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There are two primary formats that digital cameras capture today: RAW and JPEG. But what can be really confusing is that there are a lot of different flavors of RAW. Raw is sort of a generic term that people use to describe the unprocessed data that the camera captures. And for example, Nikon's raw format is .NEF and Canon's raw format is .CRW. But the file formats are all very similar in that they contain much of the same information, such as metadata about the camera settings and information about the image, but there's no real standard way of writing them, so each manufacturer has its own unique order to the data in the raw file.
Now there is one raw format that's not proprietary, and that's the DNG format or the Digital Negative Format, and many people convert their raw files into the DNG format because of the fact that it's an openly documented file format, and they have hopes that their files will be opened farther into the future than if they're kept in a proprietary format. Now Adobe is the creator of the DNG file format, and for more information, you can go to their website and find that. What's important to know is that if you compare the quality of the RAW format versus a JPEG, there is a lot more information in that RAW file.
I like to think of the RAW file as being unprocessed and as a result, you can make greater changes to the color and tonal values in the RAW file with out losing image quality. The JPEG file, on the other hand, has already been processed, and that includes having compression, which throws away data, applied to it. And it's processed by the camera so you can't make as dramatic a change to a JPEG file without losing quality. Let's go ahead and take a look at these two examples. Here I have a DNG file and a JPEG file, which I'm going to open up from Bridge.
I'll select them both, and then I'll click on the Open in Camera Raw icon up here across the top. That opens both of the images into the Camera Raw dialog box, which in and of itself is a little strange because a lot of people don't expect that you can open a JPEG file into Camera Raw but you can. So let's start with the JPEG file. I'll go ahead and click on it over here on the left-hand side, and I'm also going to take the screen into kind of full screen mode so that it takes over the whole computer, by clicking on this icon up here in the upper right.
Obviously, this image is overexposed and in fact, these two images, the JPEG file and the DNG file, were both shot with the same camera. These digital SLRs, they usually will capture not only raw files, but they usually have a mode that will capture a raw file plus a JPEG file. Now I know that some of you might be shooting with a point-and-shoot camera, in which case you might not be able to capture in raw, but if you can, I would highly suggest that you do.
And let's look at why. If you happen to overexpose an image--and this image is pretty extreme in the overexposure-- I just want to show you what will happen with the JPEG file. I'll start by decreasing the exposure in this image, and you'll notice that we are seeing more detail now in the highlight areas, but even if I bring down the Highlight slider and even with the White slider, you'll notice that we just can't get back that detail in the clouds.
It was so overexposed that even using the controls here at their maximum for Highlights and Whites, we just can't pull back the information that's not there. It's no longer there because this file was processed as a JPEG. Now let's switch to the DNG file by clicking on its icon over here in the left-hand side, and let's try to do the same thing. We'll pull down the exposure a bit and then I'm going to pull down the Highlights as well as the Whites.
And you can see that in this image, we still retained a lot of the detail in this cloud area. Let's compare them by just clicking. Here is the landscape that was shot with the JPEG and compressed, versus the RAW file. Now, I do want to point out that just because you're shooting RAW, you can still overexpose your image so far that you're not going to gain back detail. I've moved both the White slider and the Highlight slider a little bit too much in this case, more than I normally would.
So let's pull those back so that I'm still making use of the entire dynamic range. But you can see here in this area that there is just no detail in this file. And the reason that I chose this file to show you the difference between Camera Raw and JPEG was to show you that certainly the JPEG file is going to lose quality faster than the RAW file. But there is a point in a RAW file where if you just overexpose it or going the other extreme, if you underexpose it, if your image is so dark that there is no details in the shadows, you wouldn't be able to pull back that information.
The point here is that there is more information in the DNG file than there is in the JPEG file, but you still want to properly expose your images so that you don't clip your highlights to pure white, so there's not this big white area here, and likewise, you don't underexpose your image so much that there's no detail in the shadows. The primary disadvantage of shooting raw is that you do have to process the file, so there is a little bit more work involved. The files are also larger than their JPEG counterparts, but the higher quality of the raw file and the flexibility to make these changes in Camera Raw after capture or in post makes the RAW file format worth the extra file size, in my opinion.
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