Caption: Canada, Hudson Bay – Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) play-fighting
A while ago, the exquisite Fairy of the North, Dina (who so elegantly authors the blog The World According to Dina, masterfully combining her beautiful images with perfectly selected quotes to complement them) asked me if I would write a post about why I think anyone who shoots digital and takes his or her photography seriously should shoot RAW as opposed to straight off the camera Jpegs.
By the way, before we even get to the point, what is a RAW file, just in case you were wondering? A RAW file is essentially the equivalent of a film negative in the digital age. Every camera manufacturer has their own proprietary formats of files containing the raw (hence the name), unprocessed input captured by the sensor. In fact, RAW files are called in several different ways and have different extensions, depending on the various camera makers: for instance, Nikon’s are called NEF and Canon’s are called either CRW or CR2, depending on the models.
Unlike straight out of the camera Jpegs (which are the result of the camera’s computer processing the sensor data, making arbitrary choices that you as the photographer cannot control and producing a file format that is immediately viewable by anyone), RAW files need to be processed through specialized software such as the camera manufacturer’s proprietary processing software or third-party software such as Adobe PhotoShop or Lightroom or Apple Aperture and then converted to a usable file format, such as TIFF, PSD or Jpeg.
In essence, processing a RAW file requires more of the photographer’s time because he or she has choices to make (in terms of optimizing white balance, exposure, contrast, color balance/saturation, etc.) but puts the photographer back in control of his or her creative decisions and what’s best, in a totally non-destructive, reversible way (more on this later).
Having said that, here are the three main reasons why I think you should set your camera to shoot RAW instead of Jpeg:
1. Unlimited White Balance Adjustments: This is one of the most powerful reasons for choosing a RAW file over an in-camera Jpeg. In short: if for any reason you shoot an image using a white balance setting that is not optimal for the scene you are shooting and you have your camera set to produce a Jpeg file, then you are stuck with that suboptimal white balance and changing it (or at least improving it) will be a difficult and time-consuming task to be performed in your image processing software. If instead you shoot RAW, you can easily correct your white balance with just one click in your processing software. Done!
2. Lossless Process: Jpegs are image files that are considerably smaller than other formats. This is because they utilize a compression algorithm that is lossy, meaning that it discards a bunch of color information from the image to make the file smaller. The more you compress, the more subtle color transitions and image sharpness you lose. In addition, image data loss is cumulative, meaning that every time you save or re-save a Jpeg file, you lose information that cannot be recovered later on. If you shoot RAW instead, you retain all of the information captured by your camera’s sensor, forever. This means not only that, should you need to perform some intensive editing of your image you will have more information to work on, but also and more importantly that you will forever retain full access to all the information that the sensor originally captured.
3. Non-Destructive, Reversible Editing: If you shoot Jpeg and then edit your file in post processing you can then either keep it as a Jpeg when you save it (in which case, all your edits will become permanent AND you will experience image data loss when you save your processed Jpeg) or work using layers (if available in your processing software). The latter is definitely the way to go, because layers can always be discarded later on, should you wish to process your image differently. However, Jpegs do not support layers, so if you use them and want to retain them, you will have to save your processed file in a format that supports layers, such as TIFF or PSD which are both lossless formats but end up in bigger file sizes. Instead, if you shoot RAW and process your RAW file, all your edits will be stored in a so-called “sidecar file”, meaning a small text file that goes hand in hand with your RAW file and contains all the information about the edits that you performed. This means that your RAW file will never be altered and you will always be able to change any of your edits at any time in the future with no damage to your image file or information loss. Pretty cool, huh?
As a final note, even if after reading these compelling reasons for shooting RAW 😉 you were to choose to continue shooting in-camera Jpegs, at the very least make sure that as soon as you download them to your computer you immediately save them to a lossless image format: as we said earlier on, not only will this let you retain your adjustment layers if you so choose, but it will avoid image degradation every time you re-save that Jpeg.
I shoot in RAW if I’m shooting with my “good” camera (Nikon D800), but I travel with my Nikon P510 (so I don’t have to lug so much gear around). One downside to RAW for me has been the storage issue. After a season shooting my daughter’s soccer games, all those RAW files were eating my laptop memory. So I got an external hard drive for storage. Learning how to move the files from Lightroom wasn’t easy. I’m still learning. But I agree RAW is the way to go for post-processing flexibility. Salud!
I *love* my D800: best camera I have had so far, including those from the film era!
Storage in my view is hardly an issue because of course if one buys a 36MP camera file size is going to be way bigger than (say) a 12MP camera, but there are options to keep it at bay (for instance, using the lossless compressed setting that cuts down uncompressed raw files from about 75MB to about 40MB) and then internal or external storage nowadays is very cheap, with affordable 3TB HDDs. The important thing is to have an efficient workflow in place and fast computer to external HDD interfaces (e.g., USB3 or Thunderbolt) and lots of RAM to process those files.
