Is it Essential to Always Shoot RAW?

If you don’t already shoot RAW files, you’re probably wondering if you should be. Most photographers begin their shooting adventures by only capturing JPEGs, and the idea of shooting RAW is a little daunting when you’re starting out. Some photographers never explore the creative potential of RAW files and stick to always shooting JPEGs. In my opinion they’re missing out.

Most cameras let you shoot JPEGs, RAWs or TIFFs

In order to fathom how shooting RAW can drastically transform your photography, it’s important to understand how RAW files differ from JPEGs.

A RAW file is essentially uncompressed data from your camera’s image sensor. It’s called ‘raw’ because the information hasn’t yet been processed into a regular image format. Many people think of it as a ‘digital negative’ as it requires processing before it can be used, just like a film negative.

As the RAW file hasn’t undergone any processing, when it’s viewed straight out of camera the image will often look somewhat flat and muted, so it usually needs a bit of tweaking to perk it up. Pretty much every camera is capable of creating RAW files, even many smartphones offer RAW shooting, but you’ll need specialist software like Photoshop or Lightroom to view and edit the files.

RAW files need post-processing in software like Lightroom before they can be used

The primary benefit of working with RAW is that it offers ‘non-destructive editing’. This means the original file is never altered, no matter how many edits you do. You can always undo any processing at any time and restore it to the captured version. Whenever you want to ‘save’ and use an image, a JPEG is created from the RAW file, leaving the original untouched.

As RAW files are uncompressed they have the full range of image data, giving you much more opportunity when it comes to reworking the image. This is vital on those occasions where you totally need to ‘rescue’ a shot. Like when there’s a mistake with the metering and your pic is underexposed by 4 stops, or when there’s multiple light sources and the White Balance is distractingly inaccurate. It happens, and it’s not always possible to get it perfect in camera. Problems like this can be fixed in an instant when editing a RAW file.

Working with RAW allows you to have much more control over the look of your image

The other big draw of working with RAW is that if offers the optimum image quality. This should appeal to every photographer who wants the best from every shot. Even accurate exposures can be improved upon, and RAW gives you control over how much detail is visible in your shot. You can reveal hidden detail in the highlights and shadows with RAW to expand the tonal range, and precisely adjust the colour temperature and tint to perfectly set the White Balance.

A RAW file straight out of the camera can look flat and lifeless
With a little processing you can transform a RAW file into something more exciting

JPEGs on the other hand are somewhat different. When they are created your camera applies its own processing, such as sharpening, contrast and saturation to the image, and the file is then compressed as it is saved to create a smaller and more manageable file size. This process is known as ‘lossy compression’, as unused data is discarded when it is saved. So if you were to edit the file, you’d find you couldn’t make such drastic adjustments as you could with a RAW, as there is less data and therefore your options are limited.

Also every time you edit and save a JPEG, it undergoes lossy compression so the image quality deteriorates whenever you open and make adjustments to the file. If you were to rework an image enough times, you’d visibly notice a reduction in the image quality. Sometimes you can see this take effect as ‘banding’, where there’s no smooth transitions between subtle shades of the same colour, but distinctive bands as the colour data is limited. You can process a RAW file an infinite amount of times and you won’t lose a single byte of data.

RAW files don’t get compressed, giving you the maximum amount of data to play with
The banding in the blue sky is a result of ‘lossy compression’ experienced with JPEGs

JPEGs by default don’t require any editing. They’re ready to go straight out of the camera and many cameras allow you determine the look of the shot – like Fuji’s Film Simulation or Nikon’s Picture Control – before you take the shot. Of course many people still choose to edit their JPEGs to improve the look of the image, but if they were processing the RAW instead they’d have many more options at their disposal.

Critics of shooting RAW will point to the fact that every image requires editing, which can be pretty time consuming. However you don’t need to process every shot you take, just every shot you want to use. Personally I love the control that shooting RAW offers, I enjoy the processing and taking an image on a journey to leave it looking much more appealing than its start point. Even if you only edit 10% of the RAW files you capture, it doesn’t cost anything to capture digital images. And for me the time involved is worth it, knowing that I’ve had more input with the image and made it more engaging to the viewer. Besides, most images can be pepped up in 30 seconds or so, especially when you batch process or use presets.

Granted not every image warrants editing. Sometimes a quick snap will do perfectly well, and there’s no point in spending time post processing a shot that is purely utilitarian. But if you’re shooting for pleasure, passion or your profession, then it’s always best to shoot RAW to get the most from your image.

Shooting RAW will help you get more from every image

But beyond being more time consuming, working with RAW is more data hungry as they are typically 10 times bigger in terms of megabytes than JPEGs. As the files are much larger your camera takes longer to process the data, meaning your shooting times are slower, you can fit fewer onto a memory card and your computer’s hard drives get full quicker. But for me, this is a small price to pay for the enormous benefits of shooting RAW. Storage is relatively inexpensive, so capturing larger files makes little difference. Knowing that you have fewer shots before you fill your memory card may also make you more selective with what you shoot, rather than being trigger happy. This in turn can make you a more considered and better photographer in the long run.

RAW files fill your memory cards quicker and require more storage space

If you’re unsure, most cameras offer the option of shooting RAW + JPEG. This is a good option for photographers who want to do the minimal amount of processing, and are content with using JPEGs most of the time. The RAW is there as a backup in case anything needs rescuing or if the shot is a bit special and might deserve extra editing. This is how I began working with RAW files, but it didn’t take long until I fully switched to RAW and ditched JPEGs entirely.

If you’re the type of photographer who likes to edit their images, then you’ll find shooting in RAW really pays off and you’ll love how much creative control you get. So give it a go, and you’ll wonder why you never made the switch sooner.