Most DSLR cameras and a lot of advanced point-and-shoot cameras have the ability to shoot photos in RAW in addition to the more familiar JPEG format. To understand RAW we need to first understand the JPEG format. A JPEG is a compressed file that will allow you to store more photos on your camera's memory card and on your computer's hard drive. The downside is that a JPEG is an 8-bit file that holds less color and tonal information than a 16-bit RAW file.
Also, when you take a photo in the JPEG format the camera is processing that image with information such as white balance and sharpness, which makes it difficult to make large corrections to your images during post-processing.
A RAW file, which is also known as a digital negative, is a 16-bit color file. The advantage of a 16-bit file is that the extra data give you the capability to make larger adjustments to the image and reduces the chance of banding or posterizing of your final image. When this occurs the tones no longer blend seamlessly and will have obvious step patterns.
Just remember that RAW files are large and will take up more room on your camera memory card and your computer's hard drive. I recommend memory cards with at least 8 gigabytes or 16 gigabyters of storage. Also, the price of external hard drives for your computer has come down in cost, so if you take a lot of photos, 500 megabytes or a terabyte of storage will store a lot of images.
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Keep in mind that RAW files must be converted to JPEGs before you can print, email or post online. It is also important to know that RAW files are proprietary to each camera manufacturer -- a Canon RAW file is a CR2 file, a Nikon RAW is an NEF file. So the file extension on an image photographed with a Canon camera would be img.001cr2 as opposed to a JPEG, which would be img.001JPEG.
You will need special software for your brand of camera to view and work on RAW files on your computer after you download them. When you bought your camera, it came with a CD that has special software that will let you view, edit, make changes in color, exposure, contrast, sharpening, and then convert it to a JPEG. Just load this disk, or go to your camera manufacturer's website and download it and you will be all set to use the power of RAW.
Newer versions of Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Elements and Adobe Lightroom have Adobe Camera Raw. This will read most cameras' RAW files and allow you to make changes to these images and convert them to JPEGs.
I will now go through the steps that I follow for my RAW workflow: First, I go to the camera's menu and find the quality setting and change from a JPEG to a RAW file. On occasion, I also shoot a RAW file and a JPEG at the same time. I will do this if I'm out in the field and want to download to my laptop, which doesn't have much storage, so I download the JPEGs to see if I got the image I want. When I get back to my office, I download the RAW files and then view them on either my Canon software, Digital Photo Professional or Lightroom. I edit out the less than perfect images (yes, even pros have some of those), then color correct and correct for exposure as needed. After getting the look that I want from my images, I convert them all to a JPEG that I can print for my client or me, post on my website or email.
Shooting in RAW takes more effort after the fact, but the ability to make greater adjustments to exposure and white balance make the effort worthwhile. Give it a try and I think the you will agree.
I have changed the date of my opening reception for my show, "The Mystical Landscape." It is Sunday from 4 to 7 p.m. at Gallery on the Square, 1636 Canal St. (on Bob Hart Square). All are invited, so please stop by.