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RAW Mode Explained

In the vast majority of cases only DSLR cameras are capable of shooting in RAW mode. Check your camera, if you have the option to shoot in RAW mode (as opposed to JPEG or any other format) then you have access to images that are of a far higher quality than you may have thought possible. Of course it isn't just as simple as switching to RAW mode and pointing and shooting, the easiest analogy to use is that you should consider your RAW images like negatives. (They are not literally inverted like a negative image and will appear normal, but keep this comparison in mind when working in RAW). Firstly to clear up some confusion, RAW does not stand for anything. There is no real reason why RAW is capitalised, in fact raw would be linguistically correct as you are simply referring to the raw data taken by your cameras sensor, however convention has us use RAW so I will continue to do so for convenience.

The vast majority of digital cameras on the market shoot primarily in JPEG mode rather than RAW; whilst this is fine for your common-or-garden digital happy snapper for a professional or often even an amateur digital SLR owner obtaining the maximum image quality possible is vital. Unlike RAW JPEG is an acronym; it stands for Joint Photographic Experts Group and is designed with compression, not quality in mind. This was important in the past because digital storage for your camera was very expensive so it was important that photographers were able to take a relatively large number of images without having to change memory cards every few images. The second you take an image the camera takes the information from the sensor and compresses it. In a 10 megapixel camera a typical high quality JPEG can be compressed down to just under 5 megabytes, which may sound large but when you consider that the RAW data will be almost 16 megabytes you can see why most people use JPEG.

Obviously shooting in RAW allows for a far greater image quality but more importantly (and as the name RAW implies) it will also completely bypass all of the in camera processing and effects such as saturation, sharpness, added brightness, and white balance. Whilst this may sound absurd it is in fact perfectly logical; if you shoot in JPEG this added processing cannot be removed from the image, your picture will forever be ever so slightly adjusted from a true real life representation. Of course a processed JPEG will produce a better immediate picture to be printed to hang on the wall than shooting in RAW, however RAW gives you the flexibility to go back and manually add any processing in a piece of software on your PC. Since you are working with exactly the same information that the camera would normally work with you can be sure that when you are finished your picture will be of the highest possible quality.

This image (credited to www.ixbt.com) demonstrates the difference between RAW and JPEG. As you can see the JPEG image is brighter and much more colourful due to the cameras processing, but is blurry and suffers from "compression artifacts". From this comparison you can understand how much more versatile shooting in RAW is.

If you aren't comfortable with using 3rd party software to edit your image or you disagree with the concept then shooting in RAW is not for you. You will almost certainly spend a large amount of time processing each image manually at the end of the hard days shooting, and the process of applying your own processing and filters to the image will become almost as important in your mind as photographing the actual image itself. And the best thing about this kind of post processing is rather than have the image processed and compressed by the camera you can do this yourself and keep a copy from every step of your work if need be, so you can always go back to the RAW image data from the camera if you make an alteration you are not fond of. You can also save the results of your labour as a high quality TIFF or BMP image as well as keeping the original RAW image file so you will not loose any image quality even though you have applied your post-processing. Finally when you are happy with your work you can then take the step of converting to JPEG if you need to for internet transfer.

If you are serious about digital photography and genuinely want to get the most out of your camera then shooting in RAW is the best way to go about things. Admittedly you may need to invest in more digital storage for your camera (and even a bigger hard drive on occasion) but the results will be worthwhile once you get to grips with amending your own images in post processing.