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« Subtle Changes in Composition Make Better Photographs | Main | Adding spontaneity to make great portraits »

The Power of Raw

Final image from raw file

Many cameras these days have the option to shoot in both jpg and raw formats, and I'm often asked if it is worth it to shoot in raw. The downside is that that the files are larger, which means you can get less images on a memory card, and many people want to get as many pictures on each card as they can. The upside, however, is that the raw format gives you a lot capability in holding detail in an image when there is a large contrast range in the file, something the jpg cannot do. And with the cost of memory cards coming down, it is a worthwhile trade in my mind.

Here's a good example. I took this snapshot at 1PM in the desert. I was careful to position my subjects so that the sun was behind them so I did not have dark shadows under their eyes. But since the sun was still very high in the sky, it is hitting their shoulders; something that would not have happened if it was earlier or later in the day. The result is that although the overall exposure is quite good in terms of holding shadow detail, I've pushed the sensor capability to the limit with the extreme contrast from shadow to highlight. Fortunately, I always shoot in raw format, so I had some post exposure solutions to help me.

If you look at the jpg version, you can see there are significant areas on the shoulders and arms where all the detail has been lost. Like shooting with transparency film, once the detail is gone in a jpg, there is nothing you can do to bring it back.

From jpg file

First, look at the levels histogram, and you can see that we are hitting the far right side, which means a lot of detail is lost.

The eyedropper markers, 1, 2, and 3 are places where detail is lost.

Take a look at the threshold snapshot below. The area that is white is where the detail has been lost.

Now let's look at the raw file. Many people compare raw files to negative film, in that there is more latitude from the shadows to the highlights. By taking a couple of extra steps in processing the file, you can pull in detail that was lost in the jpg version. Unlike jpg, which is a universal file format any computer can open, raw files are proprietary file formats from the individual camera manufacturers, and as such have to be processed in either Abobe Photoshop or Lightroom. Take a look at this snapshot from Lightroom, where I processed this file. There are lots of things you can do to modify the file in the conversion process, but the feature that will help us here is the "Recovery" slider, which has the ability to pull in the detail in the extreme highlights. Notice that I've set it the slider at its maximum setting of 100.

Now compare the levels for the raw file to the levels for the jpg file above. Notice how the high values have shifted to the left, indicating there is more detail.

Now take a look at the resulting threshold levels for the file once the raw file has been converted.

Quite a difference from the jpg, it has has just one small area that has lost detail. And fortunately, that is an easy fix by using the healing brush tool to grab some skin texture from a close-by area and apply it in the area with no detail.  See the final file at the top of the entry.

So all things being equal, I would recommend going into your camera setup mode, and selecting raw as your file preference.

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    The power of the raw can be most important valuable features for everyone. This can be more important on the same ways. These are the most important point on the same ways.

Reader Comments (1)

You've done it. I should have switched to RAW a long time ago but seeing that there's help for blown highlights is the clincher. Also, I've just seen a review for RAW Developer 1.8.4 which made me want to spend money on that program.

September 1, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMartin Voelker

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