Are You Shooting Raw? There May Be a Good Reason Not To

I shoot solely raw. However, I know some tremendous photographers whose cameras are set to record just JPEGs, and they will never change. I am envious because they spend less time in front of the computer. Shooting raw is worth learning, but maybe there's also a good reason to shun it.

It's analogous to the difference between using your own darkroom or sending your roll of film off to Kwiky-Printz-R-Uz to be developed in a batch with hundreds of others. KwickyPrintz will do an OK job, but there is no option to assert your own creativity on the development and printing processes. In the darkroom you can. Similarly, the big advantage of raw is the ability to adjust images to look the way you want, rather than how they were programmed to look by a clever technician somewhere in a laboratory on the other side of the world.

RAW or Raw?

Raw is not an acronym. Although people sometimes use "RAW" as if it is an abbreviation, it actually refers to it being the raw data sent from the camera's sensor. That data is developed digitally and, like printing from a negative onto paper, versions (usually JPEGs) are exported from the raw file.

Screenshot of Serif Affinity. A popular program, it is affordable and includes layer-based image editing tools. It doesn't have a library feature like Lightroom or On1.

Switching To Raw

In your camera's menu, there will be the option to change the file type. It's easy to find and often accessible from the control panel or quick menu. If you can't find it immediately, then ask your favorite search engine and it will tell you how.

If you've not used raw before, you may want to select the raw + JPEG option, so you still have the shareable  JPEGs immediately available. It takes time learning to develop raw files and at the beginning, you may want to still use your camera's excellent JPEG results while you learn to adjust the raw files to get the results you envisage.

In Praise of Raw

Now your camera is set to take raw images, you have a greater ability to adjust the look of the image than if you have it set to take JPEGs.

Raw files save all the data collected by the sensor and allow for non-destructive development of the photo. This is unlike shooting to produce JPEG files. JPEGs are processed in-camera, compressed, and consequently, have a lot of the unused data discarded during that automated processing. The discarded data is unrecoverable, lost forever.

For example, if you set your camera to shoot in black and white, all the color data is lost with the JPEG. However, with a raw file, all that data still there. With raw, you can produce any number of different versions of the image from that raw file. Think of using a film negative over and over again in the darkroom.

Screenshot of Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) the raw development plugin that comes with Photoshop. It has the same raw developing functions as Lightroom. A hugely cut-down version of it is available in Photoshop Elements.

Knocking Raw

They have their disadvantages. Raw files are larger than JPEGs and they require developing and converting into usable images before being shared or published; you cannot upload a raw file for your friends to see on Facebook, Twitter, or Flickr. Furthermore, you may not be able to view a raw file on a phone or tablet. Additionally, your computer might need a specific plug-in to view a raw file.

The file extensions vary between manufacturers, .CR2 for Canon, .NEF for Nikon, .ORF for Olympus, and so on. Raw file formats are not only unique to each brand but also to each camera. Therefore, they require software updates to access them. As the raw files from each model vary, a new codec for your operating system and updating your developing software may be required if you buy a new camera. New camera releases are often incompatible with existing software until updates are released.

Standardization

It's a pipe dream of many photographers that there is more compatibility across brands. Adobe tried to standardize raw by bringing out DNG (Digital Negative) raw format, offering this to be used by the camera manufacturers. However, this was not taken up by any of the major players, possibly because they thought it would weaken their hold on the market if they didn't maintain incompatibilities between their products and those of their competitors. However, Adobe produces a free raw converter that will allow you to convert any raw file into a DNG file. That's especially useful if you have outdated development applications and a new camera, but don't want to upgrade your app.

Development Software

There is a huge array of different programs for developing raw files. Some come with additional functions and editing tools, some have the ability to catalog the images, making it easy to find particular images. Meanwhile, others solely develop images. The results from these programs vary and some are more intuitive to use than others. They also differ in price and in smoothness of operation.

Just like cameras, people will always recommend what they own and use. Don't listen to them. What suits them might not suit you. One of the many programs I have installed I find clunky, illogically ordered and lacking in both functionality and compatibility with other editing programs. But lots of others swear by it, so I won't tell you which at the risk of upsetting them.

