Tuesday, November 4, 2008

RAW: The only way to shoot!

The fantastic thing about digital photography is the latitude it offers for extracting the best out of your images. And nothing exemplifies this more than the RAW mode found in many mid- to high-end digital cameras available these days. True to its name, RAW images are essentially raw dumps of digital image data, pulled directly off the camera's image sensor. In the absence of in-camera processing, enhancement and compression, these files are the most realistic representation of the image you've captured. Additionally, RAW images boast a higher dynamic range compared to JPEG images, for example. What is dynamic range, you ask? Think of it this way--the number of colors that the highest quality JPEG image can possibly store is about 16.1 million. While this may sound like a large number, it's actually far lesser than what our own eyes are capable of seeing. So if you shoot a stunning sunset with the sky lit orange near the horizon in front of you, fading into an intense violet near the clouds above you, a JPEG photograph will not have capability to encode and replicate this stunning range of colors. That's why you'll sometimes see those unsightly 'bands' rippling across images that have subtle gradations in color and brightness.

Enter RAW. Besides being an innately pure digital representation of an image, RAW files have a much larger dynamic range--they can theoretically recognize up to 4 trillion colors and shades. Practically, this number runs into several billions, which is still orders of magnitude better than JPEG. This obviously translates into far richer images. Another big advantage of RAW images is that they are far more forgiving to image processing--by working with larger dynamic ranges, the progressive loss associated with applying filter upon filter, brightening or modifying image saturation is far less pronounced.

The only downsides with RAW are the larger file sizes (they're often two to four times a similar JPEG image), and the extra time associated with 'processing' these images before you can e-mail or print them. But these are small prices to pay when you begin to experience the new level of image quality that only RAW can deliver.

In my next post, I'll dig a little deeper into how to get a smooth workflow going when working with many (ten, or even a hundred) RAW images. Once you've mastered this workflow, creating killer quality photos will be a snap.


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