There is no doubting in my mind that if we want to improve our photography and move away from being a casual snapper, we need to stop letting our camera do all the work. I've spoken before about the importance of taking ultimate control over your camera and settings so we can produce the images we want, as your camera is an intelligent piece of gear but it can't second guess what you want to achieve. As well as taking over your camera settings, like moving from auto mode to manual mode or auto focus to manual focus, there is also another extremely powerful tool we can utilise for higher quality images and this is to shoot in RAW and take full creative control over the editing of your images. So in this blog I'm going to explain what RAW is, the benefits and how it really can improve the quality of your photos and why it has become so important to me and how it helps me create my images.
What is RAW?
A RAW file is a uncompressed and unprocessed image file which contains all the data which the camera sensor captures when the shutter is pressed, thats all it is. Now If we compare this to a a JPEG, this is an image file which has been processed and compressed into a smaller image file. Now you may not know this but when you take a picture on your camera or phone in JPEG, the device you have taken the picture on then processes all the RAW image data and edits the image for you. The device will add contrast, saturation, it will sharpen the image and make it more visually appealing to the viewer before all the information is compressed into a universally recognised format....the humble JPEG. With a RAW file, instead of the device taking charge of the editing, we have to do this ourselves in specific RAW editing software....the digital darkroom. RAW files aren't universally recognised and can't be used out of camera to share, so you will need specific software to utilise all this data. This powerful software allows us to have full control to process the images as we see fit, unlike the JPEG, where our destiny isn't in our own hands.
RAW file straight out of camera. As you can see it's very flat looking and I also under exposed the image as I was in a rush to catch the colours:
There are a great deal of benefits of shooting in RAW and I'm going to run through the most important ones. However I must stress that shooting in RAW isn't going to make you a better photographer and image editing shouldn't be used as a tool to make a substandard image something that it's not. We still need to get as much right in camera as possible, so we have a strong foundation to build upon and add the finer touches from there. I like to think of shooting in RAW as 'salt and pepper', we have all the ingredients and we have made our dish but we need to add our salt and pepper to bring out the flavours and finish off the dish. So lets dive into to it and take a look at the benefits.
The first benefit is Image quality. We all want to produce the highest quality images as we possible can, when we shoot in RAW we have all that image data that the sensor has recorded at our finger tips. All this information is unaltered or uncompressed, meaning we can extract the data and pull out all the detail and really fine tune our images to look as good as the eye saw it. We are unable to do this with a JPEG, as that part of the process has already been undertaken by the camera and all the data has been compressed and effectively it won't be there to work with and extract.
Wider Dynamic Range:
Another major benefit is the wider dynamic range you can get from the RAW files. No matter how good our camera's are they will often struggle to cope with situations where there is a wide dymanic range (the range of light intensities with in your scene from dark to light). We've all experienced this when shooting a vibrant sunset and you can't get the balance of the exposure correct, you will find that either the foreground will be too dark while the sky is exposed or the foreground is correctly exposed but the sky is lacking detail and the colour isn't as intense as you saw it. This isn't your fault as a photographer, just a fact that the camera sensor simply can't handle the wider variety of differing tones in the image. When we process the RAW data we have the ability to pull out the details in these areas to create a perfectly balanced image with detail from our shadows to our highlights.
RAW file with exposure, shadows and highlights adjusted to give a better balanced image, more like it looked when on the shoot:
The ability to correct Exposure and white balance mistakes:
Another huge benefit of shooting in RAW is you are able to correct some of your minor mistakes. Lets face it we've all had one of those shoots where we haven't quite got things right or we've had to react to changing conditions quickly and we have not got the correct exposure or we have used the wrong white balance, so our images don't look like they should. Well fear not, RAW allows us to alter our exposure and change our white balance after we've taken the shot, so in effect right our mistakes. It's amazing how much we can recover from a RAW file, some images which we have badly under exposed can be rescued with the help of the advanced RAW editing software and the image data captured.
Greater Brightness and colour range:
A RAW file holds a more extensive range of colours and levels of brighness than a JPEG. This means that we have better levels of colour reproduction and can create images with more colour depth than a JPEG. RAW files also hold greater levels of brightness, this is important as it helps the tones in your images look smoother and natural. You also have thousands of more tones to play with when editing your image. This makes sure we are producing images with bags of colour natural tones and colour depth, again very much to as the eye saw it.
The power of Editing Software and non destructive files:
We are using powerful software which is specifically designed to edit RAW files and will help you get the most out of the files and the finished results can look stunning and very professional. Sharpening and noise reduction in editing software is far more advanced that the camera's in house editing and can really help to enhance the images. We are also able to use the software to correct lens distortions, for example when lines don't appear straight and have a curve to them, these can be easily corrected. There are all manner of great tools for getting the best of of your images, too many to mention but all really aid you in creating superb images. Programs like Adobe Lightroom are very user friendly and don't take a longtime to master. Another benefit is RAW files are non destructive, which means we can't overwrite them, so any editing changes we make aren't permanent. So you can go back and re edit your images time and time again and never lose the data.....unless you completely delete the file from your computer.
Of course there is a huge creative benefit of shooting in RAW. Editing images is definitely an extension of the creative process and we can really develop our own style and process the images how we want. I actually really enjoy the editing process and I can really bring my images to life and present them as I saw them and how I felt when I took the image. However we have to be careful when editing our images and I always like to constantly remind myself that less is definitely more and it's easy to push those sliders a little to far and risk your image looking unnatural.
A rather over edited image, remember a less is definitely more.
Shooting in RAW does come with some downsides and it certainly requires a shift of mindset from shooting in JPEG. I would only really recommend shooting in RAW if you are seriously looking to take your photography to the next level, as there is definitely an increased level of commintment of time and resourses from shooting in RAW. The files we are working with are far larger than that of a JPEG, so you have to store these and they can clog up your computer memory pretty quickly. You may be require to up grade your computer with better specifications, more RAM, larger hard drives as processing of RAW files and storage definitely requires and utilies more of these resources. You need to buy the software to edit them, this obviously has cost implications. The files need processing and cannot be used straight out of the camera as the files are recognised, this is not ideal if you like to instantly share your images. Processing RAW files can become time consuming, especially if you are editing multiple images at once. There is also the tendancy to over edit images and compensate for a poorly taken shot.
My final image which was processed using Adobe Lightroom.
For me shooting in RAW and editing your images is such crucial part of photography and I've been shooting this way for 5-6 years now and would never go back to shooting in JPEG. The main reason's why I shoot in RAW are pretty simple. The first reason is no matter how good your camera is it will never be able to replicate what you see with your eyes. Your eye is far more advanced and adept to coping with different dynamic ranges and tones within a given scene. I like to use editing to be able to replicate what I saw, for which the camera sensor could not. The second reason is my camera isn't a person and doesn't have any feelings and can't interperate what I'm feeling when I'm on location taking an image. So I use editing to help me convey to the viewer of the image what I was feeling, so they can connect with it. The third reason is as landscape photographer, I want to produce and present the highest quality images I possibly can and shooting in RAW certainly helps me to achieve this. I want every possible detail to be in my images, I don't want to loose any image data, which I would get with a compressed file. I understand that this way is not for everybody and can also seem pretty daunting, but like with anything, if you are willing to learn and put a little time and effort in, then it is another step in your development and one that will see you produce better quality images and how you want then to look and feel. There is no doubt there is more commitment needed from you, interms of time, resource and monetary from shooting in RAW but I personally believe that the benefits far out way the downsides. Ultimately the decision has to be yours and what is right for you as a photographer and your specific needs. For me and my photography, RAW is definitely the way forward.