Should you shoot raw?

So you got yourself a fancy new camera. You want to take pictures that would look better than the ones taken by your phone. You go out, take some pictures bring them back only to realize they don’t look that much better than the ones taken with your phone.

So you check out what settings professionals use when taking pictures. You quickly learn they are taking pictures in RAW format. You go out again, take pictures with raw. Come back and realize all the pictures look so much worse it is not even funny anymore.

So should you shoot raw? The short answer is: You should first understand what the hell you are doing!

Everything in the camera is there for a reason. To actually get good results, you must understand what each setting does and what are the reasons for using it.

So let’s take the RAW format. What does it actually do?

When shooting JPEG images: Camera captures the light information on sensor. The camera applies selected color profile on the image which optimizes the image for viewing and then passes the data to JPEG compressor.

When you take a photo with RAW format, not just the step of saving file to JPEG format is skipped, but also the step of applying the color profile. What you get is a file with just the raw sensor data.

What many people don’t realize is the fact that this data is not actually good quality end product. As the camera does not process the image to be suitable for viewing, somebody has to. For this you need both software to do it and some skills.

Cameras often come with some proprietary software that allows basic raw editing, but most people who take many photos use Adobe Lightroom for both editing and organizing photos. There are couple of alternatives on the market as well such as DxO OpticsPro and Capture One Pro as well as free alternatives such as RawTherapee.

But important thing is: you do need to edit your raw photos. Raw files themselves do not even try to look good on their own, they are just data. You also need to know a little about photo editing to get good results. Getting the basics is very easy, there are tons of tutorials online on how to set the levels and contrast of the image as well as ones that go into depths of photo editing, just watch some and you will get a lot better results in few hours.

In the end it is important to understand what you are doing. So here is my recommendations for choosing settings in your camera:

Shoot RAW if…

  1. You know how to do raw processing.
  2. You know you are able to achieve better results from raw files than camera can with just JPEG files.
  3. You want to keep highest quality files.

Shoot JPEG if…

  1. You don’t know much about photo editing and don’t really care either.
  2. Want good looking pictures to quickly share them
  3. You know your camera well and you know how to get good JPEG pictures from it.

Shoot JPEG+RAW if…

  1. You are just starting with raw editing and are not certain how to get good results yet. This allows you to compare your results with the JPEG file as well as gives you opportunity to quickly share higher quality pictures without worrying about the raw files.
  2. You want to share pictures quickly, but you want to better quality files in case you stumble on some great shots that may later need professional retouching.
  3. You know your camera well and you know how to get good JPEG pictures from it, but you still would like RAW file in case JPEG out of the camera does not match your expectations.

So in case you do want to take great picture you have to remember just shooting manual mode and RAW won’t get you there. There is a reason to everything what pros to. They know they can get better pictures by shooting RAW and later editing the files. So can you, but you have to learn how to get the good exposures, which result in great photographs, and how to edit them to bring out just the right details that make them shine.

If you are not into that. just experiment with the camera profiles. Take pictures in JPEG format and your results will be better than unprofessionally processed or totally unprocessed raw files.