Update: This post has been updated to include a video that I think clarifies the RAW vs JPEG confusion as best as I can. The original post still exists in its entirety below so feel free to read through if that’s more your style. Enjoy!
I’m sure most of you already know what the RAW format is and what it is used for, but according to a recent poll on dPS, 15% of their reader base claims to not know and therefore there’s still quite a few people out there searching for the answer to the question – What is RAW?
Admittedly at first I was surprised by the results of this poll. I automatically assumed that with how popular digital photography is that everyone at least knew about the RAW format, but then I thought about it, and it started to make sense as to where this 15% came from.
I realized that even today most point and shoot cameras, and certainly all camera phones, both of which account for the vast majority of every-day photographers, only offer you JPEG formats. So if you’ve never seen it as an option of course you’d be more likely to not know what it is.
So anyways, this leads me into this post, about my take on the RAW format and why I personally shoot exclusively RAW. Of course, ultimately it’s a personal choice, which I’d gladly like to hear your own thoughts on in the comments below.
RAW Photography Explained
A RAW photograph is often referred to as the “digital negative” which draws the comparison to the 35mm film negatives of cameras from before the digital age. While, this essentially is a true statement, as we get further and further from a time when film cameras were the norm, those new to photography might not even be able to draw this connection for it assumes that you know what film is and how it was developed. I’m almost certain that a good percentage of people born today will never see one of these in person – let alone know what it is!
So then, what is a better comparison to the RAW format? How about whole milk? Not the kind you get from a store, but the completely unprocessed kind you’d get from a farm. It’s got the thick layer of fat on top of it and it has not been touched by any kind of person or machine. RAW photographs are somewhat the same in the sense that they’re filled with all the data you could possible want from the scene that you photographed and completely untouched by the camera’s processor.
But, of course, that metaphor is a bit silly. S to put it as simply as possible for you – a RAW file contains all the possible light that your camera saw in the time between when you opened and closed the shutter. Because by telling the camera you want to capture the RAW data the camera does not make any choices as to what to do with this data, and instead stores everything for you to process at a later date on your computer.
So What Can RAW Photos Do?
Now as I explained above a RAW photograph contains everything that your camera was able to “see” between the time that the shutter was opened and closed and it has left the decisions on how to process this data up to you. All it knows is that there were a bunch of different light levels hitting its sensor at various points for however long you set your exposure for and when you bring this file onto your computer it will more often then not look a bit muted in comparison. So it’s up to you to process it into a photograph.
Well, first, before you can do anything with a RAW photograph you need the right tool. There are many to choose from, some of them are free, others cost a bit of money, the most well known and popular tool is probably Adobe Lightroom.
The best advantage a RAW file has to offer is the ability to change white balance after the fact and recover detail lost within the highlights or shadows of an image. To end this article, take a look at how much I was able to recover from a seemingly completely under-exposed shot – this would not be possible with a simple JPEG image.
Okay, so that was a long winded and probably redundant post for most of you, but if you were looking for the answer to the question – What is RAW? I hope I’ve helped you out!
Please feel free to ask any questions or comment about whether or not you shoot in RAW? Or maybe you’re just finding out about it today?