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How do I get started with RAW photography?

I am a new to RAW shooting and recently bought a Nikon DSLR. I find that only the software which came with the camera can open the .NEF files and even then, I seem to have to convert them to JPEG in the process. Can any one explain to me the point of NEF or other RAW files? To the inexperienced it suggests that I would be as well shooting in JPEG to start with. I am probably doing something wrong.....I am not new to that! Does this mean all my RAW files are limited to the editing constraints of JPEGs which all the glossy books point out?

  • And for "what's the point", take a look at Good examples of RAW's advantages over JPEG?. Overall, I'd say that shooting in RAW is more important for new photographers, because it gives you more flexibility after the fact. With JPEG, you need to know more of what you want (and how to get it!) in advance. – mattdm Nov 2 '12 at 14:40
  • You can also view the NEF files directly in Windows using the default photo viewer by installing the NEF Codec from Nikon. – Parampreet Dhatt Nov 2 '12 at 15:09
  • +1 for the NEF codec, I wasn't aware that it existed. Makes it simpler to browse through image folders. – j-g-faustus Nov 2 '12 at 15:17
  • Actually, @mattdm, that's why I recommend that novices (that is, novices who actually want to learn the craft) start out shooting JPEGs for the first little while at least: your mistakes are more apparent. Once you develop a bit of discipline around exposure, your post-processing of RAW images is not so much about rescuing bad shots as it is about perfecting good (or at least technically competent) ones. It's sort of like the advice to start by shooting chromes from my day. "Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." – user2719 Nov 2 '12 at 15:21
  • I think we could use a generic question like this; it gets to the root of the problem behind many of the questions we get about RAW conversion software. I've edited to make a little less model-specific and am nominating to reopen. – mattdm Aug 2 '13 at 16:08

You do not have to convert them but something has to.

A RAW file contains sensor data and is not an image like a JPEG. Except for Sigma cameras, a RAW file only has one color-channel for each pixel but an image needs three. When you shoot RAW, conversion software does the interpolation to create an image. This is usually a JPEG but it does not have to be.

There are ways to see a RAW file as an image before it gets converted. One way for your operating system or image viewing application to read the JPEG that is embedded in the RAW file (most RAW files contains a JPEG for this purpose). This is good for sorting through files BUT if you ignored image parameters such as WB and Color Style, you may be surprised as to what you see! This is because the camera MUST use some parameters to generate the embedded JPEG.

To work with RAW files you need a program that understands RAW files from your camera. Actually, there is always one such program bundled, although most people use something else like Adobe Camera RAW but there are other options. These programs let you open a RAW file and adjust the parameters in order to convert them into an image. If you do convert into an image then you can edit in another software but you will be limited by the export format, so you should choose something with high bit-depth like a 16-bit TIFF.

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  • OK. Thanks! Now I understand why I am looking at a JPEG and not a raw image in the Nikon software. I need to read some more about the editing of these images. All the books and on-line information I have read, state that with the lossy nature of JPEGs, you do not get the same freedom to post-edit as you do with raw. I think my original question should be rephrased to "does the conversion to JPEG by the Nikon software mean a loss of that post editing potential?" – Fred C Nov 2 '12 at 16:38
  • The lossy nature of JPEG is incredibly minimal at maximum quality. On my camera less than 2% of pixels change by never more than 0.5%! The big difference is lattitude and that NEF files can have up to 14-bit per compenent. On your camera it is likely 12-bits but this is still much more than 8-bit for JPEG. This is like working with 4096 (or 16384 for 14-bits) gradations rather than 256. – Itai Nov 2 '12 at 16:53
  • @FredC - If you convert in the Nikon software to JPEG for using another software, then yes, you lost the advantage you were looking for. You must convert to a high bit-depth format like TIFF in order to pass-on the extra gradations which make processing better. – Itai Nov 2 '12 at 16:54
  • I had a chance to try converting to TIFF 16 bit over the weekend. This allows me to open the files in the Nikon software which came with the camera. The TIFF files can then be opened in Photoshop. But the strange thing is the TIFF files in photoshop are about 1/10th the size of JPEGS taken at the same time as the original NEF files. They appear like thumbnails in the active window at 100% where as the JPEG are much to big to fit in the window. – Fred C Nov 5 '12 at 17:08
  • That is definitely something wrong. Did you get any TIFF options? If the file size is small then you'll have to check settings in the Nikon software. If the file size is big but Photoshop shows them small then maybe you need a newer version of Photoshop but at this point I'm just guessing. – Itai Nov 5 '12 at 18:05

Any RAW file (.NEF, .CR2, etc.) is just a file format, so in order to do anything with that file, you have to have a program that understands that format. Depending on what program you use to open the file, you'll have a different experience, different capabilities, and so on. Pretty basic, but that's really what you're experiencing.

There are a number of programs that are able to read Nikon RAW files, including (obviously) Nikon's own software, but also including third-party software from folks like Adobe, and even some free software programs. I think you're experiencing the workflow of Nikon's software, which is geared toward processing RAW files much as you'd develop a film negative. Other software is going to exhibit a little different workflow -- perhaps one you'd find preferable.

Before jumping to conclusions about shooting JPG vs. RAW, I'd recommend taking just a bit of time to understand the real benefits of RAW -- the ability to retain the absolute maximum amount of information available from your camera so that you can work with that information in a program like Lightroom or Photoshop, and to do so over and over again without degrading the original photo's data.

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There is no point in shooting raw if the first thing you do is to convert to JPEGs before working on your images. If your editor doesn't support your raw, at least convert it to an uncompressed format, like PPM, BMP or TIFF. If possible choose 16bit (e.g. TIFF or PPM). JPEG should always be the last stop - after cropping, resizing, aligning, adjusting, retouching, relighting, etc. You don't want to introduce JPEG artifacts and then move the pixels around a bit and introduce new JPEG artifacts.

I once took NEFs of blooming peach trees and was shocked at how bad they looked - you couldn't even make out the individual blossoms. It turned out that the program I read them in "faked" the NEF support by reading the JPEG thumbnail. So when I got NIKONs own program they looked very clear and I converted them to uncompressed TIFF images in it, as I needed to work on them in Matlab.

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  • There is plenty of point of shooting raw even if the first thing you do is convert to JPEG, if you do more than just a simple batch conversion without paying any attention to the adjustments that can be made in the raw data space. – user Nov 2 '12 at 20:15
  • If you do anything but a batch convert it counts as "editing" before conversion, making the conversion the "last stop" in which case you follow my instructions above. But it sounds to me like the OP first batch converts to even get it into his editing software, in which case he should convert to whichever bmp/tif/ppm his editing software supports, instead of jpeg. – Michael Nielsen Nov 3 '12 at 12:31
  • I would think shooting raw and immediately batch-converting to JPEG could be helpful for at least two workflows: (1) The only kinds of editing one expects to need after conversion are those that can be done with no further degradation of image quality; (2) One plans on using the JPEG to make some quick experimental "rough edits" to get a feel for how things could look, and then using knowledge gained from such experiments to better configure image-conversion utilities when producing the files that will be used for the final product. – supercat Nov 24 '14 at 20:19

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