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):
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.)