Why to Shoot in RAW Format

You’ve probably heard many of the common arguments people give for whether to shoot in JPEG or RAW. When people discover the power of RAW, they usually never go back to shooting purely in JPEG. Sure, RAW files are enormous compared to JPEGs, the whole process will take you longer, and you’ll definitely need much more storage in terms of external hard drives and memory cards, but I definitely feel like the benefits of shooting in RAW outweigh the costs.

One such benefit is the fact that you can easily post-process the images non-destructively, meaning you can always go back to the original RAW image whenever you want to later down the road. You can do the same thing for JPEGs, but it’s much easier to accidentally overwrite the original file, and much harder to process the image again in exactly the same way you did before.

Why this non-destructive processing is useful, is that when you improve your processing skills and techniques, you can return to your older images as if they were just taken off your camera.

Take this photograph for example:


My friend David took this photograph during a trip to Pacifica Beach in California. A few weeks later, he decided to return to the photograph and bring out the textures in the sand. Here’s what resulted:


How about another example? Back in July 2008, I took some portraits of my cousin Perry. Here’s what the original image looked like (the untouched RAW):


To edit the image back then, I chose to do most of the editing on the converted JPEG using Photoshop. Here’s what I did at the time:


Since then, I’ve switched to doing most of my post-processing on the RAW file in Adobe Camera RAW, rather than doing them on the processed JPEG in Photoshop. Revisiting the photo, here’s what I would do now:


As you can see, my newer version of the image is sharper, more vibrant, and more detailed in areas such as his hair. Shooting in RAW allows your older images to improve easily as your post-processing skills improve, which is definitely one of the biggest advantages I’ve experienced from shooting RAW. Even if you don’t work directly with RAW files yet, shooting in that format will leave the door open for you to revisit the original image sometime in the future if you decide to start working with RAWs.

  • revenant

    Although an unconditional RAW shooter myself, I think you need to offer a more balanced approach. It’s worth mentioning that RAW is proprietary; the format can change from one camera model to another, never mind between manufacturers. If your camera body is new, popular image editing software may not be able to open it. RAW is also much, much slower to capture, which rules it out for sports photographers. Furthermore, it just isn’t featured on the vast majority of PnS cameras.

    Amateur photographers move to RAW formats only reluctantly and are usually disappointed with their early results because none of the in-camera presets are applied to the “bare” image. A RAW capture does require post-processing (well, they all do, but RAW captures need extensive work). If you’re happy with what comes out of the camera and don’t want to edit images using a computer, stick to JPEGs.

    I was intrigued by the link to the “return to jpeg” post. All of that blogger’s objections can be answered simply: buy a bigger, faster card. Card prices are falling all the time, whilst card write speeds are approaching their theoretical limits, even in SD format cards.

    You chose two examples of the most common applications for RAW captures, landscapes and portraits. I’d add another: macros. In macros, a camera’s light meter can be easily thrown off, something which ultra-sharp macro lenses never forgive. RAW capture using the camera’s proprietary software, ACR or other third-party applications such as Phase One and DxO optics can recover the image.

    Good luck with this blog! I hope you get a lot of readers.

  • Michael Zhang

    Good points. Thanks for the comment.

  • David Park

    Nice! Excited to see where this will go in the future. I got pinged to the blog by WordPress because you linked to my posts hahaha.

  • Nathan Yan

    There are definitely a lot of benefits to RAW, but non-destructive edits is not really one of them. Maybe two years ago this would have been the case, but with programs like Lightroom and Aperture, and ACR supporting JPEG and TIFF in CS3 and beyond, everything you mentioned in this post could be done with JPEGs as well.

  • revenant

    This is not really the case. The latest releases of ACR can open JPEGs and TIFFs but in 8-bit only and with far fewer settings options than in RAW. When working in 8-bit, highlight clipping is inevitable with JPGs. In the end, your image loses quality when any significant tonal correction is required. In RAW, there is a far wider margin for maneouvre.

  • Nathan Yan

    You’ve listed all the other real benefits of RAW, which are true. But the post here is just about non-destructive edits, which are not really exclusive to RAW at all.

  • Michael Zhang

    Hi Nathan,

    You're definitely right, but for people who do not use lightroom and aperture, but instead choose to edit JPEGs directly with programs like Photoshop and GIMP might find it more difficult.

  • Michael Zhang

    I agree that it's not exclusive to RAW files, but usually if people do something as basic as correcting white balance on a JPEG, they aren't very careful about making the edits non-destructive…

    For example, if a JPEG is horribly white balanced, and a person corrects it to the best of their knowledge with a program like Photoshop, they're probably not going to preserve a copy of the original, poorly white balanced photograph because they think they might improve their white balance correction technique and return to the photo sometime in the future.

  • mark

    I disagree w/ the first part of this comment.
    Sport photogs do use RAW. The photogs that have to submit to publications at the end of game shoot both. They can send in jpeg for newspapers. but can fine tune for cover shots w/ RAWs
    Many birders and other action shooters do shoot in RAW.

    just becasue P&S don't have it does not make it bad. Non tech people want the image quickly…. they really don't care about IQ (image quality) just give it to me now.

    RAW photos do not need extensive work. if they did – why do wedding photog batch process 1000's of images per weddings.


  • Billie

    RAW is the shits! But DNG is better – i think! Sort of RAW but more 2011. ^^