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Why you should shoot RAW

I have never understood why DSLRs are set to shoot in JPG mode out of the box. It’s like Usain Bolt lining up for the Olympic 100 meters final in clogs! If your DSLR is still set to JPG and not RAW format I hope this post will convince you to change it.

A RAW file is exactly what it sounds like – it’s the RAW data, the stream of ones and zeros, that the sensor dumps every time the shutter clicks. Absolutely nothing gets done to it. No compression, no sharpening, no white balance, no picture styles. Nothing. In fact it’s not even an image until it gets converted when you import it into Lightroom, Photoshop or even the free software than came with your camera.

So if a RAW file is pretty much useless when it comes out of the camera, what’s so good about it? Doesn’t it just take up 5 times the space on your memory card and make yourself more work? Well yes, but it’s still worth it.

Think of a RAW file as the contents of your fridge and a JPG file as a cheese and ham omelette. The omelette will always be an omelette. The separate ingredients are already combined into something and you can’t get them back. The fridge however still has the individual ingredients. Sure, you can make the same omelette if you want but you can make a lot of other things too.

That metaphor is making me hungry so I’ll explain it another way. If you are shooting JPG, your camera makes a lot of choices for you at the time of exposure. It takes the data from the sensor throws away a lot of it by making it into a 8 bit JPG, then it bakes in the white balance setting, even if it’s wrong, then it sharpens the file and applies any saturation tweaks and contrast boosts before it compresses it and saves it to your memory card. Once that’s done, it’s done. Cheese and ham omelette.

That reduction to 8 bit is a big reason for shooting RAW where you get to keep all 12 or 14 bits. Putting it simply, more bits mean more dynamic range. More detail in the highlights and shadows. Let’s say you are shooting a bride in her wedding dress against a dark wooden door of an old church. A JPG file will give you 256 levels of white while a RAW file gives you at least 4096. If you expose your JPG perfectly you’ll have detail in the dress but the door will just be flat black.  With RAW you’ll have detail in the highlights and the shadows and with a tool like Lightroom or Camera RAW in Photoshop you’ll be able to really bring that detail out.

Then there are the ass-covering benefits of shooting RAW. Let’s say you are having a bad day and you’ve just shot 200 JPG’s outdoors on Tungsten white balance with -1 exposure compensation dialed in by mistake. You can crank your exposure with a JPG file but you are going to introduce more noise and banding in the shadows and that blue tinge you are left with is going to take some real effort to fix and it still won’t be perfect. If you’d shot RAW, the file would have had enough latitude to pull back that 1 stop easily and correcting the white balance is just a single click.

Are you a JPG shooter who’s now going to switch, still a die hard JPGer or  have you always shot RAW? Hit the comments and let me know.

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