Most pay-for programs come with free trials and it is worth trying these to see which suits you. There are also free programs to use.

Free

Every camera manufacturer produces its own raw development software. This is usually bundled with the camera and is downloadable for free from their websites. Most of these programs mirror the settings that are available in-camera.

Many professionals cut their raw development teeth on the free and open-source UFRaw. There are plenty of other free tools available such as RawTherapee and Darktable and the early versions of  Lightzone.

Darktable is one of the better free raw development tools and is a good starting point for those on a low budget.

Paid For

Although it is not my intention to use this article to review the different apps available for developing raw files, the old adage that you get what you pay for holds true. The free programs are clunky and slow compared with those you buy. But hey, they are free!

Adobe produces, arguably, the best-known raw converter that is used as a plugin for Photoshop and Photoshop Elements (a cut-down version), which has the same developing tools as found in Photoshop Lightroom. The Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) process is seen as the industry standard for raw conversions. There is no arguing that it is good software and outsells all other brands. But, their dominance is being eaten away, and other converters can give a very different and unique look to your photos. I've argued before that there are good reasons for avoiding the popular choices of camera manufacturer, and the same reasons apply to software; don't be scared to be different!

Screenshot of On1 Photo Raw 2021. Besides raw development, On1 comes with a library and layers based photo-editing tool as well as fractat-based image resizing.

On1 Photo Raw, DxO Optics Pro, Serif Affinity, Coral Aftershock Pro, and Phase One Capture One all have raw converters. Most of these have similar basic adjustments and then a variety of additional tools, some that work better than others. Most have free trials and it is worth trying the different software before purchase to see if you like the results and if you find them intuitive. There are plenty more on the market that I haven't mentioned, and it would be great to hear what you like and why in the comments. 

Adjusting JPEGs With Raw Developers

Raw development is not limited to being used just on raw files. Other image files such as JPEGs can be manipulated with these tools too. However, raw files are more adjustable.

Basic Adjustments

There are variations in how different adjustments work in different apps.  For example, adjusting the exposure slider in Lightroom may give different results from the same slider in Affinity, which in turn may vary in results from On1. A good way to discover how the adjustments work is to push them to their limits and see what happens to the image. However, to produce the best results, most sliders are best used gently.

Color Temperature

Temperature adjustment is used to change the white balance. Often, an eyedropper tool can be used on a neutral white or gray in the image and the image will be automatically adjusted to remove any color cast. The sliders can then be adjusted to warm up or cool down the image. Many landscape photographers like to warm their images slightly.

I rarely find that I need to adjust the Tint slider, although it is sometimes necessary under artificial light.

Exposure

Exposure adjusts the brightness of the entire image, but often with an emphasis on the mid-tones. If you increase exposure in-camera by one stop, the result is unlikely to be identical the increasing the raw slider by one stop.

Contrast

This makes the darks darker and the lights lighter. Again, the different programs make this adjustment work in different ways.

Other Tonal Adjustments

Blacks, Shadows, Mid-tones, Highlights, and Whites sliders adjust the brightness of those are areas of the photo. Pulling the whites and highlight sliders to the left may recover detail in the brightest areas of your photo and pushing the blacks and shadows to the right may reveal shadow detail previously hidden. If you have blown out highlights (pure whites) these sliders won't recover the details in those areas. Similarly, pure blacks will have lost their details too.

Clarity

Clarity or structure works a bit like contrast but solely on the mid-tones. Adding clarity can make your images really pop and stand out, but can also be easily over-adjusted. Be gentle with this slider.

Saturation

Vibrance and Saturation are very similar, making colors bolder. However, Vibrance only works on the more muted colors whereas Saturation works across all colors. Try turning Vibrance down to -50, and you will see the most saturated colors remain while the weakest ones become differing shades of gray. Turn the Saturation slider all the way down and the image becomes monochrome.

Lightroom Classic comes with a great range of global and local adjustments, as well a comprehensive library. Most users subscribe to the photographers package that includes Photoshop and all its advanced editing tools

Other Adjustments

The raw converters have a host of other adjustments available too. These may include noise reduction, sharpening, tone curves, black and white, split toning, spot and red eye removal, as well as camera and lens profiles. All will include cropping tools and the ability to straighten the horizon. The better ones will also have the ability to apply local adjustments — changes to parts of the image — and not just global adjustments that affect the entire image.