But the quality you get from those files is just amazing! 🙂
you’re much too kind, but thank you very much for your praise! You put a big smile on my face!:-) Your effort with this post about RAW is highly appreciated, I have been waiting for this one! 🙂 I’ll study it on my way to the airport and then get back to you, I have a few questions…
Hans also told me all his friends who use the NIKON D800 had to upgrade the computers as well, because of the space problem, is this really such a big problem?
Next time you’ll read from me in Norway! 🙂
Big *hug* from Norfolk, UK
I am so sorry: only today did I realize by pure coincidence that, for some strange reason, both of your comments had ended up in the spam folder – I have no idea how/why that happened, considering that you are a regular contributor to C&C. Very weird.
Anyway, thank you for your kind comment.
Regarding the D800: well, it kind of depends what kind/how old of a computer you (or Hans’s friends) have to begin with. 😉
As mentioned in the reply to Kirsten’s comment below, clearly a 36MP camera is going to produce big files – way bigger than (say) those of a 12MP camera (such as the D2X or the D300). But of course there’s much more data to record, hence the bigger files. Just to give you an idea, an uncompressed raw file from the D800 at the full 36MP size is a whopping 75MB! However, there are options to keep file size at bay: for starters, you want to set the D800 to record files as “14 bit lossless compressed”: just doing that cuts down your raw file size from 75MB to about 40MB, almost half size. And once again, this is for full size 36MP images, which are great for landscapes and stationary subjects, while for action (in my view) you will want to shoot at the smaller 16MP setting, which considerably reduces the file size and gives you a faster FPS rate (especially if combined with the optional battery grip).
CF/SD card file transfer rate is another factor to bear in mind, but it is (practically speaking) only relevant if you shoot action.
Finally, there is processing speed and storage.
I have a latest generation iMac and the D800 files just fly on those machines. But before that I had an older PC (that used to be very fast four years ago, but quite old by today’s standards) and while of course much slower, it was still definitely usable. The key thing for processing those big files is having plenty of RAM, the more the better (8GB is the very least – 16GB is much better). RAM is even more important than processor speed. And the good news is that RAM is pretty cheap, so if you know how to install extra RAM yourself (which is pretty easy), that is not a big deal.
Storage is not that big of an issue, in my view, as both internal and external hard drives nowadays are very cheap, with affordable 3TB HDDs. The important thing is to have an efficient workflow in place and fast computer to external HDD interfaces (e.g., USB3 or Thunderbolt).
There’s a lot of factors that one should take into account and some time should be spent on properly setting up your D800, but once you do that you will be in awe at the quality of the files that it produces! 🙂
Who knows, maybe one day I will write a post to clarify a few things about the D800, what it can do and what it cannot (because it was not meant to!) but it may be a while… 😉
A big hug right back at you!
thank you so much for this long respond, it’s so very helpful! x
In the meantime I’ve got the D800 (I’m still in Norway and offline on the island most of the time, sorry for not getting back to you earlier). What a change to the D200! It takes a lot of studying and I’ve seen a few tutorials on youtube, but I can assure you, I’d really appreciate a post about the basic handling! 🙂 Like; now you have a D800 – this is what you have to do to get started… I have never ever seen a manual for a camera this big, 800 pages…puuuh.. 🙂
I love the D800, like a fragile baby. I have a MacBook Pro from last year and a great 1 TB extern so I hope I don’t have to worry to much about the volume. Since your post about RAW, I only do RAWs, thanks again.:-) I had to upgrade my lenses so for a start I got the 14-24 and the 70-200, 2.8. Hmmm.. The 24-70 hasn’t got quite so good reviews, but I’ll probably need another lens as well? Which lens do you “always” keep on your D800?
Thanks a LOT Stefano!
Don’t feel overwhelmed: the D800 is a fantastic camera, but it is still a camera, meaning the basic principles of photography still apply, so don’t worry too much. And trust me, it is not fragile, use it as a tool with the confidence that it is not a piece of crystal but a professional level camera body that has been engineered to work even in trying conditions.
