The importance of shooting RAW

I sound like a broken record to some of my friends, but if there is one piece of advice I can give fellow photographers, this is it: if your camera is capable of shooting RAW, shoot RAW. Always.

By not using the built-in compression algorithms your camera uses to turn your photos into JPEGS, you buy yourself an incredible amount of post-processing bandwidth. A lot of people are tempted to shoot JPEGS, because the files are much, much smaller. Shooting RAW maintains the information captured on your sensor for all three channels that make up a pixel, while JPEG compression decides for you what the scene should look like.

While cameras are actually amazingly smart at deciding how a picture should look given the light quality and exposure of any given frame, in a lot of cases, the photo you imagine as a photographer may not align with what the camera interprets the scene to be. By shooting JPEGS, you shortchange yourself in the creative process that is post-production.

The key advantages of shooting RAW:

Full control over white balance and temperature. In any kind of extreme light situation (sunrise, sunset, indoors mixed light, etc.) your camera will have a much harder time finding the right white balance. By shooting RAW, Lightroom or Photoshop allows you to override the white balance after the fact, to more accurately reflect what the picture should look like, and that can go from minor adjustments to obtain a more realistic representation, all the way to turning a warm sunny sunset into a cool sunrise.

Dynamic range: since photos in RAW format maintain the absolute maximum in information, they lend themselves much better to making adjustments in high dynamic range situations. I have managed to make animals magically appear out of a dark forest by bumping up their exposure by as much as 4 stops. While this results in some noise in these extreme cases, for most of my work I make at least some adjustments in the highlights and shadows to pull the dynamic range in a bit. This is again much harder to accomplish in a JPEG where most of the decisions have been made for you by the camera.

Hue/saturation/vibrance: same story here. In most cases, the camera makes decisions about the appropriate levels of saturation in a scene, and leaves you hanging in the darkroom in post-production if you used the JPEG format. Instead, use RAW, and retain full control of how colors are managed in your envisioned photo.

The only drawbacks to shooting RAW are again file size (but investing in some bigger memory cards is well worth it, once you see the creative possibilities you will have at your disposal) and burst speed. Since only the very highest level of DSLR’s can keep up with continuous RAW burst shooting at 6 frames per second or more, you may want to consider temporarily switching to JPEG if you are shooting a sporting event, for example, where getting the shot at the right time is more important than the post-processing creative flexibility.

As an example of what RAW can do for you, check out how I processed a mountain scene from a hike in the San Juans last year. First is how the photo was registered by the camera, the end result is what I envisioned the scene to look like when I made the shot.


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