After having found out with a shock, after countless discussions with professional photographers, that even they had no clue what shooting RAW really means, I thought I should write an article about it. While writing my article I’ve coincidentally seen many RAW/JPEG posts pop up on some social media platforms, as if the universe was up to something.
Some think shooting RAW is for beginners who need leverage. Some think shooting RAW is for creating large prints. Some think that you should shoot RAW and export it unprocessed for some reason (fiddling around with the picture would be cheating or something). And sadly even the other way around, some even think shooting JPG is for noobs.
What about you, have you just found out that your camera is capable of shooting RAW, but you have no clue what it means? Have you heard some spooky stories about it and wish to find out a little more about the subject? Would you like to find out why and when you “should” shoot in that often debated format? Or maybe you’d just want to know (yet) another person’s opinion on it, so you can make up yours. One thing is certain, your camera’s sensor is capable of way more than just shooting a default JPEG.
RAW PICTURE FILE FORMAT EXPLAINED
A camera’s raw image file contains unprocessed or minimally processed data from the image sensor of a digital camera. They are called raw (as in uncooked) files, because they are not yet processed and therefore are not ready to be printed. They are also referred to as “digital negatives”. Normally, the image is processed by a raw converter (like Adobe Camera Raw, Photoshop, Lightroom, camera brand’s in-house software, etc.) where precise adjustments can be made before being converted to a “positive” file format such as TIFF or JPEG for printing or even further manipulation. This process can also happen in-camera, but not every camera can do that. There are many raw formats, and not only are they being generated by cameras, but also scanners and other stills/movie equipment can create RAWs.
A RAW file often has a proprietary file format:
Canon’s RAW file extension is .CR2, Nikon’s is .NEF, Olympus’ is .ORF, Sony’s is .ARW etc. First of all, you have to set your camera to shoot RAW, or RAW+JPEG. Check out your manual for setting this up, it’s an easy task. By default, your camera will most likely shoot JPEG. A software (which also comes with the camera) is needed to read and edit these specific RAWs. With some cameras, you can edit your images internally. You can also use general photo editing software like Lightroom or Capture One to edit these files, as those programs are constantly updated to work with the latest camera models. One thing to know is that, for example, a CR2 file from a Canon Rebel T3i does not have the same format as a CR2 file from a 5D Mark III. And that goes for many manufacturers and camera models. What does that mean? The file sure has the same .cr2 file extension, but you will still need the camera’s specific raw converter to see/open the photograph. Why and how that’s important:
Let’s say you’re an enthusiastic early bird, buying the latest camera model from a specific brand on the day of the release date. After shooting some pictures in RAW, you get home to your computer and you sadly realize that your software doesn’t recognize your pictures (yet). Or it just imports them but they’re plain black or grey images. There’s two solutions to this:
– Wait for the software to get an update.
– Use the proprietary software that came with your camera.
Like a photographic negative, a raw digital image may have a wider dynamic range or color gamut than the eventual final image format, and it preserves most of the information of the captured image. The purpose of raw image formats is to save, with minimum loss of information, data obtained from the sensor, and the conditions surrounding the capturing of the image (the EXIF/metadata).
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU SHOOT IN JPG MODE
In order to explain what a raw file does, I will explain how a JPG is generated in your camera:
Every JPG is a RAW before being a JPG. When shooting in RAW mode, by pressing the shutter button, the light that goes through the lens is recorded by your camera’s sensor with the help of the internal processing unit. An image is then created by converting light into an electrical signal and then written to your memory card. With a JPEG, however, before the image is written to the card, the original raw data is being processed. How it’s processed depends on what camera you have and which settings you’ve chosen. Most of us, when shooting in JPG mode, shoot with the default JPG settings, because we don’t or didn’t know that such settings even exist. Those settings include contrast, saturation, sharpness and much more (depending on your camera). Many cameras only include basic settings for fiddling around with JPGs, making the JPGs all the more senseless if you’ve just spent a lot of money on a good sensor. Your camera produces raw images, period. But it’s up to you whether YOU process the file with some external software to create a JPG or whether THE CAMERA processes the file with the help of its internal software to create a JPG. The difference is only the workflow and the software’s algorithms (and its capabilities). If you process your RAW on your PC and you think that you should export it to JPG as is, without having tweaked anything, then many settings won’t be applied that even your camera would have done for you. Most of the time, external software wins by far, as it can handle a RAW better and in many more ways than the limited internal software of a camera.
