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Tip: Save Your Photos in Raw Format

Posted by Matt on September 10th, 2008 filed in Beginner Tips, Intermediate Tips, Photo Manipulation, Photo Storage, Taking Photos

Raw is an uncompressed digital image format used in professional and semi-professional digital cameras. Saving your images in raw format is the nearest equivalent in the digital world to shooting with film, maintaining all the information received by your camera’s sensor in digital format.

The main advantage of saving in raw format is that you have a higher quality image, with more flexibility to tweak and post-process to get exactly the effect you want. The downside is that a raw file takes up more space on your memory card – typically 2-3 times the size of a high quality JPG file of the same image dimensions. That may sound like a lot, but with the ever decreasing cost of memory cards it is not an issue you should worry about if you are even slightly serious about your photographs. Raw is the way to go, and did we mention that a higher quality image is not the only advantage? Yep, raw has a few more tricks up its sleeve.

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What can you do with a raw image?

One thing that’s a bit harder to understand about raw images is that they do literally store everything that is recorded by your camera’s sensor. This includes light information that you don’t normally see in an image, as the sensor works differently from your eye. So in storing this data in full you have the ability to post-process the image in many different ways, extracting information that might otherwise have been lost in a JPG.

What this means in effect is that you can play with things like exposure and highlights after you’ve taken the picture. Using a package such as Photoshop or Lightroom you can preview different versions of your image, and the software will use the information in your image to maintain the overall quality. The same functions are offered for JPG files, but in this case the software has less information to work on so it has to guess what is there rather than actually knowing. That can make a huge difference to the final image, and makes raw much closed to a film negative where you can make huge changes to the final image in the darkroom or when you develop the film itself. Plus, the advantage of a raw file is that you can do all these changes non-destructively, unlike with real film.

Different Camera Raw Files

Although all camera manufacturers use the word ‘raw’ to describe this image format, in fact each of them has their own version of the file format that they use. This can lead to some issues, especially when you have a newer digital camera and want to view the images using an older piece of software, as your version of the software may not include the necessary drivers for your camera. Normally most software companies release regular updates to correct this problem, but there may be a lag and this is something to be aware of. One situation that can cause problems is when you are using an older version of software that is no longer supported by the manufacturer – for example Photoshop CS2 rather than the current CS3 – in this case driver support may get left behind, caught by market forces that want you to upgrade at your own cost.

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When Shouldn’t You Use Raw?

In all honesty I believe you should always use raw format to save your digital images if your camera supports it, with the following exception; you are running low on memory card space and something unique is happening in front of you that you must take multiple photos of. Examples of this might be a news worthy event, or something of extreme personal value such as your child’s first sports win. In either case the better solution would be to have a spare memory card with you at all times, but sometimes we don’t always have that luxury.

One other possible exception to this rule is ‘note taking’ – when we use images to describe something rather than writing it down. Location scouts, real estate agents and other professionals who use cameras in this way don’t want to spend the time processing an image too much – so the advantages of raw might be a waste of time. One could argue in these days of automated digital photo processing software this should not be an issue, but I can understand why a company would not want to invest the time teaching its people a new skill that offers limited benefit to them.

Summary: Why Should You Use Raw?

Simply put – if you value your photos both as beautiful images and personal records then you should always use raw. The analogue film equivalent to using JPGs is like using cheap, out of date film stock instead of high quality Velvia slide to record your precious memories. You might capture the moment, but you’ll always be wishing you’d used the better film when you capture something special and can’t go back and re-create it with better film.

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2 Responses to “Tip: Save Your Photos in Raw Format”

  1. Advanced Tip: Fix your White Balance | Digital Photography Hints & Tips Says:

    […] Related Posts: > Use RAW with your digital camera […]

  2. Popular Posts from 2008 (Happy 2009!) | Digital Photography Hints & Tips Says:

    […] Save Photos in RAW: RAW may take a bit more space on your memory card, but if you want the best photos you can take […]

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