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May 16, 2006

Let’s say you have a digital camera that shoots in Raw format. However, you’ve been using JPG files ever since you got it, due to a sense of familiarity, simply not having the time to figure out Raw, or because you don’t like the larger file sizes. Sound familiar?

That was me too, up until about a month ago. Then I started shooting Raw. And from now on, unless I need a lot of photos in a very short time, Raw it is. It’s not for everyone, and it’s not for every occasion, but it’s certainly the best default choice for me. And if you’re concerned with image quality, it could very well be for you too.

First of all, there are a few good reasons not to shoot Raw. The file sizes are typically double or more the size of an equivalent JPG. You can fit less on a card while shooting, and long term storage becomes more of a problem. More importantly, you need to work a little harder to process each photo, which you may not have time for or be interested in doing. And the format is actually a handful of proprietary formats, with each camera manufacturer pushing its own solution. Long term data storage in a proprietary format? Not such a good idea, though there are various ways to work around this. The workflow issue is probably the largest barrier to using Raw, and the one that I had trouble with… until I saw the image quality. And that brings us to the reasons you might wish to use it.

Raw is unprocessed photo data, right from the sensor of your camera. Instead of existing in the 24 bit colour space we’re used to working with on-screen, a typical Raw file could support 36 or more bits of colour. You can’t actually perceive this extra colour on your monitor, or even when you print out the photos, so why bother? Because the extra levels give you more freedom to modify the image without throwing out genuine image data. And that’s really important when adjusting a photo, because some of the adjustments you might need to make in 8 bit colour will potentially damage highlights and shadow areas. Case in point (click for a larger version, of course):

3 side by side photo quality comparisons

On the left, we have an unprocessed JPG straight off the camera. It’s a bit dark and dull overall, and there’s not enough contrast.

If we take the JPG and process it as-is, we get something in the middle. Here, I’ve adjusted the levels to bring out the driftwood in the foreground, at the expense of blowing out the sky. Because I’m applying levels globally, I have no choice but to sacrifice the sky and the mountains for the sake of the foreground. Now I could certainly go into the image and apply a mask so that I could work on the foreground and background separately, but that’s manual work that I’d rather not put in to every photo.

On the right, we have a processed Raw image. I’ve tweaked the exposure controls, the shadow levels, the overall brightness, and finally boosted the saturation. Not only do we get a better balance of lights and darks without a blown-out sky, but the overall tone is true to the original while ending up more vibrant thanks to the saturation.

While Raw is certainly powerful for tonal adjustment, where I’m having the most fun right now is with colour saturation. Typically, if you boost the saturation in a 24 bit JPG photo, your browns quickly turn orange while your greens go ugly and neon without much prodding. Raw allows far more refined saturation control, thanks to the extra levels of actual image detail. I can’t really explain why it works so much better, but the difference between JPG and Raw is remarkable when it comes to saturation.

This next example is far more surprising if you don’t see them all at once, so I’ll simply link the images inline here and let you click through one by one. First up, the original JPG. Obviously too dark, so the enhanced JPG shows just about all I can do before the saturation starts looking ugly. Then finally, the Raw image adjusted with a nice healthy dose of saturation. A very different result. (In Photoshop it’s even more intense, but I’m having some trouble saving out colour profiles for some reason, so you get the profile-free version unfortunately.)

I’m just getting started, but I figured there’s enough to learn about this great new toy to justify getting a book on it, and sure enough, a few of those exist. I bought “Adobe Camera Raw”, it looks good so far.

How about you? Got some tips for me about working with Raw?

(For the curious, the photos in this post are, respectively, driftwood at Jericho Beach in Vancouver, and a random house somewhere outside of Reykjanesbær, Iceland.)

May 16, 17h

My advices with RAW is pretty simple: be patient. :)

Of course, my main machine is a G4 PowerBook, so your milage may vary, but it does take a while to work with them.

Remember, too, that iPhoto 6 can work with RAW, so you can have a pretty easy catalog program that can do a lot of quick “fixes.”

Also, keep an eye on space. Delete photos you know aren’t right.

Dave S. says:
May 16, 17h

Additionally, one of the things I’ve discovered about photo storage management is that my Canon shoots in a RAW+JPG mode that saves two files, one of each.

If I shoot in that, I can easily throw out the Raw files that don’t feel right, and have the JPGs on hand ‘just in case’. I’m always selective about which photos I save, but even still, I always feel guilty about throwing away the C and D-grade photos that might potentially be useful some day for something.

Mayo Jordanov says:
May 16, 18h

Check out Apple’s Aperture or Adobe’s Light Room if you are concerned about/want to improve raw workflow. I personally prefer Aperture, Light Room doesn’t fit me well, but I found that it is hate it or love it type of thing for both applications.

Playing with shadow/highlight settings can be also very impressive in RAW, there is nothing to counter that in JPG, other than brightness/contrast which wreck the whole image. It’s especially nice if you like high contrast BW shots.

May 16, 18h

About the profile question: When exporting for the web, do you use “Convert to Profile” > sRGB IEC61966-2.1, then save a new file? Avoiding “Save for Web” preserves the EXIF data for Flickr, and my understanding was that if you do the conversion, it doesn’t matter whether you embed the sRGB profile or not (most browsers ignore them) but that nevertheless it’s the best bet for decent consistency across systems and monitors. Has that been your experience?

May 16, 18h

I’m glad to see more and more people switching to RAW. Saving the unprocessed data the ccd records makes for endless possibilitys in post production.
Unfortunatly until there is a standard we are going to see more and more archival issues. Great write up though.

Tony says:
May 16, 19h

I just got a Nikon D50, and started playing with RAW right away. As I understand it, Nikon’s .NEF RAW format is not lossless, but I have been impressed (like you) with the post-processing control. I haven’t used Aperture, but I did download Lightroom, and have used Photoshop and iPhoto’s RAW processing. I love your examples and explaination. I’d be interested in seeing you compare the results from different photo-processing applications as well.

