Why Shoot RAW?

Welcome to the next blog series, The Digital Darkroom! We'll cover all kinds of ways to enhance your post-processing workflow, with the goal of producing the best photographic print possible. If you haven't read my series called Photographing the Perfect Image, I'd suggest at least a quick scan of those posts, since I'll be building on some of the concepts I talked about there. Let's jump past any more of an introduction, and get started on the first topic - why to shoot RAW!

RAW files are daunting at first. They are significantly larger than JPEGs, taking up more space on our memory cards and slowing the camera's buffer. Then once we get to the computer, we have nothing to immediately post, send, or print. When we open up a RAW file in Photoshop, Lightroom, or another software, the photograph usually looks bland and desaturated, something that was confusing and discouraging to me when I finally made the transition. And let's not forget that since RAW files need to first be edited, we either need to know how to use our software, or slap on a preset and hope it looks good. Those facts alone make it too easy to stick with JPEG, and if you can identify with any of them, you're in the right place!

What is the Difference Bewteen a JPEG and RAW File?

First, the concept of the actual file is extremely important. A JPEG is a recognized image file format. Alternatively, a RAW file is a data file that is much larger than a corresponding JPEG. The difference in data size is due to the file bit-depth, and the simplified version is that RAW has an exponentially greater amount of color tone options per pixel. Now, I'll be honest with you: if you take what I just said and test it out by blasting the saturation on identical RAW and JPEG files, you most likely won't see the difference. But if you do happen to have a two files that you shot together (using the dual mode feature on almost any camera), you'll find the difference in dynamic range - try adjusting exposure, highlights, and shadows, and you will find the RAW file has a much better tonal range.

Why does the JPEG look better than the RAW?

When you shoot in dual file mode, the JPEG will almost always have superior sharpness, contrast, and saturation. This is because the camera just did the RAW processing for you! Using whatever technology is installed in the its firmware, the camera analyzes and processes the data collected by the sensor, adjusts it accordingly, throws out the rest of the unneeded data, and saves the file as a JPEG. The RAW file has the same data that the camera used, but it's waiting for you to interpret it. In this way, I believe that RAW files are superior; you can altogether avoid the step where your camera manufacturer assumes what you want the photograph to look like.

There are many photo "purists" out there who try to do everything in-camera, and I often see those people boasting their skill and talent with their technology on social media. I always wonder, though, how they react when they realize that no digital photograph is "untouched"! Without rewriting the camera's firmware, there are only two types of files: edited by your camera, or edited by you. I don't say this to begin an argument, but the reality is that JPEG-only photographers are completely at the mercy of their camera's software. In my opinion, I'd much rather be the person in charge of the final image!

The RAW file
The JPEG file - notice the better saturation and contrast


the basin waterfall new hampshire
And for a sneak peak at what we'll be working on in this series, here is the final image, after editing the RAW file.

Other Considerations

RAW files are considered "lossless," which means you can never write over them.  JPEGs are not lossless, which means if you edit one and forget to "Save As," you've permanently changed the file. Of course, it's easy to make a copy of the image and edit that one, but we all make mistakes at some point, and when I was a beginner, I finally got tired of accidentally overwriting my images.

Final Thoughts

All of the posts in this series are written assuming you are using the RAW file format. While many techniques will still work on JPEGs, their success may vary. I know it's a scary step to take - I've been there - but it's a necessary one to achieve the best results when editing. We'll dive into some editing concepts over the next few weeks, and even if you are working on JPEGs, I'd encourage you to follow along.

An easy way to make sure you don't miss any steps along the way is to sign up for my monthly newsletter by clicking here.  I'll include links to the blog posts so you can be sure to read each one!

So, do you shoot RAW or JPEG? Let me know in the comments!