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J.R. Photoblog - Articles & Tutorials » Blog Archive » Basics - Why should you use the RAW format for photo editing
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Basics - Why should you use the RAW format for photo editing


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I know that most of you already know why RAW is more suitable than JPG for photo retouching. However I often need to answer that question by e-mail, so … it will be the first article thus I won’t ever repeat it ;) .

First of all you need to know that using RAW is some sort of “perfectionist philosophy” for those, including me, who don’t tolerate the idea that the post-processing of a picture could be done by an automatic process of the camera’s body :P . I am one of those passionate photographers who can sometimes spent hours in the digital darkroom that is photoshop.

With current digital SLR cameras :

  • JPG pictures are created from RAW. The picture is temporary saved, then it is post-processed using optimization settings of the camera’s body and finally it is compressed and stored in JPG which is a 8 bits format. A 8 bits format means that each channel Red, Green and Blue can have 256 values, so a pixel can have about 16 millions possible colors.
  • RAW is a image format that only designates raw datas from the sensor, image optimization settings from the camera’s body have no impact, the picture is directly saved in the manufacturer’s proprietary raw format (NEF for Nikon, CR2 for Canon, etc.) most of the time in a 12bits definition (it can be more). A 12 bits format means that each channel Red, Green and Blue can have 4096 values, so a pixel can have about 68 billions possible colors.

All that stays very theoretical of course, shooting in raw won’t provide you 4096 times more details, however the picture is richer and it reacts better for example when enlightening dark areas.

Using RAW, for me, is like if I said to my camera “don’t touch the picture, let me do the postprocessing myself!”.

Let see that with a concreet example:

I took 2 pictures of the same place with my tripod at 100 iso, the first one in JPG max quality, the second one in RAW. I intentionally underexposed the scene to obtain a very dark area on the bed, the red outlined area will be perfect for the example.

  • Step 1 : no noticeable quality difference except the JPG was postprocessed by the camera’s body (D200) according to image optimization settings and the RAW was exported under Photoshop using a raw converter (Lightroom) with default settings, so we can only see some contrast and saturation differences.
  • Step 2 : Suppose I want to enlighten the dark area, so I add a level adjustment layer and I increase the luminosity modifying levels on the three channels.
  • Step 3 : Do I need to go further in the demonstration ? :D For sure, the area is very underexposed, so there is a lack of details and the noise appears but we can clearly see the difference between the enhanced JPG and the enhanced RAW.

raw.jpg

6 Comments »


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    thanks for your tutorials. i agree raw gives better results, for me the question is, at what print size does it show? do you have any experience on this point?

    Julien : I said the Raw format was a better source for post-processing, talking about raw for printing is disturbing for me because Raw is the beginning and Print is the finality … there are many steps between them. However I think that to have a good print, you need a good post-processing, to have a good post-processing you need a good/rich source and to have a good and rich source you need the Raw.

    Comment by Tom — August 26, 2007 @ 5:55 pm


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    Thanks Julien, I think I get your point. May I ask how you got the look on your current Home-Page picture (and some others)? Oh, I guess it’s not that easy…anyway, I think it’s a very strong look, thanks for your site.

    Julien : Thank you Tom, I think you will have all answers here ;)

    Comment by Tom — August 27, 2007 @ 4:43 pm


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    Je voulais comprendre à quoi sert Raw, je comment à piger de ton papier, il y a un Raw aussi Sony, avec un compact portable facilement?

    Je crois avoir acheté le photoshop elements 5 qui dit traiter des Raw, certains au moins, où je peux trouver des images Raw pour essayer, jouer avec? tester les possibilités?

