If you’ve done some research into photography, you probably ended up on websites and articles where photographers recommend to shoot RAW photos. But what is RAW photography, why is it such a big thing according to many photographers and why should you shoot RAW photos?
RAW photography: it might sound technical and maybe a little overwhelming if you haven’t heard of it before. But don’t worry. In this post, I will tell you everything you should know about RAW photography: what it is, why you should shoot RAW photos, as well as some reasons why you might prefer NOT to shoot RAW photos.
What is RAW photography?
So, what is this RAW photography thing I’m talking about? RAW is a file format, just like JPG (or JPEG, they’re the same thing). When you shoot photos, no matter if it is with your camera or phone, the default setting is probably to save the images as JPG files. It’s a format which can be opened and viewed immediately on almost any device, which makes it ideal to share it on social media, e-mail it to someone or upload it to your website. Besides the fact it’s a click-and-open file format, JPG is also a compressed file format. Several optimizations are applied to the file, which makes it a smaller file size. This will save you a lot of space on your device and make it easy to send, upload or open them online, but it also means loss in quality of your image. The more compression of your image, the bigger the loss of quality. When it comes to editing, JPG files are A LOT less flexible than RAW files. When compressing a file to get a JPG image, important and useful data which your photo editing software needs, will be removed. Also, the camera applies a couple of small edits to your images like saturation, contrast and sharpness adjustments before saving it as a JPG file. Those edits will be hard to undo because of the compression, where the file has lost important data.
So, this is where RAW photography comes into play!
RAW files are uncompressed image files. Your camera takes all the data from the camera sensor and saves it directly to your memory card without compression, so it will retain ALL the data and your camera will not apply small tweaks like it does when saving a JPG file. You do end up with significantly larger file sizes. For example, the RAW files from our camera are around 75 MB each. Where JPG images have “.jpg” as their file extension, RAW photos can have different extensions depending on the camera manufacturer. They all have developed their own RAW file format. Nikon uses “.NEF” as their file extension and Canon uses “.CR2”. So instead of “Image title.jpg”, your files will look like “Image title.NEF” or “Image title.CR2”. To open RAW files, you need special software like Adobe Lightroom, which is part of Adobe Creative Cloud. Beside that you need special software, they’re just way too large to send or upload them. However, RAW photography DOES have some significant advantages, which I will cover. But first, let’s make a quick summary of the differences between JPG and RAW files.
- Type of file
- They’re both photography image files
- File size
- JPG files are significantly smaller than RAW files
- File format
- JPG files are universal, RAW files are unique for each camera manufacturer
- JPG files can be opened, shared and uploaded immediately, RAW files need to be edited and converted to JPG files first
- Control over image
- You have much more control over RAW files because they contain all the data. JPG files are compressed and lose data, which make them much less flexible
- Supported devices
- JPG files can contain information up to 16 million shades of colors, RAW files can store between 68 billion and 4,3 trillion shades of colors, depending on the camera (which is a lot!!)
Advantages of RAW photography
So, now let’s really focus on RAW photography and why you SHOULD shoot RAW photos! In fact, I’ve mentioned it before already. RAW files contain all the data from the camera sensor, while JPG files are compressed and data is lost. So when editing, RAW photos give you way more control over the details in your image. This gives you the ability to make very small and local adjustments, without affecting the rest of the image. This is just not possible with JPG files because they don’t contain all that data anymore. Small adjustments will affect the rest of the image easily, or the local adjustment will just look weird. Let’s just look at an example. In the image below, the sky looks good, but Britte, myself and the rest of the foreground are really dark. Luckily, the RAW file contains enough information to brighten up those dark areas in Adobe Lightroom as you can see below.
I can do the exact same adjustments with the JPG file, but it just doesn’t look as good as the edits I did on the RAW file. Look at the colors of our clothes, they look terrible! Why? The file just doesn’t have enough information to bring back those darker areas. The image below is a very extreme example to show you the difference. The size/quality of your JPG file will also have an effect on the final result.
Do you see how bad the colors look in the darker areas I brightened? To give you an idea of the possibilities with RAW photos, have look at this fully edited RAW photo:
What about those immense file sizes?
Once again, you have got full control over your RAW files. Even over the amount of compression when converting a RAW file into a JPG file with Adobe Lightroom for example. You can choose how high quality you want your JPG file to become, what the maximum size can be, the resolution of your JPG file… whatever you want. Of course: the higher the quality, resolution or whatever, the larger your JPG file will be.
Did you know that most cameras that are able to shoot RAW photos, also give you the posibillity to create a JPG file from the same picture as well?
My JPG files look much better than my RAW files… How?!
If you shoot both RAW and JPG files and put them next to each other on your screen, you will see a big difference in color. In fact, you might even feel like the JPG look better! They are more colorful and have more contrast than the RAW file, which might just look boring. But do you remember what your camera does to JPG files? It applies a couple of small edits to your images like saturation, contrast and sharpness adjustments before saving it as JPG files. This is called an image profile which is added to your photo. Each camera has is own image profile to give you that ready to use JPG file. Move the slider to the left to see the unedited JPG file, and to the right to see the unedited RAW file.
A RAW file isn’t edited at all. It’s like a blank canvas and it’s up to you to fill up that canvas with editing! Do you want some quick, basic adjustments to make your RAW file much better? Adobe Lightroom has a button called “Auto”, which makes the colors and light of your image look much better immediately.
When should I NOT shoot RAW photos?
Whilst there are a number of huge advantages to shooting RAW photos, that doesn’t mean everybody should always do so of course. Although I’m big on shooting RAW, there are also reasons not to shoot in RAW. First of all, photo editing can be very time-consuming. Sure, you will end up with photos that look just like you want them to look, but your time is valuable. So if you just don’t have the time to spend several hours behind your screen or you just don’t enjoy it that much to think it’s worth the time, RAW photography maybe isn’t for you.
Another situation that might not be ideal to shoot RAW photos in, is when you want to shoot continuous photos at a high burst rate. Like sports or other action-packed activities for example. By now you know RAW files are much bigger than JPG files (and you know why). It takes more time to get them on your memory card. JPG files will be written much faster on your memory card, which makes it much easier to capture any action you want. Still, it depends on what you want to do with the photos and how fast the action is you’re shooting. What is more important to you? Having full control on the RAW file, or just capturing the action? We let our camera shoot both RAW and JPG files. Our camera has got two memory card slots, so we use one of them for the RAW files and the other one for our JPG files. We use the JPG files just to share them with friends and family, without having to edit them. If that’s what you use your photos for, you might not need RAW photography. By the way: Did you know you can choose the quality of your JPG files in your camera? I recommend selecting the highest quality possible. It will increase the file size, but in exchange, you get a much better-looking image without editing. And hey… the file size still doesn’t come close to the size of a RAW file!
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