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Shooting in the Raw

Uncompressed format captures greater range of color and light.

by Earl Nottingham


How often do we review a photo on a digital camera or smartphone immediately after shooting only to be disappointed that the image didn’t come out the way that we envisioned with our eyes? Well, much of that discrepancy is due to the limitations of a camera’s sensor relative to the phenomenal ability of the human eye to discriminate between a large number of colors and perceive a wide range of light, from total black to glaring white.

Another large part of the discrepancy is that, by default, most cameras save the images in a very compressed form, usually a JPG file. The compressed forms render smaller file sizes, which take up less storage space and are easier to share. However, JPGs limit the number of colors and the exposure range that can be recorded and don’t unlock the full potential of the sensor.

Enter the raw file — an option on most cameras (usually denoted in the menu as “RAW”). It can be selected in the menu instead of, or in addition to, a JPG. A raw file unleashes all the uncompressed data that the sensor has to offer. One caveat, however: Working with a raw file requires post-processing the image in Photoshop, Lightroom or another editing application to make full use of its potential.

Photos by Earl Nottingham / TPWD

Both images above came from the same raw camera file. The first is with no corrections, and the second shows what can be done by making adjustments in post-processing.


Without getting too “techie,” raw files are typically 12- or 14-bit as compared to an 8-bit JPG. Simply put, it means that there are a lot more shades or tones of red, green and blue available to work with in raw format. This allows for a wide range of color adjustments in post-processing.

Raw files also give you more control over a wider range of exposure, referred to as dynamic range. There is more information in a raw file, so you can make more adjustments without a loss of quality. Where there might be a completely white burnt-out sky in a JPG, puffy clouds can be seen in the raw file. Black shadows now reveal the green grass within.

Another advantage offered by shooting raw files is the white balance control. When shooting in raw, there is no need to set white balance in your camera to presets such as daylight, shade, incandescent or auto. You can adjust the color temperature in post-processing.

In applications such as Photoshop, Lightroom or other alternatives, the workflow goes something like this:

Open the file — typically the application will recognize the image as a raw file and open a dialog box along with the image, giving a wide range of creative controls that can be used.

By using the sliders, adjust the exposure, contrast, highlights, shadows and color saturation to your liking. Other useful settings that I frequently use in the raw dialog box are the “Dehaze” feature, which makes skies clearer, and “Camera Profile,” which recognizes the camera and lens used and applies corrections for color and image distortion inherent in them. The list goes on and on regarding the corrections and adjustments that can be made to give you that perfect photograph.

Don’t be afraid to play with them to see the effects. You can’t ruin your file — the process is nondestructive and is “locked in” only when you save the image as a final JPG or TIFF file, which can then be corrected even further in any editing app. You will always retain the original raw file. It is analogous to a traditional film negative for which there is only one but many prints can be made from it.

Shooting in the raw requires a new mindset when photographing a beautiful scene. You are not seeing it just as it is — but what it can become.

Please send questions and comments to Earl at earl.nottingham@tpwd.texas.gov. For more tips on outdoor photography, visit the magazine’s photography page at tpwmagazine.com/photography.

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