May 16, 19h

I made the switch to RAW about 9 months ago and have never gone back. I had to buy another Flash card (1GB) to make sure I wouldn’t run out of space while out shooting. But that’s a small price to pay for the improved image quality and post-processing options that RAW format provides.

Nowadays, most of the photos I put online are a combination of 2 or 3 different exposure levels all extracted from the single RAW file.

Here’s a good HDR example:
(The advantage of RAW being that only 1 picture would need to be taken as opposed to 9 shots of JPG.)

Neil says:
May 16, 20h

Another Nikon D50 user, and I tend to shoot a mix of RAW and JPG depending on how quickly I want to post the images online. RAW is amazing, but it’s like working with negatives and an enlarger in the darkroom: it takes effort, but you have *way* more control.

Shooting JPGs is like processing your film through one of those big-ass Kodak film printing machines you see at your local mall - fast, adequate quality, but limited control.

Aperture (specifically version 1.1) is quite good with RAW - I use it all the time - but the Adobe RAW workflow isn’t bad, either. One bonus with the Photoshop workflow is you can fuss with the RAW conversion and do image editing all within the same application.

Karan says:
May 16, 20h

Oh wow, I didn’t realise what a difference it would make - now I’m going to have to factor in Raw to my camera buying equation… Thanks for pointing this out!

C. Michael Cooper says:
May 16, 20h

RAW is most value for digital photographers who produce a lot of prints because it allows you to do critical edits without destroying the histogram. Prints from digital cameras still can’t compete with a darkroom print, but the the ability to preserve all of the gradient information is crucial to competing.

Seb says:
May 16, 21h

The above example of JPG modification is deceiving because the levels tool was used incorrectly. This is NOT a bad thing, we all go through this. What at first seems like a tool designed to do one thing eventually reveals itself to be something totally different. I’m hoping this will save you some time. :)

You did have a choice not to blow out the sky to bring the driftwood into a better exposure range. The reason you didn’t achieve was because you used the levels tool incorrectly. You set the white point by moving the right slider (blowing out data) instead of shifting the midpoint with the middle slider. This, however, would lower the contrast slightly and show the overall shortcomings of the levels tool. For greater control you should use curves and drag the midpoint of the curve up to retain contrast while shifting the mid tones. There you can adjust any point on the tonal curve with any level of precision you desire. Boost just the darkest shadows while retaining the rest of the detail, or shift the image globally. If you wanted the quick and easy way to accomplish the same thing, you would use the shadow and highlight tool introduced in CS. It pretty much does all the curves work for you but with an easier to understand and more efficient interface. It does not replace the curves dialog, it simply gives you a different way to achieve the same effect in terms of shadow and highlight adjustment.

There is absolutely no reason to think the JPG can not look like the finished RAW file. Yes, RAW gives you more control and higher quality, but JPG is not nearly as bad as you make it out to be. No need for masks, no need to blow out highlights or shadows.

Where RAW excels: White Balance adjustment (MUCH easier and higher quality in post), the ability to re-process images with different (potentially better) algortithms in the future, lossless storage, higher tonal range (16bit), choice of color space in post processing (Adobe, sRGB, etc)

Not trying to rain on your parade, but you simply used a tool incorrectly.

May 16, 21h

This is very informative and I’m interested in where it’s going. But something isn’t sitting right with me. The examples in your post and the comments of the advantages of RAW are pointing out the technical benefits of the format, but — to my eye at least — de-realising the “original” images. Dave, if your purpose is purely to show what the format can do, then my mistake. But otherwise the tweaked Iceland photo (RAW version) is kind of garish. Likewise, the Big Sur pic, while pretty, looks totally unreal — at least to my senses. More like it was airbrushed than photographed. So, if I’m understanding correctly, your post and the comments so far, demonstrate the greater technical possibilities for image manipulation, but not necessarily the greater likelihood that the punters like me will get a more “photorealistic” end result, even with brightness/contrast nudges. (Though the comments about RAW for b+w images were intriguing…)

Seb says:
May 16, 21h

In response to the comment by Mr. Cooke, with all due respect, nothing that’s being talked about is manipulation. That is, unless you consider darkroom techniques to be manipulation. Ansel Adams himself learned the film format inside out and used his knowledge to develop ways to manipulate his prints into portraying his vision. Making the same techniques digital does not automagically turn them into manipulation somehow contrary to the desire for “photoreslistic” results.

May 16, 21h

Sorry Seb, I didn’t mean to convey the impression that I was overly concerned with authenticity. My issue (at the risk of raising hackles further) was really with, um… cheesiness.

head zoo keeper says:
May 16, 21h

I’m a die-hard film shooter – I have nothing against digital cameras, like some other film “purists” – but I find this subject matter interesting as the RAW format is sometimes known as the “digital negative.”

Anyway, speaking of Ansel Adams, if I recall correctly he also once said, you don’t take a picture; you *make* a picture. The man was the master with pre- and post-processing photo imaging.

Seb says:
May 16, 21h


No need to explain, I just wanted to voice a counterpoint to what I read from your post. All good. :)

PatrickQG says:
May 16, 22h

I went raw about two months after I got the Nikon D50, and just haven’t looked back. I can still get ~160 photos on a 1GB SD card, plus another 80 or so on a 512MB I keep with for just in case times, which is plenty. I haven’t really got enough disk space to shoot that much at the moment anyway.

My advice with RAW? Get Aperture. Seriously. I haven’t regretted that purchase once, the time savings from not having to go through Camera Raw give it value alone.

May 16, 23h

Almost six years ago I bought a Canon G2 and was happily shooting JPGs until I saw Russell Browne promoting Photoshop 7 a few months later and realised how much data I was throwing out by not shooting RAW. Been shooting RAW ever since.

Biggest advantage with RAW is with the the less than perfect shot, you have got the data to work with and can make adjustments, with a JPG that data has already been thrown out with the compression. Might not be important when shooting for the web, but it is for print.

White point / temprature correction is my favourite, it is amazing what changes it makes to the feel of an image. Play and be surprised.

You should keep your C or D grade images as RAW, because you can extract a half decent image if necessary, something you would be hard pressed to do with a JPG.

