The Raw Image Format

The Raw Image Format

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The raw image format is the closest file format to be considered the digital negative of digital photography cameras. This format contains the unprocessed (no sharpening, white balance, or other in-camera adjustments have been made) “raw” pixel information that comes straight from the camera’s sensor. Because raw files contain data that hasn’t been processed the files need to be post-processed outside the camera before they can be viewed.

Points to consider before shooting raw files

If raw files sound like something you may be interested in using as your preferred photo file format, then there are a few points that you should consider before making your decision. I will ask that you review each point to see if any of them can be a problem for you. I provide my feedback as for each point as well to help with the decision of choosing the raw image format.

Highest level of quality

As mentioned, raw files contain the unprocessed photo data captured by your camera’s sensor. The same information is processed by your camera to create the JPEG files that are the standard file format produced by cameras. When the data from the sensor is processed by the camera, some of the data is lost to produce the final result. With raw files you are able to access all the data from the sensor so you can process the raw file yourself, in the way you choose and the output the quality of file you wish.

To me, I do notice that I can produce a higher quality photo from a raw image than the JPEG file from my camera. With in-camera processing, I am relying on the engineers that created the camera to process my photos, but not all photos are created equally and I usually process photos differently depending on the subject. Which leads to my next point.

Total control over your photos

As a side point to the first point, working with the unprocessed, raw sensor data gives you complete control over how your photos are created. You will need to post-process the file in an application, that will allow you to process the raw file any way you wish, including making an adjustment that can be found in your camera, such as white balance or sharpening.

The negative to having total control is that you will need to install a photo editor that allows you to process raw files. Your camera should include software to process raw files, and there are a few on the market, with Adobe Lightroom being the most popular, that can edit raw files as well. It is important to note that not all photo editors can work with raw files.

The total control aspect of raw files is what I enjoy. As I discussed in the first point, I find that when I process the image files when I have total control, I find I can get better quality photos than what my camera can produce because I can fine-tune the white balance, contrast and sharpening aspects of each photo.

Proprietary format

The biggest disadvantage of the raw file format is that it isn’t standard. Each camera manufacturer tends to have their own format for raw files. This can cause issue because some photo editing software may not be compatible with specific raw formats. Camera manufacturers do include raw file editing software for their cameras that do support the raw image format, so you will always have an option.

There is a concern that photo editors may stop supporting older raw image formats, but so far that hasn’t happened, at least not much. I can still open raw files that were created back in 2002 without any issue. If the software that I use stopped supporting a particular raw format, I’m sure I would have enough time to either switch applications, or convert my raw files to another format, like DNG or TIFF.

Raw files are larger compared to JPEG files

The issue with raw files being larger than JPEG files isn’t as much of an issue these days. The low cost for large, multi-terabyte hard drives that are available today really makes the issue of larger raw files almost a moot point for storage. The real issue is ensuring your camera’s memory card is large enough, but even memory cards are low cost, as well.

You can’t easily share/view raw files

Most photo software can’t read raw files, mainly because of the proprietary, non-standard nature of the format. If you wish to show someone a photo you took, the photo would first need to be post-processed and saved as a more common photo format, such as JPEG.

Applications that can process raw files usually allow you to create a workflow to process your raw files quickly, and also save batches of raw files as JPEG files. Raw editing has come a long way the past few years, and I have been able to quickly process, save or export JPEG and then share the JPEG file anywhere.

Examples of raw image file processing

The best way to show why you may want to choose the raw format is with examples of different images. Below are three images with different issues that show you how much you can process a raw file.

Minor editing

If you can get many of the aspects of the photo correct in the camera, then the amount of processing you will need to perform on your raw files will probably be minimal. Below are two image that show the original raw file on the left, and the post-processed file on the right.

The Original Raw File

The Original Raw File

The Raw File After More Processing

The Raw File After More Processing

As you can see the original does look a little unsharp and seems to lack a little contrast. The highlights are blown out in the upper-right corner because of the bright daylight coming in from the window. This photo was taken in a building with no real light source except from the windows, so it was much darker compared to the outside. Other areas in the building that were lit from the daylight also are blown-out because of the brightness.

For the post-processed photo I recovered as many highlights I could, which did darken the photo somewhat, so I then re-opened the shadow areas to show more detail and then added contrast and sharpened the photo, which would have been done in-camera.

I did adjust the white balance in the camera, but I tend to like more warmer images, so with raw files I can adjust the white balance much more than I can with my camera.

Environmental issues editing

I didn’t really now what to call the heading of this example, but basically I am talking about pictures that are taken in an environment that doesn’t allow you to easily take great photos directly from the camera.

An example of this is shown in the original raw photos shown below on the left, and the process file on the right.

Raw File With Environmental Issue

Raw File With Environmental Issue

Raw File With Corrected Environmental Issue

Raw File With Corrected Environmental Issue

When the above photo was taken it was a raining, gray day at Niagara falls. In addition to the rain, the mist from the falls also impacted the photo. The white from the water in the air and the white boat caused the photo to be light with low contrast. In addition, this also caused some of the details, particularly with the boat, to be hidden. While the photo may depict the day accurately, I was looking for more details about the boat than the actual weather.

With the raw image format, I was able to decrease the highlights, decrease the shadow areas and then add contrast that greatly reduced the effect of the weather and mist on the photo. You can also clear see some of the smaller details in the photo, such as the birds flying around and even the name on the boat.

Of course, I didn’t have to go to such an extreme with the editing, but raw files allow me to go further than I could with a file already processed from the camera. In fact, the next example shows an issue that can happen with the wrong camera settings, that may be difficult if the file was not a raw file.

Major editing

In my last example, you will see how a raw file will allow you to completely change the aspect of a photograph. In my example you can see that the white balance setting in the camera was not set properly for the ambient lighting. This caused a clue color cast in the photo, one that could be difficult to remove if the photo was not saved as a raw file. The original raw file is shown on the left and the processed, white balance corrected photo is on the right.

Raw File With Major Color Cast Issue

Raw File With Major Color Cast Issue

Raw File With Corrected Color Cast

Raw File With Corrected Color Cast

As you can see, raw files allow you to change the white balance of a photo without reducing the quality of the photo. When you change the white balance of a raw file, you are essentially performing the same work that your camera would do, but you may have finer control over how you set the white balance.

You may find that you take photos that have the wrong white balance set, which can happen at times when you move from one place to another with different lighting sources and don’t remember to also change the white balance. There may also be times when capturing the moment is more important than getting everything right in the camera, and with raw files, you don’t always have to get everything right. Just capture the moment and correct it later.

Raw files are considered the “negative” in digital photography because of the unprocessed photo data that they contain. The raw image format provides the most flexibility for editing your photos compared to JPEG, so if you enjoy editing your photos, you can’t go wrong with the ram image format.


About the author

Paul Salmon

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When not annoying his family with taking photos, Paul is usually learning the art of photography is constantly looking to improve his photography skills. Outside of his interest in photography, he is a technology-junkie that enjoys learning and using various technologies.

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