A Short Course Book
Using Your Digital Camera
A Guide To Great Photographs

Using The Raw Format

A RAW image before processing (above) and after (right).
One of Ansel Adam's better know expressions, drawn from his early experiences as a concert pianist, was "The negative is the score, the print is the performance". In digital photography, the image file is your score and your photo-editing program is where you perform. The printer then just does what you've told it to do as you edited the image. To get the highest possible quality, you want to start with the best possible score—a RAW image file. These files contain all of the image data captured by the camera's image sensor without it being processed or adjusted. You can interpret this data any way you want instead of having the camera do it for you. If you want total control over exposure, white balance, and other settings, this is a format you will learn to love. Only four camera settings permanently affect a RAW image. They are the aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and focus. Other settings may affect the appearance of the thumbnail or preview but their effects can be undone in an editing program. Since each camera company has defined its own proprietary RAW format, many operating systems and even photo-editing programs are unable to recognize some or all of these files. If the camera supports the RAW format the camera manufacturer always supplies a program along with the camera.

Advantages of Using the Raw Format

There are a number of advantages to using the RAW format:
  • RAW lets you decide on most settings after you've taken the picture, not before. For example, when you shoot a JPEG image under fluorescent lights, the camera adjusts the image to remove the yellow-green tint. Any changes you make later are on top of this initial change. If you shoot the image in RAW format, the camera just captures the images as is and you decide what white balance setting to use later. You can even create different versions of an image, each with its own white balance.
  • RAW images aren't compressed using a lossy compression scheme that throws out data to make image files smaller. Although some cameras have a compressed RAW format, these images are compressed using lossless compression. When you open these images, they contain all of the original image data.
  • RAW images aren't processed in the camera as JPEG images are. When you take JPEG photos, a processing chip with the power of a small computer manipulates them based on the camera settings you have used and then compresses them to reduce their size. The changes made to your images cannot be undone later because it's the final, altered image that is saved in the image file. Some of the original image data is lost for good. With RAW images, all of the original data captured by the camera is saved in the RAW image files so you can process them later on your computer. The settings used to take RAW images are saved, but they are not permanently applied to your images until you save them in another format such as JPEG or TIFF. The images displayed on the screen when you use the camera's playback mode are just thumbnails.
  • RAW images have greater color depth and that gives you smoother gradations of tones and more colors. For example, JPEG images use only 8 bits per color (RGB) or 24 bits total. This means that JPEG images can have only 256 tones (28) and 16,777,216 colors (224). Meanwhile many RAW images are initially captured by the sensor in 48 or 36 bit RGB (16 or 12 bits per channel) but are reduced to 24 bit RGB (8 bits per channel) when converted into JPEG files. The full 48 or 36 bits are retained in the RAW file format after the images are processed on your computer because the original file isn't overwritten with your changes. You can even retain all 16 or 12 bits per color by saving images in a format such as TIFF and Photoshop's PSD format.
  • RAW images can be processed again at a later date when new and improved applications become available. Your final image isn't permanently altered by today's generation of photo-editing applications.
  • You can use a RAW image to generate alternate versions of the same image. For example, many photographers will adjust highlight and shadow areas and save these versions separately. Using a photo-editing program, they then combine the two images and by selectively erasing parts of the top image let areas of the lower image show through so all areas have a perfect exposure.

Disadvantages of Using the Raw Format

Admittedly, there are drawbacks to using RAW images—the size of their files and the need to process them. When you are done shooting for the day, there is still work to do.
  • RAW files in the camera are quite large. If you use this format a great deal you will need more storage space in the camera and computer and processing times will be longer.
  • Since RAW images aren't processed in the camera, you have to process them on the computer and this takes time. You need to convert them to another format when you want to e-mail them, post them on a Web site, print them, or import them into another program to create a slide show or publication. Many cameras help you get around this by simultaneously capturing JPEG versions at the same time they capture RAW images. You can use these more universally supported images for many of your applications and reserve the high quality RAW versions for when you need the highest possible quality.
  • RAW images are not always noticeably better. Where they shine is when you have exposure or white balance problems. Because RAW images have 16 or 12 bits per color instead of the 8 bits used by JPEG's you have dramatically more information to work with when making adjustments.

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