Not Your Everyday Banana

by Bart Arondson

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I am a beginner, should I still be shooting RAW?

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I see you already got answers from RAW fanatics ;) but even some pros have reasons to shoot JPEG, just like some have reasons to shoot RAW. I don't think you're going to get any valid and relevant answers to your situation without doing your homework and figuring out which file format (and therefore workflow) to side with. See other questions on this site about RAW/JPEG to find out what the workflow implications are. –  Itai Feb 14 '11 at 3:55
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I am also concerned that you are making a lead-in question when you say 'to retouch your photos yet'. The better you get, the more I expect you to NOT retouch your photos. At least that is what I expect of my photography students :) –  Itai Feb 14 '11 at 3:57
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@Itai, good point, i'll focus on that first =) –  Jon Erickson Feb 14 '11 at 7:55
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@Itai - Do you honestly believe that you can get to a point where absolutely no retouching is needed? Does "retouching" also include changing the brightness and contrast? What about sharpening? What about some noise reductions? RAW files need to be developed, just like negative films need(ed) to be developed. –  Kristof Claes Feb 14 '11 at 9:31
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Regardless of where we fall on the RAW <--> JPEG spectrum with our photography, I think we can all agree that using RAW as a crutch to take poor pictures because "I can just fix it in post" is a bad practice... –  Jay Lance Photography Feb 14 '11 at 18:06
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13 Answers 13

up vote 34 down vote accepted

Im going to go against the grain and say that you should shoot with whatever format you find easier to work with.

The downside to raw is that it's a two step process. If you're a beginner, you might not have settled in on a workflow and may find that RAW files might be too cumbersome to work with.

I prefer RAW, and I generally think it's the better choice, but as a beginner, there are far more important things that should take your attention instead of editors, and file formats.

A RAW file isn't going to save your images from being boring, from being out of focus, or for being just plain bad. If you spend your time trying to retouch so-so looking photos just because you can, you'll miss out on learning how to take good photos first!

Said another way, a properly exposed jpeg looks far better than a mediocre photo shot with RAW.

Learning proper exposure techniques, framing, subject, and artistry are so much more important.

I think it's a fun exercise to go back and rework old images using new techniques, but I don't think its something that should be encouraged. Better to go out and take new photographs, than toil away and rehashing old ones. In my most humblest of opinions of course.

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i like this answer, i really need to just focus on learning the basics first, I have a D7000 so if i'm ever in an area that I cannot revisit easily (on a trip or something) I can shoot jpg + raw and backup the raws in case I want to revisit them later. I just picked up Aperture and am using the Preset adjustments at the moment if needed. Thanks! –  Jon Erickson Feb 14 '11 at 7:40
    
Damn, this is the answer I was planning to write ;) Oh, well, it's a +1 from me! –  gerikson Feb 14 '11 at 10:58
    
Love the answer. Everybody to his taste and don't lose the focus on photography. –  Leonidas Feb 14 '11 at 12:23
    
The other downsides to RAW are the storage space used and the slower speed. (fewer FPS/shorter burst). –  TREE Feb 14 '11 at 15:24
    
@Jon: If you are ever in a situation where you don't want to miss the shot, go ahead and set the camera to PAE, or Greenbox. That is basically "fool proof mode" which lets the camera do most of the work. It wont help in a complex lit scene, but for average scenes it does the job. To me, having that fool-proof setting relieves the pressure of having to nail the exposure. It's just something you know in the back of your mind that if you have too, you can fall back on. –  Alan Feb 14 '11 at 19:05
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There's a great question on here of a list of the advantages of RAW, so I won't rehash them here. That said, I'd definitely encourage you to shoot RAW even if you're a beginner. Here's why:

  • shooting RAW vs. JPG won't change the basics of photography. You'll still want to make the same considerations when in the field for choosing your exposure, lighting, composition, and so on. If anything, RAW allows for a bit more room for error.
  • all major photo editing programs, even those used by beginners such as iPhoto, Picasa, or Photoshop Elements, support RAW
  • even if you don't do much advanced editing now, you'll always be able to come back to your images in the future when you've honed your skills a bit. Perhaps you don't know enough now where the difference between RAW and JPG is that big of a deal, but six months down the road you might want to revisit some images and unfortunately if you didn't shoot RAW, that data is gone forever.
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RE down the road. I recently inherited a bunch of my grandmother's old black and whites. If only I had RAW versions (ie negatives) of those shots. –  mmccoo Feb 14 '11 at 3:23
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I can't stress @ahockley's last point enough. In the thread he linked, my original attempts at post-processing that photo of Yellowstone Lower Falls were pretty bad. I had only been a photographer for a few weeks at my first attempt. It was after some time that I came back and reworked it as an HDR image, once I had a better understanding of photography and how to post-process an image. Definitely shoot RAW...stuff you take today that you may think is unsalvageable crap may be a masterpiece down the road. ;) –  jrista Feb 14 '11 at 4:25
    
+1 on that last point. I have a couple images from my very early days with a borrowed digital camera trying to figure out if I should move off of film myself that I only have jpgs of, knowing what I know now I could salvage them in the digital darkroom if the were raws. The attempts I've made on the jpgs, are just disappointing. –  cabbey Feb 14 '11 at 5:46
    
I'm also suffering from that last point. I have some images that were my first and were shot in JPEG and I am unable to go back and edit them the way I would like if I had raw files. If you don't take advantage of raw now, just shoot in JPEG+raw and use the JPEGs now and the raws later. –  tenmiles Dec 27 '12 at 23:53
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Two years from now, when you're not a beginner any more, you may be able to go back to the shots you took in RAW and make them much better than you would be able to today.

