When most of us first get started in photography, we accept the camera’s default settings as we take our photos. This is simply because we don’t know enough about exposure, white balance, and focusing to be comfortable with changing the settings. As our experience increases, we tend to try other camera settings, increasing both our image quality and creativity. There is one setting, however, that many do not touch, even after gaining a lot of experience, and that is the file type.

Most modern cameras will have an option to shoot two or three different file types, namely; JPG, RAW and TIFF. The default setting for cameras is JPG, and for good reason. With a JPG file, the camera does a lot of the post production work — it sharpens the images, corrects the color, adds contrast, and then compresses the image into a more manageable size. It is this last step that is the downfall of the JPG. The act of compression degrades the image quality — not hugely, but enough to reduce the quality when further post production is applied to the image. Also, because the aforementioned corrections are already made, it is difficult to make further corrections such as color balance and sharpening without further reducing image quality.

shooting in raw - JPG v RAW images of doors

The jpg (left) looks better straight from the camera. The RAW looks flat.

Shooting in RAW reduces many of these issues; but before we go any further, let’s take a look at what a RAW file is. In its simplest terms, and as its name suggests, it is the RAW data from the sensor, recorded as a digital file. No corrections are made to the data — no sharpening, no color data, no added contrast and, most importantly, no compression. The only data added to the image is EXIF data; in other words, the camera’s shooting information and some camera-specific data that allows RAW processing software to decode the file. The best way to describe a RAW file is as a digital negative. It is the basic image data, ready to be “printed”; or in other words, we create the final image in post production.

shooting in raw - Raw Processed

A Fuji RAW file open in Adobe RAW

Let’s take a look at the advantages of RAW files:

  • Firstly, due to the fact that you are using all the available, unaltered information coming from the sensor, you can get significantly better image quality.
  • Secondly, you can get a significantly wider dynamic range than shooting JPG. Put simply, dynamic range is the range between the darkest black and the whitest white. The wider this range, the better control you have over the contrast of the image. Because RAW files are 14- or 16-bit images, there is also much more color information available in the image file as opposed to an 8-bit JPG file.

shooting in raw - Dynamic Range images of two stairsEven unprocessed, the RAW (right) exhibits more detail in the shadows (dynamic range)

These two factors allow for much greater manipulation of the image. A classic example of this is in a shot when the sky has been “blown”. In other words, areas of the sky are overexposed — beyond the dynamic range of the image file — and appear as pure white. In a JPG image, this is going to be unrecoverable, no matter what you try. In a RAW file, you may well find that you can recover a lot of definition in what appear to be blown highlights. The same is also true for shadow details in the black parts of the image. Another side effect of this is much greater ability to control image noise.

Because a RAW file applies no white balance to the image, we are free to do this in post production. This is a huge advantage; not only because in-camera white balance meters often get it wrong, but also because it allows us to define the mood of the image through its color.

shooting in raw - Raw ProcessedUsing a tone curve to process white balance

Often, when people first shoot RAW, they are disappointed with the initial image quality. The images often appear flat, lacking in contrast, and soft. This is because, as we said before, a RAW file needs to be processed in post production. In the early days of digital photography, RAW processing software was at best clunky and confusing, but in recent years, nearly all imaging software has incorporated easy-to-use RAW processing tools. Programs like Lightroom and Apple’s Aperture have revolutionized both the cataloging and processing of RAW files using nondestructive techniques. This means that when corrections are made to a file, rather than actually changing the image, the post production information is written to a separate file that is associated with original. Changes are only made onscreen and when you export a version of the image.  Nothing happens to the original. This means that your RAW file truly is a digital negative.

Of course, there are some costs to using RAWs.

  • One of these includes the file size. This can be up to 6 times the size of an equivalent JPG, meaning your card space and hard drive space will be used up more quickly.
  • Another is the effect on shooting speed in continuous mode. Although the frames per second will be the same, the buffer (in other words, the number of images that can be shot in a burst) will be significantly reduced. This is of particular relevance to action photographers, such as sports and wildlife.
  • Also, the post production requirements may not be for everyone; they can be time consuming. 

Shooting and understanding RAW can be a powerful way of maximizing the quality of the image coming off your camera’s sensor. If you are looking to achieve the maximum possible in your image making, shooting RAW should be an essential part of your workflow.

About The Author

Jason Row

Jason Row is a British born travel photographer now living in Odessa Ukraine. His work has been published worldwide in newspapers, books magazines and strangely on towels from a Turkish textile company.

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