Shooting in RAW is something most people have heard about, but rarely try. Despite some clear advantages to the RAW file format, the majority of novice photographers stay away, assuming it is difficult to use, hard to understand and time-consuming. While working with RAW images does take some extra time and requires a bit of technical know-how, almost any pro-level photographer will tell you that the results are worth the additional effort. And thankfully, with today’s easy-to-use photo editing software, working with RAW images is more accessible than ever before.
So what is RAW, and why would the average photographer consider using it? Simply put, RAW is the complete image data collected by your camera’s image sensor. Think of it like the digital equivalent of a film negative. The RAW image is what you get before your picture is processed into a final photograph. It won’t display on a browser, initially looks dull and flat, and typically can’t be printed, but because it contains so much more data than a JPEG, for example, it can provide the photographer with much more control over the look of the final image without losing any image quality.
Most people shoot JPEG — the most popular and widely-accepted image format – generally because it is the default setting on their camera, or because it is familiar and easy to use. To produce a JPEG, the camera adjusts settings such as contrast, white balance, color saturation and more, compresses the RAW image data, and saves it as a significantly smaller file. While this is convenient (especially for printing and sharing) and saves storage space, a fair amount of fine detail is lost due to compression, and data that could be used to correct exposure or color balance problems is lost forever. With a RAW file, all this information is retained, and many tweaks such as white balance, black & white conversion, dodging and burning, etc. can be done without losing image detail, over and over again. So when a can’t-miss photo opportunity comes along, you can just focus on taking pictures rather than worrying about camera settings or perfect exposure.
The downside of RAW files is obvious. It requires manual processing with photo editing software to produce an ideal image, and depending on the conditions of the original shot, this can range from dead simple to painstaking. RAW files are larger than JPEGs, and if storage space is a limited, they might not be a viable option. Also, RAW files also cannot be read and printed directly, so they must be converted to a printable format (like JPEG or TIFF) before you can make prints at a local drug store. On the other hand, memory cards are more affordable than ever, and processing and converting is simple enough with modern software.
So what do you need to start shooting in RAW? First, you’ll need a fairly decent camera. Almost every digital SLR and ILC will feature RAW capture, and even some high-end point-and-shoot cameras have RAW modes. Some cameras will allow simultaneous RAW and JPEG capture, so you can save standard JPEG pictures processed in-camera while you experiment with RAW. Other cameras with two memory card slots will even allow you to save RAW files on one and JPEGs on another. Second, you will need a memory card with enough capacity to handle the larger RAW files. Memory is dirt cheap, and you probably have a large enough card already, but if you’re still shooting with a 256MB SD card from the turn of the century, it’s definitely time for an upgrade.
Finally, you’ll need image editing software that can read and process RAW files. Your camera probably comes bundled with software designed specifically for your camera, but pack-in editing tools are usually pretty low on features. Better choices include Adobe Photoshop, Photoshop Lightroom, Apple Aperture, Corel PaintShop Pro, ArcSoft PhotoStudio, and the popular (and free) Google Picasa. Of course, image editing software does have a bit of a learning curve, and it can be expensive if you opt for pro-level software like Photoshop, but I believe that having complete control over your photo processing far outweighs the initial investment of time and cash.
Now it’s time to start experimenting. Check your owner’s manual or just browse your camera’s menu (who uses instructions anyway?), set your camera to RAW or RAW+JPEG, and start shooting. Landscapes and street scenes are great for learning how to edit RAW images because they often contain a wide variety of brightly exposed and shadowy areas. Portraits are great for learning how to adjust color, white balance, highlights and shadows, and double as good practice for lighting and retouching. You might even want to take some pictures that are deliberately under or overexposed. Once you have your test shots, fire up your software and see how much more creative control you have! If you shoot RAW+JPEG, compare your ability to adjust JPEGs to your ability to adjust corresponding RAW images, especially when it comes to light and dark. You’ll notice a drastic difference.
So experiment, practice, test… and if you have any questions, please feel free to ask in the comments section below. Good luck!