Tips And Tricks

Why Shoot Raw?

If you've been following, to any degree, the news and trends coming out of the world of digital photography, there's no doubt you've heard about the Raw vs JPG debate that's been raging over the past few years. Depending on your sources, you've probably heard things like: 'Raw is so much better than JPG' or 'Serious photographers only shoot Raw'. On the other side of the fence, however, you may have heard things like: 'Raw is such a pain to use' or 'I just can't see the difference'. So which statements are true? Well... the truth is... all these statements have varying amount of truths in them. Huh? Yes, we know - not exactly the answer you were hoping for, so let's first go over a simplified overview of how a Raw image differs from JPG and then review why you might want to choose one over the other.

First, the techie stuff... Depending on the model, digital SLR cameras capture either 12 or 14 bits' worth of tonal data. In a nutshell this means cameras could potentially capture 4,096 or 16,384 unique shades of each of their primary colours (red, green and blue). This in turn translates into the potential to capture over 68 billion total possible colours (trillions for 14 bit). This may seem a little over the top as it's been said human vision can discern only up to about 10 million colours (if we're lucky). But there's a benefit to having all these extra colours. We'll get to that a little later. So this is what the camera's hardware has been made to work with - billions of potential colours. Therefore, this what its 'raw' image data could contain before any kind of processing - processing that creates the pictures we eventually see and use. In processing digital pictures, we've essentially got 2 choices:

  1. Let the camera make JPGs with its built-in processor and have them saved to our memory card; or
  2. Save all the raw data onto the camera's memory card and process them later with a computer.

Making JPGs In-Camera

In making its own JPG files, your digital camera performs a number of tasks. Processes known as 'demosiacing', applying a gamma tone curve and compressing are all carried out. These tasks are influenced by the camera settings you've chosen for things such as picture quality, white balance, sharpness, contrast, etc. These changes are then 'baked into' your picture forever. This may not sound like a big deal at first, but if you like to edit your images to perfection using Photoshop® or some other image editor you'll want to take note of what's explained next.

Although JPGs can look great on screen and be emailed or printed without much fuss, they are inherently limited to 8 bit colour. This means only 256 shades of each of the red, green and blue primary colours are kept. This is only 1/16th of the potential colour definitions captured by the camera (in each colour channel). Although 8 bit colour provides sufficient data to produce pretty pictures, image degradation begins to occur the moment you decide to lighten, darken and otherwise manipulate the picture's tones in Photoshop® or other image editor.

Another problem with JPGs has to do with colour data compression. JPGs use a form of variable lossy compression in order to further reduce the amount of memory they take up in your memory card or computer hard drive. This is done by taking subtle colour differences that may exist between neighbouring pixels and turning them into one uniform colour. This colour-fidelity-compromising technique is applied in blocks of 8x8 pixels, so when the degree of compression is increased, the visibility of these blocks becomes more obvious - creating compression artifacts.

Option 2: Process Raw Files on a Computer

Saving an image's raw camera data gives you everything the camera can give you on your memory card. As explained above, that's a lot of colour and tonal data. In light of this, there are advantages and disadvantages. Fortunately, advances in technology and software have reduced the number of disadvantages. Here's a quick rundown of the pros and cons:

Disadvantages:

  1. Raw files can be quite large. A 12 Megapixel Raw file may require 15 MB of memory or more. This could be a dwindling concern, however. At the time of this writing, a standard 4 GB SD card can be purchased for about $50 and history has shown that memory does not have the tendency to go up in price.
  2. In the past, Raw files have required particular software for viewing and editing. This also appears to be dwindling concern. For instance, modern Apple computers can display and even edit Raw files from nearly all mainstream consumer and pro cameras without any special add-on software. Windows Vista is also now offering Raw viewing support. Although all cameras come with their own Raw processing software, these programs have been known to be less than spectacular. Third party solutions such as Apple's Aperture and Adobe's Photoshop® Lightroom provide much more effective Raw viewing, managing and editing tools.
  3. Raw can mean more time in the 'digital darkroom'. In the past this was a valid point. Today, using a reasonably modern computer and the right 3rd party software (as mentioned above) can allow you to handle Raw images as easily and as efficiently as JPGs.

Advantages:

  1. You can edit your Raw images using all of the original, unblemished data. This is a huge advantage. Adjusting the exposure, white balance, contrast, shadows, highlights, sharpness and just about everything else about your images is done with much greater latitude and without causing as much damage to your image. For example, making serious 'Levels' adjustments to an 8 bit JPG in Photoshop® can lead to posterization. The same adjustment applied to a 16 bit PSD or TIF that is generated from Raw file would cause little or no noticeable damage. See histograms below:

  2. Histogram 1 Histogram 2
    8 Bit Image 16 Bit Image Generated from 12 Bit Raw
    After Levels Adjustment After Same Levels Adjustment
    ( Gaps in Histogram ) ( No Gaps in Histogram )

    JPG Histogram JPG Histogram

    Histogram 1 Histogram 2

  3. Edits done to your Raw images are never permanently applied or 'baked into' the original file. The original Raw image is always left alone. Changes are stored in a separate 'recipe' file often referred to as a 'sidecar' file. Applications like Apple's Aperture and Adobe's Lightroom take advantage of this fact, allowing you to apply and reverse non-destructive edits to your pictures with an efficiency you may never have seen before. Also, whenever desired, JPG, TIF, PSD and other copies can be generated from the optimized Raw images.

So... to shoot Raw or not to shoot Raw... Well, as you can probably tell, we at the Henry's School of Imaging are pretty much 'pro-Raw'. The bottom line is if you're at all interested in getting the best possible results with your photography, there's no question Raw files give you more potential to do that. Today, with the right computer and the right software, living the 'Raw lifestyle' can be as manageable as living with JPGs - only with the added benefits mentioned above. Having said this, if your photographic workflow absolutely demands the immediate turn around and transmission of pictures - and if correcting or enhancing the aesthetics of your images is not a significant issue, then JPGs could make sense. There you have it. Want to know more about Raw? Be sure to check out Henry's "Raw Workflow" and "Aperture" workshops at Henry's School of Imaging.

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