I will take you up on a post about the basics of the D800 – I hope I will be able to work on it over the weekend 🙂
I own both of the lenses that you bought and they are phenomenal. Sharp, contrasty, fast, sturdy, just beautiful. I skipped the 24-70 because I still have and use (on the D800) an older 28-70 and I saw no reason for upgrading. I think the 24-70 may have more edge sharpness but non enough to make me replace my trustworthy 28-70 🙂
There is no lens that I keep on the D800 all the time, because even lenses are tools and each of them serves a different purpose – which is what empowers you as the photographer to choose the right lens for your specific subject and for the effect you are after. So, to oversimplify, if I have a portraiture session I may go for the 70-200 or my beloved 105 micro, if I want to shoot say a party or other event or even do some street photography I may have the 28-70 mostly on and if I do landscapes or certain interior shoots I may resort to the 14-24, while for sports or wildlife I generally use the 200-400 or the 70-200. And conversely, if I want to compress the spatial relationships in an image and isolate my subject from the background I will go for a telephoto, while if I want to decompress spatial relationships and portray the subject as an integral part of the environment I will go for a wide angle (in this case bearing in mind that a successful wide angle shot generally requires careful composition and a strong point of interest in the immediate foreground, along with a balanced middle ground and background). One of the beautiful things about photography is that it makes you think! 🙂
Hope this helps.
thanks a lot for this very inspiring answer. How right you are about the careful composition of a wide angel shot! 🙂 I was clicking away and it took me some time get it right. If I had read this answer earlier I’d known. 🙂
I’ll practice, it’s great fun.
Lots of love from Germany
and thank you once again
I think I have landed in your spam again…?
I forgot to mention, the photo of the polar bears is outstanding!
Thank you! 🙂
I really do not know enough about photography to add anything of use here, but as usual, your writing is clean, concise, and very informative.
Thank you very much for your kind words, Jeff: coming from you, they mean a lot to me.
Great advice Stefano. I have been shooting RAW for the past three months and totally agree with what you have just mentioned. The flexibility and creativity it allows is super. As always I look forward to your posts. Hope you are having a wonderful summer.
Thank you, Kimberly: yes, I think shooting RAW really empowers the photographer.
Hope you are enjoying your summer too! 🙂
What an educational post Stefano, thank you! I must admit to knowing very little when it comes to the mechanics behind photography.Sometimes when I want to do some editing I use a free program called GIMP. If I take pictures with my iPhone, how would I even go about getting the raw images onto my computer?
Thank you for your kind words and apologies if it took me a while to respond to your question.
I am afraid with an iPhone you are confined to using Jpegs. My post actually applies to DSLR cameras or those models of point and shoot cameras that support RAW files. Sorry 🙂
Thanks for explaining so a simple amateur can understand the advantages of RAW! I’ve never done it, but after reading this I will give it a try. 🙂 Thanks Stefano!
Thank you for your kind words: I am glad if my post inspired you to try something new! 🙂 You’ll see, shooting RAW will open up many new and exciting options for your photography. Oh, and I like your work: you have many beautiful nature shots!
This is the best information I’ve read on the subject–best because all the other explanations fuddled my head up (and I’m not dumb, but I do get depressed by dreary, technical-jargony-talk). I’m still using JPEG because I’m not usually striving for the perfect photo (it’s a compromise I’ve made with my inner perfectionist–she’s agreed to leave me alone about photography and language study and I’ll still listen to her about writing and being a generally decent person) and because RAW is too time-consuming and too storage-consuming for my purposes. But if I ever want to take some truly artistic shots (especially for print media), I’ll definitely switch to RAW for those from now on.
Truly awesome photo-by the way! How long was your lens? It makes it look like you might have been closer than I’d be comfortable getting to a bear.
Thank you so much for your kind words! 🙂
Truth be told, all bears are different and my personal comfort zone being around them varies based on the different species, but with polar bears I am 100% with you, I don’t want to take any chances as they really are powerful and constantly hungry animals that can present a real danger.
For this image I used a 400mm lens with a 1.4x TC, so I was at a safe distance 🙂
Thank you very much, Tracy, for your comment.
Nothing wrong using Jpeg: I guess every format serves its own purpose. For casual shooting, Jpeg is absolutely fine, while (just like you said) if you get into more artistic photography, shooting RAW may offer you more flexibility and more ways to tweak and optimize your images to your liking.
I had no idea! I noticed that with JPEG photos that after saving a caption directly onto the photo these little semi-transparent spots/dots would appear around the letters. I’m assuming that has something to do with #2?
Sorry that it took me a while to respond: in order to be more precise I should know a bit more about the process/software you use to save a caption on the image, but what you refer to may very well be artifacts caused by a very high Jpeg compression setting when you save the image. So, yes, they may be due to #2.
I shoot (at least I think I do – I need to check my settings) in jpeg. As I am still working on trying to improve the images I take so I haven’t considered trying to do more things when I edit. I need to come back sometime to this post and read it again to take it all in. Lovely image of the bears Stefano. 😉
Thank you very much, B!
Have a great weekend! 🙂
Thank you, Stefano, for taking the time to write and publish this post. You answered many of my questions and I’m sure those of others, too. I’ve wondered about RAW v JPEG and you clearly discussed the differences. Again, thank you.
Thank you, John: glad you found it an interesting read! 🙂
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