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 so 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. The camera does not make any choices as to what to do with this data, it stores it all for you and allows you to determine how and what to adjust at a later time on your computer.
So What Can RAW Photos Do?
Before you can do anything with a RAW photograph you need the right tool, and there are many to choose from, but the one that I use and love is Adobe Lightroom. You can get Lightroom 3 for under $100 on Amazon or jump up to the most recent iteration and get Lightroom 4 for just under $150 also on Amazon (both of these prices are current as of the writing of this post and of course are subject to change). My opinion would be to throw down the extra 50 or so dollars and get LR4, Adobe added a lot to this version, but that’s not to say that LR3 is a bad deal.
Now as I tried to demonstrate above a RAW photograph contains everything that your camera could have possible seen when you pressed the shutter release 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.
Here’s an example of what I mean
The before image is a completely unprocessed RAW photograph. The after image has had just five levels quickly adjusted to bring out the colors of the sunset.
Those five levels are: Exposure, white balance, contrast, highlights and shadows.
Now, while I could have tweaked the saturation, vibrance, noise, details, or countless other areas of the photograph what I really wanted to show you here was how much freedom you have to process a RAW file with only a hand full of sliders. One great example of where RAW files are important is when shooting the stars – like in my photograph of the kayak under the stars – the RAW file enabled me to bring the exposure of the kayaks back while keeping the sky dark and the stars bright.
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?