Storage is cheap, you can save a lot of RAW images on a DVD. I used to convert all my RAW photos to 48bit TIFF, which meant 22Mb files, compared to 2.5Mb RAW. So I consider the 2.5Mb RAW a good deal when compared to a 1mb JPG.

James says:
May 17, 02h

I recently got back from a two month trip through SE Asia with a new Canon 350D, and decided to go for JPG over RAW mostly because I didn’t fancy spending months processing the photos (500+ of the best made it to Flickr in the end). Memory was a serious issue here as well: backing up photos to CD-ROMs in internet cafes was a real hassle, and we’re only talking JPGs too. I had a 2Gb card and the cost of an additional 2Gb card (or portable hard disk etc.) would equate to another 3-4 weeks on holiday.

I realise I lost some quality in the process, but I was willing to do this in order to more easily share the photos (via Flickr) with friends and family back home. I spent the best part of a year sorting out slides from a trip to Fiji, the last time I used my old film Pentax.

How long does it take to process RAW files? As memory prices continue to dive, I’d still be interested in shooting RAW, as long as I’m not spending most of my life processing the photos instead of sharing them – something I decided was a priority for me over such things as getting prints made.

May 17, 02h

7. Aaron smidth: Well actually you won’t be able to make a PS HDR image out of just one expousure. Just because you drag the sliders you don’t get more dynamic range and therefore a HDR image is useless. What you can do is to manually use several layers from different expousures and then “merge” them together taking the highlights from one layer and the shadows from another. So the point is you still need to shoot 3 images but nowadays many of the the better dSLRs (Nikon D200 for example) have bracketing so the camera can give you three expousurs in a row.

What we have to remember is that RAW is a format where a lot of progress is made. Better algorithms are used and the images keep getting better. JPG on the other hand is a lossy format where details are scrapped in the camera and can never be retrieved. Sure in the future the cameras are going to use smarter JPG compression algorithms but that won’t make your old pictures better. What’s already lost can’t be restored later.

As several people have pointed out storgare is cheap nowadays and so are CF cards. A couple of 2 gig cards allows me to shoot ~ 600 frames. Buy a couple of 750 gig discs and put them in a RAID array and you have good enough redundancy.

May 17, 02h

19. James: With Lightroom or Aperture exports to JPGs are made easily. I just select the images I want and then export them with spcified width, quality and so on. Exporting them doesn’t take that long on my computer. The workflow is nice to work with!

Tim says:
May 17, 02h

Thanks Dave for this interesting article.
Aperture as been mentionned and I’d really like to try it out to see how my workflow can be improved.
I’m usually taking Hi-Res JPEG and spending hours in photoshop adjusting each part of the picture (I do use curves by the way)
I’m not too concerned with ong-term storage, but i’m worried about Memory Card size. I don’t have a laptop that I can bring with me when i’m travelling so I need to fit all my pictures on two 1GB SD card… it doesn’t matter that much with JPEG since it lets me shoot a lot, but according to what Nick mentionned above, a RAW file is 2.5x bigger than a JPEG… grrr.

Mag says:
May 17, 02h

Dealing with RAW formats is no longer sufferance as it used to be few years ago. The ultimate high processing speeds we all have by now, in combining with capabilities of current photo-editing software takes off most of the pain. Without this, low quality cameras with low memories wouldn’t still be in use. In a matter of fact, RAW formats and how to deal with it, separates pros from amateurs.

May 17, 06h

Do you think that iPhoto’s RAW capabilities are worth taking actual RAW shots? I hate the workflow and found that importing RAW files directly to iPhoto works somehow, at least its convenient.

Tony says:
May 17, 06h

Importing into iPhoto preserves the original RAW files, so at the least it’s a quick and dirty way to get jpegs from your RAW shots. You can always go into Photoshop or something else and do further processing if there is a shot you would like to tweak. Of the images I’ve toyed with so far, iPhoto did a competent job of creating decent-looking jpegs. Not as good as processing with Lightroom or Photoshop, but at least quicker than PS.

May 17, 08h

I am also a new Nikon D50 user and have been shooting RAW since I got the camera. Before when I was working with JPG I had a simple workflow: Import into iPhoto, open the best in Photoshop, run Auto Curves (unless it looks worse), save as highest quality JPG, upload to Flickr.

I’ve basically kept the same workflow and have been happy with the results. Ultimately the photos are just ending up on Flickr, so at the moment I’m not terribly concerned with making the photo picture perfect.

It’s great to see these examples and know that RAW can provide the level of control necessary for quality output.

Caleb says:
May 17, 10h

RAW can be a LIFESAVER. Especially if you mess up an exposure or your strobe doesn’t pop off in a sequence of shots. The latitude is also much higher, resembles film a lot more so there is more complensation for exposure in post production. There is also a lot less noise. Lets you use higher ISO’s without much worry.

May 17, 11h

I got myself a 350D a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve been loving it. I always shoot RAW, for all the reasons mentioned in your post. If you are looking for good books I highly recommend Ben Willmore’s book ‘Adobe Photoshop CS2 Studio Techniques’. It covers Camera RAW, and a lot of other advanced techniques and tools. It’s my favourite techy book.

May 17, 12h

Some notes to consider. (For a bit of history, I was working on product research for what became Adobe Lightroom while in the heyday of doing Design by Fire.)

1. Glad to see everyone picking up RAW. However, there is a very critical issue everyone needs to concern themselves with, and that is the propietary nature of the file format itself of the various camera. Please see:

This is Adobe’s solution to the problem. Jump in and get involved somehow. (DNG was developed by Thomas Knoll himself as a solution to the problem.) If photographers are not careful, they will soon discover hundreds of thousands of “digital negatives” that one day no software product can read due to the fact they were shot in formats the camera companies never publicly documented.

2. Think of RAW software processors like film stock. Many of the film companies purposefully “juiced” film to create various kind of looks. RAW software processors are effectively giving you the same control over the digital negative, a means to juice the color and contrast of a photo to create those various looks. In that sense, you can make things look real or make them look hyper-real. The choice is up to the photographer. But be aware… you are in control, aand therefore you are responsible for how good or bad an image looks when tweaking the image.

