Everything you want to know about RAW but are afraid to ask

“RAW is the negative and JPG is the snapshot your camera makes from it”Garth Smith December 2009

Introduction

If you have heard about this RAW deal and want to understand how it will improve your photography, then this Tutorial is for you.

Why?

  1. I often get asked why I shoot in RAW and why not JPEG and I always take the time to reply in detail.
  1. I have read a lot of comments on RB about what RAW is and what the deal is with RAW vs JPEG, but the information is disparate, often overly technical in expression, and sometimes unmitigated rubbish.
  1. The name RAW itself is daunting for anyone with a keen interest in improving their photography skills but neither confident in direction or priority nor comfortable with the technical concepts. And let’s face it, learning about digital photography can be a path strewn with technical jargon and not much else, even common sense at times.

So, there you have it – 3 good reasons for writing this Tutorial.

Approach

I am approaching this topic from the point of view of being someone who started their digital photography life blithely shooting in JPEG (or simply letting the camera figure it out), hearing about RAW, being told to shoot in RAW, and finally overcoming the fear of RAW and doing it. I now spit on the grave of JPEG, and curse its memory each time I re-visit a folder of images shot in those bad old days of RAW ignorance.

(If you already shoot in RAW and want to nitpick my explanations, now is the time to go and shoot something else instead. This Tutorial also seeks to explain things in simple language and I don’t care if it’s not 100% technically accurate. The idea is just to get a few messages across about embracing RAW. I accept you’re smarter than me. Deal with it.)

As a bonus, for no extra cost, you also get with this Tutorial some processing tips. If you are going to take the plunge and start shooting in RAW you may as well dive into basic processing too. Do both and I can guarantee you that you will never ever knowingly shoot only in JPEG ever again. Ever. Period.

OK, that’s a little too strong, I admit it. But the only time I will accept you shooting in JPEG again is if you are out in the bush somewhere miles and days from any camera shop and you are on your very last card and it’s only the old 1Gb one you carry for emergencies. Then you can shoot in JPEG, ok?

By now you may have guessed I am a proponent of shooting in RAW as opposed to JPEG. That is my approach. Others disagree and I’m fine with that. For example, Ken Rockwell disparages my approach with finely-tuned forensic ferocity here and within this Tutorial I also publicise more objectively stated reasons for shooting in JPEG. I guess the main point here is that notwithstanding I was born a JPEGer, I am trying to dispel fear and/or uncertainty and giving reasons for embracing RAW. It’s your choice.

Do you have the right camera?

Gone are the days when Point & Shoot (P&S) digital camera makers simply ignored the concept of allowing the customer to choose the format for their photographs. It was JPEG all the way. So prevalent and consistent was this attitude that the vast majority of buyers of P&S cameras are not even aware of what JPEG means, let alone RAW. The entire concept of P&S is simply that – you point the camera, you shoot, the camera does the rest. You do not need to know anything else.

Nowadays, things are a little different, and for 2 main reasons. First, communities such as Redbubble are a hotbed of digital learning and yearning (and sometimes lust), and this creates a market need. Second, the more sophisticated P&Ss and other compact digitals become (especially in the amount of megapixels able to be squeezed into the sensor) the more ridiculous it is to confine the results to a JPEG format. (I’ll explain this a bit more later, but an analogy would be bringing the Mona Lisa to your home town for an exhibition but not letting anyone inside to see it.)

However, your base model P&Ss, like the Canon PowerShot S90 (released 19 August 2009), still do not offer RAW formats as an option. This compares with the Canon PowerShot G11, (released the same day) which does, and, for example, the PowerShot G10 and even its predecessor the G9 (released back in 2007), which also offer RAW.

So, if your interest in RAW is coinciding with a camera upgrade decision, the “option” of shooting in RAW should be explored. Does your intended purchase offer it?

Or, you might be at the stage of moving up from compact digital cameras to a digital SLR. This will be a good time to move also to shooting in RAW, as any digital SLR not offering RAW is a camera no-one wants to buy.

Or, you may already have a better-than-base-model digital camera that does offer RAW shooting and you are curious.

What is JPEG? What is RAW?

When you press the shutter, light is allowed to enter the inside of the camera through the lens. The light firstly hits a very thin colour filter (usually only 3 colours – red, green, and blue – RGB), then it hits the sensor.

Every sensor has millions of light sensing receptors. The more megapixels your camera has, the more of these receptors there are, and thus the more details can be captured. Each of these receptors is called a pixel. So, a 10 megapixel camera has a sensor with 10 million pixels (I think that’s right).

Every pixel captures the light as data – “bits” of data. We obtain about 12-15 bits of data per pixel.

So, the shutter closes, the light gets captured, the pixels get hit, the data is created. What next?

Simply put, the camera now has to store all that unique information on the card, and to do that the data has to be formatted so it doesn’t have to be recreated, and a file created for retrieval that fits that format. If this is beginning to sound like computer lingo, it is. Yes, your digital camera is also a computerised processing unit.

JPEG is simply a file format which, importantly, is a universally-accepted and “free-source” format. No-one has proprietary rights over the JPEG format, and every camera manufacturer thus uses it as the default format for their cameras.

Before sending the data for an image to the card in your camera, the camera’s teeny weeny little computer will format it. That is why when you download your images from the card (whether you do this by removing the card and putting it into a card reader which is then connected to your computer via a USB cable, or by connecting the camera directly to your computer via a USB cable), they are all numbered and ending in .jpg.

The problem is, when the camera formats the data into a JPEG, millions of bits of data are permanently discarded. Let me say that again: when the camera formats the data into a JPEG, millions of bits of data are permanently discarded. (And that, for me, is the numero uno reason for not shooting an image “in” JPEG.)

Let me put this into perspective. My main camera is a Canon EOS 5D Mark II. It has 21 million effective pixels. That many pixels can produce a RAW image of up to 25.8 megabytes in size. But if I chose to shoot the exact same image in Large JPEG instead, the image will not be more than 6.1 megabytes in size, and if I chose to shoot it in Small JPEG, the image will not exceed …. 1 megabyte!

And here’s the rub, the camera decides what to discard, not you. Which is fine I guess if you leave your camera settings on Full Auto. I mean, seriously, by doing so you’ve already divested yourself of any creative responsibility for the image, so why be bothered about how the camera formats the file?

You just have to accept that your JPEG file is going to present you with very limited fine-tuning options. If you are already using Photoshop Elements, for example, but you are still shooting in JPEG, are you not getting strong hints there is a lot you cannot change about your image?

For example, an under-exposed image, with too much darkness, still has all that data if shot in RAW. But if shot in JPEG, the “dark” data is discarded. I have “rescued” many under-exposed images shot in RAW by adjusting the settings to retrieve that data.

A RAW file is just that – the raw data. It contains all the data captured by your camera’s sensor. It’s not formatted by discarding any data. The camera does not leap in and make assumptions left, right, and centre about what the image should look like. You retain total creative control. Importantly, this is why a JPEG image can look sharper than a RAW file – the camera has already given the bits of data simple instructions to “form up” front and centre, whereas a RAW file is waiting for you to apply your own level of desired sharpness. I think this is a good thing.

Similarly, a JPEG will be higher in contrast and lower in dynamic range for the exact same reasons.

There are only two more important differences between a RAW file and a JPEG image I want to mention:

  1. The more times you work on a JPEG, the more data gets lost. This will happen with any processing, no matter how slight, eg rotating your JPEG 0.1 degrees to the left will lose data. But if you wanna get pedantic about it, the solution is to copy each JPEG before making any changes.
  1. Unlike the free-source JPEG format, there is no industry protocol for RAW files. Each camera manufacturer has their own. Believe it, it’s true. Adobe are attempting to bridge this gap in giving away the DNG format, a bit like RAW (see Mel Brackstone’s comments below), and I normally convert to TIFF (retains all the RAW data) to work on an image before converting to JPEG to upload to RB, but our focus here is on RAW v JPEG [small steps, ok?)

The advantages of shooting in JPEG

In the March 2010 issue of the UK’s Black + White Photography magazine, respected and well-known photographer and journalist Lee Frost wrote an article in response to this question: Is RAW really a better capture format than JPEG, or are RAW file fans misguided control freaks?

Whilst he didn’t quite answer that particular question, Mr Frost did do some comparitive tests in relation to image quality, and concluded, in part: “I certainly won’t be switching from RAW file to JPEG after conducting these tests.”

For the purposes of this tutorial, it would be fair to summarise, however, what those tests produced, and some of the benefits of shooting in JPEG, as recounted by Mr Frost.

Firstly, he views the much lower sizes of JPEG files compared to RAW files as “one immediate and practical benefit”. This is in terms of how many files you can fit on a memory card. That is, of course, true, but the point I made above about what that reduction actually means to me is more important than the capacity of a memory card. Besides, memory cards are getting bigger and cheaper. I routinely use an 8 Gb card and it holds just under 300 large RAW files. I rarely max it out, but I have a 4 Gb card AND a 16 Gb card as back-up. It’s an issue for Mr Frost because, as he recounted in his article, it’s not uncommon for him to come back from a trip with 50+ Gb of RAW files. Geeeeezus, that’s a LOT of files!

He also points out that because “the files are smaller, JPEGS are also quicker to write to the camera’s memory card so you can shoot at a much faster rate and in bigger bursts.” That is also true of course, but this is a benefit only experienced by photographers with a need to shoot in bursts, such as sport and wildlife photographers (as Mr Frost duly notes). For a lot of us, me included, I don’t experience this issue. Indeed, when I do feel the need to shoot in a burst, I can still get off a few shots per second even if I am shooting large RAW files. This issue also depends a lot on the camera you are using.

JPEGs also “save you more time in post-processing as well, because much of the work has been done in-camera”. True, but I don’t see that as being any sort of a benefit if you care about what your work eventually looks like.

Shooting in JPEG will also allow you to connect your camera directly to a printer and print your images – another benefit noted by Mr Frost. Again, quite true, but even as he points out, not being able to do this with a RAW is “not necessarily a bad thing!” I agree, and I also believe you would not be reading this Journal if direct printing was something you really really want as being paramount to your photography.

And the tests? “The RAW and JPEG Large images were identical in quality. JPEG Medium 1 showed a marginal loss of quality, but nothing to worry about and JPEG Medium 2 a little more still. JPEG Small showed an obvious loss of quality.” To achieve this comparitive result, Mr Frost applied Photoshop CS3’s Adobe Camera RAW default sharpening settings. As you will see from the basic steps I explain below, I don’t rely on defaults. Both methods are ultimately subjective. I am, however, convinced that a JPEG will never get me a sharper image than what I can achieve with the data retained in a RAW file.

Mr Frost is quite adament that if black & white photography is your thing “RAW is the format to use”. He also makes quite a pertinent point:

“Ironically, the JPEG format has always been flagged up as the ideal choice for beginners because it’s quick and easy. But in reality, RAW is a much better format if you have limited knowledge because it’s more forgiving. A RAW file contains so much data that you can even process it twice – once with the exposure reduced, once with the exposure increased then combine the two in Photoshop to maximise the brightness range. That simply isn’t possible with a JPEG because the extra data needed was erased long ago …”

Here here!

Now, let’s move on ….

Viewing RAW files

When I first started shooting with my 5D Mark II, I got frustrated. I had seen the light, so to speak, and had long been shooting in RAW with my good old 10D but, shock horror, Adobe Photoshop CS2 did not recognise my 5D Mark II RAW files. Aaaargh, WTF?

Well Canon’s RAW files are Canon’s, not Adobe’s. And Adobe had, with Canon’s assistance of course in sharing the code, published an upgrade for CS2 to include the RAW files shot with the 10D. But, now we were up to CS4 and Adobe did not upgrade CS2 or CS3 for the 5D Mark II. Bugger.

But I wasn’t about to fork out $900 for CS4 just for this reason. So I forked out a lot less for Aperture, which was also upgraded for the 5D Mark II. Big mistake. Aperture is more a work flow program than an image processor like Photoshop and, worse, if I shot a RAW file in Monochrome, Aperture would open it in Colour, and shitty colour at that.

The solution?

There never was a problem, I just didn’t know it. Because there is no universal “format” of RAW, it is behoven upon each manufacturer to supply you with the software to access, view, and process, your RAW files. And they do. I finally twigged that one of the free CDs that came with my 5D Mark II contained Digital Photo Professional – the easiest and best way for me to view my RAW files.

So, if your digital camera can take images in RAW and you want to take the plunge, try to find the CDs that came with the camera. If you can’t find them, go to the manufacturer’s website and download the necessary program. It will be free.

For example, say you are the proud owner of a Canon EOS 50D and you now want Digital Photo Professional to install on your computer because you want to start shooting in RAW. Here is the software download page for the 50D on the Canon USA site, which has the links to download DPP in either Windows or Mac. And here is the main download page for ANY Canon digital camera.

(I assume other digital camera manufacturers have the same access facility. I am told, for example, that Nikon users can shoot in RAW and then use Capture NX2 in the same way as Canon users use DPP. The things you can do with a RAW file are exactly the same.

Working with RAW files

My aim from here on in is to provide the Wow Factor – to hit you with the imagery that will not only dispel any fog of fear remaining about working in the RAW, but will make you salivate with desire for going RAW all the way.

The beauty and joy of working with RAW files is the fact you have ALL the data to play with and tweak. If you have never shot in RAW before, what I am about to show you will amaze you. I could even be strung up by some on RB for revealing trade secrets for free!

For the purposes of this part of the Tutorial I will be demonstrating the Mac version of Digital Photo Professional, but it doesn’t really matter what you are using – the things you can do to a RAW file before “converting” it to a JPEG or other format (such as a TIFF) are universal, and this includes Photoshop Elements and CS2, CS3, and CS4.

OK, here we go ….

For the purpose of this tutorial I shot 2 sample images, both in Large RAW and Large JPEG. Both were deliberately shot with some faults. They were taken within minutes of each other using available light and a hand-held Canon EOS 5D and a Canon EF 100mm f2.8L IS 1-1 Macro Lens. The first was a flower in my backyard, as the sunlight was disappearing for the day, taken at ISO 400, 1/60 second at f7.1 in Landscape mode:

How unspectacular is that! The second was taken in the sunroom in the back of my home, using my son Dylan as a model, with ISO 1000, 1/60 second at f3.2 in Monochrome mode. I focused on his eye:

We’ll go through basic steps in working on the RAW images to see if we can improve on the basic JPEGs and the camera’s default conversion process. First, we’ll work on the flower.

Flower

Now, with DPP open, I open the RAW versions of the image by selecting File from the top toolbar then Open from the drop-down menu.

When the image is open in DPP a Tool Palette should also be open by default. Mine looks like this, along the Default settings:

If your Tool Palette has not opened by default, go to the top toolbar and click on View. From the drop-down menu select the first option, Tool palette, like so:

Do not freak out. Sure there’s lots of tabs and sliders there, but I am going to show just a few things you can do which a lot of time will be all you need to.

First, look at the Picture Style block. Just below it the current style is showing as Landscape, which is how I shot it. Let’s play with it. Click on the blue arrows next to the word Standard. A selection of picture styles opens, like so:

The thing to note at this point is that if you select Monochrome, for example, then adjust things like Sharpness and decide you don’t like it, selecting another Picture Style will retain your last settings for the Monochrome version in case you come back to that version later on.

Play around with Sharpness. You can instantly see the improvement. Slide the Contrast tool and notice the dramatic changes, alternately, click on the box marked Linear. Whoa, pretty dramatic yes? Linear Contrast will only work best with well-exposed RAW files.

See the Brightness slider? Play around with it. I normally don’t change this setting, preferring instead to adjust Curves in the RGB window – it’s the one next to the RAW window – look at the top of the Tools Palette.

OK, just for demo purposes, here’s a version of my sample image after playing around with the settings for the RAW file:

Here’s the RAW settings I used

Notice I upped the Brightness by 1.00. My personal preference would be to leave it untouched and adjust Curves in RGB instead, like so:

Here’s the result of leaving Brightness untouched and adjusting Curves instead as reflected in the above:

Now, here’s my final version, after judicious cropping and applying the Orton Effect:

Compare it with the original JPEG:

Need I say more? Well, I do, actually. The Orton Effect was applied in PE 6 and it can be applied to a JPEG just as much as any other format. But I keep coming back to my original point – you have a lot less data to play with and your results will be different.