– RAW shooting mode: RAW image is recorded and is then written (almost) untouched to the memory card.
– JPG shooting mode: RAW image is recorded, JPG settings then applied. JPG is now “baked” and written to the memory card. RAW file is lost.
– RAW + JPG shooting mode: One RAW image is recorded and is then written (almost) untouched to the memory card. A JPG is now being generated with the same RAW and, after processing of the camera itself, resulting in a fully baked JPG alongside the RAW file.
You can shoot high dynamic ranged JPGs too (as high as physically possible by your sensor but only if your camera include those settings, of course), but you would have to adjust the JPG settings for each and every picture. Because even in the same scene and setting, one slight camera movement would change the light and make you change your jpg settings.
PROS AND CONS OF SHOOTING RAW
– Gives the potential for higher quality pictures
– No image data loss
– Better dynamic range
– Editing not as destructive
– Can replace ND filters to some extent
– Can replace polarizing filters to some extent
– Gives the possibility to use better algorithms to edit your picture
– Easily correct shots that would have been wasted in JPEG mode
– Easily adjust white balance
– Less banding than JPEG
– More color range
– Possibility to edit the DR closer to what our eyes see
– File size / needs more space
– Computer has to be more powerful
– Extra software needed
– Overall heavier and slower workflow- proprietary format
– Necessity to convert to jpg for sharing / printing
– Takes time to get used to as a beginner
– Can be intimidating
– Fills camera buffer faster
– Is slower to be written to memory card and handled by camera
PROS AND CONS OF SHOOTING JPEG
– Smaller file size / needs less space
– Does not fill the buffer as fast
– Every software nowadays can open JPEG files
– Ready for sharing and printing
– More lightweight for computers
– Camera snappier at handling and writing files
– Restricted by photo editing engine inside the camera
– Often, less dynamic range
– Freshly baked out of the camera oven
– Less leverage at post processing
– JPG artifacts
– Often, not what our eyes see in terms of tonal range and DR
WHAT ABOUT ME?
What are my preferred settings? When do I shoot RAW and when do I choose to shoot JPEG?
Well, it’s a short and easy answer: I shoot RAW only. I shoot RAW all the time and for everything: landscapes, portraits, private family photos, fast action sports shots, etc. Also, I have invested a very high amount of money in my camera and did it especially for the sensor.
RAW vs JPG has often been debated in the past and that tradition will continue to live on. But hopefully with time, we can have more well-informed debates. Most discussions could be avoided if only some parties would know what they were talking about. My goal as a photographer is to keep memories and if possible as good as I remember them and how my eyes saw them. A RAW file helps me to do that. I don’t wish to create over exaggerated HDR pictures but I also do not wish to see JPGs, which lack the dynamic range that every human eye is supposed to see. Sometimes one single RAW file does not even cut it when the DR is too high (like when shooting against the sun). Then I just combine a few exposures (2 or 3) to get the right results, which are for me, to see about what my eye plus brain plus mind see. I don’t think that’s any kind of cheating. Photography is complex, because to recreate a scene that our brain is living is a very complicated task, as we’re using one single frame out of endless moments and angles. I personally see a JPG standing in the way of that.
For many users, shooting JPG, even with the default settings, is far more than enough. They are very happy with their results and enjoy photography just as much as RAW shooters do, if not more. Because the RAW specific heavy workflow can sometimes be a pain. To the ones who say that they only need to shoot JPG because they know how to get it right in-camera: Your “right” is not everyone elses’ “right”. My right, is that I wish to recreate moments that include what I see AND what I feel.