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Monday, June 6, 2011

Photography for Dummies, By Dummies: Episode 04

Ever had a question about photography you wanted to ask, but felt it was too stupid? Now you can feel stupid in private instead!

Episode 4: To RAW or not to RAW
Seeing the prices of cameras drop further and further every year, is a little disturbing and yet liberating at the same time. Today, virtually everyone owns a Digital Single Lens Reflex (“DSLR”) Camera. Compared to that dodgy, free-gift Point & Shoot you’ve ‘inherited’ from your parents, a DSLR seems like heaven.

This is liberating because now, this power is available to virtually everyone at affordable prices. For example, you can get your hands on the extremely value for money Canon EOS 1100D for RM 1899.00 (approximately). Yet, all this is disturbing because you get a WHOLE LOTTA PEOPLE who can afford DSLRs but are too lazy to learn anything about it. They’re merely happier pointing and shooting. Worse still are those who flaunt their cash with the latest models, but yet know next to nothing when it comes to actual photography.

So OK, you’ve paid maybe RM 3,500.00 (most probably RM 4,500.00) for your fancy new DSLR with a kit lens. You’ve got a User Manual an inch thick, with instructions which might as well be in Greek. What do you do now? There’s just so much to learn. One fine day, you’re chatting with a bunch of photographers and they started mentioning something of about ‘RAW files’. You’re totally clueless but you keep nodding so as to not appear ignorant. Well, here’s hoping that I can help you a little bit on this topic...

1. What the heck is RAW?

Hey, I’m not talking about professional wrestling.

In lay-man’s terms, it’s a digital picture file format. When you snap a picture in your digital camera, the snapshot is recorded digitally in either RAW format or JPG format. The standard is JPG. Notice how after shooting with a point & shoot, you can immediately transfer and view those pictures on your computer? Those are JPG format pictures. If you shoot in RAW you, you can’t view it on your computer without using a special program to open the file.

In a nutshell, JPG is known as a ‘compressed file’, meaning that after you snap the picture, the camera by itself determines what information should remain in the picture and what information should not. It’s like selecting a famous recipe from a cookbook and deciding that, for convenience sake, you’re going to replace certain ingredients. The end result is a lesser version of the original dish in the cookbook. Get it?

In the context of photography, this make the actual picture file about 2/3 smaller. For example, a 10 mega pixel camera might shoot a JPG file about 3 mega pixels large.

RAW on the other hand, is ‘uncompressed’, meaning the picture retains all the digital information at the time of shooting. Hence a 10 mega pixel camera will shoot a 10 mega pixel RAW file, with ALL its digital information intact (“lossless”). Boom!

I’ll skip the boring technical details, save for one: RAW has higher dynamic range as compared to JPG. What this means is that pictures in RAW can display highlights and shadows better than JPG).

2. So why all the trouble to use RAW?  

Trouble indeed. You can’t view a RAW file through a regular image program, as opposed to JPG (which can be viewed through any available image program). Effectively, you can’t even print out a RAW file without editing it. Yet, many people (including myself) exclusively only shoot in RAW. Why is this?

If you shoot in RAW, it is your computer, instead of your camera, that processes the data and subsequently produces a picture file out of it. Obviously your computer has so much more processing power compared to your camera. Shooting in RAW also gives you much more control over how your image looks. One of the basic advantages of RAW is that you are able to correct fundamental mistakes effectively, such as over/under exposure, a messed-up white balance, and even hiding image grain or ‘noise’, among many other things. As mentioned earlier, any such amendments are made to the file BEFORE it is converted to JPG, thereby minimizing the loss of information. As mentioned earlier, since JPG is a compressed format, each and every time you amend the same JPG file, it loses more and more information. RAW lets you amend the file first, and then convert it to JPG.

Of course there are other more technical points regarding RAW but I think we have our hands full already.
3. Do not underestimate the JPG. 

When you shoot in JPG, the camera’s internal software will actually do all the bothersome processing for you, automatically, before saving it in your memory card. Naturally, YOU don’t have a say in how the post-processing is done. You just receive the ‘finished’ product. To ignore the technical jargon, some information is lost in JPG because the internal camera software decides what information to keep and what information throw away. However, in a sense, the camera already optimizes how the picture should look so you have much less work to do.

So which one should you use?

It really all depends.Some Pros' shoot in RAW exclusively, some Pros' shoot in JPG exclusively, some Pros' choose when to shoot in RAW and when to shoot in JPG. There really is no right or wrong answer. I guess if there were only one deciding factor, for ME it would be, the post-processing stage.

Do you digitally edit your photos? I do. Extensively I might add. Thats why I shoot only in RAW. Uncompressed RAW files give me the power to control and to determine what I want to keep in my photos and what I want to do ignore. By the way, did you know that pictures shot in RAW are actually very dull and relatively lifeless? This is because the camera does no editing for you. In JPG, the camera already processes the picture for the first time before 'showing' it to you. That being said, there is absolutely nothing wrong if you want to shoot in JPG just cause the editing process is so bothersome. Ultimately, it is the skills behind the camera that make all the difference in the world.

Whatever you do, please do not make the mistake of shooting in RAW just because your friends do it. Don't shoot in RAW because thats what professionals do (not all do). Its better to examine your requirements in photography. If you have time (lots of it) and some editing ability, then go for RAW. If you are short for time and you don't really know what curves and white balance is about, then perhaps JPG might be a little useful. I met a photographer who shot entirely in RAW because he thought the Pros did it. Afterwards, he didn't even edit a single photo! It was obviously unedited becauseIf the white balance was shot to hell. If you've been reading the whole article above, you can appreciate how ridiculous this is.

Until next time.

For those of you who are interested in viewing the other photos of the Photography for Dummies Series, please click on the links below!

Episode 1: You want to buy a DSLR?

Episode 2: Lighting the way

Episode 3: The Rule of the matter

For those of you who like statistics:
Vital Stats for June: 3 post 82 pics
Vital Stats So Far: 80 posts 3,166 pics

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