As far as I remember, one of the most significant and “great” things that happened in the world of digital photography is the ability to capture images directly from the camera sensor yielding maximum unprocessed data for post-processing and hence the term “raw”.
Most beginner DSLR shooters hesitate from shooting in raw format as they believe it is a ‘pro-only’ thing. That might be true to some extent but things have changed fast in the past few years. Adobe has made editing raw files so much more intuitive and easy in Lightroom. Other than advanced techniques that often require Photoshop, a majority of processing work can be done in Adobe Lightroom quite easily. And therefore every DSLR and mirrorless shooter, even a smartphone shooter (who has the ability to shoot in DNG) must shoot in Raw as the benefits of shooting an uncompressed format outweigh the few difficulties associated with learning to process raw files. Here are some solid reasons for you to consider shooting in raw format.
1- Maximum Color Depth
Most DSLRs and mirrorless cameras today can capture Raw files with 14-bit color depth which equates to 4 trillion shades of colors. A human eye can only distinguish about 16.8 million shades of colors, so what’s the point of shooting in 14-bit raw if JPG would be adequate? Shooting in a higher color depth enables to capture every nuance of a color more faithfully and gives richer and fuller colors. Higher color depth also gives flexibility when playing with hue and saturation in Lightroom or ACR and renders a much smoother transition between colors.
2- Zero Compression Artifacts
Raw format captures everything the sensor sees without any processing applied whatsoever. It gives you access to the complete data your camera’s sensor is able to capture. As there is no processing or compression of any kind involved, there are absolutely zero artifacts. This powerful flexibility makes raw format the top choice for all professionals. Thanks to untouched raw data contained in a raw file, a user can create all kinds of looks and presets in Lightroom or ACR and apply it to the raw file. This gives the photographer unlimited creative freedom to process the photos in a way that suits the subject and the story… all without worrying about pixelation or compression artifacts.
3- Full Dynamic Range
Modern digital cameras are capable of capturing between 11 to 15 stops of dynamic range. This allows the photographer to extract an amazing amount of detail from shadows and highlights portions of the image. Unfortunately, this dynamic range can only be harnessed if the image is captured in raw format. A JPG file is already cooked in the sense that it has no further information to allow extraction of detail from shadows and highlights, and what you see is what you have got.
4- Precise Color Control using HSL
Raw format enables you to tweak the colors without introducing any artifacts such as macro-blocking, pixelation or color banding. For instance, if I want to change the color of a handbag from blue to red, I could easily do that in Adobe Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw using the Hue slider under HSL adjustments tab but only if the image is captured in raw format. You could do that with a JPG file to a certain extent but the moment you push the hue, saturation, and luminance on a JPG, artifacts begin to surface… fast. For the cleanest and most faithful results, nothing can replace a raw file.
5- Perfect Optical Distortion Correction
Lenses exhibit distortion such as barrel distortion. When you shoot raw, the camera stores all important information in the file’s metadata. ISO, shutter speed, aperture, and focal length information is not the only thing stored in the raw metadata. A lot more useful information is available in a raw format that includes the camera model and lens make and model. This allows software manufacturers such as Adobe to include the correct lens correction profiles to help users correct optical distortion when editing raw. For instance, if you shot a beautiful cityscape with a Nikon D800 paired with a Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8, you can easily correct the barrel distortion and vignette by checking the “enable lens profile correction” option under the Lens Corrections tab in ACR or Lightroom.
Adobe is constantly updating the list of supported cameras and lenses, and that makes shooting in raw all the more future-proof and worthwhile.
6- Color Aberration Control & Correction
Color or “chromatic” aberration is an optical weakness that is more apparent in non-professional lenses. It causes color fringing in images in areas of very high contrast. Chromatic aberration is stronger around the edges of the frame, especially in ultra wide angle lenses. Pro lenses also suffer from chromatic aberration but much less severely. Users of crop-sensor cameras with kit lenses are likely to face this issue a lot more. Sometimes, even a professional quality lens suffer from a severe chromatic aberration, such as the popular Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 for APSC cameras. As raw format saves all important information about lens and camera used, ACR or Lightroom can automatically choose the correct lens profile to correct distortion as well as chromatic aberration without degrading the image quality.
