Who ever thought that something called raw would be so scandalous?
When we wrote the very simple article, 10 Reasons Why You Should Be Shooting RAW, we had no idea what was in store for us. Over the past couple years it’s turned into a giant, and gets the most views and comments and debates of any post on our entire site! Crazy.
And while it has helped a lot of folks learn all about shooting in the raw format, and get better quality images from their cameras, it has also opened up some questions. So today I’ll be going over some of the most frequently asked questions and hopefully filling in the gaps about shooting in the raw format.
Now I have a terrible confession to make before we even begin. With that first post I made a tragic mistake and have contributed to spreading lies far throughout the photography world.
I called it RAW.
See, it’s actually raw (all lowercase) and not RAW (it’s not an acronym).
I knew this detail before writing the original article. I knew it in my bones. But since it is popularly known as RAW, and the article and title would be more recognizable if I capitalized it that way, I caved and wrote it the wrong way.
Please forgive me. And start writing raw.
And as a fascinating side note, the raw format is so named because it’s an image format in which your camera captures the full, unprocessed, image data collected by your camera’s sensor. The raw data, that is.
Each time you take a picture when shooting in the raw format, your camera saves a raw file to the memory card. The raw format is an alternative to shooting in the JPEG format (which is a processed and highly compressed image format) – though it is possible to shoot in both raw + JPEG capturing both formats simultaneously.
Ok, now to those burning questions!
Frequently Asked Questions About Raw
Now some of the following FAQs are addressed in the original article, but I’m rephrasing them here to hopefully help clarify them.
1. How is raw non-destructive?
When you’re editing a JPEG file (for example adjusting exposure, white balance, or contrast) it is possible to save your adjustments over your original file. This means you could never go back to how the original image looked. Uh oh!
This could be quite a disaster if you make a mistake and save over the original file (especially if you don’t have a backup of the original).
How easy is it to make a mistake? Maybe you crop an image, convert it to black and white, or resize it – and then save the image. All of those adjustments would be irreversible. This is known as destructive editing – where the editing cannot be undone. TIP: When working with JPEGS always make sure to choose “Save as” and create a new separate file from the original.
Now, when editing a raw file it’s actually impossible to save over your raw file. You can export a new file (like a JPEG or TIFF) that contains the adjustments you made to the raw file. You can also save the adjustments you’ve made to the raw file as a separate “instructions” file known as an XMP. But you cannot save over the original raw file.
This means that you always have the original data to work with. Because the original image data is always preserved, this is known as non-destructive editing. (And it’s a good thing.)
2. I’ve set my camera to raw and taken some photos, now what?
Good work! Now you’ll need to copy the photos to your computer.
You can do this by connecting your camera to your computer or you can take the memory card out of your camera and insert it into a memory card reader that you plug into your computer (the faster method which we recommend).
Once the raw files are on your computer you can use a program like Lightroom to edit them, and once you’re finished editing you can then export the ones you would like to share or print as JPEGs.
3. Can I print a raw file?
The short answer is Yes and No.
Not all software programs will allow you to print raw files directly. If you’re working with an editing program like Lightroom it is possible to print your raw files directly from Lightroom.
The bigger issue is printing from third parties. Most consumer photo labs will not print raw files. Professional labs also do not print from raw files.
The acceptable file format for print is high resolution JPEG or in some cases TIFF – both of which you can easily export copies of from your raw files.
4. How big are raw files compared to JPEG?
The file size of raw files are 3-4 times as large as JPEGs. Raw files are larger because they contain a lot more information compared to JPEG files. JPEG is a compressed file format. That means that in order to get that smaller file size your camera is literally throwing away information. Uncool.
Keep in mind that storage space is cheap, and the benefits of shooting raw far out weigh the larger file size.
5. Do I need to convert my photos out of raw?
No, you can store your original raw files in the raw format. You only need to export your raw files as JPEGs when you want to print them, or share them.
It is possible to convert your raw files to an open source raw format known as DNG.
6. What do I do with my JPEG photos now that I’m shooting in raw?
Your older JPEG photos are still worth keeping! You cannot convert them to raw (bummer), but you can still edit them in programs like Lightroom.
While it’s possible to make all the same adjustments to a JPEG file that you can to a raw file, the amount of adjustments a JPEG file can handle without a huge loss in image quality is far less than a raw file is capable of handling.
7. What about shooting in sRaw and mRaw?
Some cameras are capable of shooting in different size raw formats known as sRaw and mRaw. These are essentially advertised as reduced resolution raw formats. So instead of having a 6000×4000 pixel image you would have a 3000×2000 pixel image.
The benefit of this would be a smaller file size with a smaller sized photo. From the brief amount of research I’ve done these options seems like a marketing gimmick that should be avoided.
At the time you take the photo you may not be sure how large you want to eventually display it, so you really should be capturing photos in the largest size your camera is capable of. Also, it seems that these sRaw and mRaw formats may be applying some compression to the photo file and so even though it’s labeled as a raw file you may not be able to make the same high quality adjustments you could make to a full sized raw file.
