Image to Illustrate disadvantages of Raw Film format in Photography

Disadvantages of Raw File Format in Photography

Raw files are created but not processed by the camera and are kept in their original format.  I, for one, am thankful it happens that way.  In this form, they look so so bad.  But it can get better.  This has both advantages and disadvantages.  Today we’ll concentrate on the disadvantages.  It’s an exercise that enlightens one side of the coin.  We’ll leave the other side for another day.

The disadvantages are sizable.  Not that they are many but that their bearing on the decision is BIG.  How much more photo storage you’ll have over the years.  How much more time you’ll spend prepping your photos to show others.  How much you may invest in software to perfect the look of your shots.

The disadvantages of the raw file format center around the large file size and the fact they must be processed to achieve the look the creator desires.  Two files of the same capture (above) were recently shot.  The raw is 30.3 Mb in size and the jpeg of the same file is 17.3 Mb.  Also, the time and energy to prep the files can be substantial. 

With Quality Comes Massive Size

Raw files produce high-quality images, but this quality comes at the price of increased file size.
Raw files are much larger in size than JPEGs, and this can be a major disadvantage for photographers who want to store a large number of photos.

For example, a Raw file may contain around 30 megabytes (MB), while a JPEG file may only be around 17 MB. This means that Raw files take up more storage space on a camera’s SD card and the long-term storage on computer hard drives translates to investment in additional hard drives and off-site storage like Dropbox or others.

Raw files also take up more time to process than JPEGs, so they can’t be quickly previewed on a camera’s LCD screen.   The preview on your camera body is actually a created jpeg preview of the raw file just for viewing purposes.

The photo I made above to show the size difference is a compressed version.  So I’ll make another in Non-compressed, Compressed, and jpeg to show the size difference. 

Illustration for Raw vs Jpeg use in Disadvantages of Raw File Format in Photography"
SORRY, my Nikon D750 doesn’t offer uncompressed.

OOoops! Quite an eye-opener. After setting out to make this photo of my favorite pocket knife I dove into my Nikon D750 camera menu to set it for un-compressed. I was NOT aware. I even revisited the Manual. That is not an option. Two choices are available, 12-bit or 14-bit, and lossless compression or lossy compression. No un-compressed.

I guess that speaks loudly for Nikon in that the choices with compression do produce the highest quality images.

Yes, they are large but they are the best for editing by default.  There is just more information in the file which translates to more possibilities for pushing and pulling to drastically change the look of the image when needed.

Confession:  when I started using the 35mm type digital cameras and the raw file was available—there was no thought given to using a “lesser” file.  This is the best, then it’s done.  Let’s go raw! And now I see that there was never a need for un-compressed. Because with this body and no telling which other bodies of the past, bought and rented, there is not even a choice to make about “to compress or not to compress”.

Before Nikon, I was using a substantial, must-be-tethered-to-a-Mac camera by Leaf to shoot catalogs.  It was referred to as “The Brick” because of the sizable vents and weight devoted to cooling the chip. It was the size and maybe the weight of its namesake…..brick.

It produced a three-shot exposure that with proprietary software processed out as a jpeg.  I do not recall that step in-between being tagged “raw” but it basically was just exactly that.  We’ve come a long way.

The Ugly Flat Look of Raw Files

They must be processed to get them to the ultimate look needed for delivery or viewing advanced quality images.  So this is a common workflow of professional and advanced amateurs.

Definition: PREVIEWS For our purposes, substitute images used to “stand-in” for the real file. Used both in-camera and in some editing software.

Shoot the shots

We’re discussing the shooting of raw images and the workflow of the same.  In-camera the raw files are not visible.  The in-camera processing includes a set of jpeg previews produced for you to see the image on your camera’s LCD screen and even to zoom in at 100% to check focus without actually seeing the raw file.  So the user experience is maintained with those “pretty” jpegs. If you do not like the look of a jpeg on your camera, consider changing the look, My Nikon has a setting labeled Picture Control. I regularly set that on Vivid. Which similates snappy transparency film of the past. Your setting may be different but some adjustment is available on most cameras

Download to editing software (Lightroom)

When downloading to Lightroom, you’ll probably get Adobe Color as profile which for this challenge, keeps us from seeing the badness of the raw file look.  Try changing that to see what profiles look good to you. By default, they will maintain that snappy look. If you just want to see that flatness of Raw try the natural setting in-camera for picture control. I haven’t but will be trying it soon.

If you do video then you may have seen some of the F-log profiles in the video workflow and similar profile names.  They look flat and yucky before processing.  That is what I picture when visualizing raw.  But, we are protected (hahaha) from experiencing that ugliness and instead have all the covers,previews and profiles, for it.

This Is Where They Are To Be the Ugliest.

Not in reality. I’ve read about the bad look of raw but never seen it myself. So, they are covered for in-camera viewing with the previews the camera creates to replace the ugly raw files.  Then as we move files to our favorite organizing and editing software the profile is applied and by the way, the workings of Lightroom include producing previews in various sizes that visually represent our raw file. Still protecting us from seeing the ugliness of raw.

Maybe our raw file could be opened in PhotoShop, where it does not produce previews.  Maybe a deep dive into the color settings in PhotoShop would unveil the raw file without a stand-in preview.  Maybe I should pursue that…not me, I’m convinced to use them and I’m impressed with the features that go along with them to make them pretty for day-to-day use.

