Shooting in RAW is occasionally debated in photography circles, especially since modern cameras can get very accurate results with in camera settings. When you can get very accurate results straight out of camera people might ask what the point of shooting RAW is. Depending on your tastes and goals RAW may or may not be useful to you.
What is a RAW image?
A RAW is a special format of image that is typically proprietary to your particular brand of camera. When you shoot in RAW you’re retaining all the information from the exposure even in areas that are not readily apparent like highlights and shadows. You can think of a RAW as an uncompressed version of all the data your camera produced when you took the picture.
The downsides to shooting in RAW
There are upsides and downsides to shooting RAW format. The main downside is file size. If you want to edit hundreds of RAW photos at once you’ll need a desktop computer with 64GB of RAM and a fast SSD hard drive. If you don’t have a desktop computer with a lot of memory you may find working with RAW files a real pain. I have done wedding shoots as a 2nd and some of the photographers I work with don’t want to deal with RAW files because they’re just too big. The fact is that even though computers have gotten faster over the years, images have also gotten bigger.
The benefits to shooting in RAW
Despite the file sizes there are good reasons to shoot in RAW.
First, RAW files aren’t directly modified. When you make changes to a RAW file using Adobe Camera RAW or a similar program those changes are saved in a separate file. This type of editing is called non-destructive editing and represents one of the key advantages of a RAW file.
Another advantage to RAW is increased bit depth. While JPGs are limited to 8 bits RAW files are 12-14 bits. The increased bit depths allows RAW files to retain more information about the scene. The difference between 8 bits and 12 bits may not seem like much but is actually a huge difference in practice. In fact, a JPG only records 256 levels of brightness. Whereas RAW files can record between 4,096 to 16,384 levels of brightness. If you’re thinking right now that JPGs sound like they’re junk, you’re right. The unfortunate thing is most monitors aren’t much better than a JPG at displaying brightness levels so it can be hard to see what you’re missing by using a JPG.
The extra bit depth in a RAW file makes adjusting the exposure of your shot after the fact much more effective. Since the shadows retain so much information it can be possible to boost them up to make the image brighter if needed. The reverse is also true in that RAW files typically make it much easier to recover highlight information. It can be the difference in having a properly exposed sky or a blown out exposure.
White balancing is more flexible in RAW format. With a RAW file the white balance can be changed to whatever you want without clipping color information in the image.
RAW files can be accurately converted to other color spaces like ProPhoto RGB. If for instance you start with JPG’s saved in the sRGB color space you can’t convert up to ProPhoto because in a JPG the data is simply lost. If you start with a RAW you can effectively target any existing color space.
There are other reasons to use RAW files, but those are probably the most important. I really enjoy working with RAW files personally because I know I always have an original I can go back to and try a totally different editing process on. Being able to experiment with photos like that has allowed me to get much better at editing. For that reason alone I would highly recommend shooting in RAW.
You probably notice that a lot of the advantages for RAW have to do with image quality. The truth is you invested a lot in your camera, your lens, your software, and your time. A JPG is really only a small piece of the information your camera collected when it took the picture. If you value your investment in your equipment I would shoot RAW 100% of the time.