3. Learn to use bracketing on your camera. As Edvard mentions above, the real way to get true HDR images is to shoot bracketed images then composite those in something like Photoshop. In the next five years or so, it’s clear we’ll see technology that allows for this at the camera level automatically. Until then, we have to shoot bracketed and combine the results manually.

4. A good friend of mine, Jeff Schewe, has lots of news items on things related to Camera RAW and the issues surrounding it for photographers. I encourage you to start reading if you want to keep up on industry buzz in this area.


Ryan Boone says:
May 17, 14h

I’m curious, has anyone used iPhoto 6 to manage RAW photos? I need an excuse to upgrade to iLife ‘06.

Tao says:
May 18, 01h

The most important thing about your RAW workflow over time will likely become image management. The storage itself of course is one thing (diskspace), but actually keeping track of all these RAWs might be a problem.

What a lot of people seem to do is to use a RAW Converter, tweak the settings to their liking and then export a TIFF or JPEG out. This is then taken in to a photo management tool like iView, for tagging, rating and classification.

These tools may be able to give a preview of a RAW file (or do some basic manipulation) but they don’t have the flexibility of the RAW converter. That means you need to store two copies of every image (RAW original and JPEG result). This quickly grows out of all proportion and is hard to manage.

Both Aperture and Lightroom take a different approach: they consider the RAW file to be the one and only representation of the image. They both have excellent RAW tool as well as excellent iamge management features. In other words, no need to export the result to another program. The only time you’ll actually need to produce a JPEG or TIFF from RAW file in these programs is when sending to somebody else or when putting something out on the web.

On top of this, Aperture allows you multiple versions of a RAW file. All that is stored then is a set of instructions about how to manipulate the RAW file. A few K per version. Very nice.

I used to do the whole import into RAW converter, manipulate, convert, export, import into image manager, tag, etc. thing. It is amazing how much easier and faster this process becomes with Lightroom or Aperture.

These kinds of apps are the future of photography. Every RAW converter out there that doesn’t take this on as a major new feature for their next release will quickly find themselves obsolete (Are you listening Phase One?).

May 18, 03h

The DAM Book (Peter Krogh) did a lot for me, adressing the workflow and archiving questions.
Working in RAW is superior (and letting the LAB color space work for you, too!).

Miren says:
May 18, 07h

Another The DAM Book enthusiast here. I have only read through the comments very quickly, but haven’t found any reference to the DNG file format (, which quite solves the proprietary-raw-format issue as I see it — besides, it handles metadata more conveniently for me, with no sidecar files.

Neal says:
May 18, 11h

I love RAW. I have a Nikon D70s and I have been taking RAW shots for a couple of months. I use the Adobe CS2 workflow and use Nikon Picture Project just to get the .NEF files off my card since it can thumbnail quickly, saving time selecting the wheat from the chaff and getting rid of photos that are just plain wrong quickly. I also forget to format my card sometimes, so having to wade through lots of old images (which something like Picassa makes you do) is annoying. Of course I could just copy the files directly off the card, but I don’t.

My absolute, most favourite, trick since I mostly take urban shots, is to take a photo with a lot of reflections from various glass windows, such as among a couple of skyscrapers and walk-over passes, and boost the saturation to maximum, tweak the contrast, and balance the exposure and shadows. Some really amazing colours appear (and look natural too…)

I am also having difficulty with the ‘what you see in Photoshop is not what you see in Flickr’ problem. I hope to someday conquer that one.

Tom Passin says:
May 18, 13h

Seb said

“There is absolutely no reason to think the JPG can not look like the finished RAW file. “

Well, yes, there is. With the jpeg file, the camera has already applied the corrections it thinks are called for. You can’t back them out if they are not right for the particular picture. Depending on your taste and ability to detect differences, and on the camera, and on the kind of picture, maybe a lot of the shots look pretty good out of the camera as jpeg. The rest don’t.

The camera tries to guess on the white balance, the exposure, the amount of sharpening, the tone adjustments, etc. After the camera’s processing, there has been a permanent loss of information. You can’t go back to try again, it’s like developing a negative and then wishing you had done it differently.

In my experience, the most valuable thngs about raw processing are

1) The ability to adust the overall exposure .5, 1, sometimes even 2 stops.

2) The ability to adjust the white balance to suit the light and the scene.

3) The ability to create a custom curve to control the highlights or shadows better. Yes, you can do that with a jpeg, but you are more limited in what you can accomplish.

4) The ability to sharpen the picture as I want it (I do this after performing raw processing) rather than living with what the camera guesses I want.

5) Adjustment of the saturation has been less important for me personally, but sometimes it is handy.

In addition, the raw data contains more bits for each pixel, so round-off math errors are much less of a problem. You are less likely to get contours and color artifacts if you do a lot of manipulation or have to adjust very dark areas.

I care a lot about the quality of each picture, and using raw is the only I can get it. But if you are interested in taking snapshots to remember events by, jpeg will generally be just fine.

I do my raw processing using Capture One (Light Edition), and I’m very happy with it. It takes me usually no more than a few minutes per picture for raw processing, including choosing which ones to process further.

If you are thinking about trying raw processing, remember that some cameras produce unneccesarily large raw files. My two 6 Megapixel cameras produce raw files about 7 MB in size.

Also, the raw software supplied with many cameras is horrible to use, and in may cases, often doesn’t even give you good pictures. Use Adobe Camera Raw (works in Elements), Capture One (I reccommend it hightly), or one of the other widely reviewed and praised raw processors.

Seb says:
May 18, 15h


I get the feeling you are misunderstanding me. I am not attacking RAW. The example given in the original article simply made JPEG look much worse than it should.

“The camera tries to guess on the white balance, the exposure, the amount of sharpening, the tone adjustments, etc.” -Tom

Cameras can be set to guess, mine don’t get that benefit of the doubt. I shoot thousands of images per month for publication and for pleasure, all on manual settings. I understand the tools of my trade inside and out. And frankly, the difference between JPG and RAW in the hands of someone with enough experience is very slim. Much slimmer than is made apparent here. RAW will always win out in the end for the very reasons you mention, but my original point was that it’s not nearly as bad as is shown.