On the other hand, two years from now you will be taking better shots and you won't care to go back over your earlier rejects.

If you're in a situation where you're getting once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, take RAW+JPEG. Otherwise just settle for JPEG until you're at a point where you know what RAW will do for you.

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When I started photography, I was in the same dilemma and I chose to shoot JPEG over RAW.

I had only one 8GB memory card and I could shoot 900 images in JPEG format while switching to RAW, I could shoot only around 250 shots. Its important for a beginner to shoot a lot of photos and get your hands free. The ratio of keepers will also be low for beginners and shooting RAW will just lower the number of keepers (as the total number of pictures you can take in RAW will be lower than you can take in JPEG). And also for beginners there will be a lot of photos which will be off-focused/wrong focused/missing subjects etc etc and you don't need to think twice before deleting those images so there isn't a point to keep large files.

If I were you, I'd concentrate more on learning and getting perfect images before I switch to RAW. Modern DSLRs produce good enough JPEGs these days and you still can do a lot of corrections on JPEG images, might not be as good as RAWs but not bad as well.

Now, my answer totally depends on which level of beginner you are. I'd suggest, shoot first 10,000 images in JPEG, learn from your mistakes and then switch to RAW.

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When I started photography, you got about 25 shots from a film and couldn't preview them. 250 photo's would have blown my mind! Having a limited amount does focus your mind into taking the best shots and thinking before you go trigger happy. –  Designer023 Feb 14 '11 at 9:59
    
Well even a thousand images can prove to be limited comparing to professionals who use multiple Sandisk Extreme Pro 32GB CF cards! Its true that lower number of photos helps you think better but at the same time it does not promote learn-through-practice or learn-by-making-mistakes which I think beginners need the most. –  fahad.hasan Feb 14 '11 at 10:07
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There's so many advantages to RAW its hard to say no. The only concern is that it really easy to feel that you don't need to take the time to get it right in camera because RAW can be quite forgiving in post.

I'd still recommend it, really for all the same reasons in the linked question, but remember you'll always get a better product if you take the time to get it right in camera first. Put the time into every shot, a little extra time up front can save much frustration later.

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No. Raw will clog up your computer with big files you (just said) don't know how to work with. Photos are not made to be looked at through a magnifying glass, so I wouldnt bother about a minimal loss in detail. Raw makes sense if:

  • you are a professional who can't afford losing a single shot because of a slightly off exposure, and probably you do still/landscape photography
  • when you shoot you already know what results you want to get. Photography at its finest is about shooting to the best and using the right tools not to further improve the results with random tinkering, but to get as close as possible to a mental image you have. This is no dogma, just a way great photographers who worked much with the image after shooting (e.g. Ansel Adams - and many others) saw (or see) things, and I personally agree to some extent.

That said, you should experiment with raw, but it's useless to do so as a habit unless you need to work heavily on every shot to get certain results. I often shoot at the lowest resolution of my 14Mp camera (i.e. 3.5 Mp), getting beautiful prints and flawless 100% screen visualization from files 1.2 Mb or less. My 4Gb SD card can hold more than 1600 shots this way. Of course this won't apply if you do poster prints of your photos, which is unlikely to happen very often.

As a plus, in camera raw conversion is optimized to get the best results saving you and your computer a lot of work. When you have some free time try shooting raws of something in bad light, or something that has difficult white balance, so you can practice getting what you need out of raw files, then use what you learn when you need it.

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I look at my photos through a magnifying glass. It's actually one of the cooler aspects of photography to me to see details resolved down to sub-millimeter. I feel that if a photograph can't deal with close inspection, that it is missing a huge aspect. –  Kevin Won Feb 14 '11 at 19:15
    
I didn't mean to say sloppy photos are ok, I'm really fascinated by detail myself. But I'm also sure there's much more than this to photography, it can communicate at different rational and emotional levels, and that's the reason almost every person in the world is attracted by a beautiful shot. Otherwise people wouldn't care about photos and leave it to a few neurotic individuals dissecting 8x10inches b&w negatives in their impenetrable high towers. –  MattiaG Feb 15 '11 at 1:00
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Any beginner that would even bother to ask the question will benefit from RAW input.

I'd say that especially for beginners, RAW format makes things more forgiving. Beginners are more likely to get the exposure wrong. With RAW format, you can often recover from that.

Using the word retouching makes it sound complicated and advanced. To start, just load your raw files into Google's Picasa (it's free) and do some exposure adjustment. If your image is under or over exposed, this adjustment will have more to work with.

