So what exactly is RAW?  Contrary to popular belief it is not a file format like JPEG or TIFF.  The term RAW simply refers to a file that has had minimal or no in camera processing performed on it.  When shooting under the standard or jpeg setting in your digital camera the processor takes steps to manipulate the white balance, contrast, sharpness, and color saturation based on the setting you have on the camera or automatically based on how the camera is programed.  After doing so the files are compressed to some extent.  RAW file formats vary from one camera manufacturer to another.  My Sony Alpha for example uses ARW.

Here are a few pros and cons (as I see them) to help you determine if shooting in RAW is right for you.

PROS of Shooting in RAW

1) More control in post-production

When you shoot in RAW the camera leaves it to you to do the processing of the image.  This means you have total control over the image in the post production process (think PhotoShop).  All the adjustments you may want to make such as white balance, saturation, levels, contrast, curves, image size, etc. are available to do on the original unprocessed image.  If you have some skills with a program such as PhotoShop this kind of control can be invaluable and leaves the creative power up to you, not the camera.

2) No loss of image data from the JPEG conversion process

When the camera processes the image into a JPEG file format part of that processing involves some compression and therefore loss of original image data.  A JPEG is a lossy file type meaning some data is “thrown away” each time the file is saved to the JPEG format.  You will lose color saturation, color range and sharpness.  This is not the case with RAW since there is no in camera processing.

3) You will always have your “negative” to go back to.

Unless you delete it or save the original as another format your RAW file will always remain as the untouched/unprocessed original “negative” of your image.  This allows you to go back to it again and again and make changes.  You can try different techniques and adjustments to get the final image you want without ever losing that original RAW file data.

CONS of Shooting in RAW

1) Larger file sizes decrease the number of images you can fit on your memory card

Since a RAW file is not compressed like a JPEG it stand to reason that it will take up more space on your memory card.  For example I use a 4 GB memory card.  When I set the image format to a standard JPEG I can get 1512 images on the card, a heck of a lot.  When I change the format to RAW, I can get 266 images on that same 4 GB card.  That is still a lot, but it is 1246 less than when shooting in JPEG alone.

2) You have to have the appropriate software to open the file

Unlike a JPEG, which can be read and edited (to some extent) with the standard photo software included with most PC and Mac operating systems, RAW files require more advanced software to be read and edited.  If you are already using PhotoShop that should not be a problem, but it something to keep in mind.  You do not want to shoot for a day only to find out you can’t open the image files.

3) You need more room to store the photos

Based on #1 the larger file size of RAW images is going to require more storage space.  Just as your memory card can fill up quickly so can your hard drive space if you shoot often.  The space needed can add up even quicker if you are editing your images and saving the edited copies as well as the original RAW file (which you should).  A 1.5 TB (that is terabyte) drive for under $200 can easily resolve that issue, but the more you shoot the more space you will need.

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