THE RAW FACTS
Why RAW Is The Best Format For Serious Photographers
By Bill Dobbins
There seems to be less need to explain to photographers why they should be shooting in a RAW format nowadays than there was a few years ago. This knowledge has pretty much become wide spread among professionals. But there are always some new to photography who might be need to alerted to this information – as well as some die-hards who have been reluctant to give up the ease and small file sizes involved in shooting jpegs.
Someone once said that everything worth saying has already been said. But since people tend not to listen there is value in saying it again.
When you shoot RAW that means capturing the total visual information that comes in through the lens without any kind of processing. Other digital formats such as TIF or JPEG take the RAW information and process it so that it can be accessed by a computer without special programs.
Companies like Nikon, Canon, Sony and others make software available that allows your computer to access the RAW files created by their cameras. Photoshop, Lightroom and Camera One also include this kind of software program. In addition to proprietary RAW files, there is also a RAW format called DNG which is open source and non-proprietary. Some fear that sometime in the future one or more of the major camera companies will no longer support their proprietary RAW formats which would make it impossible to work with those files. DNG files it is is supposed will always be accessible and available.
While there are some differences between the RAW formats used by various camera manufacturers and different software produces slightly different variations when opening RAW files, the differences are relatively small. You can prefer one over the other but it is hard to make the argument that one is objectively better.
A strength of RAW files is that they include all the digital information available in that photo and all the information that will ever be available. The nature of RAW files is that they can’t be modified. You can create TIF or JPEG versions of these photos, make all sorts of changes that include brightness, contrast, color and so forth, and those changes are baked into whatever type of file you choose to export. The the original RAW file itself never changes.
It is like shooting BW negatives on film. You can make all sorts of different prints of that negative but the negative itself is not altered in the process.
However, even though the RAW data itself is never altered, the programs that access that date can and do improve over time. There has been a continuous evolution in the power and quality of RAW conversion software. This means that the program you use to open and view a RAW file might be better in some ways tomorrow than the one you used yesterday. So although you can never alter a RAW file, there can be improvements in how that file looks when interpreted by different RAW conversion software.
Again, there is an analogy to this in terms of printing BW negatives. When Ansel Adams printed his negatives in the distant past the paper and chemicals he had available were not as advanced as what was to come later. So the same negative printed in 1930 and 1980 would result in very different prints even if you were to attempt to make them as alike as possible.
Part of Adam’s teaching method is that he allowed his students to print his vintage negatives. Given modern chemistry and variable contrast paper, he did not expect the student prints to look the same as the ones he created in a different era. There is a reason Adams was considered a master of the chemistry of photography. Given the the limitations of the technology he had available, he had to be.
When you use software to process a RAW file you are not actually changing the file but creating instructions as to how to alter the exported TIF or JPEG version of that file. These changes are permanently baked into the exported file. You can further alter the file again but can never go back and recover all the original information.
Another thing to consider is that RAW files are neither BW or color. They are just pixel information. You supply color or choose to view the photo as BW when you open and process the file. And with a RAW file, you can process as both color and BW, create different color looks and a variety of BW looks as well.
There is also the matter of compression. Compression is a process in which information is discarded in order to reduce file size. Some photo formats compress the files much like when you take the full audio of a CD and convert it into an MP3. Information is discarded that can never be recovered. Take the audio from your iPad and run it through big studio sound system and you’ll realize how much has been left out.
An exported RAW file can be written as a compressed or non compressed format. There versions of TIF files that do not involve compression. But all JPEGS are compressed to some degree. That is the point of this particular file format.
Not only that, but every time you save a JPEG you compress if again, which further reduces the quality of the image. So your ideal workflow should involve only converting to JPEG as the very last step and if you need to make further changes going back to the RAW or TIF version, making those changes and then converting to a new JPEG.
If you need to do quality retouching, don’t work on a JPEG image. Too much detail is missing. Work on a higher-res non-compressed file if you want to achieve quality results. Retouched JPEGs can look okay on a low-res Web image but blow those up and you’ll see how inadequate this is.
Which brings up another topic: Do not attempt to enlarge a JPEG any more than just slightly. The pixel info just isn’t there so the image will degrade very quickly.
There are some jobs in which speed of delivery is of primary importance, such as shooting sports, and photographers are less interested in quality than in being able to upload or transmit images as soon as possible. JPEGS are great for this. Many cameras nowadays allow you to shoot both a RAW and a JPEG version at the same time. This gives you the best of both worlds.
But remember that whenever you are shooting jPEGS in camera it is taking a RAW image and doing the processing on its own – beyond your control. Shooting JPEGS in the camera is like shooting BW negs, making a print and then throwing away the negatives. In fact, depending on the quality of the in camera jpeg conversion, it can be like shooting negatives and then having them developed and printed by one-hour photo and then throwing away the negatives.
If absolute speed of delivery is not your primary concern, it is possible to convert RAW files into TIFS or JPEGS very quickly and efficiently nowadays. My personal favorite is using Lightroom, but this can also be done using Capture One, Photoshop, Bridge and various types of proprietary software.
The point is you need to work with RAW files to create image files that are the highest quality possible. While you can output retouched, adjusted and corrected images in TIF or JPEG format the ideal workflow involves starting with a RAW file and keeping in on file and available indefinitely.
Bill Dobbins is a pro photographer located in Los Angeles. He is a veteran photographer and videographer who has exhibited his fine art in two museums and a number of galleries and who has published eight books, including two fine art photo books: