The RAW File Format : A Closer Look

Shooting RAW is all about taking a longer, but more detailed route to a JPG file. Let’s take this discussion further, or perhaps take it back a little and look at what RAW files are.

A RAW image file is a minimally processed file from either a digital still camera, scanner or digital movie camera. Although not all of these devices have the ability to capture RAW files and we’ll look at that shortly. Every manufacturer has it’s own RAW file system and each manufacturer encrypts those RAW files. Some encryption varies even from camera to camera. As a result if your camera can capture RAW files, then you will need a RAW file reader/converter on your computer in order to download and edit the RAW images.

The RAW file will save all the information required to create a viewable image as metadata and exif information. In basic terms this is the camera information, focal length, iso, shutter speed, aperture etc. as well as colour filter array and colour profile. The RAW file is sometimes known as the digital negative, although it’s not reversed at all, but basically implies that this is the first stage after capturing the scene, towards creating the final image, just as you would with a film negative.

So can your camera shoot RAW?
The chances are that if you own a DSLR, then you will have RAW capability. Some, but certainly not all Bridge cameras and a small proportion of the high end compact cameras will. To find out, go into camera settings in your menu. There you will find a heading something like ‘Image Quality’ . Depending on the camera, you are likely to have at least three settings. JPG, low, normal and fine and then a further setting of RAW. It may have the camera’s file extension for RAW such as ‘crw’ (Cannon) or sr2 (Sony). High end DSLR cameras will have further settings such as RAW +JPG.

RAW files are minimally processed. The idea is that you shoot in RAW with the full intention of editing or reworking your images. If you like to edit your images and currently shoot in JPG, now is the time to consider RAW. JPG files are processed and complete when they come out of your camera. They are not really designed to be edited and in fact, processing them further can damage the files. The best way to compare them is consider a PDF document. You will have seen these all over the internet. These are the documents used for instructions or for online magazines etc. The file system is complete and closed and isn’t designed to be edited. That’s a bit like a JPG file. If you were drafting out something to discuss and be proof read by others, then you would use a word document or similar. You can edit it and change the format until complete. You may then save it as a PDF. That’s how RAW works. You would edit it and save as a JPG. This is over simplifying things, but this is the gist of it. For those in the know there of course other file extensions other then JPG which you may use.

The above images show how far editing can be pushed from a RAW file. The first image is straight from the camera before being processed. The second image is finished and how it appeared in The Daily Telegraph.

As mentioned you will need a RAW converter, to read the encrypted file from your computer and translate it into a viewable image on your computer to start the process. Some free software will have some limited capabilities at reading RAW files, but may not up date and even some of the current well used editing software firms will not always up-date their systems, instead encouraging you to buy newer versions. Adobe’s Photoshop, probably the best known editing software, will tie you into buying upgrades to keep abreast of the latest RAW encryptions.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. Lets face it, if you’ve bought into a camera system like Nikon, you’re not likely to move away from that nor upgrade cameras very often. That being said though, if you do use a compact or bridge camera and really get into using RAW and wish to move onto a DSLR, then think long and hard about compatibility with your computer software. Pretty much all cameras come with some sort of proprietary software to assist you in RAW decoding, but these tend to be limited and of course will completely tie you into one system.

There is a push within the industry to standardise RAW files from the huge variety that there is now into one common file extension and currently the DNG (Digital Negative) file format owned by Adobe is a possibility, thus hopefully reducing the risk of constant upgrades, but then the danger is, does that make older systems obsolete? Remember Betamax versus VHS….? Adobe’s RAW converter will read hundreds of files and if you consider it’s slimmed down Photoshop Elements version of its software, then won’t cost the earth.

There are a number of free software systems, such as Picassa with some RAW converters, but will only offer very limited editing abilities, certainly compared to the likes of any of the Adobe packages or Apple for instance.

What happens when I download my RAW images?
Depending on your software and its associated RAW converter, you will see thumbnails on your computer system just the same as JPG files. The difference is you have to open them with your editing software, which will automatically decode the image so that you can see it in all it unprocessed glory….. 

Depending on your skill levels with a camera will now depend on how much editing you need to put into your image. To edit a JPG file, you are pretty much limited to contrast, brightness and saturation. With a RAW file the main difference that you will find is that you now can control white balance and exposure. These two levels could save an otherwise over or under exposed image as well as correcting lighting aberrations. Not that this becomes a tool for correcting mistakes, but not everyone can get it right every time…..! Editing a RAW file really does open a whole new world of editing possibilities that you will not have realised before. Once edited, save your creation as a JPG.

Why would I want to shoot RAW?
This is a good question, after all, doesn’t it seem like a lot of hard work? It all depends where you want to take your art. If you like to capture the kids playing and record your daily life and simply enjoy them, then no because you don't really need to. If however you want to improve the overall quality of your work, particularly if you would like to showcase it, then yes. If you haven’t already, then this is a good step forward for you.

What are the drawbacks to using RAW?
Well not too many really. File size. RAW files do not compress information the same as a JPG file so file sizes are much much bigger, therefore you will get less on a memory card as JPG files. 2 options, buy bigger memory cards or more of them. Top tip, buy more. Better to have say two 4gb cards than an 8gb card. If one of the 4gb cards corrupts, you still have a usable card. If the 8gb card corrupts, you lose everything. The main drawback certainly for professional work is control of workflow. If you shoot 500 images throughout a day for a particular event, then you must edit all 500 images, even if you’re happy with the shots, they still need to be opened and then saved as JPG. 

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