The better programs will have tutorials on their websites that demonstrate how to use the software, and YouTube is full of independent photographers willing to share their experiences with you. Of course, these tutorials all give results that are subjective. Just because a famous YouTuber says an image should be developed in a certain way doesn't mean they are right.

So, What's the Good Reason Not to Shoot Raw?

As I said at the start, I know super photographers who produce fabulous images straight out of the camera, so they record JPEGs. They don't have to mess around with changing the look of the image. That approach encourages one significant trait for photographers: they must make the effort to get the image right in the first place.

When holding the viewfinder to their eye, they look around the edge of the frame for unwanted distractions and make sure the composition is correct. They need to be precise with their exposure and know how the three main exposure settings will affect the final image. It teaches them to be better photographers.

Perhaps, we could learn from that and take the risk when going on a photoshoot of setting the camera to shoot JPEGs. Dare you do it?

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62 Comments

Rick Pappas's picture

I'm as careful shooting my raw files as anyone would be shooting jpgs. Raw files and raw processing aren't about forgiveness for poor shooting, they are about the expansive creative choices that can be made using a higher bit depth file. The format has nothing at all to do with a photographers skill, experience or creative ability.

This is nonsense.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Rick, it's just another way of looking at it. I take care over mine too, but there is a propensity for some photographers to shoot and intend to fix everything in post-processing.

Wheeler McGowan's picture

Another clickbait worthless article

Timothy Turner's picture

Here we go again.

Stephen Mizner's picture

Ummm, that's Corel Aftershot, not Coral Aftershock.

chris bryant's picture

Corel Aftershot. Hmm, change the o for an i and we are there!

Stephen Strangways's picture

I have owned many cameras over the years that shot fantastic JPGs which made raw seem largely unnecessary, but i kept shooting both. Then DXO came up with DeepPrime, and all my old raw files have taken on a new life with image quality that was inconceivable years ago. If i had only shot JPG, i would not be able to take advantage of the technological advancement seen in DeepPrime.

Daniel Escobar's picture

I'm looking into DeepPrime as well but their site has me all sorts of messed up. Gives 2 options PL or PR ($89 vs $99). When I click the more expensive one to buy it jumps to a page with a $149 price tag. Do you remember what you paid yourself and which package?

Stephen Strangways's picture

They have three options:
1) PhotoLab Essential which does NOT include DeepPRIME, for $99.

2) PhotoLab Elite which does include DeepPRIME, for $149. This is what i use.

3) PureRAW for $89 which does include DeepPRIME but does not allow you to adjust its settings, and it has no adjustment or editing capability whatsoever. It takes a raw file in, spits out a DNG that you can then open in other software like Photoshop or Lightroom.

Doug Blake's picture

When everyone wants to be a photographer it is inevitable that there is a movement toward wanting cameras that are increasingly viewed, and function, like appliances rather than tools to explore and learn thoroughly. Shooting on auto exposure with auto focus, as well as jpgs, can give reasonably good, sometimes excellent results. But there is a distancing in the experience for the “photographer”. And it means settling for the constraints of the sensor and software as a unit designed by engineers.
Each camera model yields unique results in both raw and jpg file formats. Shooting in raw gives me more room in developing a personal style and allows for bringing each file to a more nuanced and
compelling solution.
But hey, to each his or her own depending on their needs and desires.
I like shooting in full manual in raw when I can because it makes me a better and more knowledgeable photographer since it is a continual exploration. And I like feeling as completely responsible for the results as possible. But there are also times I just want to grab a shot for the hell of it.

Rick Hyde's picture

Truer words. I started shooting back in 1973 when you had to shoot manual (including focus). What many people today don't realize is that shooting manual gives you more control. I know what I've got when I push the shutter. I don't have to look at the screen.

Adam Palmer's picture

If you are going to lug around a real camera may as well go all the way and shoot raw.

