Raw is just a made-up term that means the image hasn't been "cooked" in the camera.
Al Fasoldt's reviews and commentaries, continuously available online since 1983


Raw photo format isn't worth the trouble for most of us

Aug. 8, 2010

By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2010, Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2010, The Post-Standard

   I don't like raw carrots raw; they're hard to chew. I don't like raw deals. And I'm not a fan of raw photos.
   If you're wondering what I'm referring to, welcome to the new world of image formats. You probably know about JPEG (also spelled JPG), which squeezes pictures to smaller file sizes in just about all consumer cameras. And you might be familiar with TIFF (or TIF), the alternative to JPEG for serious amateurs and pros. (Unlike JPEG, TIFF keeps the image from degrading when you do multiple edits.)
   And now there is raw. It's not an acronym like JPEG (for Joint Photographic Experts Group) or TIFF (for Tag Image File Format). It's just a made-up term that means the image hasn't been "cooked" in the camera. In other words, a raw image is about as close as you can get to the original bits and bytes recorded by the camera's image sensor. In a raw image, the camera's own circuitry hasn't made any adjustments.
   That means it hasn't made any improvements, either.
   Professionals probably think that's a good thing. But I say "Bah. Humbug."
   I don't like raw images because they're a pain in the buck. Adding raw capabilities to a consumer camera adds to the cost without providing any useful benefits to everyday photographers.
   And raw images take up so much extra space they ought to be featured in Slim-Fast commercials. With a typical camera with built-in raw capability, each image is likely to consume 15 to 20 MB (megabytes) of space -- about five times as much file space as JPEG images. You'd only be able to store one-fifth of the images you stored before.
   Want more? Nobody's in charge of this raw image nonsense. A raw image from a Nikon camera isn't the same as one from a Canon camera. Or from a Sony camera. A JPEG is a JPEG and a TIFF is a TIFF, but a raw can be whatever the camera maker wants it to be. You have to use special software to decode raw images unless you're lucky enough to own Photoshop, which tries to make sense out of most raw photos. Apple puts raw decoding into all Macs, but each time a different raw method shows up, your Mac has to be updated or you're out of luck.
   Pros usually tell me raw is great because they get to work with the original image, before the camera does anything to it. That seems to make sense, but we'd have to assume that raw is somehow better than non-raw. And that's not necessarily true.
   Here's what a good camera usually does with an image before the picture is saved as a JPEG or TIFF (as non-raw, in other words):
      Holes in the image caused by bad pixels are filled in.
      Noise is removed.
      Color balance (called "white balance") is adjusted for the best possible image.
      Contrast is tweaked.
      The file is compressed (in JPEGs) for easier storage.
   None of this happens in a raw image, so photographers who use raw have to do all that stuff themselves. That seems a little backwards to me.
   As if to point out the difficulty of using raw images -- which everyone admits are harder to view on the fly -- cameras with raw capability also save JPEGs. The camera's rear viewing screen shows the JPEG version, not the raw one. So you end up judging the photo by viewing the JPEG, not the supposedly superior raw image. This is nuts.
   If you're an amateur -- even if you're an accomplished amateur -- think twice before using raw images. Try turning that feature off if it's already in your camera. Let your camera make its own adjustments. I don't think your photos will suffer at all.