“But if you are interested in taking snapshots to remember events by, jpeg will generally be just fine.” -Tom

JPG’s also fine for 20x30 inch fine-art prints. :) Most images end up being printed by pro labs at 8-bit in sRGB color. Wether it’s color processing from RAW or by getting a really good JPG in the camera to begin with, in the end all that extra data is lost. RAW is great for having better control during the processing, once again for all the reasons you mention. But to say that all out RAW is in every way superior to JPG and that shooting in anything else is only for snapshots is a bit off the mark I believe.

Going slightly off topic here, it should never, ever, be RAW versus JPG. It’s RAW and JPG. Both formats exist for a reason, they are both used daily by millions of shooters, and there are very, very good reasons for the use of either. Coming from shooting slides I don’t use RAW as a crutch, and I am not willing to put down JPG as inferior, even though technically it is. In the real world, they are used equally and interchangeably. To get the most out of a high-end camera, and out of photography, all formats and methods need to be learned and explored. I’d rather have a technically inferior JPG file of an important moment than have no shot because my camera was writing the RAW files to the card. Everything is a trade off.

And in the end, if you made a print from a well-made JPG and from a RAW, there is simply no way you could tell the original source. And ultimately, that is the one and only thing that matters. :)

May 18, 16h

Something interesting came to me from my dad: Nikon’s and Canon’s RAW formats are quite different, though for most people the differences aren’t too important. But he’s an astrophotographer, and the problem is that Nikon tries to “de-noise” their NEF (RAW) format inside their cameras during long exposures.

Astrophotography requires very long exposures (sometimes hours) of very faint subjects that can be difficult to distinguish from noise. His colleagues often take a cap-on “black” exposure and then digitally subtract that from an actual image in order to tease out the sky objects from the noise.

The problem, of course, is that Nikon’s non-deactivatable NEF de-noising ruins that process. As a consequence, he bought a Canon Digital Rebel XT even though I have a bunch of nice 35 mm Nikon lenses. So consider what you need to do with your RAW images when deciding which one to get.

More here:

Nicolas says:
May 18, 17h

2 words: white balance.

One of the BIGGEST reasons for using raw, apart from the much better dynamic range.


(1) Switch to JPEG.
(2) In the evening, set your white balance to “tungsten” because you need to take a few shots indoors.
(3) Spend the next day shooting a once-in-a-lifetime outdoors event.
(4) Transfer your photos to your computer.
(5) Scream with horror when you realize that all your shots have a strong blue cast, because you forgot to reset your white balance settings.
(6) Sob bitterly and switch back to RAW.

Olav says:
May 19, 00h

Thanks for the tip, I’ll be sure to try out RAW.

Tony says:
May 19, 06h

My Nikon D50 has a “Long Exposure NR” menu item that can be set to ON or OFF. See this page on Digital Photography Review:

Marty says:
May 19, 07h

I’ve been shooting raw since I got my Nikon D70, and have never looked back. As long as you have a good 2GB+ in cards, you’ll be set for most outings (well, day-long at least). As for processing, I’ve found that there are a lot of good programs out there, but as I’m a PC person (for now), I’m not sure how much help this will be.

Raw Shooter ( does a good job but I’m not a huge fan of the interface; however, my wife loves it. I prefer Adobe PhotoShop CS2 + Adobe Camera RAW, although I understand the limitations (imperfect processing). DXO Labs ( also makes some great software. I would also consider getting Noiseware or Noise Ninja noise reduction software - it’s been a life-saver on a few occasions where the D70’s higher ISO (400+) noise gets out of hand.

Hope that helps.

May 19, 13h

Tony, apparently it’s not just the long exposure NR that’s the issue. There is some processing in generating the NEF file that can only be deactivated if you SHUT OFF THE CAMERA before it’s finished processing the shot.

Really. There’s a big discussion here:

Near the bottom:

“…the RAW format is not really raw (with noise reduction mode either ON or OFF). Images are filtered, which is very detrimental in the case of astronomy images then stellar images are point like.”

(Translated from French, so the phrasing is a little odd.)

May 19, 15h

Wow, thanks for the write-up. I never really thought about what “RAW” was, but that was interesting!

May 21, 04h

Thanks for the article, ive never checked out RAW in any real depth before but I’ll certainly give it a go.

May 21, 05h

Thanks for the suggestion - will certainly look into it.

I have to say, though, that the illustrative images posted don’t look necessarily fair - the brightness on the middle JPEG is far higher than on the raw image.

What would be more interesting is a corresponding balance between the JPG and raw so the JPG didn’t look like it was set up for a fall.

May 21, 10h

You mentioned saturation boosting in your article (I’ll leave the raw/jpeg discussion with comment at the bottom).

Boosting saturation in rgb mode affects colours (I don’t quite know why but it does). If you want to boost saturation without affecting colours, convert to lab colour mode (intensity and two colour channels) and then ‘compress’ the curves or levels settings for the a and b colour channels. ( or use

Or alternatively get alien skin exposure plug in which does a fantastic job of emulating lots of different films types (velvia being the one that boost saturation so wel).


p.s. If you can get ‘everything’ right in camera then you don’t need to use RAW. Just think about the fact that even Ansel Adams didn’t get everything right in camera!

Agnes says:
May 22, 06h

Very informative article! I tried to shoot some photos in RAW format a few months ago when famous buildings all over my city were illuminated by blue light at night. So I figured I’d test how this format can be useful but I never really cared about what you can do with it. Other then a larger filesize I didn’t notice anything else but I definatly will compare how the effects are when you actually work with both formats.


May 23, 08h

Great article - and lots of interesting comments.

For sure I’m shooting in RAW now, especially after realising how easy it is to apply a RAW setting to other images taken under the same conditions.

Tony Lindkold - Lindkold Webdesign

May 23, 08h

There’s a neat review of Aperture 1.1 linked below, which shows how it compares to version 1.0, Capture One Pro 3.7.4 and Lightroom Beta 2. It’s surprising how each gives different results when converting from RAW.