Ed Sanford's picture

This article is so “1999”…

Alexander Petrenko's picture

More and more people nowadays start shooting digital cameras and in today’s show we’d like discuss important differences between formats that camera manufacturers propose...

Ed Sanford's picture

More like everyone is shooting digital. Nevertheless, the conversation about raw vs jpeg is not relevant on a forum dominated by serious and professional photographers.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Alexander, a large number of readers are actually beginners. There is a range of articles here aimed at people at all levels of experience. This one was very much aimed at people who are learning the art.

Lionel Fellay's picture

This article is a joke, someone is really controlling editorial on Fstoppers ?, as a serious landscape photographer I'm schocked by a so senseless article.

And I'm disappointed for a new one that is starting photography and start to read an aticle like that.

Nothing beat the RAW in Post capacities, end of the discussion.

Stuart C's picture

Sorry, it looks like you haven’t even read the article and commented purely on the title.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Lionel, thank you for your opinion. I disagree with it. There are many, excellent photographers who shoot with smartphones that only have JPEG capacities. One of the most talented and unique photographic artists I have ever come across shoots solely in JPEG using a pro-grade mirrorless camera. Shooting raw is right for you, it doesn't necessarily mean it's right for everyone.

Paul C's picture

This is a good article if you are thinking of switching on the unused RAW function of your camera.

My experience has shown that in good light conditions - the RAW images I process end up near identical to the JPEGs I took in RAW+JPEG mode. As a long term mirrorless user I have got used to visualising the end-product from the viewfinder with half-an-eye focused on the live-view histogram. It is like shooting transparency film, where the work is all up-front in the process.

As a result - I can save a lot of time by using RAW for its strengths and JPEG for its far greater productivity and shooting speed. For me, that is only about 5-10% of my images needing RAW. There I concur that investing in specialist programs such as DXO does make a great difference - since the abilities added to each update of DXO have been a year or more ahead of the camera makers' RAW converters.

Where RAW+JPEG is fantastic is when shooting Black and White - since the aim in B&W is to compose without colour and look instead for patterns, tonal contrast, textures and lines...may of which can escape the eye when seen in colour. I then get a B&W viewfinder image but a full colour RAW image to "develop" later in the digital "darkroom".

One thing to mention - there are now independent software groups bringing out new operating systems for old digital cameras that add functionality such as RAW and sequential auto-bracket shooting for HDR; check out Canon Hack Development Kit (CHDK) for example.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Thank you, Paul. That's a great observation about the similarities with transparencies. I'll take a look at the CHDK, that's really useful. Cheers.

Paul Scalenghe's picture

Don’t forget a good monitor/display that is set up with appropriate color settings is key as well.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Absolutely true. Thanks

Paul Scalenghe's picture

btw, I’ve had photoshoots at hundreds of professional photo studios in my 35 years in agency life. These are high end studios. Charging 2-5k a day, so they know their stuff. Their photos are best in class. A majority of these professionals shoot in RAW. Then I take files to my digital gurus who know how to best manipulate the raw data to achieve best resulting imagery. I do my own photos in RAW and tweak them myself. JPG is a compression function. Takes like/similar color pixels and averages them out to one color pixel data space. Resulting in loss of nuances that I’d rather manage myself.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Yes, I shoot raw too.

Deleted Account's picture

Imagine being told to throw away your film negatives because they are taking up physical space or digitize your paintings and throw away your canvas. That’s what this article is about.

How f*cking stupid do you have to be as an artist and a photographer to destroy your legacy. We live in 2021 where you can buy 2 TB hard drives for $60. Even a 100MP GFX 100 Raw files are like less than 300MB meaning you can store upwards of ..10k+ photos for less $60. . Like are you stupid??

How can you sit there with a straight face complaining about space when videographers drop 2 TB on a single project that they have to store ... my mind. But you are like 50-60 years old so I’m not surprised this is your opinion

Stuart C's picture

You must have misread the part about being civil with your comments when signing up?