    Julien : Oui le terme “Raw” ne veut rien dire d’autre que “données brutes”, donc ça peut aussi s’appliquer au domaine du son.
    Voici un Raw de mon D200 sur lequel tu pourras t’amuser : Raw test

    Comment by julie70 — August 31, 2007 @ 4:21 am


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    Hi Julien,

    I clearly see the advantage of RAW against JPG. Many thanks for that demonstration. But why underexpose in the first place? I mean, I see you did it on purpose to show the advantage of RAW, but in the real world, this photo has to be done again on the site (in the room at that moment), to the moment you get a good exposure. At least, that’s how I work. I need to have a good picture before I leave the set. With modern lcd-screens it’s easy to see if the image is good or bad.

    In the old days, photographers just put a sheet of grey plastic on the window.. Pre-processing, instead of post-processing, think about that. I believe that will result in even better quality!

    Julien : Thanks Joep, that’s an excellent question. What I wanted to demonstrate here is the richness of the RAW against the JPG, but I perhaps forgot to say why? Is it to recover a bad exposure? No, I use it because it is the way to capture the largest dynamic range of a scene.

    Now, capturing the largest dynamic range is not always useful, but in certain circumstances, especially landscape photography, it is because you often have a big difference between the luminosity of the ground and the one of the sky. Look at this example :

    dynamic.jpg

    You could say that the original is badly exposed (underexposed) but I wouldn’t agree with that. I did this intentionally to preserve all the details in the sky given the fact that I didn’t have any gradient filter to darken the sky or any tripod to shoot 2 different exposures that I would have mixed in the future. I did know, with the given light of the scene, that the dynamic range of the RAW would be enough to have a good result after the post-processing even if the original was not homogeneous. If I had exposed differently:
    More: a part of the sky would have been overexposed, so details would have been lost.
    Less: the ground would have been to much underexposed and the richness of the raw wouldn’t have been enough to recover clean details.

    Finally, because the iso was low (100) the noise was low and I had no difficulties to neatly enhance the luminosity of the ground. Doing that with a JPG wouldn’t have given the same clean result.

    Note that in the old days, photographers were already “burning and dodging” in their darkroom, the way was different because it was the argentic analog world but the concept is exactly the same ;) (see Way Beyond Monochrome by Ralph W. Lambrecht & Chris Woodhouse or The Print by Ansel Adams).

    Comment by Joep — July 5, 2008 @ 3:15 am


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    Yep, you’re right. In the old days there was also post-processing. ;) And now that I read your (to me, far better) explanation, it’s clear to me your test was to show the better DR of RAW, not the advantages in the post-processing-proces. :)

    Your extra explanation, combined with the pictures, makes it very clear that there is difference between the DR of RAW and JPG.

    But, do you know what it is that makes that difference? Is the in-camera processiong from RAW to JPG? Or is it the hand of the photographer who uses the slides in his RAW-conversing-program? I don’t know and maybe it’s interesting to figure it out..

    Julien :
    Yes, as said in the 2 articles here and here, the in-camera processing is downgrading the richness of the picture because :

    1. The white balance and processing is done by the camera, this is a destructive process.

    2. The richness from the source is truncated from a 12Bits (4096 shades per channel) to a 8Bits (256 shades per channel) definition, so this is also a destructive process

    I don’t say that JPG is a bad format, I just say that I consider it as a final export format after post-processing, when all choices are done.
    If I would like to make a parallel between the digital and analog world, I would say that using JPG is like having the final print without having the negative.
    Of course if you don’t post-process you pictures, you probably don’t need the raw data ;) .

    Comment by Joep — July 8, 2008 @ 8:44 am


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    Hi Julien, I was pointed to your website for examples of fine photography using the Nikon 18-200mm lens and I must agree they are very nice.

    Your processing of the image in the comments section here (the rainbow over the stream) is a very fine example of extracting the maximum amount of dynamic range from a photo that looks quite flat in its original state. Would it be possible for you to do a future tutorial on your post-processing of this photo from beginning to end? It may make a fine example for those of us just getting into RAW and 16-bit processing. Thank you!

    Julien :
    Yes, I would like, unfortunately I don’t have enough time right now

    Comment by Nick — July 19, 2008 @ 1:08 pm

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