Shooting Raw Format Photos: 8 Questions Every Beginner Wants Answered

Shooting raw format photos means fewer pictures on your card and more time spent editing your images. So why do nearly all pros do it? Below find answers to 8 common questions every beginner has about shooting raw format.
Shooting raw format photos: 8 questions every beginner wants answered
01 Is raw a good thing, as in sushi, or a bad thing, as in sewerage?
Read on as we explain the pros and cons. Essentially, raw is a file format and is generally the one digital alternative you get to shooting in JPEG. Being able to choose a raw format shooting option is one of the advantages of using a digital SLR or a top-of-the-range compact.
02 So what’s its advantage over the universally popular JPEG?
The raw file, as its name suggests, stores the data from your camera’s sensor in a raw, unprocessed state. This presents a number of advantages in terms of flexibility and image quality.
Some like to think of raw files as the digital equivalent of the old-fashioned film negative. This modern “negative” stores lots of information that can then be accessed by careful craftsmanship in the “digital darkroom” – a computer loaded with a suitable editing program.
A raw file gives you all the raw data, so you can tweak settings at a later date without affecting image quality.
Sharpness settings, contrast, white balance and even exposure are some of the key things that you can alter when you get back home to the computer.
03 Isn’t that cheating? Shouldn’t you get those settings right when you take the picture?
Some old-timers might argue that, but the beauty of the digital process is that you have so much more control over your results.
Thanks to the raw format, you can tweak the colour, brightness and shadow detail, and all in a non-destructive way. Because it is possible, a good photographer should take full advantage of the facility.
It’s not just for rescuing less successful shots – in fact, it’s the scope to fine-tune contrast, colour and more that is the real appeal of the raw format.
04 Does raw bring anything else to the party?
Yes. It captures more information than a JPEG. JPEGs are eight-bit files – offering values from 00000000 to 11111111 for each of the three primary colours (red, green and blue).
For those who don’t speak fluent binary code, this means a JPEG provides 256 separate values for each colour channel.
This impressively offers a gamut of 16.7 million colours for each pixel in the picture (256x256x256). However, a digital SLR can detect much more detail than this…
05 How much more?
Digital SLRs are typically either 12-bit or 14-bit devices – offering around 4,000 or 16,000 brightness levels per channel.
This translates into a maximum of 68.7 billion or four trillion different colours.
That may sound like overkill, but recording all of these in a raw file enables you to make serious alterations to contrast, exposure and colour balance during the editing process without nasty side effects such as posterisation.
Top-end editing programs can use 16-bit processing to ensure you retain all the available data throughout the editing process.
Shooting raw format photos: how your sensor processes JPEG and raw files
06 Do all editing programs support raw?
Most offer at least some form of raw support. Many of the programs supplied with your camera will enable you to process raw files, and recent versions of popular photo editing software such as Serif PhotoPlus, Adobe Photoshop, Photoshop Elements and Corel PaintShop Pro have full support for raw files.
However, raw is not a standardised file format. Each manufacturer uses its own proprietary system for encoding the data.
Plus, with each new version of a camera released, new code changes are introduced. This means that editing programs need to be constantly updated to support the raw files of the latest cameras.
07 That sounds mad! Why is this the case?
It can be infuriating, certainly. Updates for the editing program can take a while to become available when new cameras appear and Adobe, infamously, does not offer updates for old versions of Photoshop (so you have to update the whole program, rather than simply downloading a free replacement plug-in if you are not using the latest version of its market-leading software).
Adobe has tried to encourage the industry to switch to DNG – an open-source raw standard, but only a few manufacturers have embraced this.
08 Should I use the raw format all the time?
Generally, you should use the raw format whenever possible. There are disadvantages, though. For starters, the files take up more room on your memory card and computer than a JPEG.
This means they’re going to take longer to record to your memory card in the first place.
This has a knock-on effect as to the maximum number of files you can take in continuous shooting mode before the buffer is full and the camera temporarily freezes.
In raw, some DSLRs will hit this barrier after just three or four shots.
So sports and action photographers tend to shoot in JPEG, which enables them to shoot longer rapid-fire sequences, minimising the risk of missing the best shot.