The Importance of RAW Format in Photography

Wondering how to get more contrast, deeper colors and a wider tonal range from your photos? One of the easiest changes you can make to take your photography to the next level is to switch from shooting in JPEG format to shooting in RAW format.

Let’s take a closer look at what RAW format is, why you should switch to taking RAW format photos, and how to set up your camera to take RAW photos.

What is RAW? (Thanks to Wikipedia

A camera raw image file contains minimally processed data from the image sensor of a digital camera, a film film scanner, or another image scanner. Raw files are so named because they have not yet been processed and are therefore not ready to be printed or edited with a bitmap graphics editor. Normally, the image is processed by a raw converter in a wide spectrum internal color space, where fine adjustments can be made before being converted to a “positive” file format such as TIFF or JPEG for storage, printing or further manipulation. There are dozens of raw formats in use by various manufacturers of digital image capturing equipment.

Image courtesy of CaptureOne

RAW format versus JPEG format

Today’s digital cameras typically have two different image formats to choose from. The first is the JPEG format, which is the default setting on most cameras. The second is the RAW format, also known as NEF format on Nikon cameras or CR2 format on Sony cameras.

There are several important differences between RAW and JPEG image formats that every photographer should be aware of.

The most obvious difference is that RAW image files take up much more storage space than JPEG image files. For example, if you have a 20 megapixel camera, a RAW format photo from that camera could be 20MB in size, while the same JPEG format photo might be only 4MB.

Another important difference between RAW and JPEG photos is how easy they are to view and share. Viewing photos in RAW format usually requires specialized software, such as a photo editing package. JPEG photos, on the other hand, can be easily viewed with almost any standard file viewer. In fact, most of the images you see while browsing the web are JPEG images.

While both RAW and JPEG photos can be edited, RAW photos give you much more flexibility to change the look and style of your photo. With an image in RAW format, it is easy to restore highlights that appear magnified at first, or to extract detail from shadows. You can also enhance the colors in your image and add contrast without losing sharpness. With an image in JPEG format, you cannot recover details in the highlights or shadows, and any change adds digital noise to your photo.

Why do RAW images take up more storage space?

To understand why RAW images are so much larger than JPEG photos, you need to understand the process that goes on in your camera when you take a picture.

When you click the shutter, your camera’s image sensor records a huge amount of data about the light, color and details in the scene in front of you. All that data is initially recorded in RAW format, even if your camera is set to save photos in JPEG format.

If your camera is set to record RAW photos, that’s the end of the process. Your photo is saved to your memory card for later viewing and editing.

If your camera is set to record JPEG photos, there is another processing step. The camera removes information it considers ‘strange’, such as information about the brightest and darkest parts of your image and the total color range. The stripped-down photo, which is now much smaller, will be compressed and saved as a JPEG image on your memory card. The extra information that was discarded will be deleted along with the original RAW photo.

One of the biggest drawbacks of shooting RAW photos is that because they are so big, they can quickly take up your entire memory card. When that happens, it’s tempting to delete photos from your camera on the spot instead of backing them up to your computer first.

This is not a good idea as you can accidentally delete important photos and you will not have a backup anymore. Luckily, if you accidentally delete photos from your camera’s SD card, you can still get them back with a tool like Yodot Photo Recovery from Yodot Data RecoveryBoth programs can recover RAW files as well as JPEG photos.

How to choose your image format in the most common cameras

Wondering how to switch from JPEG format to RAW format in your camera? It’s easy to do.
If you have a Canon Rebel series DSLR camera, you can find the image size setting in the camera’s main menu. Press the Menu button and locate the menu item labeled Quality. Press the Set button and change the setting from L (which stands for Large JPEG) to RAW.

If you have a Nikon camera such as the D7200, press the Menu button and navigate to the camera icon. Select Image Quality, then switch from JPEG Fine to NEF (RAW).

If you have a Sony camera such as the A6300, press the Menu button and navigate to the camera icon. Then select Quality and switch from Fine to RAW.

Why should you shoot in RAW format?

Shooting in RAW format is one of the easiest changes you can make to improve your photography.

By saving all the data that your camera’s image sensor records, you can take pictures with a wider dynamic range. That means you can take photos with both bright highlights and dark shadows, showing details in both during your editing process. Shooting in RAW format also provides richer colors and allows you to add contrast and clarity to your images without creating digital noise.

To take full advantage of RAW format images, you need photo editing software. However, if you don’t want to spend time editing your photos, you can convert them to smaller, easier-to-share JPEG images at any time. If you do this conversion on your computer instead of your camera, you can keep a full size archive of your RAW photos to return to in the future.

With that in mind, the only major drawback to shooting in RAW vs JPEG is that RAW photos take up more space on your camera’s memory card and your computer’s hard drive. Since photo storage is relatively cheap, this is not a problem for most photographers. Plus, the extra detail you get from your images is worth it.

Bio: Michael Graw is a freelance photographer and writer and the owner of Wandering Sole StudiosMichael’s photography work focuses on landscape, action sports and adventure. His writing spans photography, technology, the environment, and more. Michael is based in Bellingham, Washington.

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