David Pavlich's picture

Lighten up, Skippy. Your 'opinion' is worth no more or less than anyone else's opinion. You can disagree and be civil or you can be a petulant little wanker. I can guarantee, with 99% certainty, that you would be taken much more seriously if you didn't whine like a 10 year old child.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Marcelo, I agree with most of your post but the age thing is showing how young you are. What is your plan for when you turn 50 because you know as you have decided, you'll be useless to the society on day one. Luckily for him Ansel Adams escaped your wildest vision of super old and worthless at 50 and was still productive in his seventies.

Michael Krueger's picture

"Adobe tried to standardize raw by bringing out DNG (Digital Negative) raw format, offering this to be used by the camera manufacturers. However, this was not taken up by any of the major players, possibly because they thought it would weaken their hold on the market if they didn't maintain incompatibilities between their products and those of their competitors."

I would argue at this point DNG is the standard. DNG is the raw format Google chose when they implemented raw capture into Android over 6 years ago, over a billion devices are sold a year capable of capturing and editing DNG format. Even Sony uses DNG instead of ARW on their phones.

Alexander Petrenko's picture

... because these are Android phones.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Good point, Michael. There are some phones that shoot raw now. I do know some fabulous smartphone photographers who solely shoot JPEG, as well as some tremendous DSLR and mirrorless photographers who do the same. I think there is a lot to be gained from shooting raw, but it's not written in tables of stone that anyone has to.

Stuart C's picture

Great article Ivor and some good info for beginners, despite the complaints of other commenters I think this was a well put together article, and I actually read it, which I suspect isn’t the case for others.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Thank you, Stuart. That is very much appreciated. It's known that a lot of people don't read articles fully and just see the bit that they disagree with. Some others are just trolls.

Stuart C's picture

I’ve given you a follow on Instagram too, nice to see fellow North East shooters writing articles.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Forget jpg, if you can’t shoot properly in either format, you need to shoot slide film. There is literally nothing to learn from jpg. It was popular at a specific time for a couple acceptable reasons, but that was 20 years ago. Check Andy Day’s recent articles and review the one with the F1 photographer. Otherwise, anyone who shoot jpg does retouch their #1 photos, seen it at races myself.

Jan Holler's picture

JPG is only the end of the line, just before printing or display. Still, there are some cases (sports photographers) who rely only on JPGs. But for all other genres, raw makes most sense. We should admit, though, that the cameras' JPG engines do a really great job. Speaking of Nikon, I only use Raw, but sometimes I admire the color reproduction of their JPGs.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

With perfect light perfect conditions and proper color selection, it should offer great results. Did you read the article I suggested? This guy shoots raw and jpg, exports his raws after small changes and later dumps those files while keeping the captured jpg for eventual image request, meaning that's the way he keeps all his images, but his number #1 shots, for the primary use were edited from the raw, not the canned profiles. I have seen pros sports photographers who shot all jpg until just a few years ago, now showing images that clearly have benefited from the extra data they could not get from jpg. In my view, top sports photographers will have to adjust to raw or face reality. As far as capture, jpg is dead in all genres despite being available.

Jan Holler's picture

Yes, I did. And I do agree with you. It is the amount of data and the time needed to transfer it why sports photographers use JPGs. In the end, if that is solved, they also will use raw.

Tom Reichner's picture

Ivor said,

"RAW or Raw?"

Didn't you mean RAW or raw?

I mean, why did you capitalize Raw in the 2nd option?

Ivor Rackham's picture

I wondered who would ask that, the simple reason is because it is the Fstoppers style to capitalize titles.

Erpillar Bendy's picture

Wait ... what? Actual software is needed for Raw? Wow, that's terrible! I'm shooting everything Jpg from now on. And you know Jpg photographers, so that's compelling for me.

Rick Hyde's picture

I have a technique that requires I shoot raw. It doesn't work with a jpeg. It doesn't work with a PSD. either.

El Dooderino's picture

Memory and storage is cheap, so I just shoot both and get the "best" of both worlds.

Catherine Bowlene's picture

Well, maybe I just love messing around with various Affinity and Photoworks tricks, but I enjoy shooting raw. Besides, I'm certainly not one of those super photographers who produce fabulous images straight out of the camera yet, so I need additional help lol

Ed Sanford's picture

Very few photographers produce "fabulous" images "straight out of the camera". The greatest photographers of the medium spent far more time in the darkroom than behind the lens...

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