Many new DSLR users automatically set the camera to JPEG. There is a beguiling simplicity and draw to that. There is a basic familiarity with JPEG files. The are small and fast and easy to handle on the internet. We are used to using and looking at JPEG files on the web, and they generally look great on screen. There are some very talented photographers who are getting great, large print results using JPEG. Consequently, I often see a great reticence to shoot using RAW. It is unfamiliar. It is “hard.” It takes additional software and post-processing takes time and effort. People want an “out-of-the box result”. But in my admittedly opinionated view, they are missing the boat.
The very reason to “move up” to a DSLR format is to gain control over our photography–to move from “taking” snapshots, to “making” photographic imagery. So here are some reasons why I shoot raw, and why I do not use any in-camera enhancements to the digital image.
So lets look at some of the reasons I shoot only with raw.
I Like Control
When I get a new DSLR, the first thing I do is go into the menu and set almost all my in-camera settings to off. The last thing I want is for my camera to do “my thinking” for me.
I can remember a couple of outings early on, with a buddy who had his set to the defaults. When we would download our stuff, mine would like disappointingly dull and his would look pretty darn good. I would get this horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach. Was his camera better? Was he just better at judging exposure?
Thankfully, the answer was no. What I was looking at was just much closer to the pure, unadulterated, digital data. His camera had already manipulated the data–mine had not. After some post-processing, my stuff would look at least as good as his, and often better, because I had control of the process.
In the same light, I (almost) always shoot using the Camera’s native RAW format. I do this for the same reason–I want control. The raw data is as close to the pure, captured digital data as I can get. From there, I can control the processing of the image to the greatest possible extent. Current DSLR camera bodies capture raw images at 12 bits, giving 2048 levels of data as opposed to the 255 levels available in an 8-bit JPEG image. Thats a lot of bits and bytes to toss away (and that’s exactly what your DSLR’s in-camera software is doing–throwing them away. I want that leeway in post processing of images–or control.
There are other reasons to shoot RAW
When I shoot RAW, using the “Expose Right” histogram technique (See, Expose Right To Expose Correctly), I get exposure correct 99.99% of the time. I don’t worry about my metering technique being imprecise, or wait to see the print or image on my computer to see whether my result came out. I know that by using this technique, I have captured the maximum available digital data to make the most from my resulting images. Don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting that you dispense with good fundamental skills, like metering technique. A sound foundation and proper habits are imporant. But I am suggesting that with the use of raw images and the “expose right” technique, I need no longer worry about the result, because of the digital tools for exposing correctly and checking the result immediately.
When I shoot raw, there are a a number of other settings and adjustments that other photographers worry about that just don’t matter! In most cases, I don’t need to even think about White Balance. I leave the setting on automatic most of the time. I know this seems inconsistent with my usual soapbox and the theme of this piece, but I really am not giving up any control by doing this–because I can change, or set the desired white balance after-the-fact, in post-processing in the raw converter software. So, maybe the camera gets it right, maybe it doesn’t. I don’t care, because I know I can deal with it later. In my mind, the less technical stuff you have to think about in the field, the more you can focus your mind on the aesthetic part–the part photography is really all about.
Shooting raw also absolves me from any responsibility for setting the Color Space, sharpening, and whether the image is “vivid” or “flat.” It just doesn’t matter, because all those things are really post-processing items anyway–and in my view can be done much better in Photoshop that in the in-camera software. It is just a choice about whether you are going to let the camera automatically do it (loss of control–the camera “thinks” for you) or do it yourself in a more powerful and less destructive editing program.
Are there Drawbacks?
Of course. Aren’t there always? But the benefits of raw so far outweigh the drawbacks, that they are really non-starters.
Photography is art. Part of its draw is that there is creativity, and yes–effort–involved. The DSLR and more advanced camera is not intended as a point and shoot camera. So, enjoy the journey. It is part of the reward.
RAW files are substantially larger files than JPEG files. This means you will need more computing power and more disk space to work with them and to archive them. It also means you may need some patience because some processes will take longer. There is a learning curve to using raw files. They require a conversion software (now part of Photoshop) and more steps from capture to the final process.
We live in an “instant” society. Take a quick shot, upload it and you are done. Is that really what the art of photography is really about? Not all that many years ago, we thought little of taking a roll of film, mailing it out to the processor and patiently waiting for the slides (or prints) to return. Today, a raw file is much more akin to that negative or transparency, allowing us to make multiple prints, and, in the (digital) darkroom, multiple interpretations. The quick and easy JPEG is much more limited in that quality.
So take the leap to raw. Once you embrace all its benefits, it is unlikely you will ever look back!