The Year of RAW
I have decided that as of 2006, I’m going to officially make the transition to shooting all digital photos in RAW instead of JPEG[^1]. I’ve been thinking about making this transition for a long while now, but I’ve always had reasons not to. I’ve decided I just need to “bite the bullet” and deal with the workflow, conversion and storage issues as they arise (and, boy do they arise fast!)
If you are asking yourself what is RAW, let me give you a two second overview. 99.9% of people shoot digital photos in JPEG. Think of JPEG as a developed photograph, and RAW as a negative. In practical terms, the majority of people with digital cameras are walking around with a digital equivalent of Polaroids. While Polaroids were fun in their time, they had limitations, and many of these limitations apply to JPEG files as well[^2]. With a RAW file you get an undeveloped version of the photo, that requires further processing on your computer. The upside of this is that you can make image corrections native in the photo. If the picture is underexposed, you can compensate. If white balance is off, you can fix it. The advantages are huge, but there are challenges.
It takes, using most programs, 80-90 seconds to convert just one RAW image to a JPEG or TIFF file. If you take a bunch of photos in a day, you can easily have your computer working for an hour or more to convert them. Additionally, with more knobs comes the opportunity to make your photo look worse. It takes good software and skill to make a great photo (this is similar to the chemical process used in the film world). Of course we have the storage problem, which will now start becoming worse, but I can play governmental politics and let a future administration deal with that. :-)
So why go through the hassle? A number of reasons. Out of every 50 or so shots, I get a picture I really love. And a lot of times, unfortunately, the exposure or some other variable is just slightly off. Without the RAW file, I cannot deal with this easily. Additionally, there is a whole new breed of software being developed to do amazing things with RAW files. For example, software that simulates the effects of different specialty negatives. You have nearly limitless future potential. I particularly like the fact that I will be able to hand down to future generations not just a box of polaroids, but a box of perfectly kept negatives.
I’m now trying to find a good software solution for RAW processing. I’ve been a BreezeBrowser Pro user for years, and love it. It deals with RAW files well, but I think there are better options. I’m playing with RawShooter, CaptureOne and Bibble right now. If you know of others that should be investigated let me know. I’ve also made some hardware upgrades as a result of this. I’m moving to a FireWire based compact flash card reader (Lexar CompactFlash Firewire)and I’ve finally gotten an accelerated 2G CF card (Sandisk Extreme III 2G).
[^1] The one exception to this will be the pocket-sized Canon S500, which is not capable of shooting a RAW file.
[^2] The biggest problem with Polaroids does not impact JPEGs though, since you can make copies without loss of quality.