Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Why you should shoot RAW

I recently had a conversation with a highly tech-savvy friend that went something like this:
"So, when you take photos, do you shoot in RAW format?"
"But you do RAW with embedded jpgs, right?"
"You don't even do jpgs?"
"No. Just RAW. I used to do RAW+jpg, but I stopped doing that years ago."
"RAW with no jpg? Are you kidding me? You are crazy, man. Do you have some kind of death wish?"
OK, so he didn't actually say that last line, but he was thinking it. He did say that he wasn't ready for RAW yet—which might be what you thought when you saw the title of this post. Maybe "RAW" sounds intimidating. I googled "raw" and the top hit was for pro wrestling, so maybe there's some kind of psychological transference happening, I don't know. But I do know that people tend to think it's for pros and therefore must be more difficult. Well, it's not. In fact, it's easier and way better.

I don't care what this naysayer writes in his way longer and more technical post, RAW is not just for people who want to spend all kinds of time manipulating photos and JPG is not the same quality as RAW. The purpose of my post is not to give you technical data in some equally long post, but just to demystify RAW and show you how great it is to use.

"But wait!" you say, "My camera doesn't even shoot RAW!"
OK. Maybe it doesn't, but your next camera will (or should). I googled "point and shoot digital raw" and got an impressive list of reasonably priced consumer cameras (from less than $300) that have raw capabilities. This is obviously not a pro-only feature.

But I heard that jpg photos look better than RAW! You did? Really? Or am I just putting words into your mouth so I can give the following brief explanation/disclaimer: What a jpg does is it lets your camera make all the decisions (like contrast, white balance, sharpening, etc.) in-camera, whereas RAW lets you make those decisions once you've loaded the files onto your computer. What that means is that jpg files have the at-first-glance headstart. But trust me, the trade-off is not worth it.

But I don't own Photoshop!
You don't need it. If your camera shoots RAW then it also comes with some sort of RAW processing software. Or you can use Aperture (I do) or Lightroom (same diff), either of which is not cheap, but cheaper than Photoshop and well worth the investment. I do loads of retouching in Aperture without ever opening Photoshop.

Really, now it's time to stop objecting so I can finish this post and do something important like watch a movie (the Netflix sleeve says "Hell hath no fury like an asthmatic nerd scorned in this scary British teen horror" What's not to like?)

Here's the recent real-life example that led me to proclaim my love for RAW files out loud and then decide to write this post (more effective and less dangerous than yelling from my rooftop).

One more quick disclaimer: What you see on your monitor and what I see on mine may not be the same, but hopefully this will make the point anyway.

The photo above is from a wedding I shot in Long Beach last month. I cringed when I saw how blown-out it was, but sometimes when you're shooting quickly in rapidly changing lighting conditions this happens. When I first saw the photo, I wasn't even sure if RAW could fix it.

In Aperture, there is an "inspector panel" that lets you see various settings. Even the processing software that comes with your (raw-capable) camera will have something similar.
There are all kinds of sliders (way more than in this screen grab), but I'm only going to use two of them here: temperature and exposure. That rectangle at the top shows the histogram (a mountainous looking thing that shows how the information is distributed from black at left to white at right). Don't worry about understanding the histogram beyond this for now: if it goes off the right, it's overexposed, if it goes off the left, it's underexposed.

Two basic adjustments that immediate improve the photo are to change the "temperature" (make it "warmer" or "cooler") and the exposure (in this case, make it way darker).

So I did two—oops, make that three—things:
1. I slid the temp over more toward yellow to warm it up a bit
2. I slid the exposure down almost as far as it would go
3. I slid the "recovery" up about halfway (I couldn't resist. It just brings the whitest parts down a little more).

And voilĂ !

This could get even better, but this is just to show how a few seconds of knee-jerk sliding can save a bad image.

For the sake of comparison, I took the initial image as a jpg and opened it in Photoshop to do some corrections using blending modes and curves adjustments—see, already more complicated. What I got was a more contrasty image that is just going to get worse the more it's worked on:
The corrected jpg above took more time than the corrected RAW and the results are not as good.
Let's take a closer look...

Here's a close-up of the corrected jpg image:
and here's the corrected RAW:
See how the hair is pretty much the same shade in both? But look at the skin. The RAW image looks way more natural. I could brighten up the RAW and keep it looking natural, but JPG will have contrast problems because it has less information to work with.

Here's a close-up of the corrected JPG:

It still looks really blown out, even though the bottom half of the image has plenty of dark shadows.

Here's the same section in the RAW corrected version:
What? There were lights there? And a textured wall? Convinced yet?

If I can go from this...
to this...
just by eyeballing the photo and sliding a few buttons around, there's no reason you can't get the same or better results. It's really that easy.


Markus Spring said...

Marc, I do use exclusively raw (it's less intimidating without the caps) since the first camera I owned that provided it with reasonable performance. My good Oly 8080 enforced a 15sec break after every raw, so it was unpleasant to use.

