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Quick Tip: What is RAW and Why Might You Need It

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For many photographers, RAW is a term that is familiar, but the understanding of why it is important, how it works, or why it is useful has not come. Hopefully through this brief quick tip, you’ll be able to understand the basics of using RAW and how you can utilize it to enhance your own photography.

1. Capturing the images

Let’s start with the basics. RAW is a file format, in a similar way that JPEG is a file format. The difference being the way in which they code and compress images. JPEG is the most common photo file format, when you take a photo in JPEG format, it compresses the image within the camera, meaning it captures all the data and forms an image file compromising of the compressed pixels.

Where RAW varies is that it doesn’t process the photo within the camera, it captures all the data and retains all the information without compressing it, preserving all the information in all the pixels within the image. The RAW files are therefore significantly larger than the JPEG files, because they are retaining more data.

Photo by Exothermic

2. Processing the files

Once you’ve captured your RAW files with your camera, they then need to be processed in order to collate all the data and compress it together to become the final image, which usually ends up being a JPEG. The difference here though, is that you have control over the compression of the final image, you are using software to edit and manipulate the pixels as opposed to letting the camera do it automatically.

You therefore have control over things like white balance, contrast, highlights, shadows, colours and saturation. One slight drawback is that you'll need software in order to control these things.

Most cameras will come with RAW processing software for your computer. For first timers, this is a great place to begin if you are looking to try working with RAW. Be sure to allow yourself plenty of time to get to grips with the software in order to understand it’s capabilities. You do also have the option of investing in some more advanced software, such as Aperture, Lightroom or Photoshop, which will give you greater scope for editing and more creative tools in order to enhance your work.

3. Practicalities

There are a few more practical issues that you may need to tackle before you dive into using RAW. First up, not every digital camera has the option to shoot in RAW format. The vast majority of DSLR’s will have the option, but many older point and shoot cameras wont have the capability.

It’s also important to be aware that RAW files are significantly larger than JPEG files, so the space on your memory card won’t have the capacity for as many shots. Memory cards are very affordable these days, so this might not be too much of an issue.

It’s also important to be aware that you can convert RAW images to JPEG, but you can’t convert the other way. This should be fairly plain to understand, as the RAW files collects mores data, where as the JPEG compresses all the data, which cannot be reversed.

Photo by JaredPolin

4. Which one is for you?

So we’ve been through some of the fundamentals of RAW, now would be a great time to quickly go over whether RAW might be a useful tool for you. If you’re happy with the shots that you are producing at the moment and don’t see the need to extensively edit your shots, then I suggest that RAW might not be for you.

JPEG’s have limited editing options, so can be processed quite swiftly and therefore can go from shoot to completion in very little time. However, if you are looking for greater flexibility and processing options, then I’d recommend giving RAW a go. If you are aspiring to take your photography further, to even try and make it your career, then I think you need to take your editing very seriously.

It’s not uncommon for professionals to spend far more time editing than actually shooting and if you want to be competing with the best, then you need to invest time in learning editing skills and developing the techniques that will enhance your photos.

Photo by NAME

5. Give it a try

So with this crash course in RAW images, I’d urge you to give it a try for yourself. You may be pleasantly surprised at the flexibility that it offers you when you comes to processing and editing your shots.

With this flexibility comes a danger. It’s vital that you don’t get into the mindset that you can rely on fixing up any photo through RAW processing. You still need to maintain your habits of good practice when actually shooting. RAW may offer more flexibility when it comes to things like adjusting white balance, but it’s not going to be able to help you making an average photo into a great photo. You still have to do the creative hard work yourself!

Photo by JonnyL
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