RAW Images: Getting Started

An article by David Brooks on March 2, 2009


If one thing changed the way I look at photography it was the moment I started shooting RAW images.

Well, maybe not THE moment. That was back in 2004 and it wasn’t so great. Nothing supported RAW images, and everything was more difficult to accomplish than it should have been. I hated it, it took forever, and I switched back.

Last year my wife started shooting RAW images at the request of her teacher, I was still shooting in JPG. And then I saw her editing her photos one day… I was shocked. It was so much nicer than it had been only a few years before. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

What is a RAW File?

RAW images are camera information. It’s not like a JPG or even a TIF. A RAW file is an image with a special set of attached directions that tell your image editing application what it should look like. It also contains all of the information your camera used to take the image in the first place. When you look at a RAW image it isn’t always naturally interpreted as an image by your computer. You’ll need something like Photoshop to work with RAW images, but if you don’t have Photoshop there’s a good chance your camera manufacturer included a program that can handle them for you. (Check for any CDs that came with your camera)

Why Switch to RAW?

Whatever program you use, the benefit of switching to RAW is immense. Basically, you get to tweak your image with the same features your camera used to capture the image in the first place. But, you get to do it after the shot is taken. (That of course doesn’t include focus and lens stuff, just the exposure, color temperatures, etc.)

In Photoshop, the screen looks like this:

Basic edits on a RAW image in PhotoShop

So, here we have the basic controls for the image. These are things like color temperature, saturation, exposure, etc. As you might expect, as you adjust the controls the image starts to reflect your changes. The great thing with this is that all of your edits can be done in any order you want. You don’t have to keep opening different control sets like curves, color levels etc.; you just click through the tabs.

Changes to a RAW image in PhotoShop

And you’ll notice that the image responds differently than it does in the rest of Photoshop, when you’re working with a standard JPG, for example. With these controls you’re editing your image in a way that isn’t destructive. As you edit your image Photoshop creates a new file, an .XMP file that holds all of your changes. So even if you close the image your photo is still changed. But since it’s non-destructive you can return to the original at any time either through the interface or by deleting the associated XMP file.

For me, the easiest way to figure out how the RAW format works is just to play around with the controls.

Quality Loss?

Once in awhile if I’m working with an image that is entirely too dark to begin with I’ll start noticing some pixilation as I try to correct the image. However unfortunate it is still fair. The camera is only able to capture a certain level of detail, and as you bring up the controls there’s a point at which the blemishes really start to show up. Half of the trick in photography, regardless of your method and approach, is finding those blemishes and avoiding them. This isn’t so much a limitation with the RAW format as it is with the equipment and the way the photo is taken.

The Downside

I think we all knew that there had to be a negative side to this… But honestly it’s not that big of a downside, to me anyway. RAW images are larger than their JPG counterparts. And, unfortunately they’re not always of the same exact quality as a JPG.

On my D80 when I take a photo in JPG mode, it delivers a really nice, large, 300 pixel per inch file. When I shoot the same image in RAW format I get a 240 pixel per inch file. For the most part I’m not really going to notice the lack of image quality there; after all it’s often worth it just to be able to make the changes after the image has been taken. But it is something to consider, and it’s a painful thing to find out on your own if you were expecting the full image quality.

(Edit: Thanks to Christian Metts for the correction on this. RAW images aren’t actually lacking quality compared to their JPG counterparts. See his explanation in the comments.)

Nevertheless, I have found the RAW format to be incredibly useful and will continue to use it on a regular basis. If you haven’t tried it yet, you simply must.

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About David Brooks

David Brooks is the owner of the small creative studio, Northward Compass, based out of Orlando, Florida. He writes electronic and ambient music as Light The Deep, and fantasy stories about a place called Elerien.

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