5. Save the under or overexposed images
Unlike JPEG, RAW files keep certain amount of data in underexposed and overexposed parts of the images. A general rule is that you can save up to one EV of overexposed data (it depends on a specific camera). Remember how there’s always some blown detail, like the clouds or white wedding dress? Yes, this can all be saved in RAW converter.
The example above clearly demonstrates danger of overexposed files. There is not much to be done for overexposed clouds with JPEG on the right side, but RAW file reveals a range of magnificent details in this cumulonimbus.
6. Use all potential of that 12 or 14bit files
Most cameras today record either 12 or 14 bit RAW files. It means that for each pixel, there is either 4096 brightness levels (2^12) or 16384 levels (2^14). Such images can be opened in RAW converter and spread across 16bit workspace. Extra data will allow you a great level of adjustments without a significant reduction of quality. If the original image was saved as in-camera JPEG, you would only get 256 brightness levels (2^8) per pixel to start with (JPEG doesn’t support more than 8bit). Now that’s a waste of good data you can’t afford!
7. Pro’s use it
Imagine being a client who was presented with photographs some of which have funky colors. What would you think about photographer you hired if he used the line “Oh, it seems in-camera white balance missed those ones” as an excuse? You would probably fire him and got yourself a decent RAW-shooting pro. For some events, RAW is essential. Wedding photography requires RAW as mandatory; wide range of motives, mixed light sources, dark environments like churches and restaurants are extremely challenging both for photographers and gear, and possibility of not getting perfect pictures is not an option.
It does have some downsides though:
- RAW generates much larger files than JPEG. Most cameras produce around 1MB of data for every megapixel of resolution, so 14MP camera will generally have 14MB RAW files, 24MP camera will generate 24MB files and so on… It will fill up you memory card and HDD much faster, but storage prices are lower by every day. 16 or 32 GB memory cards have become quite ordinary and inexpensive, just like 1-2 TB hard drives.
- Camera buffer fills much faster with larger RAW files, which means less continues shots in burst mode. There is no way of avoiding it except shooting JPEG or buying a 6,000 $ Nikon D4.
- RAW is not practical when images must be ready for print or web use soon after they were taken. This can be avoided by shooting RAW + JPEG.
- Most cameras use proprietary RAW codec, which could become a problem in 10, 20 or more years if there won’t be proper software around to decode it. A solution might be DNG file format – developed by Adobe as an open source format. Converting your RAW files to DNG might look like a hassle, but will ensure photos to be readable in future. Some manufacturers, like Leica and Pentax already use DNG format in their cameras.
- RAW by default is not supported by Windows or Mac OS; you need a special RAW file viewer.
So, which software should you use? If your camera shoots RAW, there is almost always one RAW developer bundled with camera software, but it’s probably nothing special. Most photographer today use Camera Raw that comes with the Photoshop, Adobe’s standalone Lightroom or Capture One developed by Phase One. I prefer Photoshop for my editing, especially new CS6 version which supports 2012 camera process. I was literally blown away by newly developed highlight and shadows sliders which can now extract insane level of data from photographs. This is the best example why it’s important to have RAW files. It is now possible to pull back burned highlights in older images I considered unusable. Now I wish I haven’t deleted some of them long time ago.
All put together, there are many reasons to shoot RAW, and very few not to. JPEG limits further manipulation to a large degree at the time of exposure, unlike RAW which provides a platform for future processing. I use RAW mode exclusively for several years now, and have not regret it. It a real joy to browse through my old photos and develop them in new ways I didn’t know or haven’t thought back then.