If you're in the middle of bush country and you're really trying to stretch the capacity of your flash cards, I could understand not using RAW. Otherwise, bits are cheap.

Actually, I just did a price check on flash cards. If you can afford a camera that has a RAW mode (and you're lucky enough to be visiting bush country), then you can buy a pocket full of cards that can hold more pictures than you could take.

So, there's no reason not to shoot in RAW. It's just better.

I like to make analogies. Say, in your area, a radio station is being broadcast on both AM and FM (NPR for example). Would you ever listen to the AM version?

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Sure, if I'm at the edge of the FM broadcast region, the AM station probably sounds better. I like to break analogies. –  Evan Krall Feb 14 '11 at 3:40
    
I'd abstain from RAW, err, FM too if tuning into a song on the FM-station costs me five minutes per song because my receiver is finicky (as is RAW per se). I like to put analogies into absurdistan. –  Leonidas Feb 14 '11 at 4:40
    
These analogies will grow on you like you're room-temperature Canadian beef and the analogy is a colony of E. Coli. I like to meta my analogies into abstraction. ;-) –  Jay Lance Photography Feb 14 '11 at 18:56
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I think this is a case where you should clarify beginner a bit more. Are you a beginner at photography, photo-editing or both.

Assuming you are both, I would not recommend shooting in raw, I would not recommend shooting in both jpeg and raw at this stage because it does not server any great advantage at the moment and can make file management more difficult.

Most windows based operating systems don't support raw images and you require the utilities that are included with the camera to view and edit these files. Which when used with large amount of pictures can become a pain.

However I would recommend you to shoot with both if there are shots that require great detail.

But as a beginner focus on the techniques of photography first, then you can think about using raw images and image post-processing (which should be your last resort)

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Many programs are available to the beginner to handle basic RAW processing, even Picasa. Photo management and processing is something to learn and not to put off until you have 10000 jpgs laying around that you don't know what to do with. –  rfusca Feb 14 '11 at 3:01
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If you don't use RAW - you'll miss out on a world of work you can do on your images and subsequently won't learn as much about what you can do.

I have 2 analogies here:

  1. It is a bit like asking whether you should get a camera which produces prints only (something like a polaroid) and you never get any negatives. You get a usable result immediately but the quality isn't necessarily there and you are limited with what you can do after the photograph is taken. Remember jpg is a lossy format, so every time it is saved and altered, you lose quality through image compression. People demonise 'retouching' in photoshop etc as if it is the devil's own work - but remember, we played with the images in the darkroom too :) Granted you should get it as right as you can in camera but RAW gives you a little room to move on an image perhaps not quite there.

  2. Would everyone recommend to a user to stay with automatic mode on their DSLR or would they suggest using manual? If you stay within the comfortable confines of automatic mode you will never learn how to use the camera in manual mode - the same is applicable here with post processing where a jpg is more or less like automatic mode.

Unless I am working on a shoot which requires a very fast image turn around and have a decent day light wise I use the format which gives me the digital negative (which is effectively what a RAW file is). As said there are reasons to shoot straight to jpg but I wouldn't make this the rule, rather the exception.

For you this enforces the learning curve (and the basics which get applied in camera on a jpg aren't rocket science anyway) rather than avoiding it. Subsequently, you will learn by doing.

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As a beginner, you should be shooting with auto settings and shoot in JPEG. The camera does pretty well with auto settings.

As an intermediate user, you need to learn the manual settings and use RAW instead.

Others point out that many image editors support RAW images but they often look horrible and seem much worse than cooked JPEG and that's NOT what a beginner should be seeing.

RAW is for seasoned users who enjoy manipulating them in RAW editors. RAW is time consuming. It takes a LOT of memory and storage and CPU processing. JPG is super efficient and quick but it will never offer much lattitude in exposure or more color depth.

And folks, remember, we're talking about beginners, not experienced shooters.

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As a beginner with my Canon 450D, I did an experiment shooting at dusk in RAW + JPEG. I found that while in areas where JPG files showed white (the remaining daylight) or black (shadow), the corresponding RAW file actually resolved detail. I also noticed colour differences between the two files. As a result, I basically never shoot JPG anymore.

Even when shooting in continuous shooting mode, the 450D copes pretty well. I've never filled up the buffer on it, though I don't shoot many frames at once.

The only problem with RAW, is that I can't just take my SD card out of my camera and pop into the TV for an instant slide show.

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Did you ever try to change color balance on a JPEG? It can't be done. But if you shoot in full auto mode anyway - well, you are just a point and shooter anyhow. RAW lets you change the manual settings you made at the time of exposure - so, for example, you change all those auto white balance shots to daylight and get the right color balance.

You can't change exposure much because unless you intentionally underexpose, you will end up with blown highlights - a major sin.

Also RAW allows you to change sharpening after the fact - a really important consideration for big prints which show up when the sharpening is too high.

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Raw format help you to correct yourself in most of the cases but it eats a lot of memory ..

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