Take Better Pictures Lesson 10

Raw vs. Cooked

This lesson compares capturing your files in jpg file format with camera raw format.

When you shoot jpg files, all the adjustments are made in camera. They are in a sense cooked. All those settings we talked about in the first lessons are very important when shooting jpgs:

If you want to think of this in terms of shooting film, you could say that the file is developed, and the developing is determined by your camera settings.

Raw files are un-developed, like the film with just the latent image before you take it to the photo lab. You need to do the developing of raw files in a raw post processing software. (I'll give you a list of what you can use at the end of this lesson.) When you shoot raw files, the only adjustment you have to really pay attention to is the exposure. You want a nice full histogram, going as far to the right as possible without climbing the walls. (That's back in Lesson 5 if you need a review). Don't forget that exposure also includes setting the appropriate ISO for the situation.

Note: You can still adjust exposure of your raw files in post processing, and I have saved quite a few images from the trash by doing so, but in general, try to keep your histogram looking its best at all times.

RAW file Basics -- It's all about the bits, a bit of math too!

Jpg files are 8 bit. Raw files are 12 bit. These bits are in each channel: red, green and blue (rgb).


2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 = 256

That means you have 256 levels of brightness information per rgb channel


2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 = 4096

That means you have 4096 levels of brightness information per rgb channel

So what? I knew you'd ask!

The math shows that when you shoot raw files you actually capture far more information than if you shoot jpgs. 16 times more information in fact. That's a big advantage in capturing and post processing power. So your histogram, which goes from 0 to 255 levels of light in jpg mode, now goes from 0 to 4095 in raw. If your image is over or under exposed, you have more brightness information to work with when making exposure corrections. So, exposure latitude, is the big bonus.

When you make exposure corrections in a jpg file (or 8 bit tif file) you may notice combing in the histogram. Combing is when gaps occur (just like a comb) as you stretch the histogram to fill the graph. Compare the following images and their corresponding histograms. The original is underexposed, and when it's fixed, combing occurs.


Example 1 - The original, under exposed image - 8 bit file


Example 2 - The image exposure was fixed by making it brighter. This photo appears better exposed visually, but you can see that the histogram shows gaps. Those gaps are actual missing information and mean loss of some colour and increased contrast.

no combing

Example 3 - The raw image fixed by post processing the 12 bit file. If you do your exposure corrections on your raw files, you won't get those big gaps, as you have 4096 levels of information to work with. (You might have some gaps, but because they are so much smaller, they are less noticeable.) This method gives better contrast and colour than the fixed jpg too!

Other bonuses to shooting raw files

Advantages of jpgs

Right off the top you need to know that I shoot jpgs 99% of the time. Ever since I started using Lumix cameras in 2013, I've been doing this. Why?


Software for post processing raw files

Now keep in mind if you do want to shoot raw images, you need to have some post processing software that can open your raw files. Here is a list of the most popular ones:

I own and use Luminar, Lightroom, and Photoshop, but mostly Lightroom. They each have their strengths, and to be honest, the latest versions of all of them do a really great job. If you buy a standalone raw processing software, like Luminar, the price is lower than getting into Photoshop, and you can do most of what you need to do in the post processing of your raw files, so you don't even need Photoshop. You can get these standalone software titles for around $100 or less, as compared to Photoshop which is now subscription-based at $10 USD per month.

If you're on a budget, consider buying Photoshop Elements. It's about $60 and has 80% of the full Photoshop features you will ever need. I've used it and I'm very impressed with the features. It has layers, masking, blending layers, adjustment layers, and you can create complex selections. All the filters, brushes and basic image correction tools are the same as Photoshop. In my opinion, especially if you are just learning this stuff, Photoshop Elements is the way to go. You can open raw files in Elements, but you don't get all the features of Photoshop or Lightroom, but you get some.

Truth is, most times I do not even open up Photoshop when working with my raw images because I can do retouching, colour correcting, and exposure adjustments right in Lightroom and Luminar. I can create black and white files, do red eye removal, and I can even generate web galleries and contact sheets, without even opening Photoshop. It's just faster and simpler to use Luminar or Llightroom, as the image adjustments are intuitive and easy to learn.

Further Learning

Check out Photoshop Elements 12 on Amazon

Photoshop Elements 12 link

Full disclosure: This Photoshop Elements link is an affiliate link and if you use it I'll make a little commision.

Bonus to using raw processing software - if you shoot jpgs!

The raw software listed above works with jpgs as well as raw files. So you get the benefit of cheaper post processing software and ease of use, and when you are ready to shoot raw files you will already know how to use the software.

Don't forget you can download free 30-day trials of most software, so give them all a whirl and see for yourself before plunking down your cash.

are you stuck?

Are you stuck?

If you have never shot raw files before, do a test first - just a couple of images. You want to make sure you can open the files. The most common problem is that your camera is newer than your raw processing software, so you'll have to do some software updates.

I have a resource page on my site for Photoshop and Photoshop Elements, so if you are stuck and can't open your raw files, read it first.


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Happy Shooting!



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Other lessons in this series