Using Camera RAW

Digital cameras typically produce one of two types of files — JPGs or RAW files. Most amateurs work with JPGs while most professionals prefer to work with RAW files.

raw-photosHere’s why:

JPG files are small and can be handled by most commercial programs, even those inexpensive ones you find at Wall Mart and Staples. They are small because they are created by a process called lossy compression. This means that some of the original data is lost, even removed, when the file is created and compressed. If the level of compression is set too high it can cause a  real deterioration in image quality (you get to choose the level of compression both inside your camera – the image quality setting – and by using a program such as Photoshop or Photoshop Elements where you will be able to choose the degree of compression applied to your corrected image, usually between a range of 1 to 12, 12 being the least amount of compression).

The reason most programs can read and load JPGs is that they have long been the publishing industry’s standard format. The JPG is also the standard format used on the web. So, as you can see, JPG files are very convenient and easy to use. And yes, they can be and are reproduced in glossy magazines. One more thing: each time you save a JPG image you lose a little more quality until finally the image becomes virtually useless. As I already mentioned, small JPG images of less than 100k in size are fine for web use. A computer screen is set up to handle no more than 72 dots per inch (no, I’m not going to get into that here) while publication quality digital images (for newspapers and glossy magazines) require 300 dots per inch. The JPG file can easily handle both applications.

But here’s the thing: when your digital camera saves an image in JPG format all of the in-camera settings – color balance, color temperature, white balance, sharpening and so on – are processed by the camera and placed into the file for you. In essence the camera says to itself, “this is what I think he/she would the image to look like, and most of the time it gets it pretty darned close. And this is not necessarily a bad thing because you can still change all of those elements, be it to a somewhat limited degree, in Photoshop or Photoshop Elements, but when you do the quality of the image will deteriorate significantly.

RAW files are created by your camera in a proprietary format, unique to each camera manufacturer. They can even be unique to the specific camera model you are using. These files are compressed by using a lossyless system. This means that little or no information is lost during the act of compression. So, when you shoot a RAW format file, there will be no in-camera processing. There will be no sharpening, no color balance applied, no white balance: the camera has made none of those decisions for you as it does when it generates a JPG file. As I said earlier, what you have in a RAW file is essentially the digital camera’s equivalent of a “negative.” No, there is no reversal of the image. What you have is just an entirely complete original.

And what does all this mean to us? Well, when you work on a RAW file in Photoshop you are working with a much higher quality original than you would if it were a JPG file. You will also have greater control, which means more creativity, when you make your adjustments, corrections and manipulations, and you will not significantly degrade the quality of resulting image. The first time it will be compressed is when you save it as a JPG file, or whatever other file format you choose (such as a TIF).

RAW file formats are unique so we need to use a special program to process them. All digital camera manufacturers provide special software for processing their own RAW files. Often these programs come free with the camera. The best programs for dealing with these files, though, are offered as plug-ins for such industry standards as Adobe Photoshop or Photoshop Elements.

Another advantage of using the RAW file is that, other than deleting it, you can’t corrupt it. You must save the altered image as either a JPG file or in some other format. Be warned though: always copy your RAW files to CDs or DVDs for archiving. Then, as new and more improved processing software becomes available, you will always have them on hand whenever you feel the need to work on them again.

About the author: Blair Howard is a professional photographer and instructor. His published works include 33 books and more than 630 articlesHe is also the author of two online, study-at-home courses for writers & photographers who would like to sell their work, “The Photo Essay: Getting Your Foot in the Door,” and Beginning Digital Photography. For more information: www.blairhoward.com.

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One response to “Using Camera RAW”

  1. Ian Savage-Brookes says:

    Awesome! I’m new to photography and trying to learn lots. I found this really useful and everything is explained clearer than most articles I’ve read on the same subject. Thank you!

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