I Shoot Raw – Here’s Why

Inside: I shoot raw, do you? This article will answer the question “what does raw mean in digital photography?”, explore raw v. jpeg pros and cons, and show you how to shoot in raw and how to edit raw images.

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I Shoot Raw

Have you encountered the debate over raw v. jpeg in the digital photography world yet?

It goes like this:

“Raw photos are the only way to go. Real photographers shoot in RAW.”

“Great photographers don’t need to shoot in RAW because they always nail their photos in camera.”

With such opposing opinions what’s a new photographer to think?

Here’s my take: there’s no right or wrong, just advantages and disadvantages for each file type.

I started out shooting in jpeg, but now I shoot raw images.

We’ll dive into raw v jpeg pros and cons, but first let’s answer this question:

What Does RAW Mean In Digital Photography?

JPEG is the default file type for most digital cameras. In JPEG mode your camera will do some in-camera post-processing (photo editing) for you. 

It will adjust your photo’s color and saturation, add contrast and sharpness, and compress the image into a smaller file size.

When you shoot in RAW image format your camera makes no changes to the image file.

In raw format, your photos come out of the camera unaltered with no enhancement or compression.

RAW v JPEG Pros and Cons

JPEG Pros and Cons

  • Pros

JPEG can be useful for new photographers because your camera does some photo enhancement for you.  It’s helpful when you’re learning to shoot and you don’t know much about photo editing.

JPEG files are smaller so they don’t take up as much room on your computer or your memory card.  And, if you do a good job of getting your image right in-camera, they can save you lots of time editing.

JPEGs can be beautiful straight out of camera!

  • Cons

JPEGS aren’t very flexible when it comes to photo editing.  When your camera compresses the JPEG file it “throws away” some of its information. You won’t have all the pixels available to adjust, so JPEGS are less forgiving if you need to tweak your white balance or adjust your exposure.

RAW Pros and Cons

  • Pros

RAW photos are very flexible because your camera hasn’t thrown away any of the file information. It’s all there and can be adjusted.

In fact, any changes you make to the image are equivalent to the changes you can make while shooting.

For example, if you accidentally underexpose your image in-camera you can raise the exposure in post-processing and the image will respond just as if you had raised the exposure while shooting.

  • Cons

First, Raw files don’t look great straight from the camera. They look flat and dull, and require enhancement.

Second, Raw files are large. They take up more space on your memory card and on your computer.

Third, if you aren’t careful, shooting in RAW can make you lazy.  It’s easy to tell yourself, “I didn’t get that right in-camera, but I can fix it in Lightroom.” 

That’s the wrong mindset.

You shouldn’t rely on editing to “fix” your photos.  If you have to spend tons of time “saving” your photos because of mistakes made shooting, then you need to go back to mastering shooting fundamentals and using your dslr in manual mode.

But shooting in RAW gives you greater creative control over your final images. And if you’re struggling with editing your JPEG images, switching to RAW may the answer for you.

Related: How To Use DSLR Camera

Why I Shoot RAW: A Few Examples

1. I Shoot Raw For Editing Flexibility

Here’s an example of why I shoot raw. The first photo below is my photo in RAW, straight from my camera.

I shot it a bit on the cool side (a bit too blue – oops!). Overall, it looks dark and flat:

The photo below is my edited version of the RAW photo above. The Raw photo gave me complete flexibility to warm it up and enhance the color of the leaves without making my subject or the rocks and water look yellow.

When I apply the same edits to the JPEG version of the photo, here’s what happens:

It doesn’t respond the same as the RAW photo because some of its pixels have been thrown out.

If you use editing presets on your JPEG images they won’t respond the same as a RAW image will.

I shoot raw because I want to have all the pixels to work with in editing.

2. I Shoot Raw For Exposure

Have you ever overexposed by accident? It happens to all of us!

I shoot raw because I can recover highlights that are “blown out,” like the braid in the photo below:

The details of the hair in the white areas are gone, but in RAW, I can bring them back, no problem!

It’s not possible to recover blown highlights in JPEG photos because some of the pixels have been thrown away.

Here’s the result when I try to recover the highlights in JPEG:

The photo looks muddy and the details in the hair are still missing when I lower the exposure.

3. I Shoot RAW To Reduce Digital Noise

I love low light photography. When I’m shooting indoors with less light I’ll need to raise my ISO setting to get good exposure.

But this introduces digital noise into my image.

Noise makes your images look grainy and reduces image quality.

But when I shoot raw, I’m able to reduce noise in editing.

When you’re editing your photos, zoom in at 100%. You’ll be able to see any digital noise present in your photo.