I also found this critical point made in the review, which is something we should all bear in mind:

“All RAW image converters do prefiltering and their own interpretation since that is how RAW works; it is raw camera sensor data that has to be interpreted to produce an RGB image.”

So RAW isn’t quite as raw as you might think.

Ritch says:
May 24, 02h

For those working with the limitations of storage space in the field/on the road, have you considered an iPod or equivalent? I use relatively small cards and when they are full, transfer the photos to my iPod, wipe the card, and continue. My iPod isn’t that new anymore, but 40GB of storage on it makes for more than enough storage. When I finally get back home, I can transfer all the photos to my computer from the iPod. Easy.

May 24, 21h

I started using RAW formats after reading a few articles such as this one on its benefits. Being photoshop challenged, I haven’t made the best use of editing the RAW files yet.

But I’m looking forward to doing much more with my photos than the other alternative that my camera offered - lossy jpegs.

nivid says:
May 25, 02h

very interesting article, i am using raw on Nikon D70s and the now Nikon D50, it gives me lot more options for doing “darkroom” work, it gives me the full control over details, before going for raw get a lot of memory and fast computer…you will need both..:)

May 25, 18h

It’s a good idea to convert your RAW files to Adobe’s digital negative format as part of your workflow:

May 26, 12h

The article and comments are both tops here, but despite being an intermediate PS user, I’m still looking to improve my skills with RAW-images.

Using Adobe’s raw converter to edit my pics, I miss a really good tutorial/link to make me understand how I get the most out of a RAW-image.


Tony Lindkold - Lindkold Webdesign

May 26, 20h

This theory just doesn’t make any sense. The only difference between a RAW file and a JPEG is that the JPEG has compression. JPEGs do not alter the colors in the image in any fundamental way, certainly not as radically as the examples above suggest. All JPEG compression does is mess around with tiny clusters of pixels to make them easier to compress.

What may be happening here is something different. It may be that, in some cameras, the JPEG setting does something in addition to compressing the image, some sort of generalized color correction. Or maybe, as some posters above have suggested, and as I suspect is likely the case, switching between JPEG and RAW in some cameras causes some of these settings, in particular the white balance, to change in the camera itself. When you then pull the images off the camera, they are already fundamentally different – not because of the JPEG compression applied to the image, but because of the other settings that you may not know occurred in the camera at the time you snapped the photo.

The overall histogram of a RAW versus a JPEG image should be no different at all, effectively. To illustrate this, instead of comparing two images taken by different settings in an idiosyncratic camera, compare two identical images strictly in photoshop. Do this:

1) Open a RAW image into photoshop and save a copy as a JPEG. Save at crappy 50% quality if you like, it won’t affect the experiment.
2) Re-open both images in Photoshop.
3) Do all the level and image adjustments you want on both images, applying the same changes to each.

You should see both images will change identically. The only difference will be visible at the extremely-close pixel level. It will be nothing like the images posted above.

Dave S. says:
May 27, 20h

Christopher Fahey – wrong, wrong, wrong. The difference between RAW and JPG is 4 bits per colour channel, give or take. 8 bits = 256 levels of red. 12 bits = 4096 levels of red. That’s *16 TIMES* as much colour information.

Your example experiment WILL end up with almost the result you expect, but for reasons different from what you describe, and reasons you clearly don’t understand. I’d strongly suggest you RTFM. (I even linked a book in the original article.)

May 28, 08h

Good point about the color. 12 bits is indeed a lot more color information. But those additional colors are nestled in between the other colors and wouldn’t cause any noticable image-wide differences, nor would it affect the histogram radically. This difference would only manifest itself as posterization artifacts.

I just read the Wikipedia article you linked to, and it appears to my novice eyes that I am correct: the JPEG setting in a typical digital camera doesn’t just compress the image, but it also adjusts the “white balance, color saturation, contrast, and sharpness that are either selected automatically or entered by the photographer before taking the picture”. These adjustments are not part of the specification for JPEG compression (which is why these adjustments would not happen when you convert RAW to JPEG in Photoshop), they are merely user-friendly features in the digital camera’s software. There’s more on this additional in-camera processing here:

I’ll admit that I don’t know a lot about digital cameras, but I do know a lot about digital images on the desktop. I was merely trying to make a distinction between JPEG files in general and JPEG files as produced by digital cameras, a distinction you didn’t make and which was pretty confusing to me (until I read the links above). It’s important, I think, to understand that JPEGs themselves aren’t at fault, but rather it’s the camera’s “helpful” software doing some image manipulation in addition to the JPEG compression.

May 28, 08h

I just wanted to add that, thanks to you, I intend to do some RAW experiments right away. I spend a lot of time adjusting my images in Photoshop anyway. If the camera’s “JPEG” image adjustments happen to destroy some critical color information, it would clearly be better to have a RAW image than a JPEG when I’m messing around in Photoshop.

Alberto says:
May 29, 21h

Mr. Shea, what camera are you currently sporting? Could it possibly be the current favorite Canon Digital Rebel XT?

Chris Campbell says:
May 31, 07h

Just to clarify a bit. What usually happens in camera when shooting a jpeg is, one end or both ends of your histogram can be clipped (low-key images should be fine) by the onboard processor. In this case, in postproduction the extremes of your data are lost and hinder your ability to make corrections when compared with shooting Raw. I think it can be viewed as gaining half a stop when shooting Raw. For best Raw processing shot to the right!

Beth says:
May 31, 08h

To fix the color profile problem, when opening your raw file in photoshop be sure to convert to sRGB before saving for web. Be sure to check off ICC profile, it embeds the color space. Otherwise, the colors will be off.

Dave S. says:
May 31, 10h

Christopher Fahey - You have a few correct guesses (ie. extra colour levels not being perceived in the image) but you’re coming to the wrong conclusions. It’s all about the post-processing adjustment possibilities. I don’t really have the inclination to get into a protracted debate about this though. There are books that can help you make more sense of it, so I’ll leave the technical description to the pros.

Alberto - Canon 20D.