8. How do you do black and white photography with raw?
The raw format and black and white photography are an excellent combination! Fine choice!
The first thing to mention is that you shouldn’t be using your camera’s built in black and white filters to shoot in black and white. Those filters can help give you an idea of what the photo might look like black and white but you’ll be able to do much better black and white editing to a photo once you have the photo on your computer and you’re using a program like Lightroom or Photoshop.
Also, the black and white filters on your camera often require you to shoot in the JPEG format. Which means you can never go back on that decision. (Remember when we talked about how raw is non-destructive?)
When you shoot in the raw format you’ll be able to decide after the fact whether a photo is best in colour or black and white or both! You’ll also be able to make more dramatic, higher quality black and white conversions when shooting in the raw format (since you’ll have more image data to work with compared to a compressed JPEG image).
9. Should I deliver raw files to my client?
I wouldn’t recommend it. Just like with your JPEG photos, you’ll want to do some editing to your raw photos to make sure they look their best before giving them to your client.
You could give your client the raw files with the adjustments you’ve done (giving them the associated .xmp files) – but unless your clients are photographers themselves then they probably won’t find the raw files very useful (they won’t be able to print them easily, and they probably won’t know how to adjust them).
Instead it’s better to give your clients high resolution JPEGs which they’ll be able to print (it’s also nice to give your clients a version of low-resolution JPEGs which are easier to share online).
10. When Should I Shoot Raw?
Whether you are an amateur or professional you should be shooting in the raw format.
Pretty much all DSLRs offer the ability to shoot in raw, and most advanced point and shoot cameras also shoot raw. Raw is the highest possible quality your camera is capable of capturing, so you should be taking advantage of it. On top of that, you usually also have the option to shoot in raw+JPEG. So if you’re scared to start shooting in raw, try shooting in the raw+JPEG mode – you have nothing to lose!
I want quickly chat about the main objections people had to shooting in raw:
“Shooting raw takes up too much space” – It does take up more space – 3-4x as much space. It’s worth considering what “too much” space means. For the quality you get with raw files it’s worth the additional storage space. And as I mentioned in 10 Reasons Why You Should Be Shooting RAW hard drive storage space is cheap!
“Shooting raw is for amateurs, professionals get it right in camera” – Shooting raw is for anyone who cares about the quality of their images. I’d actually wager that the vast majority of professionals shoot in raw, not in JPEG.
Now, lest you think I’m on some vendetta against JPEG shooters, that’s not the case at all. I personally know JPEG-only professional photographers, and I deeply respect their work. It’s their decision to shoot JPEG-only and I know their clients are thrilled with the results.
This is not a do or die situation.
But it does have everything to do with quality of images, and nothing to do with “pro vs. amateur”.
I’m actually a little confused by the suggestion that pros should shoot in JPEG and get it right in camera. Yes, you can (and should) get your settings as close as possible in camera to your intended look and it’s always important to have a great starting point. Raw is not an excuse for sloppy work.
But by shooting raw you have a lot more flexibility on how you can improve the photo with processing. For example being able to control a raw file’s white balance in post processing is alone reason enough to shoot in raw. Good luck trying to adjust the white balance of a JPEG… and white balance is just one of the many adjustments that you have more flexibility with when shooting raw.
Professionals are humans. Not cyborg’s who get things perfect every single time (although that would be cool!). Robot dreams aside, the point I’m making is that pros make mistakes. All pros. The difference between a pro’s mistake and an amateur’s mistake is usually just that the pro has a lot more riding on those images. Upset clients, and a bad business reputation could be the result of a missed shot.
When you shoot raw you also have a lot more latitude to fix a missed shot. I personally have been able to recover images that I would have otherwise had to throw out, had I not been shooting raw.
In that regard, it makes more sense for a pro to shoot raw. It’s a safety net, just in case things go wrong.
“My clients won’t know the difference between raw and JPEG” – It’s true your clients probably won’t know the difference (especially if you deliver JPEG files to them at the end).
The important thing to note here is that, as the professional photographer, you will know the difference between raw and JPEG. You’ll know if you’ve over or under exposed a shot that could have been saved shooting raw. You’ll know whether an image is as good as it can be – or if it could have been better. Your clients rely on you as the professional photographer to have their best interest in mind.
“I can’t get the same skin tones with raw files that I can with JPEGs” – With a JPEG file, settings like sharpness, white balance, and contrast get “cooked” into the image file, meaning you can’t as easily adjust those settings after the fact.
With a raw file you have control over those settings by adjusting them in a program like Lightroom. The raw files often look a lot flatter right from the start because they need additional processing in order to look their best. With a bit of practice you’ll be to get better skin tones with your raw files.
“The workflow for raw files takes longer than JPEGs” – Regardless of whether you’re shooting in raw or JPEG the workflow can be as long or as quick as you would like.