In this example I reduced noise in both photos, but it didn’t do much to help the JPEG photo (left). It still has lots of noise.

I’ll show you how to reduce noise in your raw images toward the end of this post.

4. I Shoot RAW For Better White Balance

Because RAW files are more flexible it’s much easier to change your white balance settings when editing.

Note: I recommend shooting for correct white balance, but if you need to tweak it in editing, RAW files are much better for this.

Here’s a photo where the white balance is too cool (too blue):

To correct this, I used the white balance dropper in Lightroom and clicked on the gray rocks in the background.

Here’s how the RAW photo responded to the white balance correction:

The colors are warm, rich and true to life.

And here’s how the JPEG version of the photo responded:

It looks purple and washed out. Not at all how the scene looked in real life!

I couldn’t correct the white balance because some of the pixels weren’t available in JPEG.

Related: Lightroom Photo Editing Techniques

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raw v jpeg for beginners

How To Shoot In RAW

That’s the easy part! Shooting in raw is a simple matter of changing a setting in your camera’s menu.

How To Shoot In RAW Canon

Here’s how to switch to raw image format on Canon cameras:

  1. Press the “Q” button on the back of your camera.

2. Use the multi-selector wheel to scroll to the image format options, then press “SET”:

In the Image Quality menu, select RAW and hit SET again:

How To Shoot In RAW Nikon

  1. Press the INFO button on the back of your camera TWICE:

2. Use the multi-selector wheel to scroll to the image quality menu. Press OK.

3. Select RAW and Press OK

How To Edit RAW Images

Raw images can look disappointing straight from your camera.

When you download your images to your computer this may surprise you because they may look ok on the back of your camera.

Keep in mind that your camera’s LDC screen may show you an enhanced version of the file.

Raw files are made the be edited.

In fact, a raw file is less like a photo, and more like information ready to be made into a photo.

This tutorial will walk you through the basics of how to edit raw images using one example.

Note how each of these edits are “global” edits, meaning they apply to the entire image.

Think of these edits as the foundation of a great photo. They’re the basic things you need to get right before doing any further enhancement.

This tutorial won’t cover “local” edits – edits you can make to just one part of an image.

Here are 4 basic global edits you should make to every RAW image using this example:

This photo was shot at ISO 640, f/3.2, SS 1/640. It looks a bit dark and cool (blue).

How To Edit Raw Images Step By Step

1. Adjust the overall exposure and contrast

Inside the Develop module in Lightroom, make sure the highlight and clipping alerts at the top of the histogram are on. If you don’t see the histogram, click the arrow beside the word Histogram to toggle it open.

The highlight and clipping alerts are activated by the arrows on the top right and left of the histogram. They should be white. If they’re not, click on them to turn them on.

  • The red alerts show which parts of your image have “blown out” highlights. The pixels in those areas are pure white. They’re blank pixels.
  • The blue alerts show which parts of your image have “clipped” shadows. These are areas of your image that are pure black and have no detail.

Why does this matter?

Clipped or blown those areas of an image will print as pure white and black.

A common example of why this matters is black hair. In a photo with clipped black hair, you wouldn’t be able to see the individual hairs, just a blob of black.

It’s best to avoid clipping and blown highlights on your subject, or to keep it minimal. Avoid blown highlights on the skin.

In the example photo, the sunset is blowing the highlights. That’s to be expected because it’s brighter than the subjects of the photo.

In my opinion that’s ok, but if I wanted to fix that with a localized edit later, I could.

But I’ve got clipping on the dark shirt on my subject, and that’s not good.

Exposure and Blacks Sliders

The Exposure and Black Sliders control overall contrast

The two sliders we’ll work with to adjust the overall contrast of the image are the exposure slider and the black slider.

These two sliders are responsible for the photo’s overall contrast because they represent the full range of pixels in the image, from black to white.

If you look at your photo’s histogram, you’ll see all the pixels in your image represented as plots on a graph.

You can see your photo’s histogram in Lightroom or on the back of your camera.

The points on the left side represent the blacks in your image and the points on the right represent the whites in your image.

Clipped and blown pixels will climb up the left and right walls of the histogram, like this:

When you adjust your photo’s overall contrast you want to make sure your pixels touch both walls, and if they’re climbing the walls, you aren’t losing any important details.

When the pixels touch both walls, this ensures you have a photo with a full range of tonal contrast.

Step 1

Start with the Exposure slider. You’ll slide it left or right, depending on whether your photo is too bright or too dark.

In my example I had to slide it to the right to raise the exposure.