To be shared, shown, or published.  Printing, both in-home and photo-lab and 4-color do not speak Raw. Raw files cannot be used with some online photo-sharing services, such as Facebook and Flickr. The raw file is for the photographer to work with as a film negative of the past. Create your masterpiece and keep the digital negative for yourself. Do whatever you wish to create your look and then output a Jpeg or Tiff for delivery or sharing.

Deep Dive to the Depth Your Image

Bit Depth Explained

Showing the Calculation of Bit-depth and how it relates to the number of shades of gray.

Did you know that some of the numbers in this bit-depth world come from high-school math? Eight-bit is an exponent above the number two. 28 =256. Jpegs are eight-bit so they have 256 shades in their scale from black to white. Why the 2? Remember that the computer when reduced to its simplest form is a combination of one’s and zeroes.

So moving to the greater tonal definition, let’s check out 12-bit. So, now we are expanding to 4,096 shades. Imagine an image you’ve made that has a smooth transition of color, maybe a sky. Would you want to know you have 256 shades of blue sky to represent those transitions from darker to lighter? Or would you want 4096 with much much better gradation? That is the depth of a raw file. Or, let’s just throw away the rule book and jump all the way to 16,384 shades.

Now we no longer need to be concerned about having the best detail possible in 14-bit images. I show a line for 16-bit in the above table knowing that the more common is 14-bit in cameras today. There may be some 16-bit color medium format cameras but the main place we see that 16 number is PhotoShop. Nothing changes about our 14-bit file but it is labeled as a 16-bit option in the software.

Protect the Highlights

Bare with me on this. Most know the name Ansel Adams because of some beautiful images of landscapes mostly in the Western United States. He also was a very technical photographer and had a wonderful way of adjusting the contrast of his images by planning for what he would later do in the timing of the development of his negative and tweaking the exposure to work with that adjustment. Under-exposing and over-developing would yield a finished image with more contrast than reality. Ansel Adams taught many what he referenced as The Zone System.

Visually the photographic tones could fit in the zones 0-10. Those 11 zones became the key for very precise photo creation. Let’s carry that scale of 11 zones into our 8, 12, and 14-bit world to help relate to all these numbers.

So if Ansel’s photo was a set of grays, picture some Yosemite landscape, and all his grays fit in 11 zones, then we need to touch on our color photos. Our photo in color viewed or printed on a 3 color device, RGB, needs the shades of gray times three to be truly represented. Keep that in mind. So the distant waterfall is white but has detail and the deep shadow of trees is black, with detail.

Warning: Watch out that white does not get too bright. The brightest white has no detail. Once a tone in an exposure gets bright we need to stop. Protect the highlights. You protect by not overexposing your highlights. Once the whites get to a point of being too white, there is no fixing. Maybe you’ve made an exposure that somehow was a bit too bright. For illustration, let’s go back to the waterfall. Within the water, there may be some bright highlights that are white with no detail, zone 10, but also to give the water detail where are some light gray’s that help give the water shape and dimension.

When the whites get too white, the brightest grays go white also, without detail. That can’t be fixed in post. The effort is made to show that missing detail by darkening the exposure in software but all we get is a yucky gray with none of the detail that was there in the waterfall.

Tie This Back In to 8, 12, 14-bit Raw

On the left, black without detail, Zone 0. In the middle, middle gray, zone 5. On the right, white without detail, zone 10.

In our creation of a photo, we need to stay away from the pure, no-detail white. Picture, if you will Ansel’s zones and realize the 10th zone is not fixable. Stay away. There are things accepted as white without detail like the brightest highlight but very little else. What if we could do something to protect our highlights, even the lightest grays, to make that zone less of a target.

Oh my! So in moving from Ansel’s world to even our jpeg world we increase our Scale from 11 zones to 256 zones. So now we’re spread out over 256 zones but still, the bad place is that brightest white, at the end. Zone 256 if you will. Are you picturing this?

Now let’s move to 14-bit or 16,384 zones or grays. Remember, it’s only that brightest white, number 16,384 that is not retrievable. Now let’s think of your photograph divided into 11 zones, from dark to light. Then the same photo was divided into 256 zones (grays). Then the same photo was divided into 16,384 zones. In each of these, it’s only the brightest bright white that is unretrievable. I’m in for 14-bit raw so I’ll not worry any more!

You’ve heard, raw files just have more data! Here it is. I’m sure it’s across the tones of the photo but the extra here in the highlights make detail in an exponential amount, truly. Add to this the similar multiples of detail in the shadows and we have a very “workable” image to add our creativity to.

Concluding with the Positive

Wow, it seems that even the disadvantages are not so bad. Yes, they take up some space. I realize as I learn more about Canon cameras that a large portion of the photographer world has been dealing with making the jump to Raw as jumping to a very large file format that has no compression. The image version un-compressed that I was about to make may have been the first uncompressed Raw I’ve ever made. My earliest Nikon, the D1x, offered lossless compressed raw, and never have I been persuaded that compression has any ill effect on quality.

Processing images is half the fun. It’s not as fun when deadlines are close at hand. But when one has time to create….it’s so much fun. The time spent working with the tweaking and creating in the post-processing environment is such a pleasure. I enjoy and look forward to this. Yes, it takes some time but it allows me to share and deliver images that are above the norm. Better than the average…professional. Enjoy you day…make a picture.

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