Why You Should Shoot RAW

By Paul Cowan, Shutterstock Submitter

Every photographer knows the feeling: the composition looks great in the viewfinder, the colors are vibrant, everything is just right… then you get home and review your files at full size, only to find they are a disappointment. It happened to me back in 2004 as I was just starting out with stock.

It began with a trip to Jordan, where I intended to practice shooting some of the local scenic beauty. I had acquired a guide and was queuing at the airport ticket booth shortly after it opened and, clutching my Canon 300D with its 17-55mm kit lens, we set off.

The rocks sparkled in the sunlight in swirls of pink, red and gold as our horse-drawn buggy hurtled the few hundred yards towards the Siq path, past obelisk-topped graves carved in the soft sandstone. I had never seen anything like it.

My camera was out and I was snapping happily as we jolted down the track. I reckoned ““ not entirely wisely that with good desert light, 100ASA would give me fast enough shutter speeds. Of course, I was wrong and many shots were lost that way.

But there was a bigger problem, or so it seemed.

I was not just new to stock photography, but to digital cameras as well. Without really understanding it, I had come to accept that Automatic White Balance almost always gives good results. I didn’t realize that as the camera struggled with the bizarre colors of the “Rose-Red City” it would be unable to produce a proper balance. After all, in the old days you just loaded a daylight film and fired, no problem; if I had thought about it I might have realized that switching from AWB to sunny would have given the correct result – except I wasn’t aware of the problem.

I did know about the limitations caused by the restricted dynamic range and the problems of getting shadows and highlights well exposed if there were more than about five stops difference. However, in the harsh desert light, there was little I could do except expose for the mid-tones and try to avoid completely blowing the sky.

Well, it all went wrong. When I got home I found the Rose-Red City had become a mud-brown mausoleum. The fantastic slot canyon that acts as the entrance from the Wadi Musa side was drab, subdued and topped by an almost white sky. As Shutterstock was new then, with only a few tens of thousands of images and desperate for more, several of my miscolored Petra landscapes managed to get on to the site, where they languished.

But there was one redeeming factor: I had shot everything in RAW + jpg.

Fast forward five years.

Since those early days, my processing skills have improved ““ if not by leaps and bounds, at least considerably. I have come to understand how white balance works and I just recently unraveled the mystery of how to use a single RAW file to make a high dynamic range image that brings up details that are barely visible in the original. The time had come to go back to the files from Petra and elsewhere to see what I could make of them.

With a few clicks, the rose city emerged from its muddy facsimile. Bringing the Siq path back to its true glory was a bit more difficult, as it involved making three different files from the RAW original one exposed for the sky, one for the cliffs and one for the shadows ““ and then merging them using layer masks. It took less than an hour to produce a photo to be proud of.

I have many others taken before and since the Petra trip that will benefit from the same treatment.

One was the same summer on a trip to the Island of Santorini. The warm water of the Mediterranean creates enough vapor to pretty much guarantee great sunsets throughout the tourist season. The pink hue, known as the Belt of Venus, extends right around the horizon so there is a popular sunset viewpoint above the main town of Fira.

Once again, the sight was stunning as the lights winked on in the whitewashed village, bright against the volcanic rocks behind. But there was not much light so the photographs came out flat, just like the shot of the canyon at Petra. Once again, adjusting the file in RAW has allowed me to rescue the photo, brightening the buildings in the town in one version and boosting the color in the sky in another. Merging the files together gives what I think is a good and interesting impression of the scene.

Remember, advertisers as well as the photo-buying public ““ want photos that stand out on the page, not necessarily pictures that faithfully depict the contrast in a scene.

And this technique is not just to rescue pictures from flat lighting. There are many places where bright sunlight, white buildings and blue skies create black shadows and blown highlights, making it difficult to get good photos. But merge two or three versions of the same photo and suddenly a downright ugly image becomes a cheerful one.

The moral of this story is simple: it is a good idea to give yourself the best insurance by shooting in RAW rather than jpg or shoot both together, as I do. Of course, there are some times when that is not the best solution, such as when you are shooting action sports, taking a large number of shots in quick succession, or if you have limited space on your flash card. But, in general, RAW helps by keeping your options open.

You may not know what to do with a RAW file today, and you may not be able to do all the “high dynamic range” stuff now, but with patience and practice you could find that having the RAW file available opens up opportunities that you are not even aware of.

I know some people swear by jpg ““ I did myself at one time and I still use jpg originals more often than RAW and it is sometimes possible to rescue a lousy jpg if you have the skills, but the indisputable fact is that you can’t lose anything except disc space by shooting RAW. You can lose out with jpgs.

You’ve got the insurance policy right there in your camera. It is free. Why wouldn’t you use it?

For more information on Shooting RAW:

Shooting RAW: Streamlining Your Workflow