The RAW Truth

A few people have expressed to me, the desire to be better shooters. Some (unbelievably) have said that it is my images that have inspired this desire. I thank you for the lie…

So, I guess this will be the first in a series of blogs to help improve your photography.

I have decided to start with what in my opinion is most important and fundamental skill… Turning on your camera… in order to take an excellent photo you must learn to “turn your camera on”.. this is a complex task… that took me years to master… sign up now and I will offer you this $1750.00 dollar course for only $19.95. but you must be one of the first idiots to fall for this.. I mean one of the first people to sign up.. I mean ahh  I am limiting this offer to well everyone who falls for it.. no wait I mean the first 100 people that I can pretend to limit it to.. 

OKAY, okay I am joking of course …  Well yes turning on your camera helps a lot with your images… in fact this may be the most important step in capturing photos (good or bad), but not something that needs a course. Just FYI there is an on-off button.

Now that you have suffered though my bad humour what am I babbling about… RAW vrs Jpeg.   Most mirrorless and DSLR have the choice of formats to save the picture as, and this is what we will be discussing here today.  

Well only RAW vs. Jpeg, some cameras have a few more format choices but RAW and Jpeg are the main two.

 RAW is the generic term for your camera’s native format There is a list below of all names that I could find. They all have different names but are essentially the same thing.

The answer is RAW, yes you should be shooting RAW and not be shooting Jpeg or at least not only jpeg).   Well that’s the answer, now if you care why keep reading… if you don’t leave now.

One of the things I hear the most is why shoot RAW the pictures looks dull.  Well yes they are dull washed out, not sharp, they just don’t pop…

RAW image files are sometimes described as “digital negatives”, this is a good description, if a bit inaccurate. RAW files are an un-touched, un-processed, un-compress full-data file. This means that the images go directly from the lens to the sensor to the memory card. No computer telling it what you see as the photo. You keep all the data possible.   Using RAW files means that there is an extra step for the photographer- developing-, hence the name “digital negative”. That extra step was once called digital developing now call post-processing. Lightroom still calls in processing develop.

Jpeg (Joint Photographic Experts Group)-which is a funny name cus I don’t know any pro- (experts) photographer that shoots with it or only with it at least. JPEG is a lossy (is that a word) compression for digital images. Although, the amount of compression is a compromise between file size and image quality (usually about 10:1 compression). To do this, jpeg files are processed right within the camera. The camera’s programme will adjust colour, exposure, add blacks, contrast, brightness, noise reduction, sharpening and then render the file to a compressed JPEG. Deleting all the data it did not like. This “rejected” data cannot be recovered. How exactly the images are processed varies between camera brand and from model to model, but once saved it is done. Wiki has a very nicely detailed explanation of the computer micgiggery that happens and everything else that you really don’t need to know at this stage. (Or ever actually I am a total geek and my eyes rolled into the back of my head while reading it).

So what does all this mean.

Brightness, Contrast & Blacks,

The most obvious thing you will notice when comparing a RAW image to a JPEG image is that the JPEG image will have a significant amount of Brightness, Contrast and Blacks added to the image during camera processing. If you are a Lightroom user, the added amount is approximately +50 Brightness, +25 Contrast, +5 Blacks


 JPEG files are also sharpened in camera. This may sound like a good thing, but again you have not control over the amount of sharpening applied to an image. For Lightroom users, +25 Amount, +1.0 Radius, +25 Detail


JPEG files will have standardised noise reduction applied during in camera processing (e.g. on size fits all). For happy snaps this is not a big deal. However, if you want the images to look professional use, you are doing your images a big disservice as post processing software give you much more control, and do a better job of reducing noise while maintaining sharpness and detail.

Dynamic Range

A lot of people will talk about the term “Dynamic Range” used a lot when discussing RAW files vs JPEG. Dynamic Range is the difference between the darkest and lightest tones in an image, generally pure black and pure white.  A JPEG image cuts out and deletes the amount of dynamic range and tonal detail captured. This means that you will see huge differences in quality when post processing images that are underexposed, overexposed, or images that simply have a high Dynamic Range; such as a landscape with a super bright sky against a dark ground.

RAW has numerous advantages over JPEG such as:

  • Many more shades of colour
    • RAW files have 12 to 24 bits of intensity information per channel (4096-16384 shades), compared to JPEG’s gamma-compressed 8 bits (256 shades).
  • Higher image quality.
    • Because all the calculations (such as applying gamma correction, white balance, brightness, contrast, etc…) are performed in one step and resultant pixel values will be more accurate and exhibit more tones gradients.
  • Finer control.
    • RAW conversion software allows you to make the choice to manipulate (lightness, white balance, hue, saturation, etc…) and do so with greater variability.
  • The colour space can be set to whatever is desired.
  • Different algorithms can be used, not just the one coded into the camera.
  • RAW files include more information,
    • Editing results in fewer visible artefacts
    •  more scope for both corrections and artistic manipulations, without resulting in images with visible flaws such as abrupt changes from one tone to another.
  • All the changes made on a RAW image file are non-destructive; that is, only the metadata that controls the rendering is changed to make different output versions, leaving the original data unchanged.
  • RAW-format photography allows a much better control over the mapping of the scene intensity range into the output tonal range,
    • eliminating the need to use the HDRI technique (more or less)

Jpeg has really only has ONE advantage over RAW and that is all things being identical Jpegs look “better” straight out of the camera. This is good for social media and/or showing people how the shoot is going, but they will rarely look professional.

Many cameras allow you to capture both RAW and Jpeg at the same time, and for a lot of people learning this is awesome. The only real downside is it fills up your memory cards and your computer with lots of duplicate images.  

RAW filename extensions by manufacturers (main brands first then others)

Adobe    .dng
Canon   .crw.cr2.cr3
Epson    .erf
Fuji    .raf
GoPro    .gpr
Hasselblad    .3fr
Kodak    .dcs.dcr.drf.k25.kdc
Leica    .raw.rwl.dng
Minolta, Agfa    .mdc
Minolta, Konica Minolta    .mrw
Olympus    .orf
Panasonic    .raw.rw2
Pentax    .pef.ptx
Phase_One    .cap.iiq.eip
Samsung    .srw
Sigma    .x3f
Sony    .arw.srf.sr2
Arri Alexa    .ari
Blackmagic Design    .braw
Casio    .bay
Cintel    .cri
Imacon (Hasselblad)    .fff
Leaf    .mos
Logitech    .pxn
Mamiya    .mef
RAWzor    .rwz
RED Digital Cinema    .R3D
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