The Advantages and Disadvantages of Shooting Raw

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You’ve seen it on the spec sheets for cameras you considered purchasing, you’ve read about it on one photography blog after another, and you’ve heard your photographer friends talk about it — shooting raw. But do you know what it is? What implications it has for your images, why it is important and whether you should be doing it?

Let's look into the advantages and disadvantages of shooting raw and come to a conclusion of whether you should be shooting raw or not! Before getting into the advantage and disadvantages, let us look at what is raw?

What Is Raw?

Raw is simply an uncompressed (or losslessly compressed) digital image file format; it’s often referred to as a digital negative because raw files themselves aren't typically used as finished images but contain all the data necessary for creating a polished, final image. This stands in contrast to jpeg (.jpg) format, which is a compressed, more or less finalized image file that has been stripped of a certain amount of information.

Furthermore, while jpeg is an acronym so designated in honor of its creators (the Joint Expert Photographic Group), raw is not an acronym despite the fact that we often see it misrepresented as such — it’s just “raw,” not RAW.

In raw images, no information is compressed or lost and hence you can produce high quality images out of them by making changes and corrections to desired values, whereas in jpegs, this will not be possible. Most cameras, even the point and shoot cameras have raw functionality and so there is no reason why you should not shoot raw.

Now that you have at least an abstract understanding of what raw format is, let’s take a look at why you should consider shooting raw.

Here Are The Advantages Of Shooting Raw:

The 12-/14-bit Advantage:

The 8-bit jpeg format can contain a maximum of 16 million colors (256 shades each of red, green, and blue). Not bad, I suppose. But 12-bit raw files can reproduce 68 billion colors and 14-bit raw files are capable of a staggering 4.3 trillion colors.

Beyond color reproduction, bit depth also has important implications for shadow and detail recovery; while the benefits of 14-bit files in comparison to 12-bit files seem rather modest for correctly exposed images, the greater bit depth plays a much more significant role when it comes to correcting extremely underexposed images without much reduction in quality.

Take Full Advantage of Dynamic Range:

Raw files record and retain all the information captured by the sensor; this takes maximum advantage of any given camera’s dynamic range capabilities — the ability to accurately record the subtle transitions between the lightest and darkest parts of a scene. This translates into properly exposed highlights and shadows that don’t lose detail.

Get Clean Images :

Since raw files are lossless/uncompressed files, they don’t exhibit any of the jpeg-related compression artefacts that can really distract from the aesthetic quality of an image. We always are looking to create the best quality images possible and when you let the camera do its own processing, that is convert the raw files to jpeg, there is a huge difference compared to you taking the time to post process your images using an application on a computer.

Adjust White Balance Easily:

When we shoot images, we choose a particular white balance or we set the white balance to auto. With jpeg images, the white balance is applied to the image and it is very difficult (almost impossible) if you need to make changes later when post processing. With raw images, you have a lot of information to play with and so it is easy to make adjustments on the file to get the original white balance on location.

Metadata Goes Along for the Ride:

Producing a raw file means that all the metadata (camera settings) for a specific shot are included with the file but are not permanently affixed as is the case with jpegs. While it’s definitely good practice to get exposure correct in-camera, shooting raw means that you will have the option to adjust exposure (and other settings) later in post processing software.

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Metadata by pmilg, on Flickr

Correct Lens Imperfections:

Things like chromatic aberration and barrel distortion are definitely unwanted characteristics of any photo, but are factors you have to be aware of since no lens is perfect and will likely impart some degree of distortion upon your image. Unless your camera corrects for this internally, a jpeg file will carry whatever imperfections are present when the image is recorded. A raw file, however, allows you to fix or minimize these problems.

Potential for Better Detail:

The sharpening and noise reduction processes available in image editing software is far superior to what’s done in-camera when jpegs are recorded. Working with a raw file in an external image editor will give you precise control over your image — you can achieve sharp, noise-free photos without sacrificing much in the way of overall image quality.

Note: The levels of brightness that is recorded in raw compared to jpeg is huge. This helps with letting you make adjustments to exposure, contrast, highlights, shadows, etc. without reducing the quality of the image.

Non-Destructive Editing:

Anything you do to a raw file (adjust exposure or white balance, increase contrast, correct lens aberrations, etc.) is non-destructive, meaning it leaves the original data intact and, instead, essentially creates a set of instructions for how the image should look when saved in a different format. This way you never have worry about ruining a file; if you make changes that you’re unhappy with, simply start over with the original image.

Making adjustments to jpeg file reduce the quality of the file each time some adjustments are made. This means, you need to make duplicate copies of the file each time a change is made which is not a convenient way of working.

px comparison raw file and after digital development in lightroom
Image by Norbert Nagel

Colour Space And Prints:

Raw files let you choose from any colour space when you export your files depending on the usage of the output file. You can export depending on whether you will be uploading to the web or printing etc. Each purpose or usage requires a different colour space and you can flexibly choose which one to export with.

When printing images created from raw files, you will see that the images are of high quality and so there will be a higher range of tones and colours, dynamic range in the final image which is important especially when printing large. Also banding and posterization that appears in jpeg images will be less or eliminated in images created by post processing raw files.

When Should You Shoot Raw?

We have seen above that there are a lot of advantages shooting raw. Raw files give you great flexibility over making all the adjustments required. If you are someone who does not shoot raw for some reason, here are some situations when shooting raw should be a priority:

  • When there is a huge dynamic range or the intensity of light has a huge difference in various parts of the scene. This can lead to blown highlights or darker shadows making it impossible to recover details if you shoot jpeg. Make sure you shoot raw under these conditions.
  • If you are unsure about the white balance and you are looking to make changes when post processing, then again you need to shoot raw if you need to adjust white balance later.
  • If you are planning to print your images large, then you need high quality output where colour reproduction, dynamic range, etc. are spot on. In this case, you will need to shoot raw for better output images.
  • Also if you are planning to make a lot of edits or other heavy post processing on your images, it is again advisable to shoot raw as you cannot do this with compressed jpeg images.