As a Linux user I chose bibble as converter (lightzone also is worth a try, it has a very natural user interface) and never went back - no in-camera jpgs since then. And I do love and use the headroom it gives not only when it comes to highlight recovery but also when brightening shadows and - not to forget - local contrast enhancement and very careful sharpening.

What is even more important to me is that with it I have an unalterable original, like the negative or slide in film times, from which I derive my conversions, can try different versions and optimize for the output medium. I have met only too many people who happily modify their only jpg from the camera and unhappily discover that there's no way back.
So for me, as for you, raw is inseparable from the workflow.

Mark said...

Marc, I truly appreciate you dumbing down that explanation. I'm sure that you did that just for me and I thank you for it. I am so afraid of RAW(or raw as Markus writes). I do agree with him that it is less intimidating. But what I will do this evening is take a few pictures in raw and see what I can do to adjust the image.
Question, does raw take up more room on my camera? For some reason, I have it in my head that I could take more pictures using JPEG in one setting.
Thanks Marc. And Markus.
Your Friend, Mark.
That's just too funny. m.

Unknown said...

I am going to tell you the truth...I shoot in JPEG.

Sometimes JPEG plus Raw and I have never once preferred editing the RAW version.

I do see your differences and they are dramatic. WOW! I might have to give it a try since you love it so much. I have serious space issues on my computer and JPEG's are just about all I can handle. I do have an external hard drive, but even that hasn't helped me want to switch.

Maybe I will try it this weekend and see if I love it that much more. We will see : )

marc said...

I have to admit that jpgs do take up less space. I am constantly have to export and store projects that I am not actively working on. It's a trade-off for sure, but as Markus says, it's nice to know that you always have a digital negative to go back to—perfect for revising and rethinking without losing quality.

Markus Spring said...

Re. the space issues: Yes, raws are larger. But then, the size advantage you have to pay for with a loss of image information - there ain't no such thing as a free lunch.
And when the harddisk is full, you should definitely consider to either copy it on another medium or/and buy a bigger HD. The price per Gigabyte now is around 5 Euro-Cent, meaning that even a Terabyte disk costs next to nothing if you find a knowledgeable person to install it.
Anyhow it should be known that harddisk performance can drop sharply when the disk capacity is used to more than 80% - the computer has to do much more administrative calculations and the writing head in the harddisk more movements when writing and filling old gaps to make best use of the remaining space.
But I do know the pain of too small disks as well as probably all do - believe me. It just is no reason to give up the advantages of raw files.

Brooke said...

I have tried shooting RAW a couple times.... and I can't get them to even load into PSE 7. I think I need some fancier version of Photo Shop - right?

My question - I do a lot of editing in PSE and don't you think you could have acheived the same effect by just editing that same photo as a JPEG?

Brooke said...

I have tried shooting RAW a couple times.... and I can't get them to even load into PSE 7. I think I need some fancier version of Photo Shop - right?

My question - I do a lot of editing in PSE and don't you think you could have acheived the same effect by just editing that same photo as a JPEG?

Wanda said...

I.N.C.R.E.D.I.B.L.Y. clear and helpful tutorial. THANK YOU!!! I've shot in both but haven't played around enough to notice that much of a different. Now I will. My issue has always been space. I hate the idea of not being able to have my "stuff" all in one place. But, I'm going to re-thing this and change my paradigm.

One question though: We can now open a JPEG in PS as camera RAW. Is this the same thing as shooting in RAW? Do we have the same control?

I'll check back here to see the answer (SVP) or you could e-mail me if you'd like. Thanks Marc, I appreciate it.
Wanda (At Last...)

marc said...

@Brooke—If your camera shoots RAW, it should come with software that can handle it. As for the editing a JPEG for the same effect, it's more likely to work if your photo is properly exposed in the first place. You can see by the comparison in my post, that you can't salvage a JPEG as well as you can a RAW file.

marc said...

From what I understand, the option to open a JPEG as RAW does two things: 1. it allows access to the same adjustments sliders and
2. it allows you to re-edit the jpg from scratch when you want—in other words, it leaves your adjustments as information that can be changed, not as something you are now married to.

However, you are still doing all of that on a file with lower bit depth than RAW (hence, less information to begin with) and that has already had certain processing decisions made in-camera. So, unless I understand it wrong, you are never actually working with RAW file quality, just a greater degree of flexibility.

Wanda said...

Thank you Marc - that really makes sense. Man, you're such a clear thinker and teacher. (Oh, you're a professor, I forgot. =)

I just eye-balled all your tutorials on your sidebar. I think I'll let hubs know he'll be flying solo tonight.


Wanda (At Last...)

Brenda said...

Just switched my camera setting to shoot in raw. You've inspired me. Can I plead for a photoshop tutorial now?