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Having read about the benefits of shooting in RAW as opposed to JPEG (for example this question), I'd like to have a go with it myself. However, I'm not really sure how to go about it.

I can turn RAW mode on in my camera (that's easy!), but what do I do with the files when I get them on to my computer? I presume I need to process them to get the RAW data into something that I can work with, but do I need a specific tool for my camera (a Finepix S5100), or will something like the GIMP do what I want? I'm also a little confused about how I then take advantage of the abilities that RAW gives me when I'm processing it on the computer — do RAW processing tools have more processing options than standard tools?

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5  
The first thing to know about raw is that raw is not an acronym and so doesn't need to be in all caps! Neither is it a proper noun (there is no single raw format) it's just a word that means the same as it does in the context of food, i.e. it's a raw image that needs to be cooked! –  Matt Grum Jan 15 '11 at 16:38
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@Matt Grum - you may be right, but the camera manufacturers themselves are disagreeing with you! –  ysap Jan 16 '11 at 14:19

5 Answers 5

up vote 19 down vote accepted

To get started, set up a few shots from a tripod and shoot them in both JPEG and RAW. Most DSLRs can do that simultaneously but I suspect your camera may not have that option because its writing pipeline is slow (it would otherwise lockup your camera for 20-45s IIRC).

Then load the RAW into any conversion software and see if you can produce an image which YOU prefer to the in-camera JPEG. Play with the conversion controls: sharpness, saturation, contrast, curve, etc. Don't go with the default conversion unless you want to waste your time because that will almost always produce the same JPEG as the camera (some advanced programs will let you define your own conversion though which is usually called a preset).

REMEBER: The RAW advantage is about what YOU can do with the image. Most mediums cannot even show all the nuances in a JPEG (nearly no LCD monitor can), so it is more about having control on the final image than about showing one with more color tones.

After a few rounds, you'll be able to judge if it is for you or not. There will be a cost in terms of space, speed and workflow. Particularly since you do not have a DSLR, every time you shoot a RAW image, it will be a while before you can shoot again. Then you have to realize that if you don't take the time to make the output better than what the camera does, you're not getting much out of RAW. If you do, realize that you could have been shooting more instead. Ask yourself what you prefer and what is worth it.

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There are several programs that will allow you to look at RAW files. See this question to see some free ones.

There aren't really any more options to a RAW photo editor than a normal JPEG editor. The main thing is you can turn the knobs further than you can with JPEG. There are a few things which depending on your editor you should do with a RAW file that you wouldn't with a JPEG. The most important is you should slightly sharpen an image, especially if you're using a more powerful photo editor like Lightroom. You'll probably need to do more photo adjustment as well.

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There are some things which are very different, like demosaicing algorithim. –  mattdm Jan 15 '11 at 16:08

As far as I know, any camera that offers users the option to record photos in RAW format also includes software to process those RAW files. In most cases, this will give you a taste of what's possible with RAW.

As you may have noticed, though, lots of people use software other than the stuff that came with their cameras to do RAW processing. This is where you'll start to get into software like Photoshop (incl. Express), Lightroom, Aperture, etc. Just as with equipment purchases, if you can spend a little time working with the stuff you've got before you run out and buy something else, you'll have a better chance of purchasing wisely. In other words, all these other software packages promise to do the same RAW conversion that your included software does, but with more options, higher quality, and more control over the process, workflow, and so on.

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I usually use the software that came with my Nikon camera (mainly because it's a combined raw file viewer/editor), but I like to use the opensource UFRaw program too (in fact, as far as editing functionality goes, I like it better than the free Nikon software). UFRaw also comes with a GIMP plugin.

One word of warning when using GIMP: you'll want to do any sorts of adjustments (i.e. to the tone curve) in the raw converter because GIMP is currently limited to 8 bits per channel. 8 bits per channel isn't enough when pushing the values around (i.e. applying a tone curve, exposure adjustments, etc.) as it results in rounding errors/loss of data which presents itself in the form of color banding in the result (as opposed to a smooth gradient).

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Agree. It's almost a contradiction in terms to process RAW with 8 bit, so unless you plan on working 16bit it's prob not really worth the effort, IMO. –  Kevin Won Jan 14 '11 at 23:46

Since you are in the early stages of getting accustomed to using RAW images my suggestion is to use a tool that makes that as easy as possible.

Google Picasa is not only free but it quickly, easily and automatically converts from RAW format to a displayable format, allowing you to view your photos immediately. It makes using RAW images just as simple as using JPEG images.

It has basic editing facilities which can be quickly applied and are adequate for the majority of every day photos. For the smaller number of photos where you want to perform more advanced editing you can call Gimp from within Picasa.

And for the even smaller number of cases where you want to take direct control over the conversion process you can use the Ufraw plugin in Gimp. This allows you precise control over the exact way in which a RAW image is converted to a displayable format.

As you gain experience you might wish to upgrade to other tools with a greater variety of options but by then you will have gained enough knowledge to make a more informed choice.

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