There are almost as many different ways of creating image files as there are different styles of photography, but in almost every case the JPEG format is king. Most of the files you see or share online are stored in the JPEG format, and it strikes great balance of small file size and high quality image. You may even store your images from your camera in JPEG format, but hopefully after this post you’ll change your mind and move on to shooting RAW.

If you’re asking yourself what on earth shooting RAW means, never fear, it’s not a new extreme type of photography, and you don’t have to be naked. A raw file is a type of file that only DSLRs and some types of scanners generate, because it’s literally a raw dump of all the information from the image sensor.

Usually, when a camera (like that in your mobile) takes a picture, it automatically applies some processing to the resulting image information and saves it as a particular file type, usually a JPEG. Raw shooting skips that extra step, and preserves the information from the sensor with an absolute minimum of processing.

Any DSLR should be able to shoot RAW images, and you’ll be able to find the location buried somewhere in your camera’s settings menu. Before you start shooting RAW, though, there are few things that it will be helpful for you to know.

Huge RAW File Sizes

One of the reasons most cameras are set by default to save images in the JPEG format is that it keeps file sizes small, so you can keep shooting for longer. When you process an image to make it smaller, you usually lose some image quality. Raw files have no processing done to them whatsoever in-camera, so you’re going to discover that your RAW files are rather large, especially compared to a JPEG version of the same image.

Practically, this means that you’re probably going to need a bigger memory card. For a 10 megapixel camera, RAW files generally average somewhere between 8-10 megabytes per shot, but for a 24 megapixel camera, RAW files start to get quite large, often hitting 30 megabytes or more per image. On a 2 gigabyte memory card, that means you’ll probably be able to take about 65 pictures, hardly enough for a decent couple of hours of shooting.

Better Quality & Extra Control

Of course, there is a huge benefit to this increased file size: you get better quality images. If you shoot using the JPEG format, you’re allowing the camera to make some of the decisions about how your image turns out, which is something you should be doing! While it’s image processor is fine for capturing a day out with the family, when you probably want to fit as many images on the card as possible, it’s not nearly as good when it comes to any kind of fine art work.

If you want to get a bit more technical, one of the reasons RAW files are so much bigger is because they can actually capture a great deal more colour information than you’d normally get from a JPEG image. When you create a JPEG image, each pixel in the image has 3 numbers associated with it, one for each of the RGB colour channels. Those numbers can range from 0 to 255, which makes the JPEG an 8 bit image

Depending on your camera and your RAW settings, you may be able to capture a 14 bit RAW file, which means instead of 256 different shades of colour per channel, you can capture 16384 different shades. The difference is pretty clear in the numbers, even if your eye (or your monitor) may not be equipped to notice the difference.

But that’s not all you can do once you’re shooting in RAW. Because image characteristics like white balance and colour tints are usually determined by your camera settings, they’re not fixed in a RAW file the way they are in a JPEG file. This means that once you open your RAW file in your editor of choice, you can easily change the white balance and a number of other settings without having to actually alter the image data in any way. All you’re really doing is changing the way that your image editor interprets the data from the RAW file.

This is no doubt familiar to anyone who uses non-destructive editing techniques (which should be all of you, by now!), and it’s a great way to ensure you get the maximum quality and flexibility from your images. You did all the hard work to get a great shot, so make sure you give it the file format it deserves!

Workflow Changes

If you’re using Lightroom for most of your image processing, you’re in luck as Lightroom natively supports RAW files from virtually every major camera model. You won’t have to change your workflow at all!

If you’re using Photoshop, however, there’s an additional step required in order to work with RAW files. It’s not difficult at all, and Photoshop handles it automatically when you open a RAW file, as you can see below:

RAW

Depending on how you want to structure your workflow, it’s up to you whether or not you want to use the Camera RAW settings to adjust things like exposure, contrast and sharpening,

The key difference is that when you edit a RAW file, you can choose to have your settings saved in a separate file, known as an .XMP ‘sidecar’ file. Essentially, it’s a file that contains all the settings adjustments that you’ve made in Camera RAW. Lightroom does all this automatically and just neglects to mention it to you, but Photoshop lets you have a bit more explicit control over the situation.

A Last Word

The TLDR version of this post is that you should always be shooting in RAW files if you’re planning to do any kind of serious work with them at all. JPEG files are fine for casual situations where you want to fit as many pictures as possible into your memory card, but otherwise, it’s just better to shoot RAW.

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