The upside of working with raw files is obviously undeniable as they produce professional grade images that have balanced colours with less flaws like banding, blown highlights, dark shadows, etc., but there are some potential “cons” that should be addressed as well.

And Here Are The disadvantages Of Shooting Raw:

File Size:

Raw files are significantly bigger than jpegs — sometimes 2 to 3 times bigger. This means you will be able to fit fewer files on your memory cards and hard drives. But storage devices are becoming ever cheaper, so having larger, higher quality files isn’t really a deal breaker. Also, remember, although you are spending more on storage, you are spending it for high quality files.

Also related to the larger file size, shooting raw will cause your camera’s buffer to fill up faster. It doesn’t affect burst speed itself, but when the buffer fills up you will have to wait for the camera to write to the memory card. But this problem can be overcome by using a faster memory card and using a camera with large buffer.

No Standardization:

Every camera manufacturer has their own protocols for how raw files are handled; Canon software can’t read Nikon raw files and Nikon software can’t read Canon raw files. These proprietary formats can, however, be converted to the open source DNG (Digital Negative) format, making your files (hopefully) future-proof and universally accessible.

The Need for Processing:

Raw files aren’t processed in-camera; you will typically want to adjust things like contrast, recovering shadows and highlights, colours, saturation, and sharpness, profile corrections, white balance and then convert the raw file into a more “viewable” format such as jpeg. All this will add more time to your workflow.

When Not To Shoot Raw?

There are some scenarios when you may not want to shoot raw. Here are some of them:

  • If you most of the time take snapshots of certain situations, then jpegs are enough as you will just be presenting the image straight out of camera.
  • Images that need to be quickly uploaded to the web or shared with friends or images that are taken as a quick shot to document something can be shot in jpeg.
  • There maybe situations when you will want to deliver the job for clients immediately after the shoot. In those cases, it is advisable to shoot jpegs as it will be the only easiest way to deliver images on location. But still, you can shoot raw + jpeg, so if better images are required for the same client in the future, you can always work on the raw files and deliver high quality images.

Conclusion:

The negatives — if you can call them that — of shooting raw are mightily outweighed by the positives. Of course, there are those who may need to shoot jpegs or prefer to shoot jpegs in certain scenarios, and that’s perfectly fine. You do whatever works best for you. But if you’re concerned with getting the very best quality out of your images and having the freedom and flexibility to revisit and change those images at a later date, then shooting raw is the way to go.

Further Resources:

About Author

Jason Little is a photographer, author and stock shooter. You can see Jason’s photography on his Website or his Instagram feed.

I’ve been shooting, almost exclusively in raw for about 9 years and I’ve found the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. When a photo is correctly shot there is very little post processing that needs to be done and the colors are definitely sharper.
Although my husband likes to reminds me that raw is a format, not a religion.

To use a SLR, but shoot in JPG is like using a bazooka to kill a canary.
My SLR hasn’t come off the RAW setting in years. JPG is for snapshots and for that I use my phone.

If I go to the bother of lugging the SLR, I’m going to get my 14 bits. So many times, I will never be there again, so every shot counts.

The idea of getting all my 14-bits is such a great point. I always shoot raw, but now I’ll always have your comment in mind too.

Anyone who is serious about photography should know by now that it is often necessary to process digital photos. Frequently, I find that in the heat of the moment (light and action are like that), snap (pun intended) decisions must be made without time to ensure that the correct settings of shutter speed, aperture and ISO have been made. This will often mean processing is needed to produce the photo you really wanted with as many elements in the photo shown at their subjective ‘best’. JPEG images are rarely capable of being processed in order to achieve the results desired. RAW images, on the other hand, can frequently be so processed. End of story.

Normally I use the jpeg/raw mode (D3100) but my jpeg files are larger than the raw files after processing and the resolution is also higher in jpeg 300ppi vs 270ppi and there are some grains visible after processing of raw files when enlarged to desktop size but there are no grains in jgeg files, I norally use 28-105 sigma 2.8-4 manual lens, may I get a suitable reply from the raw users?

I typically shoot RAW. However, after processing, I only keep the RAW file for 4 star and better images. Anything 3 star and less is converted to jpg and the RAW file deleted.

My reasoning is thus:
a. If the photo is sufficiently ordinary that it didn’t warrant 4 or 5 stars, then the chances are I won’t want to be fiddling about with it in the future. I usually keep 3 star and lower images for other reasons (ie record shots) and those can just as well be stored as jpgs
b. I know hard drive space is cheap these days, but nonetheless, why clog up my computer with unnecessarily large files of ordinary pictures.
c. Old RAW formats can go the way of the dinosaur and may not be readable by RAW engines of the future. I don’t caught out some day with a gazillion less than outstanding RAW images and no means of opening them.
d. Shifting RAW images to another DAM and RAW processor will result in the RAW edits being lost. Not a problem with jpgs. The fewer RAW images you have, the more manageable such a shift would be if, heaven forbid, you ever had/wanted to do it.

My advice, therefore, is to be selective about what is stored in the RAW format. It is not an all-in or all-out issue. Ask yourself, is this family snapshot the sort of image I am likely to want to refine later? If not, perhaps it may as well be converted to jpg.

thanks for the tips on raw vs jpeg, been wondering why my images are not as great as those i see from other photogrphers despite doing everything write! now is raw raw raw.

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