I don’t know of any professional photographers who shoot in JPEG and give their clients completely unedited photos directly off their memory cards – that would be the only scenario where shooting in JPEG would be faster than shooting in raw.
Even photographers who shoot in JPEG edit their photos – and if you’re spending time editing your photos you might as well be working with raw to get the highest quality possible.
Using Lightroom, you can batch edit raw files (Lightroom also works with JPEGs). Batch editing allows you to select multiple raw photos at once and make adjustments to all the photos simultaneously. You can even create presets that apply multiple adjustments at once. The workflow using Lightroom is fast! It’s also super easy to batch export JPEGs from your raw files.
11. When Should I shoot JPEG?
A few people have commented about a perfect time to shoot JPEG, and that is when you need to shoot in burst mode. Because JPEG files are much smaller than raw files your camera’s memory buffer fills up much slower when shooting in the JPEG mode.
I had originally suggested that if you needed to shoot in burst mode that you should consider purchasing a better camera, but if you don’t need to shoot in burst mode that frequently (and it’s really only sports photography that you need to be shooting 10 frames per second for multiple seconds) then you can simply switch your camera to JPEG mode for the occasions you’d like to shoot high speed bursts for longer periods.
Keep in mind that your camera can still shoot in burst mode when in the raw format it’s just that your buffer will fill up faster and you won’t be able to take as many photos as you could in JPEG mode.
There aren’t really any other scenarios I can think of where shooting JPEG would be advantageous compared to shooting raw. If your camera is not capable of shooting in the raw format obviously it’s better to be shooting JPEGs than nothing at all. My camera phone only shoots JPEG but I still take a ton of photos with it. However, as soon as my camera phone has the option of shooting raw or DNG I’ll be switching to that.
12. What software do you need to shoot raw?
If your camera is capable of shooting in the raw format then chances are that the camera manufacturer included some raw processing software on a CD or DVD which you’ll find in the box your camera came in. You can likely also download this software from your camera manufacturer’s website.
The benefit of using the camera manufacturer’s raw processing software is that it’s free – but the benefits pretty much stop there. Their software is usually clunky, ugly, and made without much consideration for an efficient workflow.
The biggest and most well known raw processing software is called Adobe Lightroom. It costs $140 ($77 upgrade) and is easily worth every penny. You can’t even really buy a decent lens for $150 – so Lightroom is an absolutely incredible investment for any photographer. If you need help getting started with Lightroom we offer a complete video tutorial on using the program called Super Photo Editing Skills.
All of these different programs have strengths and weaknesses. No program is leaps and bounds above another. I’ve been using Lightroom since it’s beginning and it’s a very effective program for both amateurs and professional photographers.
So why go with Lightroom? First, Adobe is easily the market leader. It’s likely that well over 90% of professional photographers use Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw (the underlying software that powers both Lightroom and Photoshop’s raw processor). My guess is that it’s probably over 95% now since Lightroom’s only real competitor, Apple Aperture, has been discontinued.
Since Lightroom is made by Adobe, it plays nice with Adobe’s other massive photography program – Photoshop. Whether you open a raw file in Photoshop or Lightroom you can make the exact same adjustments to the raw file (since they use the same Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) processing engine).
Now you might be asking yourself what’s the difference between Lightroom vs. Photoshop – and for that you should check out our blog post – Lightroom vs. Photoshop: The Epic Battle.
In general Photoshop is a more advanced professional graphics program capable of making adjustments at the pixel level (not something possible in Lightroom). Pixel level editing is important for things like retouching where you need to select a certain area of the image and remove, replace, or alter it in some way. Photoshop also a much more expensive program only available through a subscription to Adobe’s Creative Cloud ($50/month for the whole Creative Suite of programs, or $10/month for just Photoshop + Lightroom).
A good alternative to Photoshop for most photographers is Photoshop Elements ($59) which is a consumer level version of the program. Photoshop Elements does support ACR, however it appears that Adobe has reduced some of the ACR features found in the full version of Photoshop and Lightroom. You may never need to use Photoshop or Photoshop Elements – it depends on whether you need to do retouching, or if you’re interested in more advanced image editing techniques.
My suggestion for anyone starting to shoot raw, and really anyone getting into photography is to try Adobe Lightroom. Adobe offers a 30-day free trial.
Go Try It Out!
If you still need some convincing to shoot raw, go out and capture a couple photos in raw and a couple of the same scene in JPEG. Then bring them into Lightroom. Try making adjustments to things like exposure, contrast and white balance and you’ll be able to easily see how much better it is shooting in raw – and also how easy it is to use Lightroom and how powerful it will be for your photography. Woo!
And remember, you can always set your camera to shoot raw + JPEG and capture both formats simultaneously so you have nothing to lose! I really want you to see for yourself how much better raw files are compared to JPEG.
If you have any other questions about shooting raw then share them in the comments. I’ll do my best to answer them! Happy photographing!