Photography Resources 4: Why shoot raw?

RAW vs JPG

If you have a camera that shoots RAW but are still shooting JPG, STOP IT! ¬†There are numerous websites and various people that say the same thing, but I’ve boiled it down to a couple factors that really affect the final quality of the photograph.

What is JPG shooting vs RAW shooting? Well, RAW shooting is basically like this: The camera’s sensor reads data and writes it out as a RAW file. It is the raw sensor data without any processing.

How does it differ from JPG shooting? In JPG shooting, the camera first shoots RAW, then processes the image according to settings you have set (i.e. white balance, picture mode, sharpness, contrast, etc). It then makes a JPG file from the raw data, then throws away the initial raw data and leaves you with just the JPG. So it basically does an automatic processing of the images of which you can’t revert or change (much) later on, without losing quality.

What’s the advantage of RAW? Primarily exposure and white balance. Although contrast, sharpness, and saturation are also part of the equation.

But the main benefit of RAW is if the initial photo isn’t spot on perfect in the exposure arena, you’ll get so much more out of the RAW file than the jpg file. The reason for this is that jpg files save 8 bits per channel, i.e. 256 shades of red, 256 shades of green, and 256 shades of blue. ¬†Granted it is on a log-scale, so it covers a similar dynamic range as the raw. But Raw is, on my camera, 14 bits per pixel. That allows for under-exposures and over-exposures to be corrected after the fact! Really! I can correct 2 stops plus or minus without much detriment to the image.

The next part is the white balance. The color temperature can be changed as much as you want in RAW, but if you try to change it in JPG, it will not be very accurate, and it will introduce noise. This is not an easy fix in JPG. But in RAW, it’s as if you have a time machine and can go back and re-expose for the different types of lighting in a scene.

Example

This is a quick example of what RAW can do. This photo was under-exposed by 1.5 stops. It was a test shot on one of my photo shoots.

The first step I took was to do an export of the RAW to JPG conversion without any changes being made. Then I imported the jpg file and the raw file into Lightroom 4. From there, I adjusted both photos up 1.5 stops of exposure. The result is easily seen below. The wall behind the toilet is where there is the most difference. You can clearly see the artifacting in the JPG version, and hardly any in the RAW version.

JPG adjusted 1.5 stops brighter
RAW adjusted 1.5 stops brighter, then exported to JPG

Granted if you look close, you can see some artifacts in the 2nd photo, but part of that is the limitations of the internet.


Photography Resources

Part 1 – Camera Equipment Part 2 – Lighting Equipment Part 3 – Software
Part 4 – Why shoot raw? Part 5 – Where to buy?

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