By far the most common file format for images is JPEG (.jpg). It’s everywhere — it’s what you upload to photo posting sites, it’s what you use when you want your photo printed, it’s what every camera generates by default, and it’s what every image viewing/editing software can handle. So you may think I’m a little crazy when I tell you that if your camera supports RAW, you shouldn’t use your camera’s JPEG mode.
You may think I’m even more crazy when I tell you all the disadvantages of RAW when shooting cosplay:
- RAW files are big – sometimes 3 or 4 times as big. That means signficiantly fewer photos will fit on your memory card, fewer photos will fit on your computer’s hard drive, and opening each photo will take longer. If you have a very old computer, you may need to upgrade it before it can handle RAW.
- You can’t do much with RAW files directly. You can’t post them to Facebook or other websites, you can’t send them to be printed, and very few programs know how to open them. You will need to convert them into JPEG first, using special RAW processing software that you may or may not already have.
- RAW files are specific to your brand and model of camera. Canon RAW and Nikon RAW are completely different, and every model of Canon or Nikon generates a slightly diferent type of file. However, most third-party software that processes RAW can handle most of the variations.
First, though, you may be wondering what RAW is. To explain that, you have to understand what happens when you shoot JPEG. When your camera takes a photo in JPEG mode, it reads the light sensor inside your camera, runs a small program to decide the best way to process the photo, and then writes the results as a JPEG file on your memory card. Because of the way JPEG works, some of the information that was initially read from the light sensor is discarded as unneeded in the process. This makes JPEG like a scrambled egg — you can’t unscramble (unprocess) it, and then rescramble (reprocess) it a different way. You’re stuck with the decisions the in-camera processing program decided to use the moment you took the photo.
When you shoot RAW, the camera reads the light sensor and runs the small internal processing program, same as JPEG, but instead of actually doing the processing, it saves the raw light sensor readings along with what processing it would have done into the RAW file. To extend the analogy above, it saves the unscrambled egg along with its recipe for how to scramble it. When you process the photo, you can use the same recipe (and end up with the same JPEG you would have gotten in JPEG mode), or you can modify/replace it with something else.
Because RAW preserves the most information from the moment you took the photo, it gives you the most room to fix mistakes (yours and the camera’s) when processing your photos. In addition to saving the processing recipe and sensor information seperately (and thereby letting you change the recipe when the camera makes a mistake), it also saves more information about the brightest and darkest areas in your photo. You can use this information when processing your RAW photos to fix under- or over-exposed photos that would have been unfixable had you shot JPEG. You can even use one RAW photo to generate an HDR image. (I’ll discuss HDR more in a future post.)
For example, here’s one shot of bekalou at Fanime 2011. On the left is the way the camera’s built-in processing program would have processed it had I shot JPEG. On the right is the corrected image as processed by using different, better settings.
This would not have been possible had I shot JPEG, because the additonal light sensor information would have been lost in the in-camera processing.
As I mentioned above, RAW photos do require processing and conversion to JPEG before you can post/share/print them. The most popular programs for doing that are Adobe Lightroom and Apple Aperture. Adobe Photoshop and many other higher-end photo processing apps will also handle RAW. If you’re on a limited budget, Canon cameras come with a free RAW app named Digital Photo Professional. (I believe Nikon charges money for their equivalent app, unfortunately.)
All DSLRs and many high-end point-and-shoot cameras will shoot RAW. If you’re using a low-end point-and-shoot or a camera phone, RAW is not an option for you. If you’re unsure, check your camera’s manual.
Shooting RAW does have the downsides I mentioned at the beginning, and processing RAW does take practice. However, in the end, shooting RAW makes producing amazing photos much easier, and therefore, I definitely think it’s worth the effort.