Why I Shoot In RAW

I don’t shoot in the raw (naked), at least not that I will admit to.  I’m talking about capturing my original photographic images as CameraRAW files versus JPEG files.  Virtually every professional and advanced amateur photographer I know shoots CameraRAW.  Why do we do this?  The primary reason is that it gives us complete creative control over our image(s).

When you shoot JPEG images you are basically abdicating your creative decisions to the camera’s factory programmed algorithms.  Today those algorithms are pretty darn good for the most part, and if your main purpose is to use your camera to record everyday experiences it works just fine (usually).  But if your main purpose is to create art (your art), then you will want more creative control over the process and the end product.

WB IMG_3884

Espanola Island – Galapagos, Ecuador

I shot the above image a couple of weeks ago while cruising through the Galapagos.  This scene was captured in CameraRAW using my little backup shooter, the Canon PowerShot G15 (a small palm-sized camera).  If I had captured this scene as a JPEG file it wouldn’t have looked like this, the camera’s internal algorithms wouldn’t have handled the lighting conditions to my satisfaction.  This final image looks more like what my biological eye saw, rather than what a mechanical machine was capable of recording.

Our biological eye is a marvellous piece of equipment, it can handle an impressive dynamic range of lighting exposures.  Digital JPEG images cannot.  We now have HDR (High Dynamic Range) software to mimic our eye’s exposure range, both in-camera and stand-alone, but it comes at a price.  It often looks over-processed, garish and artificial.  HDR processing can also introduce a lot of digital noise to the scene, what we called graininess in the old film days.

CameraRAW images are huge files that capture an impressive amount of dynamic range. This dynamic range allows us to utilize photo editing software like Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Lightroom and in my case Adobe Photoshop elements, to bring out the full potential of a scene.  Again, to make the scene appear more like what we actually saw with our own eyes. How often have you taken a photo, only to say to yourself later:  that doesn’t look as good as what I saw.  Pretty darn often I’ll wager.  But when you look at a CameraRAW image on your LCD it looks terrible, very bland and unremarkable.  It takes editing software and an artistic eye to bring out its full potential.

That’s why I hesitate to show people my in-camera photos on the LCD display, they look like shit.  To illustrate my point I am showing you a side-by-side comparison of the above image. The original CameraRAW image and the final post-edited image.  Incredible visual difference isn’t there?  Which one do you like best?

(click on images to enlarge)

You will have to trust me, what I really saw looked much closer to the edited image than the original CameraRAW image.  If you enjoy photography, and want to significantly up your game, learn to shoot in CameraRAW and edit your work using photo editing software. Create art (your art) as well as memories.  Never before in the history of photography has the photographer had so much creative control over his craft.  Don’t let your camera make all of your decisions (automatically) for you.  And, yes, Ansel Adams would have embraced digital photography and Photoshop.  Where do you think Photoshop got most of its editing ideas, from guys like Ansel and his fellow professionals.  What they pioneered in the “wet darkrooms” we can now do ourselves in digital “virtual darkrooms” like Photoshop.  Happy shooting.


Stephen F. Dennstedt

Photographer, Writer and World Traveler

Quito, Ecuador


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