A Raw Lifestyle
In my April 2005 article, I discussed the ups and downs of working with 48 bit (16 bits/channel) images. In this month's article, we take a bit of a vacation from the technical to talk about workflows and lifestyles related to shooting in raw capture mode. Even if you have a digital camera and happily shoot JPEG's all day long, this article may be worth a read because some day you may decide to make the jump from "cooked" to "raw". This article, of course, assumes you have a camera that allows you the choice of shooting either JPEG or raw format images.
Raw mentality, raw lifestyle
In a sense, shooting raw images can be described as a lifestyle change as it affects nearly every aspect of how you capture your life and the lives of others through your photography. At the heart of the matter is the fact that capturing raw images means that when you are finished shooting, you'll end up with a flash card containing digital "negatives" that must be developed before they can be viewed or printed. In contrast, when you shoot in JPEG capture mode, the camera applies processing before the developed image is saved on the flash card. Capturing raw images offers a number of benefits but at the same time imposes a bit of a lifestyle change in that an extra step is introduced into your workflow: raw image development. Let's take a little closer look at the process of raw shooting and development.
Perhaps the most obvious benefit to shooting in raw capture mode is the fact that you are truly storing a digital "original" just as the scene was captured by the camera. In comparison to JPEG shooting where the data is massaged and manipulated prior to saving, raw capture mode stores the data as it was digitized straight off the image sensor. This allows higher bit depth, greater dynamic range, and much greater ability to correct issues such as underexposure or even overexposure. The only thing better than capturing the data directly off the sensor would be actually going back to the scene and taking the shot again. To put things into perspective, in JPEG capture mode, your camera is able to capture 256 gradations at each pixel site on the sensor. In a well exposed shot that doesn't need white balance corrections or other tweaks, 256 gradations for each color is enough. It can begin to fall short, however, when an image is underexposed, overexposed, or shot under the wrong white balance. Raw images have the ability to store 4096 gradations of color at each pixel site (12 bits/channel) or even higher on some cameras. This extra depth allows for greater accuracy and reduces banding/posterization when making color or exposure corrections.
Currently, the biggest problem with shooting raw images is the fact that each manufacturer has its own raw file format and that format can (and usually does) differ even between different camera models from the same manufacturer. This keeps third party software developers scrambling to keep up with the latest undocumented incarnation of NEF, CRW, RAF, and so on, and is the reason that I discontinued development for new raw formats in my own Qimage photo printing software years ago. The fact that most manufacturers do not document raw image formats so that they can be decoded by third party applications has prompted many software developers to stop supporting raw formats or only provide "skeleton" support for the formats, leaving the quality developing stage to the dedicated raw developing tools. To the photographer, this means that you can't simply open the image, print the image, or send the image to someone else without first developing the raw image. To me, this is where the lifestyle change takes place. If you shoot raw images, you need to be comfortable with the fact that your images must be developed using a professional raw developing tool. In the same way it isn't sensible to pull undeveloped film out of a roll fresh from the camera and expect to view it without developing it, it isn't sensible to expect to pull raw images from a flash card, pop them onto your desktop, and be able to get good quality views/prints from those raw files.
The fact that manufacturers all seem content blazing their own trails with their proprietary undocumented formats has given rise to the Open Raw concept. The Open Raw website is dedicated to the concept that manufacturers should document their raw formats in order to make them, well, less "raw". It offers a platform to third party software developers like myself to lobby manufacturers to stop going in different directions and coming up with new undocumented raw formats for each new model camera. I'd actually like to see this concept taken a step further by lobbying the manufacturers to get together and come up with one internationally accepted raw file format to be used in all future cameras: a sort of raw TIFF format. While Adobe likes to boast their own DNG format for this purpose, it really cannot work until the cameras themselves start storing data in this format on the actual flash card. Until then, it's just another file storage format that you have to deal with and one where you'll still need an initial developing cycle to get the data from proprietary to this other "standard".
Where does this leave us? Basically it leaves us with files on our camera's flash card that we hope to develop to make photos, and that prompts us to start looking for raw developing tools. While many utility type programs like thumbnailing or image management programs can "read" raw files, these types of multi-purpose programs generally produce poor quality developed photos. Most of them are not color managed, produce inaccurate color, and just don't produce very "clean" results as they are prone to artifacts like zipper edges, moire, aliasing, and poor resolving power. If you use a general utility type tool to develop or print your raw files, you'd probably get better results in most cases just shooting in JPEG capture mode! Developing raw photos is a tough job that in my opinion should be left to dedicated raw development software.
Most cameras come with raw software that can do a good job developing raw images but manufacturer software can have limited functionality and while it does come from the manufacturer, it still rarely offers the highest possible quality. In this day of corporate buyouts (I won't mention any names), it can be hard to tell which raw tools will be around for the long haul and which ones might give you a rather short ride for your money. One of my long lived favorites is Bibble, an advanced, hyper-featured but still easy to use raw tool that has been around since the first consumer level camera started supporting raw captures (the Nikon D1). Where the generic image utility programs struggle to just let you "see" what is in your raw files, Bibble actually has the horsepower to process them to actually bring out the benefits of the raw format. So if you find yourself wondering why you have to work so hard to get your raw images to look as good as the JPEG's from the camera, find yourself always having to correct color problems, or just find yourself standing on the street corner with your existing raw tool riding off on another bus all by itself, it may be time to give Bibble a try.
I'm a firm believer that the use of specialized raw developing software is an absolute necessity when developing raw images. You really need to shoot those raw images, process them in a professional raw developing tool, and then use the processed results in your favorite photo editor and photo printing program if you want to reap the benefits and really see what raw can do for you with respect to quality. If you shoot in raw mode and then just take whatever your thumbnailing, printing, or image management software gives you, you still benefit from having a copy of your digital negatives but in many cases you probably won't get any better quality than you would just shooting JPEG's. In fact, you're liable to end up with something that looks worse than a camera JPEG because most generic utility type programs know nothing about your model camera and can do little more than give you a "half baked" rendition of the raw image. Bottom line: use a quality, dedicated, professional raw development tool to process your raw images and you'll enjoy all the benefits that raw has to offer. A good rule of thumb is: if the tool you are using to process, view, or print your raw images is designed to do more than just develop the raw images, it probably isn't going to give you stellar results.
Hopefully this article has helped those who are thinking about trying out raw capture mode on their camera. In the "old days" of film, most people wouldn't throw away their negatives once the 4x6 photos were processed. Similarly, there are advantages to shooting raw and keeping your digital negatives. Keep in mind that for many casual shooters, JPEG is just fine. If you are good with the camera and can get consistent and accurate white balance and exposure, the quality benefits of raw shooting can be marginal. When the one good shot of the bride and groom cutting the cake turns out underexposed though or the white cake is blown out with no detail, raw can be the difference between the recycle bin and a beautiful framed 13x20! If you do decide to give raw a try, stick with the professional standalone raw developing tools that are specifically designed and dedicated to developing raw photos. They do the best job by far and generally offer the only way to capitalize on all the benefits of shooting raw.
-- Mike Chaney