June 01, 05h

What am I wrong about? My “wrong conclusions” are simply that when you set your digital camera to JPEG mode it does other things to your images besides simply compressing them (essentially, as you say, “limiting your post processing adjustment possibilities”, which I do not dispute).

I, too, don’t want to get into a protracted debate, but it’s a little annoying to be condescended to about having “wrong conclusions” (even telling me to go read a book!) without you even giving a little hint about what you think I’m wrong about.

I’m sorry for setting a negative tone when I wrote “This theory just doesn’t make any sense.” I really simply meant “It doesn’t make sense *to me*”, and I’m sorry if I thus inadvertantly set myself up as someone worthy of condescension. If you read my post again, I feel confident you’ll say to yourself “Oh, wait a minute, Chris isn’t even disagreeing with me.” Because I wasn’t.

Dave S. says:
June 01, 10h

I’ve mainly been replying so other people don’t run across your uncontested comments, but not to fill in your knowledge gaps. When you add two comments in a row that posit (fully testable/verifiable) theories that are so far off base, it appears to me you’ll contest any further points I put out there. That makes it less worthwhile for me to respond.

Since you’re specifically asking why you’re wrong, here are two things.

1) A JPG produced by any digital camera is just the same as any other JPG. The processing you’re speculating on is done by an in-camera logic chip. All digital cameras do this, to enhance the quality of the image. The processing *isn’t being performed on the JPG itself*; the processing is applied to the raw camera image data, and *then* saved out as a JPG. The final result is a plain vanilla JPG. But real, usable image data has been thrown out to get to that point. This is the reason for raw - very little processing occurs on raw files, almost to the point of being negligible. Plus you get 4 extra bits of colour per channel.

2) Your theories revolve around the histogram, but that’s too late in the workflow to make the comparison. Raw images have to be stepped down to 8 bit colour to load in Photoshop. (Though you could work with 16 bit colour if you wanted) It’s the work you do when converting the image that makes raw shine. When I said it’s “all about the post-processing adjustment possibilities,” that’s what I meant. You really need to learn more about this to understand raw. Load a raw image in Photoshop CS2. The dialogue that pops up is Photoshop’s Camera Raw tool. There are books about this tool. That’s your starting point.

I’m not sure why it’s such an offense to recommend you read a book, given that all of this is well-documented within? I even gave you the title.

June 01, 12h

1) I didn’t say anything inconsistent with that.
2) I didn’t say anything inconsistent with that, either.

You say I’m wrong, but I look at what I wrote and what you’ve said in response and I just don’t see where I said anything that you disagree with: When a camera creates a JPEG, it effectively mucks around with the image’s histogram to the point where color information is lost permanently, “When you then pull the images off the camera, they are already fundamentally different” (as I said), and “limiting your post-processing adjustment possibilities” (as you said). Where’s the wrongness? What words did I write that were wrong (besides “This theory doesn’t make any sense”, which I have apologized for)?

For example, whether the additional processing is done before or after JPEG compression isn’t a point of contention (and in any event I never theorized either way). You’re arguing against things I didn’t say or mean, and you’re arguing against things I said that are the same as what you said.

The only part I added, which I thought would be helpful to this whole discussion, is that JPEG compression as performed by Photoshop does *not* damage the photo’s histogram (as opposed to as performed by a camera, which throws in the extra image adjustments before the compression). Again, I thought it seemed that someone might come away from your original post with the impression that the JPEG format in general was radically damaging to photo histograms, when in fact it’s only the JPEG photos produced by digital cameras that do this. Although you didn’t make this distinction, I know that that’s what you meant, and I know that you know this stuff, and I never meant to suggest that you were “wrong” about anything (except for about me being wrong).

Dave S. says:
June 01, 13h

Clearly we’re not communicating our resepective points to each other, so I apologize for calling you wrong when perhaps it was simply my understanding of what you were trying to say that was wrong. In any event, that’s where I’ll leave it.

bboy says:
June 02, 14h

This forum is an impressive one - and I’m hoping to get some advice from anyone kind enough to share.

I’m a fashion photographer new to the digital world who recently purchased and have begun working with a Canon eos1 ds Mark 11. Since purchasing the camera, I have shot only in jpegs because i have always feared that im not going to be able to shoot as fast or as much as i need or want (i currently have a 4gb memory card - which allows me to shoot roughly 480 highest quality jpegs).

Do you guys think that shooting RAW would prohibit me from producing the amount of shots necessary at the speed that a fashion shoot demands? or – is raw the way i should go?

And if so - what is the overall feelings of the new aperture 1.1 in terms the system to download (over, say - one of canon’s teathering devices)?

sorry if i sound somewhat green with all of this – truth is, i am (long time pentax 6x7 guy…) so – any advice, thoughts would be greatly appreciated.

June 07, 11h

bboy - if you were really a pro fashion photographer, you would know by now that shooting JPG is a big mistake. No moron whose income depends on the quality of their images would shoot in JPG. I should know. I worked on the original version of Photoshop, still work for Adobe, and talk to pro photographers all day long. If you want to keep shooting in JPG, maybe you should really give up photography and go back to milking goats in Croatia.

bboy says:
June 07, 14h

andrei -

thanks for being so supportive. i really appreciate your helpful, not to mention thoughtful response. I never claimed to be a big pro - was just looking for some friendly advice…looks like that was asking for too much though.

N says:
June 08, 06h

There’s an interesting article on the Adobe Camera Raw webpage title ‘Understanding digital raw capture’ - (100kb PDF

.Kate. says:
June 14, 19h

I am sure it would be great to shot in raw format… but… for me… it’s tough… I sometimes took over 300 pictures in a single day.

Thank you for this article, it’s clear and knowledable. PS: Your site is designed very neat as well…nice job. :)

emrom says:
June 15, 03h

It’s not great design but worth a read; it opened up my mind…

I’ve shooted RAW for 5 years now, since Canon D30 (not 30D) and think Ken got some good issues.

Mike says:
June 21, 06h

Enjoyed the article Dave - very clearly stated and illustrated. I’ve been shooting RAW for about three years now and haven’t had a single regret - although I agree strongly that there needs to be a standard.

