What is RAW and why is it important?
When you’re looking at a camera, do you look at the types of files you can save your images to? All cameras can save to Jpeg. This is more or less the industry standard. Jpeg is a lossy file format. What it does is compress your images by discarding information it thinks is redundant to save space. Jpeg is wonderful at saving space on your memory card. The problem with it however, is what exactly is it throwing away to save that space?
Here is a short link on Jpeg:
To most people, the redundant information that is being thrown out is not missed, or needed. Jpeg does a really good job for what it does. However, some of that info it thinks isn't worthwhile can be quite the opposite. It all depends on what you’re shooting, and the quality you’re looking for.
Now in the bad old days of cameras, you would often see another form of saving files called TIFF. Now Tiff is not a lossy file format, meaning your not letting the camera algorythems decide what information to keep and discard. This means that Tiff files are of much better quality and nuance then Jpeg files. Now, very few cameras use Tiff file formats to save photos because of one very large problem...image size. There was little to no gain in space saving when you saved your photos in Tiff. These super huge files would also bog down computers of the day, and tax the processing power of cameras, etc. Because of these issues with Tiff, you don't see it often on many cameras these days.
Here is a good link that will give you more information on Tiff
Instead, you now get RAW. Most top end cameras will give you a RAW setting, and you are doing yourself a disservice if your camera can save in RAW and you haven't tried it yet.
RAW is basically a proprietary file that dumps everything that the image sensor sees with little to no post processing. Now why is this valuable you may ask? Before we get into the good points of why you should at least try it, let me tell you a few of the bad points.
1. It is proprietary. Meaning every manufacturer will have their own specialized format. No industry standard like Jpeg or Tiff.
2. You will need to do the post processing yourself using a RAW editor that can read the proprietary files.
3. This means that you will have to put more work into it and this can be time consuming.
4. You just can't read RAW files like you could with Jpeg or Tiff. You have to use a RAW editor or an image editor with RAW capabilities to process them first.
Here is a link that explains the major problem with proprietary file formats in RAW.
The problem with RAW
Now that we got that out of the way, the good points sometimes far outweigh the bad. The major benefit to RAW is that it is a true capture (as true as it can be, as the camera still has to do some processing) of what the camera sensor sees. This means you’re not loosing any data. Furthermore, you can now have greater latitude in your post processing. When you save a RAW image, your not losing anything. This is not something you can say about Jpeg or Tiffs.
Another important point is that you are now getting more colours and more detail. You now get a 16 bit image as opposed to an 8 bit image. 16 bit contains far more colours then an 8 bit image. This allows you greater flexibility in bringing out details, especially in highlight and shadows.
There is far more to RAW, but I will only post a few links to explain the nuances.
RAW vs Jpeg
Now that we sort of know what RAW is, what can we do with it? Here is a good link to a typical RAW workflow. Workflow means the steps one must take to properly process their photographs using digital image editing tools (FYI).
(If you’re interested in learning far more, then be sure to click on his articles page link at the bottom of the workflow article. You will be treated to a cornucopia of wonderful information. For instance, he has a series of RAW articles not to mention general photography, miscellaneous, and digital editing articles)
So next time your looking for a camera and top image quality is important to you be sure to see if it will save in RAW. Likewise, if you’re not sure, check your current camera. You just might have a RAW capability you didn’t know about. If so, be sure to work in the RAW a little to see what it can do for you.
Before I leave, something you should know about RAW capable cameras…most come with a RAW editor. Nikon is about the only manufacturer that still requires you to spend 90 extra to get their editor. It does not come in the box. Likewise, many image editors now come with very capable RAW editors built in. Photoshop CS2 has a fairly good one integrated in it.