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How to work through the Camera Raw dilemma

Dave Johnson | May 6, 2013
All great debates are framed by at least two compelling, often contradictory choices: Mac vs. PC, Beatles vs. Stones, oatmeal raisin vs. chocolate chip. If you have a digital SLR or an advanced compact camera, you can make just such a choice when it comes to what format in which to save your photos. Most cameras default to the common JPEG format (and if you have a smartphone or very basic point and shoot, that's probably your only choice). There's a good chance your camera also offers a Raw option as well, though. You've probably heard that it is a higher quality option than JPEG, but comes with tradeoffs of its own. Should you take it?

On the other hand, thanks to the uncompressed 12-bit color locked in your Raw photos, they give you a lot more range of exposure for correcting photos. Suppose you have a shot with deep shadows and bright highlights. You can try to brighten the shadow of a JPEG, but you'll quickly find that there's not much color information hidden in the darkness; all you can do is make it a brighter grey. Take a similar Raw photo, on the other hand, and you can brighten shadows to reveal real, honest-to-goodness detail that was invisible in the uncorrected image.

If you're dissuaded by the thought of having to edit all the photos you take, don't worry--it's not that bad. Camera Raw (which comes with both Adobe Photoshop and Photoshop Elements) can automatically apply common tweaks to your Raw photos, like color correction and sharpening. The results are often excellent, and it does a great job for most of your photos that don't need a personal human touch.

Storing and sharing Raw photos

One final complexity of life with Raw that JPEG photographers don't need to worry about is that since Raw formats are unique and proprietary, you can't just email a Raw photo to a friend; you need to "save as" a JPEG first. And there's the worry: Will you still be able to read a Nikon NEF photo 20 years from now? To address this concern, Adobe has created its own Adobe Digital Negative (DNG), which is an "open" file format that you can use to losslessly preserve your Raw images if you choose to. It works with most Adobe photo editing tools as well as other programs. Most photographers haven't embraced DNG yet, though; for the moment, various Raw formats are thriving, and you can always convert the photos to DNG, JPEG, or some other format later if you need to.

 

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