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By default, your camera comes configured to shoot JPEG images, but if you're working with a digital SLR or an advanced point-and-shoot, you probably also have the option to shoot in RAW format. While JPEG images can yield great quality, every bit as good as RAW, RAW has quite a few advantages when it comes to editing and adjustment. However, before we get to those advantages, let's talk about what RAW is not. Shooting in RAW will not yield images with more detail or better sharpness, nor will you see richer or brighter colors or an expansion of dynamic range.
Shooting RAW simply gives you some different editing features, and the ability to push your edits farther without seeing certain types of image degradation. When you shoot in JPEG mode, the sensor in your camera records data that represents the various light levels in your scene. To turn that data into a final image, the camera's onboard computer has to do a lot of gnarly calculations, everything from interpolating color to calibrating the color of the image for the type of light you were shooting in to applying contrast, sharpening, and possibly saturation. Finally, to make maximum use of your storage card, the image is compressed using an algorithm that can leave visible artifacts in your final image.
When you shoot in RAW format, the data is read off of the sensor and stored on the card. That's it! The camera doesn't touch the data at all; instead, all of that processing that the camera performs when shooting in JPEG mode is skipped so that you can perform those steps yourself on your computer using RAW conversion software. Because you have controlled the conversion process, there are several advantages to RAW. First, your desktop RAW converter might very well do a better job of conversion, and yield better quality images than your camera. What's more, if a better RAW converter comes along later, you can simply reprocess your original RAW files.
That's the case with CS5. Adobe has dramatically improved the RAW converter, so it's exciting to go back to older images and try them with the new version. But most importantly, when you shoot in RAW, you gain access to editing functions that are not possible with JPEG images. For example, this image has a bit of a white balance problem. It's just a little bit too cool. There are some ways that I can warm that up with a JPEG image, but I don't have the flexibility with JPEG that I do with RAW to radically skew my white balance. What's more, radically skewing white balance in a JPEG image could leave a visibly degraded image.
With RAW, there is no price to pay for adjusting white balance. Here is another problem image. Look at these highlights up here in the sky. They've blown out to complete white. With a RAW file, I stand a good chance of recovering, and you're going to see that later. There are other advantages to RAW. RAW allows a greater bit depth for an image. That means there is more data in your file. That means you can perform more edits and push them farther than you can with a JPEG image. With the JPEG, you'll often see your image start to fall apart. You'll see bending and big flat areas of color.
That won't happen as quickly with a RAW file. If you're not sure if your camera has RAW, go to the menu on your camera where you pick JPEG quality. If there is a RAW option in there, activate it, and you're shooting RAW. That's it. Everything else works the same way. You can also consult your camera's manual. You may find that your camera has a RAW plus JPEG option. This means every time you take a picture, the camera saves a RAW file and a JPEG file. For landscape shooting, I can't really give you an advantage to shooting RAW plus JPEG.
It takes up more storage, and it slows your camera down. If you're an event shooter, and you're covering say a sporting event, and you need to very quickly turn pictures in at half time, say, then RAW plus JPEG can be very valuable, because you can quickly go through your JPEGs and turn those in. If there is an image that you can't easily correct in JPEG, you've got a RAW file there for you. So for landscape shooting, I don't really see a point to shooting RAW plus JPEG. If you're out in the field for a long time, you're already worrying about how you're going to manage your storage. Why make it worse by shooting extra data? RAW format is useful to landscape shooters for all of these reasons.
While white balance is not as critical as it can be for those shooting indoors, highlight recovery, and expanded dynamic range are fantastic advantages for shooting landscapes, which tend to have an incredibly wide range of brightness variation. With highlight recovery, you'll be able to restore detailed over exposed skies, while the expanded dynamic rrange will help you preserve noise-free shadows. You can shoot good images with JPEG, but if you have a camera with RAW format, I strongly recommend that you give it a try, because you will have an extra safety net that you just don't have when you're working with a non-RAW format.
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