Friday, April 1, 2005
Getting The Most From RAW
A valuable tool for the digital photographer, RAW must be treated with respect to maximize its benefits
Digital offers so many new choices that it can be confusing at times. Remember what it was like when we first started photographing—our choices were befuddling then, too. We had no idea of what an ƒ-stop was or why we should choose a particular ƒ-stop and shutter speed combination. And what about depth of field versus selective focus?
Digital capture is similar—new things to learn that, once mastered, will be taken for granted. Sometimes, the choices aren't perfectly clear, like RAW and JPEG. Let's explore why RAW can be an important choice for many photographers, with ideas on getting the most from it.
I've covered JPEG and internal processing in cameras in the past because I felt there were many photographers who would be better suited shooting that way, yet the tech folks pushed RAW without consideration of how a photographer liked to work. Well-meaning experts often promote one approach to digital, but some photographers uncomfortable with that way lose some of their enthusiasm for our medium. If you get the results you want and need from high-quality JPEG, then keep doing it.
RAW is an extremely important tool for the digital photographer, however. There are three reasons why photographers should use it, I believe: they like processing images; they find limitations, causing them problems when shooting JPEG; and they need the increased flexibility RAW offers. RAW shouldn't be an automatic format to use because another photographer says so—that can lead to frustration in the time spent at the computer and when working with the RAW converter.
Once you decide to work with RAW, it's essential to understand that RAW requires a certain workflow to maximize its benefits. Many photographers now shoot RAW + JPEG so they get the best of both formats—a great way to go (especially since memory cards now offer a lot of megabytes with less cost). You gain the increased flexibility of RAW when you need it and the ability to work quickly with JPEG files when that's appropriate.
To use RAW to its best advantage, let's cover some basics. It certainly isn't a magic bullet that transforms any kind of exposure or lighting condition into a great shot. RAW is a type of image file with minimal change to the data coming from the sensor. It isn't unprocessed data as you may have read—the sensor creates analog information that must be processed into digital data. This is accomplished with the A/D converter and is a complex engineering challenge that, luckily, camera manufacturers have mastered for us.
A RAW file holds more tonal and color information than JPEG and offers a great deal of flexibility in how you can work the tones and color in an image. With RAW, you can frequently extract tones and details from the brightest and darkest areas of an image that have no detail in a JPEG file. In addition, image tonal qualities can be maintained throughout a greater range of adjustments done in RAW.
RAW allows you to enlarge digital images to a larger size with higher quality when done in the RAW converter than if you enlarge them later in Photoshop or using most other enlarging software. This can be remarkable, allowing superb-quality prints from even small digital files.There have been many misconceptions about RAW, however. One of the most common and unfortunate myths we hear is that RAW is so adaptable that you don't have to be as concerned about exposure or color since you can fix it in RAW.
The problem with such thinking is that it shortchanges RAW, creates more work to do in the computer (which can be frustrating) and can give you less than the best tonalities and color. Consider a couple of things: RAW comes from a sensor that has a finite range from black to white —if your exposure is outside of that range, nothing can bring it back, not even RAW; and RAW comes from a digital translation of analog information given by the sensor—GIGO (garbage in, garbage out) is definitely appropriate here. RAW does its best when it has good files from the start.
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