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How to Take Better Photos, Pt 6

October 30, 2009


When it comes to digital photography, you typically have two photo formats to choose from – RAW and JPEG.

But which should you shoot, and why?

The answer depends on your intentions as a photographer.

If you’re just shooting casually, if the idea of post-processing terrifies you, or if you’re the sort who likes to print photos straight off your camera, you’d probably be better off shooting JPEG.

If you want to retain total creative control over your shots, if you want to squeeze out every last bit of sharpness, or save an image from under- or overexposure, and are willing to get your hands dirty with post-processing, you should definitely consider shooting in RAW.

Okay, let’s backtrack.

Everyone is familiar with JPEG. It’s to digital photos what MP3 is to music, or .txt is to text.

But what is RAW?

At its most basic, a RAW file is the unfiltered, unprocessed data ripped straight from your camera’s image sensor and dumped onto your memory card. It’s not an image file, per se, but it contains all the information you could ever need to assemble an image.

If you have trouble wrapping your head around that, you may want to think of a RAW file as the digital equivalent of the film negative. It’s not exactly a 1:1 analogy, but it’s pretty close.

So…why shoot in RAW?

Simple. When you press that shutter button and take a picture, your camera records an image based off a whole litany of settings.

Some settings are mechanical. Aperture, shutter speed, focal length, focus. These are locked in stone. You can’t go back later and change the shutter speed any more than you can change the angle and intensity of the light. Sorry, tough.

Other settings, though, are digital. White balance, for instance. Exposure, sharpness, color saturation. When you shoot in JPEG, your camera processes the image and LOCKS IN THESE SETTINGS. Yeah, you can tweak them a bit later on, but push too far in any direction and you’ll get something out of a bad Tony Scott movie.

When you shoot in RAW, your camera DEFERS this processing. It’ll apply it’s digital settings, but it won’t lock them in.

What’s the benefit of this?

Simple. You can tweak the settings from the comfort of your computer, so if you botched the white balance, or had some pictures come out overexposed, you can dial things in the way you want with a LOT more flexibility than you’d find with a JPEG.

But wait, there’s more!

RAW files let you bypass unwanted processing, like noise reduction (which can reduce the sharpness of an image).

Furthermore, RAW files are either uncompressed or use lossless compression, so they capture the maximum amount of image detail. JPEGs, by contrast, are compressed image files. This comes into play in a big way when you’re processing and editing. With RAW files, every tweak you make is applied to a version of the master. Essentially, you’re just processing the image according to a slightly altered set of parameters.

With JPEG, every tweak actually degrades the image to a slight degree. This isn’t a big deal if you’re just bumping the contrast a bit, but make too many tweaks and you’ll start to notice a drop in quality.

To sum up, the advantages of RAW don’t really present themselves until after you capture an image. If you don’t plan on tweaking or optimizing your shots, RAW is probably more trouble than it’s worth. But if you want the absolute best quality you can get, ditch JPEG. But be warned, RAW images will suck up more space than JPEGs, so if you’ve only got limited memory, you might run out of it sooner.

RAW Processing Applications

Okay. Let’s pretend I’ve convinced you. You’re all gung-ho about shooting in RAW. ¬†That’s all well and good, but you still have to process the images on the back end and export versions as JPEGs if you want to print them, share them on Flickr, or pretty much anything else.

But what to process them with?

If you’re a cheapskate, you’re in luck. Just about every camera that can shoot in RAW format comes with some sort of RAW processing application. These range from extraordinarily decent to utter crap, but you get what you pay for.

If you have a Mac, iPhoto can also handle RAW files, but it doesn’t give you the wealth of processing options the more powerful programs do. And besides, recent iterations of iPhoto pack your images away behind an iPhoto Library, which is the biggest pain in the ass ever, and the main reason I’ve abandoned the app entirely.

On the pay end, most of the good photo editing and management programs have a RAW processing element. Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Lightroom both pack Adobe Camera RAW. You really can’t go wrong with these, but Adobe products tend to have a definite learning curve.

My personal choice is Apple Aperture, which is in most respects quite similar to Lightroom. It gives me all the goodies I need to manage my workflow, from processing and optimization to exporting and archiving. If you’re on a Mac, it’s a great way to go.

Next time around, I’ll be going over the basics of photo processing, and the steps I take to get a photo from my camera to Flickr or wherever else it needs to go.


One Comment leave one →
  1. maplesyrup21 permalink
    October 30, 2009 8:43 pm

    wow.. that is soo informative..

    thanks for this post !

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