a specific look or feel from your image that means you will be adjusting you lighting or those extra bits of information, maybe you do, but I would never sell RAW as the answer merely as another tool that we may or may not need.
As a note I shoot RAW and JPeg at the same time, both as a backup and because JPeg allows me to access my files on any machine right away if need be, and sometimes if I have nailed the shot I do not need RAW, and in fact editting further with RAW could ruin it.
These images are a mix or JPeg and RAW, which ones started off as JPeg I cannot remember but they in there: http://www.dewandemmer.com/melissa-and-gareths-wedding-at-oakfields-farm-muldersdrift/
November 7, 2012 03:29 am
crunch: The description of bit depth can obviously differ for different sensor types (Bayer vs Foveon) but really the purpose of the numbers was just to try an illustrate the difference in data stored in the RAW file, and discarded by the JPEGs. I think the numbers for the 'tones per channel' still give a good relative measure of that for the purposes of this discussion
November 7, 2012 02:50 am
I disagree with your description of bit depth - the sensor can only "see" one of the three primary colours at each pixel site. Hence the number of levels at each pixel is either 2^8, 2^12 or 2^14 - and this is what is saved in the RAW file. When your RAW software processes the RAW file, it interpolates the colours at each pixel based on the surrounding pixels.
You can't create levels that aren't being captured.
November 7, 2012 02:41 am
I'm still very new at using a DSLR, and I attempted a few weeks ago to shoot RAW to try it out, but once I got the images on my computer, my computer actually couldn't read the files and I couldn't see the pictures. How do I get around this?
November 7, 2012 02:18 am
I shoot raw when I have the time and energy enhance or perfect an image that I wasn't able to accomplish in the moment. If I have a quick project that has to be submitted then I shoot jpeg and tighten up my work so there are very little mistakes.
However time and time again I shoot both raw and jpeg and choose what I need or want when I finish.
November 7, 2012 01:47 am
Extremely and concisely written on why RAW is the best way to shoot in most circumstances. So much more control over the final product.
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