Photo Tip: 5 Ways Shooting in RAW Can Improve Your Photos

This post was originally published on IHeartFaces on February 9 2015, and was reposted to AmandalynnJones.com in January 2017. 

Perhaps you’re interested in shooting RAW but haven’t quite taken the leap yet. The bigger photo files will take up more space on your memory card (and hard drive) and there’s more work involved to process them. Maybe one time you tried it but were surprised to find your camera produced super bland, flat looking photos – what was that about anyway?

I’m a huge fan of shooting RAW and I’ve been known twist my friends arms’ until they get on the RAW bandwagon with me, so I’m here to convince you too. Why? Well…

1. You learn how to process your own photos.

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When your camera creates an image the sensor gathers all kinds of information like white balance, brightness, contrast, and tonal range. All of those gorgeous ingredients come together to form your photo, and they’re all recorded somewhere on a sliding scale that exists for each element. When a Jpeg file is “developed” the camera records all of that same information, keeps what it thinks is “right”, and then it throws away all of the extra information it didn’t use in order to make a smaller, compressed file. It doesn’t even ask you what you want. How rude.

When you shoot in RAW format the camera preserves the individuals layers of information and allows you to decide what settings they should have later on, and I think that’s an important thing to do because it makes you consider ALL the options involved in making an photo and those insights can be really helpful in teaching you to shoot for the way you want to edit. Your camera is not an intelligent person, it’s a camera – why do all that work to get the shot and then give an inanimate object the control over developing your photos?

2. Use RAW’s non-destructive settings to teach yourself to focus on light & shadow.

I went to college for Fine Art. My first semester I spent in classes where the only “colors” we were given to work with were black and white. You might be able to imagine how excited I was about that at the time to do that for three months solid… not very. But it was a lesson that served me well when I started my interest in photography. Being able to see values (brightness and shadow) is key in understanding light. A huge distraction from honing that skill? Beautiful colors. When we look at something in color we forgive a lot of things that we wouldn’t ignore so easily if it were in black and white, and sometimes that’s okay, but the difference between an photo that is “pretty” and an photo that is “stunning” is quite often in the tones.

What does this have to do with shooting RAW you ask? Well… on most DSLRs you can set your camera’s picture style to black and white (or monotone). If you were to do this while shooting in Jpeg when you went to download your images you’d end up with a bunch of black and white photo files which might not be what you want… but if you do it when you’re shooting in RAW that preset is only applied to the thumbnail that your camera shows on the display screen – NOT the RAW image itself, so you can shoot with black and white mode turned on and only focus on the tonal values in your image, and then when you download your RAW files later all of the color information will still be intact. Like magic. Voila!

3. Save your blown highlights.

How often does that pretty blue sky get blown out when we’re shooting natural light and we have to expose for our shaded subjects? RAW files save a wide range of brightness that you often cannot recover from a Jpeg; who wouldn’t want that pretty blue back?

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4. Rescue improperly exposed images.

We all want to “nail it” in camera right? That’s the ultimate goal for many photographers, but the truth is that it can be very hard to do if you’re working on location and don’t have a perfect lighting situation. Or perhaps you’re indoors without enough available light. What if you have a subject that’s moved from shade into bright light rapidly? How about those of you who have just made the jump the Manual mode and aren’t quite confident in your metering skills? Although perfect SOOC images are something to always strive for, the realist in me likes the insurance of having the ability to recover exposure mistakes, because hey – they happen.

This flexibility in exposure adjustment is incredibly helpful because it also means that when you’re shooting you can under, or over, expose on purpose for a certain effect(or out of necessity), and still be able to work with the image later.

5. Take advantage of the full dynamic range.

Jpegs are limited by their bit depth, which is the number of tones per channel that the file supports. RAW files can have 12-14 bits, Jpegs only 8. That means that not only do Jpegs flatten your image and throw away information, they’re also limited in what they can do with what information they keep(that’s why when you push a Jpeg too much in editing you get weird posterization or “banding” – particularly on skies and other surfaces that should stay smooth), RAW on the other hand has much deeper possibilities.

Final thoughts…

RAW isn’t the answer for everyone and jpeg definitely has it’s place. Shooting in RAW won’t solve every problem, like any file format it has it’s limits and drawbacks (hello, mega file size!), but using it for the right reasons can drastically improve your photography and expand what you can do in the editing stage to complete your vision.