What is RAW and why do you need it?

A question most asked of new photographers is ‘do you shoot raw? It’s almost a rite of passage one has to take. Photographers love to explain what raw is and why you absolutely, most defiantly, with no exceptions, should shoot raw, but is it really that necessary?

Shooting Raw

I asked my friend and photographer Scot Baston to take a few shots for me while he was out walking. He had his camera set to raw and JPEG, meaning the camera would record both formats simultaneously.

Size Matters

The first difference we can see is the size of these images:


The raw file is almost three times larger than the JPEG, meaning there’s three times the information available for editing.

Should You Shoot Raw – Decision 1

As you progress through your photography career, professionally or otherwise, you may want to spend time editing your images, but it isn’t always necessary or practical. If what you want to do is capture moments, upload them to friends then file them away JPEG may well suit your purpose.

What’s hidden in all that data?

Let’s examine Scot’s image a little further and see where all that data is being used. I’ve opened the images in Adobe Camera Raw. If you’re a Lightroom user you can find the same controls in the Develop Module.

What I’ll do first, just for demonstration, is to lower the White and Highlight sliders and push the Blacks and Shadows sliders right up. This, in theory, will reveal all the tones in the images:

raw_and_jpeg_02 copy

At first glance, especially here as part of a JPEG screen grab, but there is a significant difference in the two images. I’ll concede that the JPEG image ‘looks better’ but that is both the question and answer to the exercise.

The JPEG image has a greater contrast to it, this reveals that the darker areas of this image aren’t being revealed as much as they are in the raw image.

Looking at the area on the right hand bank of the stream reveals that there are more details in the raw image than there are in the JPEG:


Should You Shoot Raw – Decision 2

Are you going to want to ‘pull’ detail from the shadows or highlights? If so then you’ll have a better chance of getting good results from a raw image. Bright skies and dark buildings, portraits, landscapes… You name it, there’s always details to be gained.

The Need For Speed

We’ve discussed how the data can contain details and that it could be invaluable in the editing process, but all that lovely data has to be stored somewhere and this is where your camera and memory card are working together

Flash card and camera

Your camera manufacturer will list a Frames Per Second (fps), as an example I got this information from the Canon website about their EOS 7D.

“… Capture 130 JPEG files in a single burst, or 25 images in RAW format.”

This highlights well the difference that shooting in the two formats makes. On the memory card you’ll find a speed, this is often in fps also, so if you have a slower card you’ll be able to shoot less, the camera will read ‘Busy’. Frustrating if you miss the main action!

Should You Shoot Raw – Decision 3

If there’s a lot of action happening then you may want to use continuous shooting to its maximum, and this might mean switching to JPEG. Like so much in photography, there’s a balance and compromise that has to be made.

Sharing The Images

If you’re taking photographs then it would be a shame if you’re not sharing them. Many people outside of photography have no direct means of viewing raw files so at some point they have to be converted to JPEG. This can be a little time consuming, but again, its about compromise.

Converting edited raw files to JPEG can be done really easily and quickly using Adobe Bridge and Photoshop:


This is an automated process, so set it off and put the kettle on.

Should You Shoot Raw – Decision 4

Who needs to see the image immediately, and do you have the means to convert from Raw to JPEG (your camera should come with basic conversion tools). If you’re shooting an event, does the organiser want images quickly to share on social media for example.

Raw or JPEG?

If you’ve got this far through the article you’ve probably realised that I don’t believe there’s a definitive answer, it will depend on what you’re shooting, how much time you want to invest in the image and what the immediate destination is.

I’d love to know you’re thoughts on this, do you only shoot JPEG? Or maybe you’re a 100% raw shooter? Let me know in the comments.

As always, a huge thanks to Eric for supplying this tutorial. Stay tuned for next week and in the meantime, check out more of his tutorials on his website, YouTube and you can find him on Facebook and Twitter should you wish to get in touch with him!