The portrait

This is the JPEG image of Dylan, straight from the camera:

When we open a Monochrome image in RAW, this is the Tool Palette that opens, with the Default settings shown:

Notice the different tools? For example, slide the Filter Effect tool across. Notice how each variation is assigned a colour. This equates to using such a filter when shooting the image. Notice especially the 2 far right options, Red and Green. Depending on what you’ve shot, these two can be very useful, for example Green will normally lighten shadows on rocks and bring out the details and textures.

Notice also the Toning Effect slider. I like using this to create Sepia images, like so:

Here are the RAW settings I used to achieve the above image:

Removing the Sepia tone, here is the Monochrome version of Dylan which I am happy with after tweaking the RAW settings:

Here are the RAW settings I used to achieve the above image:

After converting the RAW file to a TIFF, I applied split-grading for contrast and the Orton Effect, for the final image:

Compared to the original JPEG with the same split-grading for contrast and the Orton Effect:

Compared to the original JPEG:

One more tip – White Balance. Because I shoot in RAW, I can always change the White Balance setting used by the camera at this stage, and this is a damn good reason on its own to not shoot in JPEG if you don’t have to. So, I just leave my camera setting to Auto WB. It does a pretty good job anyway.

To change the WB of the RAW file, select Shot settings from the RAW window in the Tools Palette, like so:

Recognise the WB settings? As you click on each one, notice how the Preview image changes accordingly. For example, here’s my Monochrome RAW of Dylan set to Portrait and with Daylight selected for the WB:

Notice how the colour version has helped deal with the blow-out on the left side of Dylan’s face?

Still looking at the Tools Palette, see the Tune icon in the WB box? Click on it and a new window should open called White balance fine adjustment, like so:

The easiest way to use this tool is to click and hold the mouse over that dot in the centre of the circle, and move it around. See the Preview change as you do. A lot of sunrise/sunset images you see on RB reflect playing with this one tool! Sunrise not golden enough? Use the WB fine adjustment! Note that whatever you do here applies to the whole image.

OK, here is my WB fine adjustment to Dylan:

And here’s the result:

For final comparison, this is the final outcome after reverting to the Portrait version while still a RAW file, then some further tweaking in Photoshop Elements:

So, there you go. Hopefully I’ve answered some of those questions about RAW niggling away at you and cleared the way for you to confidently experiment with shooting and converting RAW files! Just don’t forget the converted files as copies!

But wait …

Still not sure about the power of RAW?

Have a look at this image I shot in both RAW and JPEG. First, the JPEG:

Now, here’s the JPEG version of an almost identical image I shot in RAW seconds later, after conversion:

You cannot retrieve colour data from a JPEG shot in Monochrome. An image shot in RAW in Monochrome retains all the colour data for your retrieval, as was applied for this image. It’s one of my most popular photographs on RB.

If you got this far with this Tutorial, you may find one of more of my other Tutorials of interest as well. They are all listed and accessible here, including some not-so-serious takes on various aspects of the joyous activity of pressing that shutter with expectation.

Cheers
Peter

History

  1. Journal created 11 – 13 December 2009, published 13 December 2009
  2. Edited to correct typos etc 13 December 2009
  3. Revised to add para about under-exposed JPEGS versus under-exposed RAW files and to add the Rose comparison 13 December 2009
  4. Revised to add info about Nikon and Capture NX2 and add links to other Tutorials 14 December 2009
  5. Revised to add quote, with approval, from Garth Smith 14 December 2009
  6. Revised and expanded on loss of sample images, replaced with new samples 27 March 2010
  7. Revised 15 April 2010 to add a comparison of the RAW image of Dylan, converted to TIFF with split-toning and Orton Effect with the original JPEG with split-toning and Orton.
  8. Revised 7 May 2010 to include a discussion on the benefits of shooting in JPEG.

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