Monday, April 26, 2010

Shooting RAW: The Basics

By Brendan Keenan, Penn Camera Tysons Corner

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If you are digital photographer with a very good camera, such as a digital SLR, or even a high end compact camera, you have probably heard of RAW. You may have seen it in the menu, but like a lot of other settings in the camera, you left it alone, because you weren't sure what it did. The default setting on a camera is for a JPG file, and many people never change it. But if you have RAW available and have not at least tried it, you could be missing out on a lot when it comes to improving your photography and gaining more control than ever over your images.

Differences Between JPG and RAW
To understand when and why a photographer would want to shoot in RAW, it is important to understand the differences between RAW files and JPG files. When you take a photograph as a JPG, the camera processes the image before it writes the data to the memory card. It takes the information from the image sensor, and applies all the camera settings, such as white balance and exposure information, as well as the image size and quality. (Quality in this case refers to the amount of compression in a JPG file.) This certainly has benefits for many casual shooters. More images will fit on a memory card, and the camera can be left on auto, making all the decisions for the photographer, and minimizing the need for post processing. But what if you want real control over your photographs? What if you don't want the camera making all the decisions, and compressing your files? This is where RAW comes in.

With RAW files, the information captured by the camera's image sensor is not compressed (or processed, if you will). Since no in-camera processing takes place, the result is the untouched file from the image sensor, an undeveloped "digital negative" that allows for much more flexibility when it comes to post processing. There is a downside to this, as well. RAW files take up a lot more space than JPG files on a memory card, and not every picture taken needs post processing. To get the most out of a RAW file, you need good editing software, a little bit of knowledge, and patience.

Why Shoot RAW?
So why shoot RAW? For the control it offers. RAW files will allow you to correct many mistakes, and salvage photographs that could have otherwise been made useless or unacceptable by things like inaccurate color or white balance. Need more sharpness, or contrast, or saturation? RAW files will allow you to manipulate all these things at will. This is not to say that when shooting a RAW file you cannot first make adjustments for color, or white balance and contrast in the camera. This information is simply stored along with the raw image data, and is used for display purposes, so that when you load the files into a program like Lightroom or Aperture, you can view, and begin to manipulate the RAW files.

Shooting in RAW does require more time working on the computer afterwards. The files have to be converted to a TIFF or a JPG file to be printed or simply viewed by many computers and programs. RAW is not for everyone. However if you are serious about your photography, and want to get even more out of your images, you might want to start shooting in RAW. Just like anything in photography, the more you practice, the more comfortable and natural it becomes. A RAW file is a powerful tool when it comes to digital photography, giving the photographer unparalleled control in image editing. This may be a bit too intimidating for a novice or enthusiast however. Luckily, many cameras give you the perfect solution. If your camera can shoot in RAW, chances are it offers a "RAW+JPG" setting. This allows photographers to now only worry about making the adjustments to the RAW files that need it, while making minor, if any, needed changes to the JPG files. This will of course take up more room on your memory card, but learning to use RAW can make a huge difference in your end results.

For the photographers who want that extra level of control, there is no substitute for the raw image data, and how much it can be manipulated. If you have always shot JPG, but are looking to take your photography to the next level, then RAW is it. Try out the RAW+JPG setting, and try manipulating a few photographs. You will be amazed by the level of control, and the increased quality of your end result. Whether you are looking to take the next step forwards in digital photography, or just crave more control over your photographs from capture to print, RAW may be just what you are looking for.