Old school negatives

Why you need to switch to RAW format right now

Once your camera’s sensor has finished capturing the light from your scene, your camera takes that raw data and using some predefined settings converts it into a compressed JPEG file. Don’t let it! You want that raw data, you don’t want to make those conversion decisions on the spot. This raw data holds far more information than a JPEG and therefore allows you to defer many important creative decisions until you are in a comfortable chair with a glass of wine in your hand.

Lets look at what a jpeg is. A jpeg is comparible to an MP3. When these file formats were invented, it was a revolution. A jpeg and mp3 can reduce the size of a photo/sound file by 10x. This is amazing, sure. But guess how they do it? They basically remove the data from the file that humans cannot perceive. Humans are incapable of hearing or seeing certain frequencies. Think of how dog’s get upset when someone starts blowing a high pitched whistle, or how people with infrared goggles can see in the dark. There is information that electronic devices, such as cameras and microphones can record that we can’t hear. But what if you want to use that data?

RAW format gives you a new world of flexibility. It’s been described as a digital negative (comparing it to the set of negatives that you used to get with old film cameras) but it’s actually even better than that. Things like white balance, quality, hue, saturation, exposure, colour space, bracketing for HDR… all these settings that you think are important on your camera — with RAW, you can forget about those settings until you have a computer around and focus on taking a great photo.

RAW holds far more information about the image than a JPEG, and the file size reflects this. RAW files are usually around 10x larger than a high quality JPEG, which makes the ‘delete early, delete often’ process even more important.

RAW holds information that our eye can’t see… but using a program like Lightroom, we can reveal that information. So if a photo is a little too dark, no problem, we can make it brighter without losing quality. If a picture was taken with a cloudy white balance, no problem, change it to sunny without losing quality. If you used too much saturation, you can take some out. You only got one shot of a great HDR scene, no problem, you can create 5 JPEGS with different brackets of exposure from the same RAW file. That’s right folks you guessed it, without losing quality.

This week’s tip

Have you ever been in a low light situation and you have your aperture wide open, your ISO set as high as you dare to go leaving you with the shutter speed decision. If you go any longer than around 1/125 the photo will blur, but if you don’t, then the photo will be under exposed and you wont see anything. You have reached the limitation of your camera. RAW to the rescue. Snap away with your shutter speed on 1/125s, the photo will appear under exposed, but later in Lightroom you will be able to raise the exposure 3 stops without losing quality. Your dark photo will suddenly be full of light. Thank you RAW!

A JPEG removes the information that our eye cannot perceive using compression, which is great for reducing the file size. This means you can transfer the image to a USB stick faster or upload it to your blog easier and your mum can download it in her email faster. But when you want to alter the photo in any way, it’s too late.

Each camera manufacturer has their own RAW image format. Once you tell you camera to switch to RAW, you will notice it starts to produce files with a strange extension on the memory card. Pentax uses PEF or PTX, Canon uses CRW or CR2, Nikon uses NEF or NRW, Casio uses BAY, Olympus uses ORF. The standard is supposed to be DNG but that has not really taken off. Most operating systems stay up to date with these formats but you may have to install a plugin in order to see your files once they are on your computer.

Once you have opened the RAW files in a program like Lightroom or even your camera’s proprietary software, you can dictate how they will be converted into JPEGS in your own terms.

Switch your camera to RAW today and feel the difference.

Once a week I will post a travel photography tip. Sometimes a large one, sometimes a small one. The idea is to help you become a better photographer while travelling in a foreign land taking the most interesting pictures of your life. Enjoy!