Why RAW files are the best choice to get the most out of your post-processing
Do you use RAW files in your photography? If you don't you're missing out on a lot of possibilities,
Let me ask you another question. Do you cook? If you do, you want to use the best raw materials. Good raw materials are essential when you want the best possible results. But if you don’t know what to do with the stuff it doesn’t matter how good they are. You must know how to mix the ingredients and cook the dish. But with the wrong ingredients you'll not be able to make a tasteful dish no matter how good a cook you are.
You might ask what this has to do with landscape photography? Let me explain.
RAW is a file format where all the information the camera sensor capture is stored without any loss of information. It’s the very best file you can get from your camera. A RAW file is not an image file as such. You will not be able to view the photos unless you use a dedicated software.
For many, this is the main drawback of using RAW. But no worries, there a lot of software option you can use, both free and paid versions. With RAW you take control and process your photos on the computer rather than letting the camera automatically do the processing.
You’ll find a lot of articles on the Internet listing the pros and cons using RAW vs. JPG. They both have advantages and disadvantages. It’s not difficult to make a long list about this. This article, however, is not aimed at pointing out all the differences between them. I’ll rather look at the topic from a practical point of view and as a landscape photographer.
RAW files are a must in landscape photography
One of the challenges in landscape photography is difficult light situations. Intense sunlight creates high contrast, often at the limit of what your camera can handle. The result is extreme highlights and shadows with no details. Without a RAW file, it’s almost impossible to fix this extreme dynamic range. You’ll be surprised to see how much information you can pull out of a RAW file.
Some photographers will tell you, “you should get the exposure right in the camera.” Ideally, they are right, but of reasons, this does not always happen.
Most beginners don't shoot RAW. It’s a pity as beginners will benefit from using RAW files as much as pros. As you learn about exposure and camera settings, you will fail from time to time. If you save the files as RAW, you give yourself a second chance to adjust the exposure, when you edit.
In this image shot directly into the sun, the dynamic range is extremely high. It would have been impossible to recover details in both highlights and shadows without using a RAW file.
Why you should save as RAW and why you might not
If you edit or plan to edit your photos, you have no option. You should set your camera to RAW, now. Don’t wait!
If you don't edit and know for sure you never will (how can you?), well, in that case, save as JPG.
I saved my files as JPG for a long time after I bought a camera with RAW capabilities. I don’t know why I did, but probably it was to save space on my memory cards. And of course, at that time I did not know what a RAW file was and what it could do to my photos.
I regret this today. With better RAW converters and my improved skills, I could have saved some of my older photos with editing. Instead these photos are now marked as rejected.
All these old JPG files suffer from lack of data, giving me little room for post-processing. At the time you save your files as JPG, you throw away image data. You’ll never be able to recover the lost data. The data becomes diluted.
Another aspect is the better capabilities of modern RAW converters. When I re-edit some of by best photos from years back (saved as RAW), the difference is amazing. I can recover so much more information from the same file now compared to what I could with earlier versions of Lightroom.
Are arguments for saving files as JPG valid?
I’m surprised how many beginner photographers are spending money on a new camera or lens (for the sake of better quality), but continue to save their files as JPG. In digital photography, the last step in producing a photo is the editing. If you don’t edit, you miss out on perfecting your photos and giving them your personal flavor. Strange enough it seems editing is not a part of many photographers workflow.
A common argument for JPG is “I want to be able to post to social media without having to edit first.” No problem, you can. You can always set your camera to save a small JPG besides the RAW file. Now you can upload the small JPG to the Internet.
Unless your camera has WiFi, you’ll have to transfer your photos to a computer before you can upload them to the web anyway. But I guess most photos you upload directly to the Internet are snapshots taken with a phone camera.
I have my camera set to save as RAW+JPG. This setting uses a little more space on the memory card. But heck, memory cards are cheap now.
I cannot remember I have used any of the JPG files ever. All the photos I post or print are a somehow edited in Lightroom or Photoshop. As a landscape photographer, I don’t capture hundreds of photos each time I shoot, so I have the time to edit.
Some photographers suggest it’s OK to save JPG when the light conditions are easy to handle and RAW in more challenging situations. Exposure is important but what if you want to do other fixes on your photo, like color and contrast? What if you don't agree with the setting your camera chose? What if that one photo was a killer shot, a photo you might want to sell or print. Data lost is data lost.
This image has no extreme bright or dark areas. It's easy to get a good exposure from one shot. The photo needs only small adjustments and a JPG file will be OK in such a situation. The light conditions are by no means challenging.
Aren’t there any reasons to save as JPG?
Are there any situations you will benefit from shooting JPG? I can only think of a couple of reasons.
Time and storage
Backing up RAW files that are many times larger than the compressed JPG’s takes more time. For professional photographers time is money. It’s important to get the photos ready and sent to the client as efficient as possible. For wedding and portrait photographers taking hundreds if not thousands of photos at a shoot, time can be an issue.
But for most photographers, time is not a limiting factor. If you love photography and are a hobbyist, spending the extra time saving RAW files is a good insurance.
If you can’t decide, should you be switching between RAW and JPG?
No, you shouldn’t.
I have done this mistake a few times as I have filled up all my memory cards and still had to get some more shots. To save space on my memory card, I switched the camera to save the files as low-resolution JPG and no RAW. These photos were not very important, so I was OK with JPG.
Next time I used the camera, I was attending a workshop. I forgot to change the settings back to RAW. I shot for two whole days saving my files as low-resolution JPG. A shocking experience, but no one else to blame than me. Since then I rarely change this setting. Instead, I make sure I have spare memory cards with me.
With modern cameras you can save your files both as RAW+JPG. There are few valid reasons not to make sure you have a RAW copy of your photos. The only reason is time. There is no way around the fact it takes longer to download the RAW files from the camera and to backup them up. If you have the slightest interest in post-processing, you have no choice than RAW. You want the best possible results, right?
If you are unsure about the capabilities of your computer or you currently don't have software to handle RAW files, save as RAW+JPG and use the JPG file for now. Backup and keep the RAW file until you are ready to edit your photos. You’ll not regret.