7- Superior Noise Reduction
Noise reduction is a processor-intensive task that gives the best results with raw data to work with. JPG format compresses the file by removing all unused data from the sensor before applying further compression. Therefore noise reduction algorithms can’t work as effectively on compressed file formats like JPG as they do on raw and other uncompressed formats like Tiff.
8- Non-destructive Sharpening
Unlike noise reduction, which works best on raw and uncompressed file formats, sharpening isn’t as demanding. But shooting in raw format gives one the freedom and flexibility to play with different sharpening settings in ACR and Lightroom without permanently applying it on a master file, therefore making the sharpening process non-destructive.
9- Haze Reduction using Dehaze
Dehaze is a rather new feature added by Adobe not so long ago. It’s a magical feature that automatically analyzes the image and brings out a hazy subject. Just like noise reduction, the dehaze feature works wonders on raw files because of all the data that is available for the algorithm to perform the job as intended.
10- Unlimited Style Presets
ACR and Lightroom are the digital alternatives of a traditional darkroom. Combine the power of raw format with the tools available in Lightroom and ACR, and you get endless possibilities to create film looks and color grades. Or download popular presets like VSCO or Great than Gatsby to apply on your images with just a single click, all within ACR and Lightroom. It’s all non-destructive and you can always open the raw file later and experiment with new settings and apply new presets without permanently altering the raw data.
Many advanced post-processing techniques require shooting in raw format to get the best results. Some advanced techniques and processes that rely on shooting raw format are:
Compositing is a popular technique that requires the subject to be extracted from its original setting, usually a studio background and place it in a different setting. Since compositing depends highly on color depth, best results can only be achieved when working with raw and uncompressed formats.
12- Digital Manipulation (for digital art)
Digital artists are the extreme types of pixel pushers around. The nature of digital art demands the absolute best raw quality when taking photos of subjects as digital assets for the artwork. Some great digital artists that I follow include Erik Johansson and Michael Karcz.
"Cumulus & Thunder" by Erik Johansson
13- Digital Blending (for architecture, cityscapes, and landscapes)
Digital blending is the manual process of creating a natural looking HDR by combining bracketed exposures using luminosity masks to create one final blended image which is close to reality. The technique relies heavily on extracting shadow and highlight detail from exposures and creating luminance based masks. The quality of the luminance based masks depends on the color depth. Naturally, raw and other uncompressed formats like Tiff offer the best color depth without any degradation in quality or harmful file compression. This is absolutely paramount for creating high-quality 16-bit luminosity masks for the best possible digital blending.
14- Editing using Smart Object (for unlimited flexibility and future-proof editing in Photoshop)
The power of Raw extends further into Photoshop with the help of Smart Objects. Imagine adding hundreds of layers of effects in Photoshop on top of the main image and still have the ability to change the parameters of the main shot while keeping all the top layers intact. Smart objects help embed a full-fledged Raw file as a layer in Photoshop which can be opened and re-adjusted within Photoshop. And even if you use the original Raw file, you won’t have to worry about it because once a raw is opened as a smart object in Photoshop, it becomes part of the Photoshop “PSD” file format.
15- 360 Panorama for HDRI Domes (for 3D CGI)
3D artists require the highest resolution and quality of imagery for creating realistic 3D worlds, or to place their CG elements such as car or characters in a physically accurate real-world setting using HDRI domes. This is only possible with shooting in Raw or other lossless formats such as DNG or Tiff as the output will have the best dynamic range required for a 32-bit HDR environment.
There are plenty more reasons to consider shooting in Raw but the ones mentioned in this article are most relevant to photographers. So if you are a beginner photographer or an enthusiast looking to take his game to another level, you’d better make an effort to shoot in Raw format and learn to process it. That’s where the power of digital photography can truly be witnessed.