Notice how when you raise the exposure slider some of your clipped areas will shrink. That’s because those areas are getting brighter.

I knew I’d raised it a bit too far when I started seeing red on dad’s shirt, so I took it back down a bit.

Step 2

Adjust the Black Slider. Slide it to the left until it “kisses” the left wall. Or slide it to the right until all of your blue clipping alerts disappear. Some clipping is acceptable, but not too much, especially on your subject.

I raised the blacks slider until all the blue clipping alerts on the shirt disappeared.

Note: dark clothes and dark areas of the image will clip first. Same with blown highlights – white clothes will be the first to blow out.

how to edit raw photos

Now we’ve got a photo with good overall contrast!

2. Adjust The White Balance

Next, I need to deal with the fact that my photo is a bit too cool (too blue). There are several ways to correct white balance. In this case, I’m going to use one of Lightroom’s white balance presets.

These presets are only available in Lightroom when you’re editing a RAW photo. They won’t show up for JPEGS.

I tried out a few of the white balance presets and decided on cloudy. Now my image is warmer.

Important Note: Adjustments to your white balance can affect your overall contrast. Keep an eye on your clipping and highlight warnings. Readjust your overall contrast if any important areas of your image are clipped or blown after you adjust your white balance.

3. Reduce Noise

Images get “noisy” the higher your ISO setting. Remember when I said that adjustments to RAW images are the equivalent to making changes in camera? We see this principle at work with noise reduction.

Reducing noise is like lowering your ISO.

Raising your exposure is like raising your ISO because it adds noise to your image.

It’s easy to reduce noise in RAW photos:

  1. Zoom in at 100% and find a “shadow area” of your image so you can see the noise. Noise likes to hang out in the shadows. It will look like grain/colored dots.

2. Open the “Detail” panel in the Develop Module of Lightroom and look for the “Luminance” and “Color” sliders. The color slider is probably set to 25 by default. That’s fine! If so you probably won’t have to worry about color noise.

But if there are green and pink dots where you’ve zoomed in, slide the Color slider to the right until they’re gone. 20 or 25 should take care of it.

Now, look at the noise that’s left. Slide the luminance slider to the right until it’s reduced. I recommend going no higher than 20. Reducing noise also reduces the clarity of your image, so you need to find a balance between noise reduction and image clarity.

But it’s important to reduce noise because any other changes you make to your image will add noise – like sharpening (the last step), or any localized edits you want to make.

In my opinion, a little noise is fine. But reducing noise helps you make a high quality image.

4. Sharpen

I admit this explanation of sharpening is an over-simplification. For the best results, you should sharpen your photos based on how you intend to use them.

Photos look different on a screen than they do in print, and different types of sharpening should be used depending on where the photo is being viewed and at what size.

But, generally speaking, RAW photos need some sharpening.

The simplest way to do this is to zoom in at 100% on a face (or on your subject). By default, you’ll see these sharpening settings in the Detail panel:

There isn’t a one size fits all formula for sharpening. But here are a few guiding principles:

  • If your photo was shot at a high ISO and you’ve done a lot of noise reduction, you’ll need more sharpening.
  • For photos of people, you want to sharpen the edges of your photo, not the skin, or blurry backgrounds.

Here’s what the Lightroom sharpening sliders do and recommended settings:

AmountAdds no sharpening (0) or lots of sharpening (150)No higher than 50
RadiusHow many pixels wide the sharpening line will beNo higher than 2
Detail0 sharpens large edges only; 100 sharpens every little detail – like pores in the skin or feathers on a bird.Depends on how much you want the details to stand out
MaskingAllows you to apply your sharpening setting to the whole image (0), or only the edges (100)Depends on what you’re sharpening – in general, for photos of people, mask sharpening off the skin

You can see the effect changes you make have on your image by holding down the Option (Mac) or Alt (Windows) key on your keyboard. This will show you a grayscale rendering of your image so you can see where the sharpening will be applied.

Slide the masking slider to the right to apply your sharpening setting to only the edges.

I recommend moving the masking slider to the right until sharpening is not being applied to the skin.

There’s lots more you could do to enhance this image, but what I’ve shown you are the basic steps you should take to enhance any RAW image.

If you’re a visual learner, check out this tutorial on how to edit raw images:

JPEG v RAW For Beginners

I hope you’ve got a better understanding of the debate on JPEG v RAW now.

I shoot raw for the flexibility in editing, but if you’re new to photography, and not quite ready to dive into editing, jpeg is a great place to start.

When you’re ready, come back to this post to get started shooting in RAW.

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