Before we go anywhere, we should answer the question, what is RAW. Well the word itself is the clue, put simply a RAW file is just the raw data from the sensor put into a readable file format. No adjustments of any kind are made to the image, it is purely a digital representation of the light that hit the sensor during exposure.
There used to be many arguments against using RAW in the early days of digital photography. It takes too much space, the post-production is complicated, will there be compatible software in 30 years? I don’t have big enough memory cards to use RAW. Many of these arguments will still be trotted out today so let’s dissect each one.
Too much space – hard drives today are not only cheap, but they are massive compared to just a few years ago.
Post production – well there is an array of image management programs out there now, all very capable of reading and adjusting RAW files. If you are on a Mac, you will already have some great-inbuilt software in iPhoto. Even Photoshop’s Raw program is a lot simpler than in days gone by.
Compatibility – well first you are making the assumption that either your camera manufacturer will go bust or stop supporting older formats. Both are unlikely but if they did occur, think about how many freeware programs that are out there running or emulating 20 year old software. If there is a need, someone will write the code.
Lastly memory cards – well it’s more or less the same response to hard drive.
So why should we use RAW? Put quite simply, its better. First and foremost, you will be able to attain the highest possible quality that your sensor can deliver. When you shoot JPEG, you camera makes all the adjustments based on your settings then applies them to a file that is then compressed. It’s a double whammy, the image is already manipulated then it is reduced in size.
With a RAW file, you make all the corrections in the post-production getting the image perfect before you save it as a JPEG. The latitude and dynamic range of a RAW file is significantly higher meaning if you are struggling with a difficult exposure you are more likely to be able to “save” the image in post.
You can also correct your own mistakes, have you ever returned home to find you have shoot the wrong white balance or wrong image size. RAW files do not apply white balance so you can be way off with the original camera settings yet return the image to perfect in post, and the image size is always the maximum dimensions of the sensor.
Because of the increased dynamic range of RAW files, it is possible create effective HDR images from a single file simply by post producing two or three different exposures from that single file.
One of the unsung hero’s of RAW files in my opinion is being able to control and protect your intellectual property. If you strictly control your RAW files, and only release into the public domain, JPEG’s or TIFFS, you have a very strong argument if you incur copyright infringements.
Whilst there are a few minor problems shooting RAW for instance, older cameras may slow down when shooting in burst mode, the pros far out weigh the cons. If you are looking for maximum quality and control over you images then RAW is the way to go.
Jason Row is a British born travel photographer now living in Ukraine. You can follow him on Facebook or visit his site, The Odessa Files. He also maintains a blog chronicling his exploits as an Expat in the former Soviet Union