All modern cameras have got a processor inside that instantly improves the quality of the photos we shoot, and that is how we get jpeg images from our shoots.
Basically, this is how a shot works: the camera sensor records all the visual information in the exact moment the shutter takes the shot, then a processor elaborates the information acquired, and gives an output file, i.e. the final jpeg image.
The vast majority of cameras on the market, however, allow us to get the unprocessed shot instead of a jpeg image (or both). The output we get is a raw file we can open in our editing software. The difference is visible to the naked eye: a raw file is exactly how you expect it: raw.
At this point, you might have a question: why would you prefer a raw file instead of a high quality jpeg image?
Because there are important advantages in post-production that will make your shots way better than the jpeg obtained by the camera. Let’s see some of them.
The real quality of a raw shot
When you get a raw format shot, there is no file compression, so you get all the data collected by your camera. A camera output is usually 14 or 16 bits, while a jpeg output is 8 bits. The more information you have in your shots, the more options you will have during post-production.
This is the reason why a raw file usually weighs four times a jpeg image, even though they have the same resolution, so if you start shooting raw, you will probably need to buy a memory card with a bigger storage space.
Better results with basic regulations
If you like to tweak your shots using different settings for basic parameters such as brightness, contrast, saturation, and similar, raw files will deliver better results.
Let’s say you take a shot with the wrong exposure and you miss some important details. With a jpeg image, you would likely lose them, but with a raw output, you can just lower the exposure parameter to find all the invisible information. It can help in post-production of portraits and outdoor shootings.
It is worth noting that raw format records 16 times more levels of brightness than jpeg, in fact, while jpeg records 256 levels of brightness, raw records at least 4,096 levels!
I say “at least” because there are cameras able to record even more levels, with even more possibilities in terms of editing.
More efficient colour regulations
Because of the extra levels of brightness, colour temperature can be better adjusted. The raw format also makes your life easier when adjusting the white balance, which is one of the most important factors influencing the final appearance of a photo.
Thanks to the extra information recorded, gradients are displayed differently: sometimes, when saving your shots jpeg only, you can see an unwanted effect on gradients: instead of appearing as a continuous tone, you see a sequence of bands of different colours, and this is why this effect is called banding.
Thanks to the quantity of information saved in a raw file, you can avoid banding and make the gradient transition smooth.
You can always go back
When you open a jpeg picture, edit it, and then save it, you are losing some data, and you will never be able to go back to the original image.
Any editing made on a raw file is memorised as a sequence of instructions to process when you save a jpeg version.
Any moment you might need it, you can reset all changes and start again.
This feature can be very useful if you use more than an editing software and you want to compare the final result, or when a new version of your favourite software becomes available with a new AI that recognises more details, and gives new tools for the post-production: you start again and improve the quality of your shots.
Do you shoot raw?
What kind of format do you use when shooting? Have you ever tried the raw format? What do you think about it? I’m curious to read your opinion in a comment.