5 Reasons You Should Be Shooting in RAW

Shooting RAW digital images could change your style

A photographer looking up at a possible shot.

MoMo Productions/Getty Images

In digital photography, "shooting in RAW" means capturing photographs in an uncompressed image format. A RAW file, then, is the raw image data captured by a camera when the shutter button is pressed. It contains the maximum amount of detail and information capable of being produced by a given camera and its settings, and thus can be quite a large file.

By contrast, other image formats are created using some type of compression. The result is a much smaller file. A smaller file means there is less to work with, which is why experienced photographers usually prefer to shoot in RAW format.

Understanding RAW Format in Digital Photography

The amount of data captured isn’t the only advantage to using RAW over other formats. Below are a few more reasons you should consider making the switch to RAW.

RAW images are large files, which will require additional storage for your photos. Consider investing in a cloud storage service or an external hard drive to keep from hogging up too much storage space.

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A Larger File Means More Data

RAW file on top and JPEG file on the bottom.

If you compare the contents of a RAW image file to a different format, for example JPEG, it’s easy to see the differences. In the image above, the RAW image is at the top and the JPEG image is at the bottom. Notice the difference in details and shades of color between the two.

JPEG files are compressed; this means that actual data from the image that was captured is replaced by digital data, which is much smaller. Some colors may be combined, or pixels may be grouped together and combined. The result is a file that’s much smaller but doesn’t contain as much information about how the image should look. It may not be noticeable if you’re using snapshot-sized images, but if you zoom in you will begin to see the difference.

Because RAW files are uncompressed, they contain no digitally-altered data. Instead, they contain information about the image, as it appeared when the shutter was triggered.

Consider how color is processed. RAW files can contain 68 billion or more shades of color. JPEG images only contain about 16 million. This means you have more data to manipulate when you begin processing images. RAW gives you more control over how the final image appears, from a wider range of colors to better white balance and exposure control, and the ability to enlarge an image significantly but still maintain a crisp, clear image.

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RAW Photography Results In Cleaner Images

The option to Reduce Noise in Photoshop.

All photographs have some level of photographic noise and other artifacts; these are pixels that aren’t quite faithful to the image that was captured. Camera software tries to remove these wayward pixels, but most methods are not as successful as photographers would like them to be. When you shoot in RAW, the amount of noise in the image and the sharpness of the image are not dependent upon camera software. Instead, they are adjustable in RAW photo editing software like Adobe Lightroom or Corel PaintShop Pro. This means cleaner, sharper photographs.

Editing photos can be time consuming, especially if you’re detail oriented (or a perfectionist). Adobe Lightroom can batch process RAW files, applying the same settings to each file. This is especially helpful when you have a group of images captured in a similar situation that would all need the same settings adjusted.

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A RAW File Can Be Edited Without Destroying the Original

A processed file next to the RAW file.

When you edit a file in a format other than RAW, you’re actually making changes to the original file. Sure, you can save the file under a different name and have a semblance of preservation, but each copy you make of that file will further degrade the data that’s saved in the file.

When you edit RAW files, you aren’t actually changing the file. You’re only creating a set of instructions that dictates how the image should appear when it is exported or rendered into a smaller file format.

RAW files aren't usually shared because of their large size and because they require specific photo editing software to open. Once you’ve edited or processed an image, it’s good practice to save it to a compressed file type, like JPEG, so it’s easier to share the image with others.

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RAW Images Result in Better Prints

A person holding a photograph in front of the person in the photograph.

 martin-dm/Getty Images

A RAW image contains a much larger number of colors than other image formats. When printing images, this equates to better color blending. Even though more and more images are shared digitally, having the ability to generate great prints is important. When you do print a picture, you want to be sure it’s going to display well. The final result of processed RAW images almost always make better prints.

There is at least one situation where the RAW format will not result in better pictures: when you’re trying to capture fast images using continuous shooting. Because RAW images are larger, they take longer for the camera to process, which means lag time between each shot, even if you’re shooting in Burst Mode. Sports and other motion photographers may find that RAW images result in missed shots or images that aren’t as crisp as they would like to capture.

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RAW Photography is Future-Proof

A futuristic floating landscape.

 Image by Shantanu Magdum via Pixabay

One of the greatest reasons to shoot RAW images during a photo session is because RAW format means you have a fully preserved, full resolution image to come back to in the future. Sure, Adobe Photoshop and other RAW photo editors are great for making that image you captured nearly perfect, but technology changes and improves every day. Next month or next year there may be a better photo editor or upgrades to your existing photo editor that will allow you to change the way you edit the file, allowing you to get even closer to the picture you see as perfect.