One point I’ll add, especially to those who are mostly concerned with the storage space required by RAW files, is to condition yourself (in your digital workflow) to throw out images that don’t meet your expectations. This sounds like a very simple concept, but it’s a little tougher than one might expect. Who out there doesn’t have a drawer full of really badly composed or blurry prints they kept over the years, simply because you had them printed?

I’ve been shooting professionally for several years and it’s honestly been one of the harder things I’ve had to condition myself to do. I come back after a shoot with several hundred images to process. It’s imperative that I weed out the shots that aren’t keepers - for time savings alone. And I’ll typically shoot ten shots of the same bird / scene, especially if I’m bracketing - but generally only one of the ten (if I’m lucky) is worth keeping.

With the ease of shooting digital, it’s all too simple to find yourself with a hard drive full of marginal photos - with a sprinkling of true keepers. Before long, the sheer numbers of files can get out of hand quickly. Trust me, you’ll thank yourself later. My 2 cents.

Warren says:
July 02, 00h

bboy - ignore Andrei his bark is worse then his bite, he apparently is still stuck in the 90’s mode of if I put you down I feel better about myself - just read any of the DesignByFire stuff and you get the same crap.

To help answer your question - yes you will have a slowdown in image capture shooting raw, and you will have added “darkoom” time for post processing. Your camera specs should tell you what to expect for JPEG and RAW burst and continuous shooting modes - which you can then make a comparison on for whether it will be fast enough.

One way to help the speed is to use CF cards (I think is what your camera uses) with the fastest write capability - something like Lexars 12MB/sec card which they call Pro or Platinum.

No matter what “some people” like to believe, there is no hard and fast rule that says you must use RAW to get good results. If the JPEGs are working for you and you get the results you need then you are good to go. If however you find that you need more flexability and want more control over the final image then RAW is definately worth the time to learn.

Hope that helps.

Paul Solecki says:
July 04, 07h

Excellent write-up and lots of great comments from people :)

I recently just purchased a Canon PowerShot S60. I’m not a power user and never will be and just don’t have the inclination to cart a digital SLR around with me.

Seeing the stuff that came out of my dad’s S60 and what it looks like when printed with a proper printer is simply awesome.

The time has come to retire my aging PowerShot A70 and get into photography more. I’ll be shooting in RAW all the time.

It’s interesting that Canon have removed RAW fro their latest PowerShot, the S80!

Paul Solecki says:
July 04, 07h

Sorry just a quick message for those that use Windows…..MS have a RAW camera image format PowerToy available for Windows XP that’s a free download from their website.

July 10, 08h

Interesting article about removing noise and other effects from RAW files:

BTW, I see there are at least two compacts that now take RAW images! (The Fuji E900 is one of them I think.) So you don’t necessarily need to buy an SLR.

August 03, 03h

This is interesting forum, and I would like add my experience.
I have Canon 300D and couple of lenses (18-55mm, 28-135mm IS, 50mm 1.8) and flash 550EX. So I have very modest equipment.
In the beginning I used JPEG in max resolution and I was delighted with quality I got. I didn’t even know what RAW is except that it is similar to TIFF format and it holds every byte from the sensor. I tried it, in the early beginning, and when I converted with Canon converter to JPEG and compared magnified part of image I couldn’t justify taking shoots in RAW.
After some time I started using manual settings for white balance, using predefined factory settings. This was fine but I realized that there must be something more so I tried full manual white balance using cheap gray card. This was my first step into proper digital photography. Difference was amazing!!!!!!!!
Surfing the Internet I started to read more and more about RAW format and comparison with film negative. So I took a series of shoots, still using gray card, and I downloaded some demo RAW software.
After only couple of hours of playing I realized what difference it makes when I use RAW format:
1. Adjustable white balance
2. +/- AV
3. Sharpening
4. etc.
From that moment until now I don’t use Photoshop at all to adjust my photos, as everything can be done in RAW conversion including cropping. As I shoot mostly concerts and events in low light conditions, taking a lot of photos, fixing each JPEG photo in Photoshop takes so much time and not so good result (levels, contrast etc), but from RAW it is so fast and accurate that I am delighted.
Not going into some discussion about RAW converters I found Capture Pro very convenient, especially feature which allows applying settings from one photo to all selected in click of the button. I played with Bibble Pro as well, and it does have some interesting features, so I use it for “one off” photos.
I will never go back to JPEG in my dreams, and I treat RAW like negative in the same manner I done in past in dark room.
There is one more point which makes me feel good about it:
Thank you for reading this,

August 09, 15h

I didn’t try it for real (my cameras doen’t save RAW files –yet), but I liked the easy to understand chapter about camera RAW from Scott Kelby’s book: The Photoshop CS2 Book for Digital Photographers (Voices That Matter).

September 11, 11h

As I have gotten to know Photoshop, it’s been a fantastic tool for image post-processing, and I haven’t seen a RAW-converter that has made me change from Adobe’s ACR converter.
That wasn’t untill I saw and tried out Aperture. For me it’s worth a try.
But I’m not going to switch from PC to Mac - so has anyone heard if/when we will see Aperture for PC?


tomek says:
September 28, 01h

Something interesting came to me from my dad: Nikon’s and Canon’s RAW formats are quite different, though for most people the differences aren’t too important. But he’s an astrophotographer, and the problem is that Nikon tries to “de-noise” their NEF (RAW) format inside their cameras during long exposures.

Astrophotography requires very long exposures (sometimes hours) of very faint subjects that can be difficult to distinguish from noise. His colleagues often take a cap-on “black” exposure and then digitally subtract that from an actual image in order to tease out the sky objects from the noise.

The problem, of course, is that Nikon’s non-deactivatable NEF de-noising ruins that process. As a consequence, he bought a Canon Digital Rebel XT even though I have a bunch of nice 35 mm Nikon lenses. So consider what you need to do with your RAW images when deciding which one to get.

October 06, 12h

The great thing is one can shot several images and bracket exposure, and then combine them into HDR image ( to later post process. Even panos can be done this way.