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Why Shooting Raw Matters

I just wrapped up teaching several workshops at Photoshop World. I led a night sky timelapse workshop. Shooting raw was absolutely essential to getting great results. The range of detail needed to capture the Milky Way just couldn’t be captured with a single JPEG exposure.

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A raw file from the Panasonic GH4 and the developed file on the right.

I continued to be amazed at how many people still don’t shoot using a raw file format. Sure, I understand that certain types of shooters insist they need the faster buffer speeds they get when shooting JPEG (though the speeds of most modern cameras make this argument irrelevant for all but a few shooters).

What is a Raw File?

rawiconA raw file contains virtually everything that your cameras sensor can see. The data is minimally processed (it may have a white balance preset or picture style flagged, but not applied). While your camera may contain settings for sharpness, exposure, or lighting conditions, the raw file stores that info as modifiable information and captures the original (unmodified) data that came through your cameras sensors. This is very useful because it lets you easily adjust white balance, sharpening, and more in Lightroom.

Each manufacturer treats the format differently, using a proprietary format. Fortunately, tools like, Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom, and Apple Photos frequently updates their raw technology to support the newest cameras on the market.

To find out if you can access a particular camera format from within Adobe software by visiting Adobes web site at http://helpx.adobe.com/photoshop/camera-raw.html.

rawui

The Need to Process

A raw file is not ready for printing or sharing out of the camera, you’ll need to process it with software such as Adobe Camera Raw or Lightroom. This is a good thing as it allows you to precisely decide on issues like exposure, toning, sharpening, and white balance.

When you develop images in Lightroom, you are working at a bit depth of 16 bits per channel. This is an extremely accurate way to represent color. Raw files can be much larger than JPEG files. This extra data is used to hold more image detail, which can reduce, or even eliminate, compression artifacts found in JPEG files. However, that extra data can increase the time it takes for the files to write to the memory card.

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The original on the right and the Raw file developed on the left. The Upright adjustment was also applied as well as lens correction to remove distortion.

What About DNG?

In 2004 Adobe released the Digital Negative Specification (DNG) file format. The code and specifications were made publicly available so manufacturers could build in support for the format to their products. The goal was to replace several proprietary raw file formats with a universal format. Despite initial optimism, camera manufacturers have been slow to adopt it (some even refusing). At this point, DNG files are a useful way to archive raw files and attach additional metadata.

You can find out more about DNG at http://helpx.adobe.com/photoshop/digital-negative.html.

Why Shoot Raw?

Most digital cameras (particularly ones aimed at pros and enthusiasts), offer a much better series of formats, collectively called raw. These raw (or native) formats have several benefits over shooting to JPEG. The images are usually captured at a higher bit rate, which means that the pixels contain more information about the color values in the image. Most raw files have a depth of 10, 12, or even 16 bits per channel instead of the 8 used by JPEG. The raw format also has a greater tonal range. Raw files can show more details in the shadows and highlights. The files are easier to work with as they offer greater flexibility and control in image adjustments and color correction. The images also have more color information.

raw2
The use of raw allows for better preservation of subtle color details and a wider range of exposure information.

Most digital cameras (particularly ones aimed at pros and enthusiasts), offer a much better series of formats, collectively called raw. These raw (or native) formats have several benefits over shooting to JPEG. The images are usually captured at a higher bit rate, which means that the pixels contain more information about the color values in the image. Most raw files have a depth of 10, 12, or even 16 bits per channel instead of the 8 used by JPEG. The raw format also has a greater tonal range. Raw files can show more details in the shadows and highlights. The files are easier to work with in Lightroom as they offer greater flexibility and control in image adjustments and color correction. The images also have more color information.

The Bottom Line

In this day and age… shoot raw. Storage is cheap. Memory cards are cheap. Missing the shot or losing out on details that your camera tosses away with the JPEG are just not worth saving the extra time and money for 99% of all shooters. Your mileage may vary, but if you haven’t given shooting raw a try lately, be sure to do so.

Remember you can give Photoshop and Lightroom a free try pulling down the Creative Cloud Photography Plan or launching Apple Photos on your Mac.

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